Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Valley of Fear (1914)
Part I - The Tragedy of Birlstone
"I am inclined to think -- " said I.
"I should do so," Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals;
but I'll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption.
"Really, Holmes," said I severely, "you are a little trying at
He was too much absorbed with his own thoughts to give any
immediate answer to my remonstrance. He leaned upon his
hand, with his untasted breakfast before him, and he stared at the
slip of paper which he had just drawn from its envelope. Then he
took the envelope itself, held it up to the light, and very carefully
studied both the exterior and the flap.
"It is Porlock's writing," said he thoughtfully. "I can hardly
doubt that it is Porlock's writing, though I have seen it only
twice before. The Greek e with the peculiar top flourish is
distinctive. But if it is Porlock, then it must be something of the
very first importance."
He was speaking to himself rather than to me; but my vexation
disappeared in the interest which the words awakened.
"Who then is Porlock?" I asked.
"Porlock, Watson, is a nom-de-plume, a mere identification
mark; but behind it lies a shifty and evasive personality. In a
former letter he frankly informed me that the name was not his
own, and defied me ever to trace him among the teeming
millions of this great city. Porlock is important, not for himself, but
for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself
the pilot fish with the shark, the jackal with the lion -- anything
that is insignificant in companionship with what is formidable:
not only formidable, Watson, but sinister -- in the highest degree
sinister. That is where he comes within my purview. You have
heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?"
"The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks
"My blushes, Watson!" Holmes murmured in a deprecating
"I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public."
"A touch! A distinct touch!" cried Holmes. "You are
developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson,
against which I must learn to guard myself. But in calling
Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the
law -- and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest
schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the
controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or
marred the destiny of nations -- that's the man! But so aloof is he
from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable
in his management and self-effacement, that for those very words
that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerge
with your year's pension as a solatium for his wounded
character. Is he not the celebrated author of The Dynamics of an
Asteroid, a book which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure
mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific
press capable of criticizing it? Is this a man to traduce?
Foulmouthed doctor and slandered professor -- such would be your
respective roles! That's genius, Watson. But if I am spared by
lesser men, our day will surely come."
"May I be there to see!" I exclaimed devoutly. "But you
were speaking of this man Porlock."
"Ah, yes -- the so-called Porlock is a link in the chain some
little way from its great attachment. Porlock is not quite a sound
link -- between ourselves. He is the only flaw in that chain so far
as I have been able to test it."
"But no chain is stronger than its weakest link."
"Exactly, my dear Watson! Hence the extreme importance of
Porlock. Led on by some rudimentary aspirations towards right,
and encouraged by the judicious stimulation of an occasional
ten-pound note sent to him by devious methods, he has once or
twice given me advance information which has been of value --
that highest value which anticipates and prevents rather than
avenges crime. I cannot doubt that, if we had the cipher, we
should find that this communication is of the nature that I
Again Holmes flattened out the paper upon his unused plate. I
rose and, leaning over him, stared down at the curious
inscription, which ran as follows:
534 C2 13 127 36 31 4 17 21 41
DOUGLAS 109 293 5 37 BIRLSTONE
26 BIRLSTONE 9 47 171
"What do you make of it, Holmes?"
"It is obviously an attempt to convey secret information."
"But what is the use of a cipher message without the cipher?"
"In this instance, none at all."
"Why do you say 'in this instance'?"
"Because there are many ciphers which I would read as easily
as I do the apocrypha of the agony column: such crude devices
amuse the intelligence without fatiguing it. But this is different.
It is clearly a reference to the words in a page of some book.
Until I am told which page and which book I am powerless."
"But why 'Douglas' and 'Birlstone'?"
"Clearly because those are words which were not contained in
the page in question."
"Then why has he not indicated the book?"
"Yow native shrewdness, my dear Watson, that innate
cunning which is the delight of your friends, would surely prevent
you from inclosing cipher and message in the same envelope.
Should it miscarry, you are undone. As it is, both have to go
wrong before any harm comes from it. Our second post is now
overdue, and I shall be surprised if it does not bring us either a
further letter of explanation, or, as is more probable, the very
volume to which these figures refer."
Holmes's calculation was fulfilled within a very few minutes
by the appearance of Billy, the page, with the very letter which
we were expecting.
"The same writing," remarked Holmes, as he opened the
envelope, "and actually signed," he added in an exultant voice
as he unfolded the epistle. "Come, we are getting on, Watson."
His brow clouded, however, as he glanced over the contents.
"Dear me, this is very disappointing! I fear, Watson, that all
our expectations come to nothing. I trust that the man Porlock
will come to no harm.
