Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Valley of Fear (1914)
Part I - The Tragedy of Birlstone
A Dawning Light
The three detectives had many matters of detail into which to
inquire; so I returned alone to our modest quarters at the village
inn. But before doing so I took a stroll in the curious old-world
garden which flanked the house. Rows of very ancient yew trees
cut into strange designs girded it round. Inside was a beautiful
stretch of lawn with an old sundial in the middle, the whole
effect so soothing and restful that it was welcome to my somewhat
In that deeply peaceful atmosphere one could forget, or
remember only as some fantastic nightmare, that darkened study
with the sprawling, bloodstained figure on the floor. And yet, as
I strolled round it and tried to steep my soul in its gentle balm, a
strange incident occurred, which brought me back to the tragedy
and left a sinister impression in my mind.
I have said that a decoration of yew trees circled the garden.
At the end farthest from the house they thickened into a
continuous hedge. On the other side of this hedge, concealed from the
eyes of anyone approaching from the direction of the house,
there was a stone seat. As I approached the spot I was aware of
voices, some remark in the deep tones of a man, answered by a
little ripple of feminine laughter.
An instant later I had come round the end of the hedge and my
eyes lit upon Mrs. Douglas and the man Barker before they were
aware of my presence. Her appearance gave me a shock. In the
dining-room she had been demure and discreet. Now all pretense
of grief had passed away from her. Her eyes shone with the joy
of living, and her face still quivered with amusement at some
remark of her companion. He sat forward, his hands clasped and
his forearms on his knees, with an answering smile upon his
bold, handsome face. In an instant -- but it was just one instant
too late -- they resumed their solemn masks as my figure came
into view. A hurried word or two passed between them, and then
Barker rose and came towards me.
"Excuse me, sir," said he, "but am I addressing Dr. Watson?"
I bowed with a coldness which showed, I dare say, very
plainly the impression which had been produced upon my mind.
"We thought that it was probably you, as your friendship with
Mr. Sherlock Holmes is so well known. Would you mind
coming over and speaking to Mrs. Douglas for one instant?"
I followed him with a dour face. Very clearly I could see in
my mind's eye that shattered figure on the floor. Here within a
few hours of the tragedy were his wife and his nearest friend
laughing together behind a bush in the garden which had been his.
I greeted the lady with reserve. I had grieved with her grief in
the dining-room. Now I met her appealing gaze with an
"I fear that you think me callous and hard-hearted." said she.
I shrugged my shoulders. ''It is no business of mine," said I.
"Perhaps some day you will do me justice. If you only
"There is no need why Dr. Watson should realize," said
Barker quickly. "As he has himself said, it is no possible
business of his."
"Exactly," said I, "and so I will beg leave to resume my
"One moment, Dr. Watson," cried the woman in a pleading
voice. "There is one question which you can answer with more
authority than anyone else in the world, and it may make a very
great difference to me. You know Mr. Holmes and his relations
with the police better than anyone else can. Supposing that a
matter were brought confidentially to his knowledge, is it
absolutely necessary that he should pass it on to the detectives?"
"Yes, that's it," said Barker eagerly. "Is he on his own or is
he entirely in with them?"
"I really don't know that I should be justified in discussing
such a point."
"I beg -- I implore that you will, Dr. Watson! I assure you that
you will be helping us -- helping me greatly if you will guide us
on that point."
There was such a ring of sincerity in the woman's voice that
for the instant I forgot all about her levity and was moved only to
do her will.
"Mr. Holmes is an independent investigator," I said. "He is
his own master, and would act as his own judgment directed. At
the same time, he would naturally feel loyalty towards the
officials who were working on the same case, and he would not
conceal from them anything which would help them in bringing
a criminal to justice. Beyond this I can say nothing, and I would
refer you to Mr. Holmes himself if you wanted fuller information."
So saying I raised my hat and went upon my way, leaving
them still seated behind that concealing hedge. I looked back as I
rounded the far end of it, and saw that they were still talking
very earnestly together, and, as they were gazing after me, it was
clear that it was our interview that was the subject of their
"I wish none of their confidences," said Holmes, when I
reported to him what had occurred. He had spent the whole
afternoon at the Manor House in consultation with his two
colleagues, and returned about five with a ravenous appetite for a
high tea which I had ordered for him. "No confidences, Watson;
for they are mighty awkward if it comes to an arrest for
conspiracy and murder."
"You think it will come to that?"
He was in his most cheerful and debonair humour. "My dear
Watson, when I have exterminated that fourth egg I shall be
ready to put you in touch with the whole situation. I don't say
that we have fathomed it -- far from it -- but when we have traced
the missing dumb-bell --"
"Dear me, Watson, is it possible that you have not penetrated
the fact that the case hangs upon the missing dumb-bell? Well,
well, you need not be downcast; for between ourselves I don't
think that either Inspector Mac or the excellent local practitioner
has grasped the overwhelming importance of this incident. One
dumb-bell, Watson! Consider an athlete with one dumb-bell!
