The Adventure of the Devil's Foot
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This etext was prepared by David Brannan of Woodbridge, Virginia.
The Adventure of the Devil's Foot
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In recording from time to time some of the curious experiences
and interesting recollections which I associate with my long and
intimate friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have continually
been faced by difficulties caused by his own aversion to
publicity. To his sombre and cynical spirit all popular applause
was always abhorrent, and nothing amused him more at the end of a
successful case than to hand over the actual exposure to some
orthodox official, and to listen with a mocking smile to the
general chorus of misplaced congratulation. It was indeed this
attitude upon the part of my friend and certainly not any lack of
interesting material which has caused me of late years to lay
very few of my records before the public. My participation in
some if his adventures was always a privilege which entailed
discretion and reticence upon me.
It was, then, with considerable surprise that I received a
telegram from Homes last Tuesday--he has never been known to
write where a telegram would serve--in the following terms:
Why not tell them of the Cornish horror--strangest case I have
I have no idea what backward sweep of memory had brought the
matter fresh to his mind, or what freak had caused him to desire
that I should recount it; but I hasten, before another cancelling
telegram may arrive, to hunt out the notes which give me the
exact details of the case and to lay the narrative before my
It was, then, in the spring of the year 1897 that Holmes's iron
constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of
constant hard work of a most exacting kind, aggravated, perhaps,
by occasional indiscretions of his own. In March of that year
Dr. Moore Agar, of Harley Street, whose dramatic introduction to
Holmes I may some day recount, gave positive injunctions that the
famous private agent lay aside all his cases and surrender
himself to complete rest if he wished to avert an absolute
breakdown. The state of his health was not a matter in which he
himself took the faintest interest, for his mental detachment was
absolute, but he was induced at last, on the threat of being
permanently disqualified from work, to give himself a complete
change of scene and air. Thus it was that in the early spring of
that year we found ourselves together in a small cottage near
Poldhu Bay, at the further extremity of the Cornish peninsula.
It was a singular spot, and one peculiarly well suited to the
grim humour of my patient. From the windows of our little
whitewashed house, which stood high upon a grassy headland, we
looked down upon the whole sinister semicircle of Mounts Bay,
that old death trap of sailing vessels, with its fringe of black
cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which innumerable seamen have met
their end. With a northerly breeze it lies placid and sheltered,
inviting the storm-tossed craft to tack into it for rest and
Then come the sudden swirl round of the wind, the blistering gale
from the south-west, the dragging anchor, the lee shore, and the
last battle in the creaming breakers. The wise mariner stands
far out from that evil place.
On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea.
It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-colored, with
an occasional church tower to mark the site of some old-world
village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces
of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as
it sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which
contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks
which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of
the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations,
appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of
his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.
The ancient Cornish language had also arrested his attention, and
he had, I remember, conceived the idea that it was akin to the
Chaldean, and had been largely derived from the Phoenician
traders in tin. He had received a consignment of books upon
philology and was settling down to develop this thesis when
suddenly, to my sorrow and to his unfeigned delight, we found
ourselves, even in that land of dreams, plunged into a problem at
our very doors which was more intense, more engrossing, and
infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us
from London. Our simple life and peaceful, healthy routine were
violently interrupted, and we were precipitated into the midst of
a series of events which caused the utmost excitement not only in
Cornwall but throughout the whole west of England. Many of my
readers may retain some recollection of what was called at the
time "The Cornish Horror," though a most imperfect account of the
matter reached the London press. Now, after thirteen years, I
will give the true details of this inconceivable affair to the
I have said that scattered towers marked the villages which
dotted this part of Cornwall. The nearest of these was the
hamlet of Tredannick Wollas, where the cottages of a couple of
hundred inhabitants clustered round an ancient, moss-grown
church. The vicar of the parish, Mr. Roundhay, was something of
an archaeologist, and as such Holmes had made his acquaintance.
He was a middle-aged man, portly and affable, with a considerable
fund of local lore. At his invitation we had taken tea at the
vicarage and had come to know, also, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis, an
independent gentleman, who increased the clergyman's scanty
resources by taking rooms in his large, straggling house. The
vicar, being a bachelor, was glad to come to such an arrangement,
though he had little in common with his lodger, who was a thin,
dark, spectacled man, with a stoop which gave the impression of
actual, physical deformity. I remember that during our short
visit we found the vicar garrulous, but his lodger strangely
reticent, a sad-faced, introspective man, sitting with averted
eyes, brooding apparently upon his own affairs.
These were the two men who entered abruptly into our little
sitting-room on Tuesday, March the 16th, shortly after our
breakfast hour, as we were smoking together, preparatory to our
daily excursion upon the moors.
"Mr. Holmes," said the vicar in an agitated voice, "the most
extraordinary and tragic affair has occurred during the night.
It is the most unheard-of business. We can only regard it as a
special Providence that you should chance to be here at the time,
for in all England you are the one man we need."
I glared at the intrusive vicar with no very friendly eyes; but
Holmes took his pipe from his lips and sat up in his chair like
an old hound who hears the view-halloa. He waved his hand to the
sofa, and our palpitating visitor with his agitated companion sat
side by side upon it. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis was more self-
contained than the clergyman, but the twitching of his thin hands
and the brightness of his dark eyes showed that they shared a
"Shall I speak or you?" he asked of the vicar.
"Well, as you seem to have made the discovery, whatever it may
be, and the vicar to have had it second-hand, perhaps you had
better do the speaking," said Holmes.
I glanced at the hastily clad clergyman, with the formally
dressed lodger seated beside him, and was amused at the surprise
which Holmes's simple deduction had brought to their faces.