"DEAR MR. HOLMES [he says]:
"I will go no further in this maner. It is too dangerous -- he
suspects me. I can see that he suspects me. He came to me
quite unexpectedly after I had actually addressed this
envelope with the intention of sending you the key to the cipher.
I was able to cover it up. If he had seen it, it would have
gone hard with me. But I read suspicion in his eyes. Please
burn the cipher message, which can now be of no use to you.
Holmes sat for some little time twisting this letter between his
fingers, and frowning, as he stared into the fire.
"After all," he said at last, "there may be nothing in it. It
may be only his guilty conscience. Knowing himself to be a
traitor, he may have read the accusation in the other's eyes."
"The other being, I presume, Professor Moriarty."
"No less! When any of that party talk about 'He' you know
whom they mean. There is one predominant 'He' for all of
"But what can he do?"
"Hum! That's a large question. When you have one of the
first brains of Europe up against you, and all the powers of
darkness at his back, there are infinite possibilities. Anyhow,
Friend Porlock is evidently scared out of his senses -- kindly
compare the writing in the note to that upon its envelope; which was
done, he tells us, before this ill-omened visit. The one is clear
and firm. The other hardly legible."
"Why did he write at all? Why did he not simply drop it?"
"Because he feared I would make some inquiry after him in
that case, and possibly bring trouble on him."
"No doubt," said I. "Of course." I had picked up the
original cipher message and was bending my brows over it. "It's
pretty maddening to think that an important secret may lie here on
this slip of paper, and that it is beyond human power to penetrate
Sherlock Holmes had pushed away his untasted breakfast and
lit the unsavoury pipe which was the companion of his deepest
meditations. "I wonder!" said he, leaning back and staring at
the ceiling. "Perhaps there are points which have escaped your
Machiavellian intellect. Let us consider the problem in the light
of pure reason. This man's reference is to a book. That is our
point of departure."
"A somewhat vague one."
"Let us see then if we can narrow it down. As I focus my
mind upon it, it seems rather less impenetrable. What indications
have we as to this book?"
"Well, well, it is surely not quite so bad as that. The cipher
message begins with a large 534, does it not? We may take it as
a working hypothesis that 534 is the particular page to which the
cipher refers. So our book has already become a large book
which is surely something gained. What other indications have
we as to the nature of this large book? The next sign is C2. What
do you make of that, Watson?"
"Chapter the second, no doubt."
"Hardly that, Watson. You will, I am sure, agree with me
that if the page be given, the number of the chapter is
immaterial. Also that if page 534 finds us only in the second chapter,
the length of the first one must have been really intolerable."
"Column!" I cried.
"Brilliant, Watson. You are scintillating this morning. If it is
not column, then I am very much deceived. So now, you see, we
begin to visualize a large book printed in double columns
which are each of a considerable iength, since one of the words
is numbered in the document as the two hundred and
ninetythird. Have we reached the limits of what reason can supply?"
"I fear that we have."
"Surely you do yourself an injustice. One more coruscation,
my dear Watson -- yet another brain-wave! Had the volume been
an unusual one, he would have sent it to me. Instead of that, he
had intended, before his plans were nipped, to send me the clue
in this envelope. He says so in his note. This would seem to
indicate that the book is one which he thought I would have no
difficulty in finding for myself. He had it -- and he imagined that
I would have it, too. In short, Watson, it is a very common
"What you say certainly sounds plausible."
"So we have contracted our field of search to a large book,
printed in double columns and in common use."
"The Bible!" I cried triumphantly.
"Good, Watson, good! But not, if I may say so, quite good
enough! Even if I accepted the compliment for myself I could
hardly name any volume which would be less likely to iie at the
elbow of one of Moriarty's associates. Besides, the editions of
Holy Writ are so numerous that he could hardly suppose that two
copies would have the same pagination. This is clearly a book
which is standardized. He knows for certain that his page 534
will exactly agree with my page 534."
"But very few books would correspond with that."
"Exactly. Therein lies our salvation. Our search is narrowed
down to standardized books which anyone may be supposed to
"There are difficulties, Watson. The vocabulary of Bradshaw
is nervous and terse, but limited. The selection of words would
hardly lend itself to the sending of general messages. We will
eliminate Bradshaw. The dictionary is, I fear, inadmissible for
the same reason. What then is left?"
"Excellent, Watson! I am very much mistaken if you have not
touched the spot. An almanac! Let us consider the claims of
Whitaker's Almanac. It is in common use. It has the requisite
number of pages. It is in double column. Though reserved in its
earlier vocabulary, it becomes, if I remember right, quite
garrulous towards the end." He picked the volume from his desk.
"Here is page 534, column two, a substantial block of print
dealing, I perceive, with the trade and resources of British India.
