Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Valley of Fear (1914)
Part I - The Tragedy of Birlstone
At three in the morning the chief Sussex detective, obeying
the urgent call from Sergeant Wilson of Birlstone, arrived from
headquarters in a light dog-cart behind a breathless trotter. By
the five-forty train in the morning he had sent his message to
Scotland Yard, and he was at the Birlstone station at twelve
o'clock to welcome us. White Mason was a quiet,
comfortablelooking person in a loose tweed suit, with a clean-shaved, ruddy
face, a stoutish body, and powerful bandy legs adorned with
gaiters, looking like a small farmer, a retired gamekeeper, or
anything upon earth except a very favourable specimen of the
provincial criminal officer.
"A real downright snorter, Mr. MacDonald!" he kept
repeating. "We'll have the pressmen down like flies when they
understand it. I'm hoping we will get our work done before they get
poking their noses into it and messing up all the trails. There has
been nothing like this that I can remember. There are some bits
that will come home to you, Mr. Holmes, or I am mistaken. And
you also, Dr. Watson; for the medicos will have a word to say
before we finish. Your room is at the Westville Arms. There's
no other place; but I hear that it is clean and good. The man will
carry your bags. This way, gentlemen, if you please."
He was a very bustling and genial person, this Sussex
detective. In ten minutes we had all found our quarters. In ten more
we were seated in the parlour of the inn and being treated to a
rapid sketch of those events which have been outlined in the
previous chapter. MacDonald made an occasional note, while
Holmes sat absorbed, with the expression of surprised and
reverent admiration with which the botanist surveys the rare and
"Remarkable!" he said, when the story was unfolded, "most
remarkable! I can hardly recall any case where the features have
been more peculiar."
"I thought you would say so, Mr. Holmes," said White
Mason in great delight. "We're well up with the times in
Sussex. I've told you now how matters were, up to the time
when I took over from Sergeant Wilson between three and four
this morning. My word! I made the old mare go! But I need not
have been in such a hurry, as it turned out; for there was nothing
immediate that I could do. Sergeant Wilson had all the facts. I
checked them and considered them and maybe added a few of
"What were they?" asked Holmes eagerly.
"Well, I first had the hammer examined. There was Dr.
Wood there to help me. We found no signs of violence upon it. I
was hoping that if Mr. Douglas defended himself with the
hammer, he might have left his mark upon the murderer before he
dropped it on the mat. But there was no stain."
"That, of course, proves nothing at all," remarked Inspector
MacDonald. "There has been many a hammer murder and no
trace on the hammer."
"Quite so. It doesn't prove it wasn't used. But there might
have been stains, and that would have helped us. As a matter of
fact there were none. Then I examined the gun. They were
buckshot cartridges, and, as Sergeant Wilson pointed out, the
triggers were wired together so that, if you pulled on the hinder
one, both barrels were discharged. Whoever fixed that up had
made up his mind that he was going to take no chances of
missing his man. The sawed gun was not more than two foot
long -- one could carry it easily under one's coat. There was no
complete maker's name; but the printed letters P-E-N were on the
fluting between the barrels, and the rest of the name had been cut
off by the saw."
"A big P with a flourish above it, E and N smaller?" asked
"Pennsylvania Small Arms Company -- well-known American
firm," said Holmes.
White Mason gazed at my friend as the little village
practitioner looks at the Harley Street specialist who by a word can
solve the difficulties that perplex him.
"That is very helpful, Mr. Holmes. No doubt you are right.
Wonderful! Wonderful! Do you carry the names of all the gun
makers in the world in your memory?"
Holmes dismissed the subject with a wave.
"No doubt it is an American shotgun," White Mason
continued. "I seem to have read that a sawed-off shotgun is a weapon
used in some parts of America. Apart from the name upon the
barrel, the idea had occurred to me. There is some evidence
then, that this man who entered the house and killed its master
was an American."
MacDonald shook his head. "Man, you are surely travelling
overfast," said he. "I have heard no evidence yet that any
stranger was ever in the house at all."
"The open window, the blood on the sill, the queer card, the
marks of boots in the corner, the gun!"
"Nothing there that could not have been arranged. Mr.
Douglas was an American, or had lived long in America. So had Mr.
Barker. You don't need to import an American from outside in
order to account for American doings."
"Ames, the butler --"
"What about him? Is he reliable?"
"Ten years with Sir Charles Chandos -- as solid as a rock. He
has been with Douglas ever since he took the Manor House five
years ago. He has never seen a gun of this sort in the house."