"Perhaps I had best say a few words first," said the vicar, "and
then you can judge if you will listen to the details from Mr.
Tregennis, or whether we should not hasten at once to the scene
of this mysterious affair. I may explain, then, that our friend
here spent last evening in the company of his two brothers, Owen
and George, and of his sister Brenda, at their house of
Tredannick Wartha, which is near the old stone cross upon the
moor. He left them shortly after ten o'clock, playing cards
round the dining-room table, in excellent health and spirits.
This morning, being an early riser, he walked in that direction
before breakfast and was overtaken by the carriage of Dr.
Richards, who explained that he had just been sent for on a most
urgent call to Tredannick Wartha. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis
naturally went with him. When he arrived at Tredannick Wartha he
found an extraordinary state of things. His two brothers and his
sister were seated round the table exactly as he had left them,
the cards still spread in front of them and the candles burned
down to their sockets. The sister lay back stone-dead in her
chair, while the two brothers sat on each side of her laughing,
shouting, and singing, the senses stricken clean out of them.
All three of them, the dead woman and the two demented men,
retained upon their faces an expression of the utmost horror--a
convulsion of terror which was dreadful to look upon. There was
no sign of the presence of anyone in the house, except Mrs.
Porter, the old cook and housekeeper, who declared that she had
slept deeply and heard no sound during the night. Nothing had
been stolen or disarranged, and there is absolutely no
explanation of what the horror can be which has frightened a
woman to death and two strong men out of their senses. There is
the situation, Mr. Holmes, in a nutshell, and if you can help us
to clear it up you will have done a great work."
I had hoped that in some way I could coax my companion back into
the quiet which had been the object of our journey; but one
glance at his intense face and contracted eyebrows told me how
vain was now the expectation. He sat for some little time in
silence, absorbed in the strange drama which had broken in upon
"I will look into this matter," he said at last. "On the face of
it, it would appear to be a case of a very exceptional nature.
Have you been there yourself, Mr. Roundhay?"
"No, Mr. Holmes. Mr. Tregennis brought back the account to the
vicarage, and I at once hurried over with him to consult you."
"How far is it to the house where this singular tragedy
"About a mile inland."
"Then we shall walk over together. But before we start I must
ask you a few questions, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis."
The other had been silent all this time, but I had observed that
his more controlled excitement was even greater than the
obtrusive emotion of the clergyman. He sat with a pale, drawn
face, his anxious gaze fixed upon Holmes, and his thin hands
clasped convulsively together. His pale lips quivered as he
listened to the dreadful experience which had befallen his
family, and his dark eyes seemed to reflect something of the
horror of the scene.
"Ask what you like, Mr. Holmes," said he eagerly. "It is a bad
thing to speak of, but I will answer you the truth."
"Tell me about last night."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, I supped there, as the vicar has said, and my
elder brother George proposed a game of whist afterwards. We sat
down about nine o'clock. It was a quarter-past ten when I moved
to go. I left them all round the table, as merry as could be."
"Who let you out?"
"Mrs. Porter had gone to bed, so I let myself out. I shut the
hall door behind me. The window of the room in which they sat
was closed, but the blind was not drawn down. There was no
change in door or window this morning, or any reason to think
that any stranger had been to the house. Yet there they sat,
driven clean mad with terror, and Brenda lying dead of fright,
with her head hanging over the arm of the chair. I'll never get
the sight of that room out of my mind so long as I live."
"The facts, as you state them, are certainly most remarkable,"
said Holmes. "I take it that you have no theory yourself which
can in any way account for them?"
"It's devilish, Mr. Holmes, devilish!" cried Mortimer Tregennis.
"It is not of this world. Something has come into that room
which has dashed the light of reason from their minds. What
human contrivance could do that?"
"I fear," said Holmes, "that if the matter is beyond humanity it
is certainly beyond me. Yet we must exhaust all natural
explanations before we fall back upon such a theory as this. As
to yourself, Mr. Tregennis, I take it you were divided in some
way from your family, since they lived together and you had rooms
"That is so, Mr. Holmes, though the matter is past and done with.
We were a family of tin-miners at Redruth, but we sold our
venture to a company, and so retired with enough to keep us. I
won't deny that there was some feeling about the division of the
money and it stood between us for a time, but it was all forgiven
and forgotten, and we were the best of friends together."
"Looking back at the evening which you spent together, does
anything stand out in your memory as throwing any possible light
upon the tragedy? Think carefully, Mr. Tregennis, for any clue
which can help me."
"There is nothing at all, sir."
"Your people were in their usual spirits?"
"Were they nervous people? Did they ever show any apprehension
of coming danger?"
"Nothing of the kind."
"You have nothing to add then, which could assist me?"
Mortimer Tregennis considered earnestly for a moment.
"There is one thing occurs to me," said he at last. "As we sat
at the table my back was to the window, and my brother George, he
being my partner at cards, was facing it. I saw him once look
hard over my shoulder, so I turned round and looked also. The
blind was up and the window shut, but I could just make out the
bushes on the lawn, and it seemed to me for a moment that I saw
something moving among them. I couldn't even say if it was man
or animal, but I just thought there was something there. When I
asked him what he was looking at, he told me that he had the same
feeling. That is all that I can say."
"Did you not investigate?"
"No; the matter passed as unimportant."
"You left them, then, without any premonition of evil?"
"None at all."
"I am not clear how you came to hear the news so early this
"I am an early riser and generally take a walk before breakfast.