Picture to yourself the unilateral development, the imminent
danger of a spinal curvature. Shocking, Watson, shocking!"
He sat with his mouth full of toast and his eyes sparkling with
mischief, watching my intellectual entanglement. The mere sight
of his excellent appetite was an assurance of success, for I had
very clear recollections of days and nights without a thought of
food, when his baffled mind had chafed before some problem
while his thin, eager features became more attenuated with the
asceticism of complete mental concentration. Finally he lit his
pipe, and sitting in the inglenook of the old village inn he talked
slowly and at random about his case, rather as one who thinks
aloud than as one who makes a considered statement.
"A lie, Watson -- a great, big, thumping, obtrusive,
uncompromising lie -- that's what meets us on the threshold! There is
our starting point. The whole story told by Barker is a lie. But
Barker's story is corroborated by Mrs. Douglas. Therefore she is
lying also. They are both lying, and in a conspiracy. So now we
have the clear problem. Why are they lying, and what is the truth
which they are trying so hard to conceal? Let us try, Watson,
you and I, if we can get behind the lie and reconstruct the truth.
"How do I know that they are lying? Because it is a clumsy
fabrication which simply could not be true. Consider! According
to the story given to us, the assassin had less than a minute after
the murder had been committed to take that ring, which was under
another ring, from the dead man's finger, to replace the other
ring -- a thing which he would surely never have done -- and to
put that singular card beside his victim. I say that this was
"You may argue -- but I have too much respect for your
judgment, Watson, to think that you will do so -- that the ring
may have been taken before the man was killed. The fact that the
candle had been lit only a short time shows that there had been
no lengthy interview. Was Douglas, from what we hear of his
fearless character, a man who would be likely to give up his
wedding ring at such short notice, or could we conceive of his
giving it up at all? No, no, Watson, the assassin was alone with
the dead man for some time with the lamp lit. Of that I have no
doubt at all.
"But the gunshot was apparently the cause of death. Therefore
the shot must have been fired some time earlier than we are told.
But there could be no mistake about such a matter as that. We
are in the presence, therefore, of a deliberate conspiracy upon
the part of the two people who heard the gunshot -- of the man
Barker and of the woman Douglas. When on the top of this I am
able to show that the blood mark on the windowsill was
deliberately placed there by Barker, in order to give a false clue to the
police, you will admit that the case grows dark against him.
"Now we have to ask ourselves at what hour the murder
actually did occur. Up to half-past ten the servants were moving
about the house; so it was certainly not before that time. At a
quarter to eleven they had all gone to their rooms with the
exception of Ames, who was in the pantry. I have been trying
some experiments after you left us this afternoon, and I find that
no noise which MacDonald can make in the study can penetrate
to me in the pantry when the doors are all shut.
"It is otherwise, however, from the housekeeper's room. It is
not so far down the corridor, and from it I could vaguely hear a
voice when it was very loudly raised. The sound from a shotgun
is to some extent muffled when the discharge is at very close
range, as it undoubtedly was in this instance. It would not be
very loud, and yet in the silence of the night it should have easily
penetrated to Mrs. Allen's room. She is, as she has told us,
somewhat deaf; but none the less she mentioned in her evidence
that she did hear something like a door slamming half an hour
before the alarm was given. Half an hour before the alarm was
given would be a quarter to eleven. I have no doubt that what
she heard was the report of the gun, and that this was the real
instant of the murder.
"If this is so, we have now to determine what Barker and
Mrs. Douglas, presuming that they are not the actual murderers,
could have been doing from quarter to eleven, when the sound of
the shot brought them down, until quarter past eleven, when they
rang the bell and summoned the servants. What were they doing,
and why did they not instantly give the alarm? That is the
question which faces us, and when it has been answered we shall
surely have gone some way to solve our problem."
"I am convinced myself," said I, "that there is an
understanding between those two people. She must be a heartless
creature to sit laughing at some jest within a few hours of her
"Exactly. She does not shine as a wife even in her own
account of what occurred. I am not a whole-souled admirer of
womankind, as you are aware, Watson, but my experience of
life has taught me that there are few wives, having any regard for
their husbands, who would let any man's spoken word stand
between them and that husband's dead body. Should I ever
marry, Watson, I should hope to inspire my wife with some
feeling which would prevent her from being walked off by a
housekeeper when my corpse was lying within a few yards of
her. It was badly stage-managed; for even the rawest
investigators must be struck by the absence of the usual feminine
ululation. If there had been nothing else, this incident alone would
have suggested a prearranged conspiracy to my mind."
"You think then, definitely, that Barker and Mrs. Douglas are
guilty of the murder?"
"There is an appalling directness about your questions,
Watson," said Holmes, shaking his pipe at me. "They come at me
like bullets. If you put it that Mrs. Douglas and Barker know the
truth about the murder, and are conspiring to conceal it, then I
can give you a whole-souled answer. I am sure they do. But your
more deadly proposition is not so clear. Let us for a moment
consider the difficulties which stand in the way.