"The gun was made to conceal. That's why the barrels were
sawed. It would fit into any box. How could he swear there was
no such gun in the house?"
"Well, anyhow, he had never seen one."
MacDonald shook his obstinate Scotch head. "I'm not
convinced yet that there was ever anyone in the house," said he.
"I'm asking you to conseedar" (his accent became more
Aberdonian as he lost himself in his argument) "I'm asking you
to conseedar what it involves if you suppose that this gun was
ever brought into the house, and that all these strange things
were done by a person from outside. Oh, man, it's just
inconceivable! It's clean against common sense! I put it to you, Mr.
Holmes, judging it by what we have heard."
"Well, state your case, Mr. Mac," said Holmes in his most
"The man is not a burglar, supposing that he ever existed.
The ring business and the card point to premeditated murder for
some private reason. Very good. Here is a man who slips into a
house with the deliberate intention of committing murder. He
knows, if he knows anything, that he will have a deeficulty in
making his escape, as the house is surrounded with water. What
weapon would he choose? You would say the most silent in the
world. Then he could hope when the deed was done to slip
quickly from the window, to wade the moat, and to get away at
his leisure. That's understandable. But is it understandable that
he should go out of his way to bring with him the most noisy
weapon he could select, knowing well that it will fetch every
human being in the house to the spot as quick as they can run,
and that it is all odds that he will be seen before he can get
across the moat? Is that credible, Mr. Holmes?"
"Well, you put the case strongly," my friend replied
thoughtfully. "It certainly needs a good deal of justification. May I ask,
Mr. White Mason, whether you examined the farther side of the
moat at once to see if there were any signs of the man having
climbed out from the water?"
"There were no signs, Mr. Holmes. But it is a stone ledge,
and one could hardly expect them."
"No tracks or marks?"
"Ha! Would there be any objection, Mr. White Mason, to
our going down to the house at once? There may possibly be some
small point which might be suggestive."
"I was going to propose it, Mr. Holmes; but I thought it well
to put you in touch with all the facts before we go. I suppose if
anything should strike you --" White Mason looked doubtfully
at the amateur.
"I have worked with Mr. Holmes before," said Inspector
MacDonald. "He plays the game."
"My own idea of the game, at any rate," said Holmes, with a
smile. "I go into a case to help the ends of justice and the work
of the police. If I have ever separated myself from the official
force, it is because they have first separated themselves from me.
I have no wish ever to score at their expense. At the same time,
Mr. White Mason, I claim the right to work in my own way and
give my results at my own time -- complete rather than in stages."
"I am sure we are honoured by your presence and to show
you all we know," said White Mason cordially. "Come along,
Dr. Watson, and when the time comes we'll all hope for a place
in your book."
We walked down the quaint village street with a row of
pollarded elms on each side of it. Just beyond were two ancient
stone pillars, weather-stained and lichen-blotched bearing upon
their summits a shapeless something which had once been the
rampant lion of Capus of Birlstone. A short walk along the
winding drive with such sward and oaks around it as one only
sees in rural England, then a sudden turn, and the long, low
Jacobean house of dingy, liver-coloured brick lay before us, with
an old-fashioned garden of cut yews on each side of it. As we
approached it, there was the wooden drawbridge and the
beautiful broad moat as still and luminous as quicksilver in the cold,
Three centuries had flowed past the old Manor House,
centuries of births and of homecomings, of country dances and of the
meetings of fox hunters. Strange that now in its old age this dark
business should have cast its shadow upon the venerable walls!
And yet those strange, peaked roofs and quaint, overhung gables
were a fitting covering to grim and terrible intrigue. As I looked
at the deep-set windows and the long sweep of the dull-coloured,
water-lapped front, I felt that no more fitting scene could be set
for such a tragedy.
"That's the window," said White Mason, "that one on the
immediate right of the drawbridge. It's open just as it was found
"It looks rather narrow for a man to pass."
"Well, it wasn't a fat man, anyhow. We don't need your
deductions, Mr. Holmes, to tell us that. But you or I could
squeeze through all right."
Holmes walked to the edge of the moat and looked across.
Then he examined the stone ledge and the grass border beyond
"I've had a good look, Mr. Holmes," said White Mason.
"There is nothing there, no sign that anyone has landed -- but
why should he leave any sign?"
"Exactly. Why should he? Is the water always turbid?"
"Generally about this colour. The stream brings down the
"How deep is it?"
"About two feet at each side and three in the middle."