This morning I had hardly started when the doctor in his carriage
overtook me. He told me that old Mrs. Porter had sent a boy down
with an urgent message. I sprang in beside him and we drove on.
When we got there we looked into that dreadful room. The candles
and the fire must have burned out hours before, and they had been
sitting there in the dark until dawn had broken. The doctor said
Brenda must have been dead at least six hours. There were no
signs of violence. She just lay across the arm of the chair with
that look on her face. George and Owen were singing snatches of
songs and gibbering like two great apes. Oh, it was awful to
see! I couldn't stand it, and the doctor was as white as a
sheet. Indeed, he fell into a chair in a sort of faint, and we
nearly had him on our hands as well."
"Remarkable--most remarkable!" said Holmes, rising and taking his
hat. "I think, perhaps, we had better go down to Tredannick
Wartha without further delay. I confess that I have seldom known
a case which at first sight presented a more singular problem."
Our proceedings of that first morning did little to advance the
investigation. It was marked, however, at the outset by an
incident which left the most sinister impression upon my mind.
The approach to the spot at which the tragedy occurred is down a
narrow, winding, country lane. While we made our way along it we
heard the rattle of a carriage coming towards us and stood aside
to let it pass. As it drove by us I caught a glimpse through the
closed window of a horribly contorted, grinning face glaring out
at us. Those staring eyes and gnashing teeth flashed past us
like a dreadful vision.
"My brothers!" cried Mortimer Tregennis, white to his lips.
"They are taking them to Helston."
We looked with horror after the black carriage, lumbering upon
its way. Then we turned our steps towards this ill-omened house
in which they had met their strange fate.
It was a large and bright dwelling, rather a villa than a
cottage, with a considerable garden which was already, in that
Cornish air, well filled with spring flowers. Towards this
garden the window of the sitting-room fronted, and from it,
according to Mortimer Tregennis, must have come that thing of
evil which had by sheer horror in a single instant blasted their
minds. Holmes walked slowly and thoughtfully among the flower-
plots and along the path before we entered the porch. So
absorbed was he in his thoughts, I remember, that he stumbled
over the watering-pot, upset its contents, and deluged both our
feet and the garden path. Inside the house we were met by the
elderly Cornish housekeeper, Mrs. Porter, who, with the aid of a
young girl, looked after the wants of the family. She readily
answered all Holmes's questions. She had heard nothing in the
night. Her employers had all been in excellent spirits lately,
and she had never known them more cheerful and prosperous. She
had fainted with horror upon entering the room in the morning and
seeing that dreadful company round the table. She had, when she
recovered, thrown open the window to let the morning air in, and
had run down to the lane, whence she sent a farm-lad for the
doctor. The lady was on her bed upstairs if we cared to see her.
It took four strong men to get the brothers into the asylum
carriage. She would not herself stay in the house another day
and was starting that very afternoon to rejoin her family at St.
We ascended the stairs and viewed the body. Miss Brenda
Tregennis had been a very beautiful girl, though now verging upon
middle age. Her dark, clear-cut face was handsome, even in
death, but there still lingered upon it something of that
convulsion of horror which had been her last human emotion. From
her bedroom we descended to the sitting-room, where this strange
tragedy had actually occurred. The charred ashes of the
overnight fire lay in the grate. On the table were the four
guttered and burned-out candles, with the cards scattered over
its surface. The chairs had been moved back against the walls,
but all else was as it had been the night before. Holmes paced
with light, swift steps about the room; he sat in the various
chairs, drawing them up and reconstructing their positions. He
tested how much of the garden was visible; he examined the floor,
the ceiling, and the fireplace; but never once did I see that
sudden brightening of his eyes and tightening of his lips which
would have told me that he saw some gleam of light in this utter
"Why a fire?" he asked once. "Had they always a fire in this
small room on a spring evening?"
Mortimer Tregennis explained that the night was cold and damp.
For that reason, after his arrival, the fire was lit. "What are
you going to do now, Mr. Holmes?" he asked.
My friend smiled and laid his hand upon my arm. "I think,
Watson, that I shall resume that course of tobacco-poisoning
which you have so often and so justly condemned," said he. "With
your permission, gentlemen, we will now return to our cottage,
for I am not aware that any new factor is likely to come to our
notice here. I will turn the facts over in my mid, Mr,
Tregennis, and should anything occur to me I will certainly
ommunicate with you and the vicar. In the meantime I wish you
It was not until long after we were back in Poldhu Cottage that
Holmes broke his complete and absorbed silence. He sat coiled in
his armchair, his haggard and ascetic face hardly visible amid
the blue swirl of his tobacco smoke, his black brows drawn down,
his forehead contracted, his eyes vacant and far away. Finally
he laid down his pipe and sprang to his feet.
"It won't do, Watson!" said he with a laugh. "Let us walk along
the cliffs together and search for flint arrows. We are more
likely to find them than clues to this problem. To let the brain
work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It
racks itself to pieces. The sea air, sunshine, and patience,
Watson--all else will come.
"Now, let us calmly define our position, Watson," he continued as
we skirted the cliffs together. "Let us get a firm grip of the
very little which we DO know, so that when fresh facts arise we
may be ready to fit them into their places. I take it, in the
first place, that neither of us is prepared to admit diabolical
intrusions into the affairs of men. Let us begin by ruling that
entirely out of our minds. Very good. There remain three
persons who have been grievously stricken by some conscious or
unconscious human agency. That is firm ground. Now, when did
this occur? Evidently, assuming his narrative to be true, it was
immediately after Mr. Mortimer Tregennis had left the room. That
is a very important point. The presumption is that it was within
a few minutes afterwards. The cards still lay upon the table.
