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The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four

Arthur Conan Doyle

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1 The Science of Deduction

  • Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and hi_ypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervou_ingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff.
  • For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm an_rist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, h_hrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back int_he velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
  • Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custo_ad not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I ha_ecome more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly withi_e at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest. Again and again _ad registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but ther_as that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the las_an with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. Hi_reat powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of hi_any extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossin_im.
  • Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with m_unch or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation o_is manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.
  • "Which is it to-day," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"
  • He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he ha_pened.
  • "It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to tr_t?"
  • "No, indeed," I answered brusquely. "My constitution has not got over th_fghan campaign yet. I cannot afford to throw any extra strain upon it."
  • He smiled at my vehemence. "Perhaps you are right, Watson," he said. "_uppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, s_ranscendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondar_ction is a matter of small moment."
  • "But consider!" I said earnestly. "Count the cost! Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process whic_nvolves increased tissue-change and may at least leave a permanent weakness.
  • You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you. Surely the game is hardl_orth the candle. Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the los_f those great powers with which you have been endowed? Remember that I spea_ot only as one comrade to another but as a medical man to one for whos_onstitution he is to some extent answerable."
  • He did not seem offended. On the contrary, he put his finger-tips together, and leaned his elbows on the arms of his chair, like one who has a relish fo_onversation.
  • "My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I a_n my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.
  • But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. Tha_s why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for _m the only one in the world."
  • "The only unofficial detective?" I said, raising my eyebrows.
  • "The only unofficial consulting detective," he answered. "I am the last an_ighest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson, or Lestrade, or Athelne_ones are out of their depths — which, by the way, is their normal state — th_atter is laid before me. I examine the data, as an expert, and pronounce _pecialist's opinion. I claim no credit in such cases. My name figures in n_ewspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculia_owers, is my highest reward. But you have yourself had some experience of m_ethods of work in the Jefferson Hope case."
  • "Yes, indeed," said I cordially. "I was never so struck by anything in m_ife. I even embodied it in a small brochure, with the somewhat fantasti_itle of 'A Study in Scarlet.' "
  • He shook his head sadly.
  • "I glanced over it," said he. "Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it.
  • Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in th_ame cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it wit_omanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-stor_r an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid."
  • "But the romance was there," I remonstrated. "I could not tamper with th_acts."
  • "Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportio_hould be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserve_ention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by whic_ succeeded in unravelling it."
  • I was annoyed at this criticism of a work which had been specially designed t_lease him. I confess, too, that I was irritated by the egotism which seeme_o demand that every line of my pamphlet should be devoted to his own specia_oings. More than once during the years that I had lived with him in Bake_treet I had observed that a small vanity underlay my companion's quiet an_idactic manner. I made no remark however, but sat nursing my wounded leg. _ad had a Jezaii bullet through it some time before, and though it did no_revent me from walking it ached wearily at every change of the weather.
  • "My practice has extended recently to the Continent," said Holmes after _hile, filling up his old brier-root pipe. "I was consulted last week b_rancois le Villard, who, as you probably know, has come rather to the fron_ately in the French detective service. He has all the Celtic power of quic_ntuition but he is deficient in the wide range of exact knowledge which i_ssential to the higher developments of his art. The case was concerned with _ill and possessed some features of interest. I was able to refer him to tw_arallel cases, the one at Riga in 1857, and the other at St. Louis in 1871, which have suggested to him the true solution. Here is the letter which I ha_his morning acknowledging my assistance."
  • He tossed over, as he spoke, a crumpled sheet of foreign notepaper. I glance_y eyes down it, catching a profusion of notes of admiration, with stra_agnifiques, coup-de-maitres and tours-de-force, all testifying to the arden_dmiration of the Frenchman.
  • "He speaks as a pupil to his master," said I.
  • "Oh, he rates my assistance too highly," said Sherlock Holmes lightly. "He ha_onsiderable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualitie_ecessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that o_eduction. He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time. He i_ow translating my small works into French."
  • "Your works?"
  • "Oh, didn't you know?" he cried, laughing. "Yes, I have been guilty of severa_onographs. They are all upon technical subjects. Here, for example, is one
  • 'Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.' In it _numerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash. It is a poin_hich is continually turning up in criminal trials, and which is sometimes o_upreme importance as a clue. If you can say definitely, for example, tha_ome murder had been done by a man who was smoking an Indian lunkah, i_bviously narrows your field of search. To the trained eye there is as muc_ifference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff o_ird's-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato."
  • "You have an extraordinary genius for minutiae," I remarked.
  • "I appreciate their importance. Here is my monograph upon the tracing o_ootsteps, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserve_f impresses. Here, too, is a curious little work upon the influence of _rade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, cork-cutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond-polishers. That is _atter of great practical interest to the scientific detective — especially i_ases of unclaimed bodies, or in discovering the antecedents of criminals. Bu_ weary you with my hobby."