Jot down the words, Watson! Number thirteen is 'Mahratta.'
Not, I fear, a very auspicious beginning. Number one hundred
and twenty-seven is 'Government'; which at least makes sense,
though somewhat irrelevant to ourselves and Professor Moriarty.
Now let us try again. What does the Mahratta government do?
Alas! the next word is 'pig's-bristles.' We are undone, my good
Watson! It is finished!"
He had spoken in jesting vein, but the twitching of his bushy
eyebrows bespoke his disappointment and irritation. I sat
helpless and unhappy, staring into the fire. A long silence was
broken by a sudden exclamation from Holmes, who dashed at a
cupboard, from which he emerged with a second yellow-covered
volume in his hand.
"We pay the price, Watson, for being too up-to-date!" he
cried. "We are before our time, and suffer the usual penalties.
Being the seventh of January, we have very properly laid in the
new almanac. It is more than likely that Porlock took his
message from the old one. No doubt he would have told us so had
his letter of explanation been written. Now let us see what page
534 has in store for us. Number thirteen is 'There,' which is
much more promising. Number one hundred and twenty-seven is
'is' -- 'There is' " -- Holmes's eyes were gleaming with
excitement, and his thin, nervous fingers twitched as he counted the
words -- " 'danger.' Ha! Ha! Capital! Put that down, Watson.
'There is danger -- may -- come -- very -- soon -- one.' Then we have
the name 'Douglas' -- 'rich -- country -- now -- at -- Birlstone --
House -- Birlstone -- confidence -- is -- pressing.' There, Watson!
What do you think of pure reason and its fruit? If the
greengrocer had such a thing as a laurel wreath, I should send Billy
round for it."
I was staring at the strange message which I had scrawled, as
he deciphered it, upon a sheet of foolscap on my knee.
"What a queer, scrambling way of expressing his meaning!"
"On the contrary, he has done quite remarkably well," said
Holmes. "When you search a single column for words with
which to express your meaning, you can hardly expect to get
everything you want. You are bound to leave something to the
intelligence of your correspondent. The purport is perfectly clear.
Some deviltry is intended against one Douglas, whoever he may
be, residing as stated, a rich country gentleman. He is sure --
'confidence' was as near as he could get to 'confident' -- that it is
pressing. There is our result -- and a very workmanlike little bit
of analysis it was!"
Holmes had the impersonal joy of the true artist in his better
work, even as he mourned darkly when it fell below the high
level to which he aspired. He was still chuckling over his success
when Billy swung open the door and Inspector MacDonald of
Scotland Yard was ushered into the room.
Those were the early days at the end of the '80's, when Alec
MacDonald was far from having attained the national fame
which he has now achieved. He was a young but trusted member
of the detective force, who had distinguished himself in several
cases which had been intrusted to him. His tall, bony figure gave
promise of exceptional physical strength, while his great cranium
and deep-set, lustrous eyes spoke no less clearly of the keen
intelligence which twinkled out from behind his bushy eyebrows.
He was a silent, precise man with a dour nature and a hard
Twice already in his career had Holmes helped him to attain
success, his own sole reward being the intellectual joy of the
problem. For this reason the affection and respect of the
Scotchman for his amateur colleague were profound, and he showed
them by the frankness with which he consulted Holmes in every
difficulty. Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent
instantly recognizes genius, and MacDonald had talent enough
for his profession to enable him to perceive that there was no
humiliation in seeking the assistance of one who already stood
alone in Europe, both in his gifts and in his experience. Holmes
was not prone to friendship, but he was tolerant of the big
Scotchman, and smiled at the sight of him.
"You are an early bird, Mr. Mac," said he. "I wish you luck
with your worm. I fear this means that there is some mischief
"If you said 'hope' instead of 'fear,' it would be nearer the
truth, I'm thinking, Mr. Holmes," the inspector answered, with a
knowing grin. "Well, maybe a wee nip would keep out the
raw morning chill. No, I won't smoke, I thank you. I'll have
to be pushing on my way; for the early hours of a case are the
precious ones, as no man knows better than your own self. But --
The inspector had stopped suddenly, and was staring with a
look of absolute amazement at a paper upon the table. It was the
sheet upon which I had scrawled the enigmatic message.
"Douglas!" he stammered. "Birlstone! What's this, Mr.
Holmes? Man, it's witchcraft! Where in the name of all that is
wonderful did you get those names?"
"It is a cipher that Dr. Watson and I have had occasion to
solve. But why -- what's amiss with the names?"
The inspector looked from one to the other of us in dazed
astonishment. "Just this," said he, "that Mr. Douglas of Birlstone
Manor House was horribly murdered last night!"