It was already past their usual hour for bed. Yet they had not
changed their position or pushed back their chairs. I repeat,
then, that the occurrence was immediately after his departure,
and not later than eleven o'clock last night.
"Our next obvious step is to check, so far as we can, the
movements of Mortimer Tregennis after he left the room. In this
there is no difficulty, and they seem to be above suspicion.
Knowing my methods as you do, you were, of course, conscious of
the somewhat clumsy water-pot expedient by which I obtained a
clearer impress of his foot than might otherwise have been
possible. The wet, sandy path took it admirably. Last night was
also wet, you will remember, and it was not difficult--having
obtained a sample print--to pick out his track among others and
to follow his movements. He appears to have walked away swiftly
in the direction of the vicarage.
"If, then, Mortimer Tregennis disappeared from the scene, and yet
some outside person affected the card-players, how can we
reconstruct that person, and how was such an impression of horror
conveyed? Mrs. Porter may be eliminated. She is evidently
harmless. Is there any evidence that someone crept up to the
garden window and in some manner produced so terrific an effect
that he drove those who saw it out of their senses? The only
suggestion in this direction comes from Mortimer Tregennis
himself, who says that his brother spoke about some movement in
the garden. That is certainly remarkable, as the night was
rainy, cloudy, and dark. Anyone who had the design to alarm
these people would be compelled to place his very face against
the glass before he could be seen. There is a three-foot flower-
border outside this window, but no indication of a footmark. It
is difficult to imagine, then, how an outsider could have made so
terrible an impression upon the company, nor have we found any
possible motive for so strange and elaborate an attempt. You
perceive our difficulties, Watson?"
"They are only too clear," I answered with conviction.
"And yet, with a little more material, we may prove that they are
not insurmountable," said Holmes. "I fancy that among your
extensive archives, Watson, you may find some which were nearly
as obscure. Meanwhile, we shall put the case aside until more
accurate data are available, and devote the rest of our morning
to the pursuit of neolithic man."
I may have commented upon my friend's power of mental detachment,
but never have I wondered at it more than upon that spring
morning in Cornwall when for two hours he discoursed upon celts,
arrowheads, and shards, as lightly as if no sinister mystery were
waiting for his solution. It was not until we had returned in
the afternoon to our cottage that we found a visitor awaiting us,
who soon brought our minds back to the matter in hand. Neither
of us needed to be told who that visitor was. The huge body, the
craggy and deeply seamed face with the fierce eyes and hawk-like
nose, the grizzled hair which nearly brushed our cottage ceiling,
the beard--golden at the fringes and white near the lips, save
for the nicotine stain from his perpetual cigar--all these were
as well known in London as in Africa, and could only be
associated with the tremendous personality of Dr. Leon Sterndale,
the great lion-hunter and explorer.
We had heard of his presence in the district and had once or
twice caught sight of his tall figure upon the moorland paths.
He made no advances to us, however, nor would we have dreamed of
doing so to him, as it was well known that it was his love of
seclusion which caused him to spend the greater part of the
intervals between his journeys in a small bungalow buried in the
lonely wood of Beauchamp Arriance. Here, amid his books and his
maps, he lived an absolutely lonely life, attending to his own
simple wants and paying little apparent heed to the affairs of
his neighbours. It was a surprise to me, therefore, to hear him
asking Holmes in an eager voice whether he had made any advance
in his reconstruction of this mysterious episode. "The county
police are utterly at fault," said he, "but perhaps your wider
experience has suggested some conceivable explanation. My only
claim to being taken into your confidence is that during my many
residences here I have come to know this family of Tregennis very
well--indeed, upon my Cornish mother's side I could call them
cousins--and their strange fate has naturally been a great shock
to me. I may tell you that I had got as far as Plymouth upon my
way to Africa, but the news reached me this morning, and I came
straight back again to help in the inquiry."
Holmes raised his eyebrows.
"Did you lose your boat through it?"
"I will take the next."
"Dear me! that is friendship indeed."
"I tell you they were relatives."
"Quite so--cousins of your mother. Was your baggage aboard the
"Some of it, but the main part at the hotel."
"I see. But surely this event could not have found its way into
the Plymouth morning papers."
"No, sir; I had a telegram."
"Might I ask from whom?"
A shadow passed over the gaunt face of the explorer.
"You are very inquisitive, Mr. Holmes."
"It is my business."
With an effort Dr. Sterndale recovered his ruffled composure.
"I have no objection to telling you," he said. "It was Mr.
Roundhay, the vicar, who sent me the telegram which recalled me."
"Thank you," said Holmes. "I may say in answer to your original
question that I have not cleared my mind entirely on the subject
of this case, but that I have every hope of reaching some
conclusion. It would be premature to say more."
"Perhaps you would not mind telling me if your suspicions point
in any particular direction?"
"No, I can hardly answer that."
"Then I have wasted my time and need not prolong my visit." The
famous doctor strode out of our cottage in considerable ill-
humour, and within five minutes Holmes had followed him. I saw
him no more until the evening, when he returned with a slow step
and haggard face which assured me that he had made no great
progress with his investigation. He glanced at a telegram which
awaited him and threw it into the grate.
"From the Plymouth hotel, Watson," he said. "I learned the name
of it from the vicar, and I wired to make certain that Dr. Leon
Sterndale's account was true. It appears that he did indeed
spend last night there, and that he has actually allowed some of
his baggage to go on to Africa, while he returned to be present
at this investigation. What do you make of that, Watson?"
"He is deeply interested."