"So we can put aside all idea of the man having been drowned
"No, a child could not be drowned in it."
We walked across the drawbridge, and were admitted by a
quaint, gnarled, dried-up person, who was the butler, Ames. The
poor old fellow was white and quivering from the shock. The
village sergeant, a tall, formal, melancholy man, still held his
vigil in the room of Fate. The doctor had departed.
"Anything fresh, Sergeant Wilson?" asked White Mason.
"Then you can go home. You've had enough. We can send
for you if we want you. The butler had better wait outside. Tell
him to warn Mr. Cecil Barker, Mrs. Douglas, and the
housekeeper that we may want a word with them presently. Now,
gentlemen, perhaps you will allow me to give you the views I
have formed first, and then you will be able to arrive at your
He impressed me, this country specialist. He had a solid grip
of fact and a cool, clear, common-sense brain, which should take
him some way in his profession. Holmes listened to him intently,
with no sign of that impatience which the official exponent too
"Is it suicide, or is it murder -- that's our first question,
gentlemen, is it not? If it were suicide, then we have to believe that
this man began by taking off his wedding ring and concealing it;
that he then came down here in his dressing gown, trampled mud
into a corner behind the curtain in order to give the idea someone
had waited for him, opened the window, put blood on the --"
"We can surely dismiss that," said MacDonald.
"So I think. Suicide is out of the question. Then a murder has
been done. What we have to determine is, whether it was done
by someone outside or inside the house."
"Well, let's hear the argument."
"There are considerable difficulties both ways, and yet one or
the other it must be. We will suppose first that some person or
persons inside the house did the crime. They got this man down
here at a time when everything was still and yet no one was
asleep. They then did the deed with the queerest and noisiest
weapon in the world so as to tell everyone what had happened -- a
weapon that was never seen in the house before. That does not
seem a very likely start, does it?"
"No, it does not."
"Well, then, everyone is agreed that after the alarm was given
only a minute at the most had passed before the whole household --
not Mr. Cecil Barker alone, though he claims to have been the
first, but Ames and all of them were on the spot. Do you tell me
that in that time the guilty person managed to make footmarks in
the corner, open the window, mark the sill with blood. take the
wedding nng off the dead man's finger, and all the rest of it? It's
"You put it very clearly," said Holmes. "I am inclined to
agree with you."
"Well, then, we are driven back to the theory that it was done
by someone from outside. We are still faced with some big
difficulties; but anyhow they have ceased to be impossibilities.
The man got into the house between four-thirty and six; that is to
say, between dusk and the time when the bridge was raised.
There had been some visitors, and the door was open; so there
was nothing to prevent him. He may have been a common
burglar, or he may have had some private grudge against Mr.
Douglas. Since Mr. Douglas has spent most of his life in
America, and this shotgun seems to be an American weapon, it would
seem that the private grudge is the more likely theory. He
slipped into this room because it was the first he came to, and he
hid behind the curtain. There he remained until past eleven at
night. At that time Mr. Douglas entered the room. It was a short
interview, if there were any interview at all; for Mrs. Douglas
declares that her husband had not left her more than a few
minutes when she heard the shot."
"The candle shows that," said Holmes.
"Exactly. The candle, which was a new one, is not burned
more than half an inch. He must have placed it on the table
before he was attacked; otherwise, of course, it would have
fallen when he fell. This shows that he was not attacked the
instant that he entered the room. When Mr. Barker arrived the
candle was lit and the lamp was out."
"That's all clear enough."
"Well, now, we can reconstruct things on those lines. Mr.
Douglas enters the room. He puts down the candle. A man
appears from behind the curtain. He is armed with this gun. He
demands the wedding ring -- Heaven only knows why, but so it
must have been. Mr. Douglas gave it up. Then either in cold
blood or in the course of a struggle -- Douglas may have gripped
the hammer that was found upon the mat -- he shot Douglas in
this horrible way. He dropped his gun and also it would seem
this queer card -- V. V. 341, whatever that may mean -- and he
made his escape through the window and across the moat at the
very moment when Cecil Barker was discovering the crime.
How's that, Mr. Holmes?"
"Very interesting, but just a little unconvincing."
"Man, it would be absolute nonsense if it wasn't that anything
else is even worse!" cried MacDonald. "Somebody killed the
man, and whoever it was I could clearly prove to you that he
should have done it some other way. What does he mean by
allowing his retreat to be cut off like that? What does he mean by
using a shotgun when silence was his one chance of escape?