  • "Not at all," I answered earnestly. "It is of the greatest interest to me, especially since I have had the opportunity of observing your practica_pplication of it. But you spoke just now of observation and deduction. Surel_he one to some extent implies the other."
  • "Why, hardly," he answered, leaning back luxuriously in his armchair an_ending up thick blue wreaths from his pipe. "For example, observation show_e that you have been to the Wigmore Street Post-Office this morning, bu_eduction lets me know that when there you dispatched a telegram."
  • "Right!" said I. "Right on both points! But I confess that I don't see how yo_rrived at it. It was a sudden impulse upon my part, and I have mentioned i_o no one."
  • "It is simplicity itself," he remarked, chuckling at my surprise — "s_bsurdly simple that an explanation is superfluous; and yet it may serve t_efine the limits of observation and of deduction. Observation tells me tha_ou have a little reddish mould adhering to your instep. Just opposite th_igmore Street Office they have taken up the pavement and thrown up som_arth, which lies in such a way that it is difficult to avoid treading in i_n entering. The earth is of this peculiar reddish tint which is found, as fa_s I know, nowhere else in the neighbourhood. So much is observation. The res_s deduction."
  • "How, then, did you deduce the telegram?"
  • "Why, of course I knew that you had not written a letter, since I sat opposit_o you all morning. I see also in your open desk there that you have a shee_f stamps and a thick bundle of postcards. What could you go into the post- office for, then, but to send a wire? Eliminate all other factors, and the on_hich remains must be the truth."
  • "In this case it certainly is so," I replied after a little thought. "Th_hing, however, is, as you say, of the simplest. Would you think m_mpertinent if I were to put your theories to a more severe test?"
  • "On the contrary," he answered, "it would prevent me from taking a second dos_f cocaine. I should be delighted to look into any problem which you migh_ubmit to me."
  • "I have heard you say it is difficult for a man to have any object in dail_se without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a wa_hat a trained observer might read it. Now, I have here a watch which ha_ecently come into my possession. Would you have the kindness to let me hav_n opinion upon the character or habits of the late owner?"
  • I handed him over the watch with some slight feeling of amusement in my heart, for the test was, as I thought, an impossible one, and I intended it as _esson against the somewhat dogmatic tone which he occasionally assumed. H_alanced the watch in his hand, gazed hard at the dial, opened the back, an_xamined the works, first with his naked eyes and then with a powerful conve_ens. I could hardly keep from smiling at his crestfallen face when he finall_napped the case to and handed it back.
  • "There are hardly any data," he remarked. "The watch has been recentl_leaned, which robs me of my most suggestive facts. "
  • "You are right," I answered. "It was cleaned before being sent to me."
  • In my heart I accused my companion of putting forward a most lame and impoten_xcuse to cover his failure. What data could he expect from an uncleane_atch?
  • "Though unsatisfactory, my research has not been entirely barren," h_bserved, staring up at the ceiling with dreamy, lack-lustre eyes. "Subject t_our correction, I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother, who inherited it from your father."
  • "That you gather, no doubt, from the H. W. upon the back?"
  • "Quite so. The W. suggests your own name. The date of the watch is nearl_ifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made fo_he last generation. Jewellery usually descends to the eldest son, and he i_ost likely to have the same name as the father. Your father has, if _emember right, been dead many years. It has, therefore, been in the hands o_our eldest brother."
  • "Right, so far," said I. "Anything else?"
  • "He was a man of untidy habits — very untidy and careless. He was left wit_ood prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in povert_ith occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather."
  • I sprang from my chair and limped impatiently about the room with considerabl_itterness in my heart.
  • "This is unworthy of you, Holmes," I said. "I could not have believed that yo_ould have descended to this. You have made inquiries into the history of m_nhappy brother, and you now pretend to deduce this knowledge in some fancifu_ay. You cannot expect me to believe that you have read all this from his ol_atch! It is unkind and, to speak plainly, has a touch of charlatanism in it."
  • "My dear doctor," said he kindly, "pray accept my apologies. Viewing th_atter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful _hing it might be to you. I assure you, however, that I never even knew tha_ou had a brother until you handed me the watch."
  • "Then how in the name of all that is wonderful did you get these facts? The_re absolutely correct in every particular."
  • "Ah, that is good luck. I could only say what was the balance of probability.
  • I did not at all expect to be so accurate."
  • "But it was not mere guesswork?"
  • "No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit — destructive to the logica_aculty. What seems strange to you is only so because you do not follow m_rain of thought or observe the small facts upon which large inferences ma_epend. For example, I began by stating that your brother was careless. Whe_ou observe the lower part of that watch-case you notice that it is not onl_inted in two places but it is cut and marked all over from the habit o_eeping other hard objects, such as coins or keys, in the same pocket. Surel_t is no great feat to assume that a man who treats a fifty-guinea watch s_avalierly must be a careless man. Neither is it a very far-fetched inferenc_hat a man who inherits one article of such value is pretty well provided fo_n other respects."
  • I nodded to show that I followed his reasoning.
  • "It is very customary for pawnbrokers in England, when they take a watch, t_cratch the numbers of the ticket with a pinpoint upon the inside of the case.
  • It is more handy than a label as there is no risk of the number being lost o_ransposed. There are no less than four such numbers visible to my lens on th_nside of this case. Inference — that your brother was often at low water.
  • Secondary inference — that he had occasional bursts of prosperity, or he coul_ot have redeemed the pledge. Finally, I ask you to look at the inner plate, which contains the keyhole. Look at the thousands of scratches all round th_ole — marks where the key has slipped. What sober man's key could have score_hose grooves? But you will never see a drunkard's watch without them. H_inds it at night, and he leaves these traces of his unsteady hand. Where i_he mystery in all this?"
  • "It is as clear as daylight," I answered. "I regret the injustice which I di_ou. I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty. May I as_hether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?"
  • "None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brainwork. What else is ther_o live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drift_cross the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic an_aterial? What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field upo_hich to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and n_ualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth."
  • I had opened my mouth to reply to this tirade when, with a crisp knock, ou_andlady entered, bearing a card upon the brass salver.
  • "A young lady for you, sir," she said, addressing my companion.
  • "Miss Mary Morstan," he read. "Hum! I have no recollection of the name. As_he young lady to step up, Mrs. Hudson. Don't go, Doctor. I should prefer tha_ou remain."