"Deeply interested--yes. There is a thread here which we had not
yet grasped and which might lead us through the tangle. Cheer
up, Watson, for I am very sure that our material has not yet all
come to hand. When it does we may soon leave our difficulties
Little did I think how soon the words of Holmes would be
realized, or how strange and sinister would be that new
development which opened up an entirely fresh line of
investigation. I was shaving at my window in the morning when I
heard the rattle of hoofs and, looking up, saw a dog-cart coming
at a gallop down the road. It pulled up at our door, and our
friend, the vicar, sprang from it and rushed up our garden path.
Holmes was already dressed, and we hastened down to meet him.
Our visitor was so excited that he could hardly articulate, but
at last in gasps and bursts his tragic story came out of him.
"We are devil-ridden, Mr. Holmes! My poor parish is devil-
ridden!" he cried. "Satan himself is loose in it! We are given
over into his hands!" He danced about in his agitation, a
ludicrous object if it were not for his ashy face and startled
eyes. Finally he shot out his terrible news.
"Mr. Mortimer Tregennis died during the night, and with exactly
the same symptoms as the rest of his family."
Holmes sprang to his feet, all energy in an instant.
"Can you fit us both into your dog-cart?"
"Yes, I can."
"Then, Watson, we will postpone our breakfast. Mr. Roundhay, we
are entirely at your disposal. Hurry--hurry, before things get
The lodger occupied two rooms at the vicarage, which were in an
angle by themselves, the one above the other. Below was a large
sitting-room; above, his bedroom. They looked out upon a croquet
lawn which came up to the windows. We had arrived before the
doctor or the police, so that everything was absolutely
undisturbed. Let me describe exactly the scene as we saw it upon
that misty March morning. It has left an impression which can
never be effaced from my mind.
The atmosphere of the room was of a horrible and depressing
stuffiness. The servant had first entered had thrown up the
window, or it would have been even more intolerable. This might
partly be due to the fact that a lamp stood flaring and smoking
on the centre table. Beside it sat the dead man, leaning back in
his chair, his thin beard projecting, his spectacles pushed up
on to his forehead, and his lean dark face turned towards the
window and twisted into the same distortion of terror which had
marked the features of his dead sister. His limbs were convulsed
and his fingers contorted as though he had died in a very
paroxysm of fear. He was fully clothed, though there were signs
that his dressing had been done in a hurry. We had already
learned that his bed had been slept in, and that the tragic end
had come to him in the early morning.
One realized the red-hot energy which underlay Holmes's
phlegmatic exterior when one saw the sudden change which came
over him from the moment that he entered the fatal apartment. In
an instant he was tense and alert, his eyes shining, his face
set, his limbs quivering with eager activity. He was out on the
lawn, in through the window, round the room, and up into the
bedroom, for all the world like a dashing foxhound drawing a
cover. In the bedroom he made a rapid cast around and ended by
throwing open the window, which appeared to give him some fresh
cause for excitement, for he leaned out of it with loud
ejaculations of interest and delight. Then he rushed down the
stair, out through the open window, threw himself upon his face
on the lawn, sprang up and into the room once more, all with the
energy of the hunter who is at the very heels of his quarry. The
lamp, which was an ordinary standard, he examined with minute
care, making certain measurements upon its bowl. He carefully
scrutinized with his lens the talc shield which covered the top
of the chimney and scraped off some ashes which adhered to its
upper surface, putting some of them into an envelope, which he
placed in his pocketbook. Finally, just as the doctor and the
official police put in an appearance, he beckoned to the vicar
and we all three went out upon the lawn.
"I am glad to say that my investigation has not been entirely
barren," he remarked. "I cannot remain to discuss the matter
with the police, but I should be exceedingly obliged, Mr.
Roundhay, if you would give the inspector my compliments and
direct his attention to the bedroom window and to the sitting-
room lamp. Each is suggestive, and together they are almost
conclusive. If the police would desire further information I
shall be happy to see any of them at the cottage. And now,
Watson, I think that, perhaps, we shall be better employed
It may be that the police resented the intrusion of an amateur,
or that they imagined themselves to be upon some hopeful line of
investigation; but it is certain that we heard nothing from them
for the next two days. During this time Holmes spent some of his
time smoking and dreaming in the cottage; but a greater portion
in country walks which he undertook alone, returning after many
hours without remark as to where he had been. One experiment
served to show me the line of his investigation. He had bought a
lamp which was the duplicate of the one which had burned in the
room of Mortimer Tregennis on the morning of the tragedy. This
he filled with the same oil as that used at the vicarage, and he
carefully timed the period which it would take to be exhausted.
Another experiment which he made was of a more unpleasant nature,
and one which I am not likely ever to forget.
"You will remember, Watson," he remarked one afternoon, "that
there is a single common point of resemblance in the varying
reports which have reached us. This concerns the effect of the
atmosphere of the room in each case upon those who had first
entered it. You will recollect that Mortimer Tregennis, in
describing the episode of his last visit to his brother's house,
remarked that the doctor on entering the room fell into a chair?
You had forgotten? Well I can answer for it that it was so.
Now, you will remember also that Mrs. Porter, the housekeeper,
told us that she herself fainted upon entering the room and had
afterwards opened the window. In the second case--that of
Mortimer Tregennis himself--you cannot have forgotten the
horrible stuffiness of the room when we arrived, though the
servant had thrown open the window. That servant, I found upon
inquiry, was so ill that she had gone to her bed. You will
admit, Watson, that these facts are very suggestive. In each
case there is evidence of a poisonous atmosphere. In each case,
also, there is combustion going on in the room--in the one case a
fire, in the other a lamp. The fire was needed, but the lamp was
lit--as a comparison of the oil consumed will show--long after it
was broad daylight. Why? Surely because there is some
connection between three things--the burning, the stuffy
atmosphere, and, finally, the madness or death of those
unfortunate people. That is clear, is it not?"
