In Quest of a Solution

It was half-past five before Holmes returned. He was bright, eager,
and in excellent spirits,–a mood which in his case alternated with
fits of the blackest depression.

“There is no great mystery in this matter,” he said, taking the cup of
tea which I had poured out for him. “The facts appear to admit of only
one explanation.”

“What! you have solved it already?”

“Well, that would be too much to say. I have discovered a suggestive
fact, that is all. It is, however, VERY suggestive. The details are
still to be added. I have just found, on consulting the back files of
the Times, that Major Sholto, of Upper Norword, late of the 34th Bombay
Infantry, died upon the 28th of April, 1882.”

“I may be very obtuse, Holmes, but I fail to see what this suggests.”

“No? You surprise me. Look at it in this way, then. Captain Morstan
disappears. The only person in London whom he could have visited is
Major Sholto. Major Sholto denies having heard that he was in London.
Four years later Sholto dies. WITHIN A WEEK OF HIS DEATH Captain
Morstan’s daughter receives a valuable present, which is repeated from
year to year, and now culminates in a letter which describes her as a
wronged woman. What wrong can it refer to except this deprivation of
her father? And why should the presents begin immediately after
Sholto’s death, unless it is that Sholto’s heir knows something of the
mystery and desires to make compensation? Have you any alternative
theory which will meet the facts?”

“But what a strange compensation! And how strangely made! Why, too,
should he write a letter now, rather than six years ago? Again, the
letter speaks of giving her justice. What justice can she have? It is
too much to suppose that her father is still alive. There is no other
injustice in her case that you know of.”

“There are difficulties; there are certainly difficulties,” said
Sherlock Holmes, pensively. “But our expedition of to-night will solve
them all. Ah, here is a four-wheeler, and Miss Morstan is inside. Are
you all ready? Then we had better go down, for it is a little past the
hour.”

I picked up my hat and my heaviest stick, but I observed that Holmes
took his revolver from his drawer and slipped it into his pocket. It
was clear that he thought that our night’s work might be a serious one.

Miss Morstan was muffled in a dark cloak, and her sensitive face was
composed, but pale. She must have been more than woman if she did not
feel some uneasiness at the strange enterprise upon which we were
embarking, yet her self-control was perfect, and she readily answered
the few additional questions which Sherlock Holmes put to her.

“Major Sholto was a very particular friend of papa’s,” she said. “His
letters were full of allusions to the major. He and papa were in
command of the troops at the Andaman Islands, so they were thrown a
great deal together. By the way, a curious paper was found in papa’s
desk which no one could understand. I don’t suppose that it is of the
slightest importance, but I thought you might care to see it, so I
brought it with me. It is here.”

Holmes unfolded the paper carefully and smoothed it out upon his knee.
He then very methodically examined it all over with his double lens.

“It is paper of native Indian manufacture,” he remarked. “It has at
some time been pinned to a board. The diagram upon it appears to be a
plan of part of a large building with numerous halls, corridors, and
passages. At one point is a small cross done in red ink, and above it
is ‘3.37 from left,’ in faded pencil-writing. In the left-hand corner
is a curious hieroglyphic like four crosses in a line with their arms
touching. Beside it is written, in very rough and coarse characters,
‘The sign of the four,–Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan,
Dost Akbar.’ No, I confess that I do not see how this bears upon the
matter. Yet it is evidently a document of importance. It has been kept
carefully in a pocket-book; for the one side is as clean as the other.”

“It was in his pocket-book that we found it.”

“Preserve it carefully, then, Miss Morstan, for it may prove to be of
use to us. I begin to suspect that this matter may turn out to be much
deeper and more subtle than I at first supposed. I must reconsider my
ideas.” He leaned back in the cab, and I could see by his drawn brow
and his vacant eye that he was thinking intently. Miss Morstan and I
chatted in an undertone about our present expedition and its possible
outcome, but our companion maintained his impenetrable reserve until
the end of our journey.

It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had
been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city.
Mud-colored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the
Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw
a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare
from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and
threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare.
There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless
procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of
light,–sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind,
they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom
once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy
evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined
to make me nervous and depressed. I could see from Miss Morstan’s
manner that she was suffering from the same feeling. Holmes alone
could rise superior to petty influences. He held his open note-book
upon his knee, and from time to time he jotted down figures and
memoranda in the light of his pocket-lantern.

At the Lyceum Theatre the crowds were already thick at the
side-entrances. In front a continuous stream of hansoms and
four-wheelers were rattling up, discharging their cargoes of
shirt-fronted men and beshawled, bediamonded women. We had hardly
reached the third pillar, which was our rendezvous, before a small,
dark, brisk man in the dress of a coachman accosted us.

“Are you the parties who come with Miss Morstan?” he asked.

“I am Miss Morstan, and these two gentlemen are my friends,” said she.

He bent a pair of wonderfully penetrating and questioning eyes upon us.
“You will excuse me, miss,” he said with a certain dogged manner, “but
I was to ask you to give me your word that neither of your companions
is a police-officer.”

“I give you my word on that,” she answered.

He gave a shrill whistle, on which a street Arab led across a
four-wheeler and opened the door. The man who had addressed us mounted
to the box, while we took our places inside. We had hardly done so
before the driver whipped up his horse, and we plunged away at a
furious pace through the foggy streets.

The situation was a curious one. We were driving to an unknown place,
on an unknown errand. Yet our invitation was either a complete
hoax,–which was an inconceivable hypothesis,–or else we had good
reason to think that important issues might hang upon our journey.
Miss Morstan’s demeanor was as resolute and collected as ever. I
endeavored to cheer and amuse her by reminiscences of my adventures in
Afghanistan; but, to tell the truth, I was myself so excited at our
situation and so curious as to our destination that my stories were
slightly involved. To this day she declares that I told her one moving
anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night,
and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it. At first I had
some idea as to the direction in which we were driving; but soon, what
with our pace, the fog, and my own limited knowledge of London, I lost
my bearings, and knew nothing, save that we seemed to be going a very
long way. Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered
the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous
by-streets.

“Rochester Row,” said he. “Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the
Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the Surrey side, apparently.
Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the bridge. You can catch glimpses
of the river.”

We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames with the
lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab dashed on, and
was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon the other side.

“Wordsworth Road,” said my companion. “Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane.
Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbor Lane. Our quest does not
appear to take us to very fashionable regions.”

We had, indeed, reached a questionable and forbidding neighborhood.
Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare
and tawdry brilliancy of public houses at the corner. Then came rows
of two-storied villas each with a fronting of miniature garden, and
then again interminable lines of new staring brick buildings,–the
monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the
country. At last the cab drew up at the third house in a new terrace.
None of the other houses were inhabited, and that at which we stopped
was as dark as its neighbors, save for a single glimmer in the kitchen
window. On our knocking, however, the door was instantly thrown open
by a Hindoo servant clad in a yellow turban, white loose-fitting
clothes, and a yellow sash. There was something strangely incongruous
in this Oriental figure framed in the commonplace door-way of a
third-rate suburban dwelling-house.

“The Sahib awaits you,” said he, and even as he spoke there came a high
piping voice from some inner room. “Show them in to me, khitmutgar,”
it cried. “Show them straight in to me.”