The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read online 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

handled.

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

readers.

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

protection.

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

public.

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

common emotion.

“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

our peace.

“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

occurred?”

“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

apart?”

“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?”

“Never better.”

“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

morning.”

“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.

Ives.

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

darkness.

“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

both good-morning.”

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

ship?”

“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

behind us.”

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. 

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