"It would appear so."
"At least we may accept it as a working hypothesis. We will
suppose, then, that something was burned in each case which
produced an atmosphere causing strange toxic effects. Very good.
In the first instance--that of the Tregennis family--this
substance was placed in the fire. Now the window was shut, but
the fire would naturally carry fumes to some extent up the
chimney. Hence one would expect the effects of the poison to be
less than in the second case, where there was less escape for the
vapour. The result seems to indicate that it was so, since in
the first case only the woman, who had presumably the more
sensitive organism, was killed, the others exhibiting that
temporary or permanent lunacy which is evidently the first effect
of the drug. In the second case the result was complete. The
facts, therefore, seem to bear out the theory of a poison which
worked by combustion.
"With this train of reasoning in my head I naturally looked about
in Mortimer Tregennis's room to find some remains of this
substance. The obvious place to look was the talc shelf or
smoke-guard of the lamp. There, sure enough, I perceived a number
of flaky ashes, and round the edges a fringe of brownish powder,
which had not yet been consumed. Half of this I took, as you
saw, and I placed it in an envelope."
"Why half, Holmes?"
"It is not for me, my dear Watson, to stand in the way of the
official police force. I leave them all the evidence which I
found. The poison still remained upon the talc had they the wit
to find it. Now, Watson, we will light our lamp; we will,
however, take the precaution to open our window to avoid the
premature decease of two deserving members of society, and you
will seat yourself near that open window in an armchair unless,
like a sensible man, you determine to have nothing to do with the
affair. Oh, you will see it out, will you? I thought I knew my
Watson. This chair I will place opposite yours, so that we may
be the same distance from the poison and face to face. The door
we will leave ajar. Each is now in a position to watch the other
and to bring the experiment to an end should the symptoms seem
alarming. Is that all clear? Well, then, I take our powder--or
what remains of it--from the envelope, and I lay it above the
burning lamp. So! Now, Watson, let us sit down and await
They were not long in coming. I had hardly settled in my chair
before I was conscious of a thick, musky odour, subtle and
nauseous. At the very first whiff of it my brain and my
imagination were beyond all control. A thick, black cloud
swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud,
unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses,
lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and
inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and
swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of
something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the
threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul. A freezing
horror took possession of me. I felt that my hair was rising,
that my eyes were protruding, that my mouth was opened, and my
tongue like leather. The turmoil within my brain was such that
something must surely snap. I tried to scream and was vaguely
aware of some hoarse croak which was my own voice, but distant
and detached from myself At the same moment, in some effort of
escape, I broke through that cloud of despair and had a glimpse
of Holmes's face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror--the very
look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that
vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength. I
dashed from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes, and together we
lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown
ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side,
conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its
way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in.
Slowly it rose from our souls like the mists from a landscape
until peace and reason had returned, and we were sitting upon the
grass, wiping our clammy foreheads, and looking with apprehension
at each other to mark the last traces of that terrific experience
which we had undergone.
"Upon my word, Watson!" said Holmes at last with an unsteady
voice, "I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an
unjustifiable experiment even for one's self, and doubly so for a
friend. I am really very sorry."
"You know," I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen
so much of Holmes's heart before, "that it is my greatest joy and
privilege to help you."
He relapsed at once into the half-humorous, half-cynical vein
which was his habitual attitude to those about him. "It would be
superfluous to drive us mad, my dear Watson," said he. "A candid
observer would certainly declare that we were so already before
we embarked upon so wild an experiment. I confess that I never
imagined that the effect could be so sudden and so severe." He
dashed into the cottage, and, reappearing with the burning lamp
held at full arm's length, he threw it among a bank of brambles.
"We must give the room a little time to clear. I take it,
Watson, that you have no longer a shadow of a doubt as to how
these tragedies were produced?"
"But the cause remains as obscure as before. Come into the
arbour here and let us discuss it together. That villainous
stuff seems still to linger round my throat. I think we must
admit that all the evidence points to this man, Mortimer
Tregennis, having been the criminal in the first tragedy, though
he was the victim in the second one. We must remember, in the
first place, that there is some story of a family quarrel,
followed by a reconciliation. How bitter that quarrel may have
been, or how hollow the reconciliation we cannot tell. When I
think of Mortimer Tregennis, with the foxy face and the small
shrewd, beady eyes behind the spectacles, he is not a man whom I
should judge to be of a particularly forgiving disposition.
Well, in the next place, you will remember that this idea of
someone moving in the garden, which took our attention for a
moment from the real cause of the tragedy, emanated from him. He
had a motive in misleading us. Finally, if he did not throw the
substance into the fire at the moment of leaving the room, who
did do so? The affair happened immediately after his departure.
Had anyone else come in, the family would certainly have risen
from the table. Besides, in peaceful Cornwall, visitors did not
arrive after ten o'clock at night. We may take it, then, that
all the evidence points to Mortimer Tregennis as the culprit."
"Then his own death was suicide!"
"Well, Watson, it is on the face of it a not impossible
supposition. The man who had the guilt upon his soul of having
brought such a fate upon his own family might well be driven by
remorse to inflict it upon himself. There are, however, some
cogent reasons against it. Fortunately, there is one man in
England who knows all about it, and I have made arrangements by
which we shall hear the facts this afternoon from his own lips.