Come, Mr. Holmes, it's up to you to give us a lead, since you
say Mr. White Mason's theory is unconvincing."
Holmes had sat intently observant during this long discussion,
missing no word that was said, with his keen eyes darting to
right and to left, and his forehead wrinkled with speculation.
"I should like a few more facts before I get so far as a theory,
Mr. Mac," said he, kneeling down beside the body. "Dear me!
these injuries are really appalling. Can we have the butler in for
a moment? . . . Ames, I understand that you have often seen this
very unusual mark -- a branded triangle inside a circle -- upon Mr.
"You never heard any speculation as to what it meant?"
"It must have caused great pain when it was inflicted. It is
undoubtedly a burn. Now, I observe, Ames, that there is a small
piece of plaster at the angle of Mr. Douglas's jaw. Did you
observe that in life?"
"Yes, sir, he cut himself in shaving yesterday morning."
"Did you ever know him to cut himself in shaving before?"
"Not for a very long time, sir."
"Suggestive!" said Holmes. "It may, of course, be a mere
coincidence, or it may point to some nervousness which would
indicate that he had reason to apprehend danger. Had you
noticed anything unusual in his conduct, yesterday, Ames?"
"It struck me that he was a little restless and excited, sir."
"Ha! The attack may not have been entirely unexpected. We
do seem to make a little progress, do we not? Perhaps you would
rather do the questioning, Mr. Mac?"
"No, Mr. Holmes, it's in better hands than mine."
"Well, then, we will pass to this card -- V. V. 341. It is rough
cardboard. Have you any of the sort in the house?"
"l don't think so."
Holmes walked across to the desk and dabbed a little ink from
each bottle on to the blotting paper. "It was not printed in this
room," he said; "this is black ink and the other purplish. It was
done by a thick pen, and these are fine. No, it was done
elsewhere, I should say. Can you make anything of the
"No, sir, nothing."
"What do you think, Mr. Mac?"
"It gives me the impression of a secret society of some sort;
the same with his badge upon the forearm."
"That's my idea, too," said White Mason.
"Well, we can adopt it as a working hypothesis and then see
how far our difficulties disappear. An agent from such a society
makes his way into the house, waits for Mr. Douglas, blows his
head nearly off with this weapon, and escapes by wading the
moat, after leaving a card beside the dead man, which will
when mentioned in the papers, tell other members of the society
that vengeance has been done. That all hangs together. But why
this gun, of all weapons?"
"And why the missing ring?"
"And why no arrest? It's past two now. I take it for granted
that since dawn every constable within forty miles has been
looking out for a wet stranger?"
"That is so, Mr. Holmes."
"Well, unless he has a burrow close by or a change of clothes
ready, they can hardly miss him. And yet they have missed him
up to now!" Holmes had gone to the window and was examining
with his lens the blood mark on the sill. "It is clearly the tread of
a shoe. It is remarkably broad; a splay-foot, one would say.
Curious, because, so far as one can trace any footmark in this
mud-stained corner, one would say it was a more shapely sole.
However, they are certainly very indistinct. What's this under
the side table?"
"Mr. Douglas's dumb-bells," said Ames.
"Dumb-bell -- there's only one. Where's the other?"
"I don't know, Mr. Holmes. There may have been only one. I
have not noticed them for months."
"One dumb-bell " Holmes said seriously; but his remarks
were interrupted by a sharp knock at the door.
A tall, sunburned, capable-looking, clean-shaved man looked
in at us. I had no difficulty in guessing that it was the Cecil
Barker of whom I had heard. His masterful eyes travelled quickly
with a questioning glance from face to face.
"Sorry to interrupt your consultation," said he, "but you
should hear the latest news."
"No such luck. But they've found his bicycle. The fellow left
his bicycle behind him. Come and have a look. It is within a
hundred yards of the hall door."
We found three or four grooms and idlers standing in the drive
inspecting a bicycle which had been drawn out from a clump of
evergreens in which it had been concealed. It was a well used
Rudge-Whitworth, splashed as from a considerable journey. There
was a saddlebag with spanner and oilcan, but no clue as to the
"It would be a grand help to the police," said the inspector,
"if these things were numbered and registered. But we must be
thankful for what we've got. If we can't find where he went to,
at least we are likely to get where he came from. But what in the
name of all that is wonderful made the fellow leave it behind?
And how in the world has he got away without it? We don't
seem to get a gleam of light in the case, Mr. Holmes."
"Don't we?" my friend answered thoughtfully. "I wonder!"