Ah! he is a little before his time. Perhaps you would kindly
step this way, Dr. Leon Sterndale. We have been conducing a
chemical experiment indoors which has left our little room hardly
fit for the reception of so distinguished a visitor."
I had heard the click of the garden gate, and now the majestic
figure of the great African explorer appeared upon the path. He
turned in some surprise towards the rustic arbour in which we
"You sent for me, Mr. Holmes. I had your note about an hour ago,
and I have come, though I really do not know why I should obey
"Perhaps we can clear the point up before we separate," said
Holmes. "Meanwhile, I am much obliged to you for your courteous
acquiescence. You will excuse this informal reception in the
open air, but my friend Watson and I have nearly furnished an
additional chapter to what the papers call the Cornish Horror,
and we prefer a clear atmosphere for the present. Perhaps, since
the matters which we have to discuss will affect you personally
in a very intimate fashion, it is as well that we should talk
where there can be no eavesdropping."
The explorer took his cigar from his lips and gazed sternly at my
"I am at a loss to know, sir," he said, "what you can have to
speak about which affects me personally in a very intimate
"The killing of Mortimer Tregennis," said Holmes.
For a moment I wished that I were armed. Sterndale's fierce face
turned to a dusky red, his eyes glared, and the knotted,
passionate veins started out in his forehead, while he sprang
forward with clenched hands towards my companion. Then he
stopped, and with a violent effort he resumed a cold, rigid
calmness, which was, perhaps, more suggestive of danger than his
"I have lived so long among savages and beyond the law," said he,
"that I have got into the way of being a law to myself. You
would do well, Mr. Holmes, not to forget it, for I have no desire
to do you an injury."
"Nor have I any desire to do you an injury, Dr. Sterndale.
Surely the clearest proof of it is that, knowing what I know, I
have sent for you and not for the police."
Sterndale sat down with a gasp, overawed for, perhaps, the first
time in his adventurous life. There was a calm assurance of
power in Holmes's manner which could not be withstood. Our
visitor stammered for a moment, his great hands opening and
shutting in his agitation.
"What do you mean?" he asked at last. "If this is bluff upon
your part, Mr. Holmes, you have chosen a bad man for your
experiment. Let us have no more beating about the bush. What DO
"I will tell you," said Holmes, "and the reason why I tell you is
that I hope frankness may beget frankness. What my next step may
be will depend entirely upon the nature of your own defence."
"My defence against what?"
"Against the charge of killing Mortimer Tregennis."
Sterndale mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. "Upon my
word, you are getting on," said he. "Do all your successes
depend upon this prodigious power of bluff?"
"The bluff," said Holmes sternly, "is upon your side, Dr. Leon
Sterndale, and not upon mine. As a proof I will tell you some of
the facts upon which my conclusions are based. Of your return
from Plymouth, allowing much of your property to go on to Africa,
I will say nothing save that it first informed me that you were
one of the factors which had to be taken into account in
reconstructing this drama--"
"I came back--"
"I have heard your reasons and regard them as unconvincing and
inadequate. We will pass that. You came down here to ask me
whom I suspected. I refused to answer you. You then went to the
vicarage, waited outside it for some time, and finally returned
to your cottage."
"How do you know that?"
"I followed you."
"I saw no one."
"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you. You spent
a restless night at your cottage, and you formed certain plans,
which in the early morning you proceeded to put into execution.
Leaving your door just as day was breaking, you filled your
pocket with some reddish gravel that was lying heaped beside your
Sterndale gave a violent start and looked at Holmes in amazement.
"You then walked swiftly for the mile which separated you from
the vicarage. You were wearing, I may remark, the same pair of
ribbed tennis shoes which are at the present moment upon your
feet. At the vicarage you passed through the orchard and the
side hedge, coming out under the window of the lodger Tregennis.
It was now daylight, but the household was not yet stirring. You
drew some of the gravel from your pocket, and you threw it up at
the window above you."
Sterndale sprang to his feet.
"I believe that you are the devil himself!" he cried.
Holmes smiled at the compliment. "It took two, or possibly
three, handfuls before the lodger came to the window. You
beckoned him to come down. He dressed hurriedly and descended to
his sitting-room. You entered by the window. There was an
interview--a short one--during which you walked up and down the
room. Then you passed out and closed the window, standing on the
lawn outside smoking a cigar and watching what occurred.
Finally, after the death of Tregennis, you withdrew as you had
come. Now, Dr. Sterndale, how do you justify such conduct, and
what were the motives for your actions? If you prevaricate or
trifle with me, I give you my assurance that the matter will pass
out of my hands forever."
Our visitor's face had turned ashen gray as he listened to the
words of his accuser. Now he sat for some time in thought with
his face sunk in his hands. Then with a sudden impulsive gesture
he plucked a photograph from his breast-pocket and threw it on
the rustic table before us.
"That is why I have done it," said he.
It showed the bust and face of a very beautiful woman. Holmes
stooped over it.
"Brenda Tregennis," said he.
"Yes, Brenda Tregennis," repeated our visitor. "For years I have
loved her. For years she has loved me. There is the secret of
that Cornish seclusion which people have marvelled at. It has
brought me close to the one thing on earth that was dear to me.
I could not marry her, for I have a wife who has left me for
years and yet whom, by the deplorable laws of England, I could
not divorce. For years Brenda waited. For years I waited. And
this is what we have waited for." A terrible sob shook his great
frame, and he clutched his throat under his brindled beard. Then
with an effort he mastered himself and spoke on:
"The vicar knew. He was in our confidence. He would tell you
that she was an angel upon earth. That was why he telegraphed to
me and I returned. What was my baggage or Africa to me when I
learned that such a fate had come upon my darling? There you
have the missing clue to my action, Mr. Holmes."
"Proceed," said my friend.
Dr. Sterndale drew from his pocket a paper packet and laid it
upon the table. On the outside was written "Radix pedis diaboli"
with a red poison label beneath it. He pushed it towards me. "I
understand that you are a doctor, sir. Have you ever heard of
"Devil's-foot root! No, I have never heard of it."
"It is no reflection upon your professional knowledge," said he,
"for I believe that, save for one sample in a laboratory at Buda,
there is no other specimen in Europe. It has not yet found its
way either into the pharmacopoeia or into the literature of
toxicology. The root is shaped like a foot, half human, half
goatlike; hence the fanciful name given by a botanical
missionary. It is used as an ordeal poison by the medicine-men
in certain districts of West Africa and is kept as a secret among
them. This particular specimen I obtained under very
extraordinary circumstances in the Ubangi country." He opened
the paper as he spoke and disclosed a heap of reddish-brown,
"Well, sir?" asked Holmes sternly.
"I am about to tell you, Mr. Holmes, all that actually occurred,
for you already know so much that it is clearly to my interest
that you should know all. I have already explained the
relationship in which I stood to the Tregennis family. For the
sake of the sister I was friendly with the brothers. There was a
family quarrel about money which estranged this man Mortimer, but
it was supposed to be made up, and I afterwards met him as I did
the others. He was a sly, subtle, scheming man, and several
things arose which gave me a suspicion of him, but I had no cause
for any positive quarrel.
"One day, only a couple of weeks ago, he came down to my cottage
and I showed him some of my African curiosities. Among other
things I exhibited this powder, and I told him of its strange
properties, how it stimulates those brain centres which control
the emotion of fear, and how either madness or death is the fate
of the unhappy native who is subjected to the ordeal by the
priest of his tribe. I told him also how powerless European
science would be to detect it. How he took it I cannot say, for
I never left the room, but there is no doubt that it was then,
while I was opening cabinets and stooping to boxes, that he
managed to abstract some of the devil's-foot root. I well
remember how he plied me with questions as to the amount and the
time that was needed for its effect, but I little dreamed that he
could have a personal reason for asking.
"I thought no more of the matter until the vicar's telegram
reached me at Plymouth. This villain had thought that I would be
at sea before the news could reach me, and that I should be lost
for years in Africa. But I returned at once. Of course, I could
not listen to the details without feeling assured that my poison
had been used. I came round to see you on the chance that some
other explanation had suggested itself to you. But there could
be none. I was convinced that Mortimer Tregennis was the
murderer; that for the sake of money, and with the idea, perhaps,
that if the other members of his family were all insane he would
be the sole guardian of their joint property, he had used the
devil's-foot powder upon them, driven two of them out of their
senses, and killed his sister Brenda, the one human being whom I
have ever loved or who has ever loved me. There was his crime;
what was to be his punishment?
"Should I appeal to the law? Where were my proofs? I knew that
the facts were true, but could I help to make a jury of
countrymen believe so fantastic a story? I might or I might not.
But I could not afford to fail. My soul cried out for revenge.
I have said to you once before, Mr. Holmes, that I have spent
much of my life outside the law, and that I have come at last to
be a law to myself. So it was even now. I determined that the
fate which he had given to others should be shared by himself.
Either that or I would do justice upon him with my own hand. In
all England there can be no man who sets less value upon his own
life than I do at the present moment.
"Now I have told you all. You have yourself supplied the rest.
I did, as you say, after a restless night, set off early from my
cottage. I foresaw the difficulty of arousing him, so I gathered
some gravel from the pile which you have mentioned, and I used it
to throw up to his window. He came down and admitted me through
the window of the sitting-room. I laid his offence before him.
I told him that I had come both as judge and executioner. The
wretch sank into a chair, paralyzed at the sight of my revolver.
I lit the lamp, put the powder above it, and stood outside the
window, ready to carry out my threat to shoot him should he try
to leave the room. In five minutes he died. My God! how he
died! But my heart was flint, for he endured nothing which my
innocent darling had not felt before him. There is my story, Mr.
Holmes. Perhaps, if you loved a woman, you would have done as
much yourself. At any rate, I am in your hands. You can take
what steps you like. As I have already said, there is no man
living who can fear death less than I do."
Holmes sat for some little time in silence.
"What were your plans?" he asked at last.
"I had intended to bury myself in central Africa. My work there
is but half finished."
"Go and do the other half," said Holmes. "I, at least, am not
prepared to prevent you."
Dr. Sterndale raised his giant figure, bowed gravely, and walked
from the arbour. Holmes lit his pipe and handed me his pouch.
"Some fumes which are not poisonous would be a welcome change,"
said he. "I think you must agree, Watson, that it is not a case
in which we are called upon to interfere. Our investigation has
been independent, and our action shall be so also. You would not
denounce the man?"
"Certainly not," I answered.
"I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I
loved had met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-
hunter has done. Who knows? Well, Watson, I will not offend
your intelligence by explaining what is obvious. The gravel upon
the window-sill was, of course, the starting-point of my
research. It was unlike anything in the vicarage garden. Only
when my attention had been drawn to Dr. Sterndale and his cottage
did I find its counterpart. The lamp shining in broad daylight
and the remains of powder upon the shield were successive links
in a fairly obvious chain. And now, my dear Watson, I think we
may dismiss the matter from our mind and go back with a clear
conscience to the study of those Chaldean roots which are surely
to be traced in the Cornish branch of the great Celtic speech."
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