"We will suppose that this couple are united by the bonds of a
guilty love, and that they have determined to get rid of the man
who stands between them. It is a large supposition; for discreet
inquiry among servants and others has failed to corroborate it in
any way. On the contrary. there is a good deal of evidence that
the Douglases were very attached to each other."
"That. I am sure. cannot he true." said I. thinking of the
beautiful smiling face in the garden.
"Well at least thcy gave that impression. However, we will
suppose that they are an extraordinarily astute couple, who
deceive evcryone upon this point. and conspire to murder the
husband. He happens to be a man over whose head some danger
"We havc only their word for that."
Holmes looked thoughtful. "I see. Watson. You are sketching
out a theory by which everything they say from the beginning is
false. According to your idea, there was never any hidden
menace. or secret society, or Valley of Fear, or Boss MacSomebody,
or anything else. Well, that is a good sweeping generalization.
Let us see what that brings us to. They invent this theory to
account for the crime. They then play up to the idea by leaving
this bicycle in the park as proof of the existence of some
outsider. The stain on the windowsill conveys the same idea. So
does the card on the body, which might have been prepared in
the house. That all fits into your hypothesis, Watson. But now
we come on the nasty, angular, uncompromising bits which
won't slip into their places. Why a cut-off shotgun of all weapons --
and an American one at that? How could they be so sure that the
sound of it would not bring someone on to them? It's a mere
chance as it is that Mrs. Allen did not start out to inquire for the
slamming door. Why did your guilty couple do all this, Watson?"
"I confess that I can't explain it."
"Then again, if a woman and her lover conspire to murder a
husband, are they going to advertise their guilt by ostentatiously
removing his wedding ring after his death? Does that strike you
as very probable, Watson?"
"No, it does not."
"And once again, if the thought of leaving a bicycle
concealed outside had occurred to you. would it really have seemed
worth doing when the dullest detective would naturally say this
is an obvious blind. as the bicycle is the first thing which the
fugitive needed in order to make his escape."
"I can conceive of no cxplanation."
"And yet there should be no combination of cvents for which
the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation. Simply as a
mental exercise. without any assertion that it is true. Let me
indicate a possible line of thought. It is, I admit, mere
imagination; but how often is imagination the mother of truth?
"We will suppose that there was a guilty secret. a really
shameful secret in the life of this man Douglas. This leads to his
murder by someone who is. we will suppose, an avenger.
someone from outside. This avenger. for some reason which I confess
I am still at a loss to cxplain. took the dead man's wedding ring.
The vendetta might conceivably date back to the man's first
marriage, and thc ring bc taken for some such reason.
"Before this avenger got away, Barker and the wife had
reached the room. The assassin convinced them that any attempt
to arrest him would lead to the publication of some hideous
scandal. They were converted to this idea, and preferred to let
him go. For this purpose they probably lowered the bridge,
which can be done quite noiselessly, and then raised it again. He
made his escape, and for some reason thought that he could do
so more safely on foot than on the bicycle. He therefore left his
machine where it would not be discovered until he had got safely
away. So far we are within the bounds of possibility, are we
"Well, it is possible, no doubt," said I, with some reserve.
"We have to remember, Watson, that whatever occurred is
certainly something very extraordinary. Well, now, to continue
our supposititious case, the couple -- not necessarily a guilty
couple -- realize after the murderer is gone that they have placed
themselves in a position in which it may be difficult for them to
prove that they did not themselves either do the deed or connive
at it. They rapidly and rather clumsily met the situation. The
mark was put by Barker's bloodstained slipper upon the
windowsill to suggest how the fugitive got away. They obviously were
the two who must have heard the sound of the gun; so they gave
the alarm exactly as they would have done, but a good half hour
after the event."
"And how do you propose to prove all this?"
"Well, if there were an outsider, he may be traced and taken.
That would be the most effective of all proofs. But if not -- well,
the resources of science are far from being exhausted. I think
that an evening alone in that study would help me much."
"An evening alone!"
"I propose to go up there presently. I have arranged it with
the estimable Ames, who is by no means whole-hearted about
Barker. I shall sit in that room and see if its atmosphere brings
me inspiration. I'm a believer in the genius loci. You smile,
Friend Watson. Well, we shall see. By the way, you have that
big umbrella of yours, have you not?"
"It is here."
"Well, I'll borrow that if I may."
"Certainly -- but what a wretchcd weapon! If there is
"Nothing serious, my dear Watson, or I should certainly ask
for your assistance. But I'll take the umbrella. At present I am
only awaiting the return of our colleagues from Tunbridge Wells,
where they are at present engaged in trying for a likely owner to
It was nightfall before Inspector MacDonald and White Mason
came back from their expedition, and they arrived exultant,
reporting a great advance in our investigation.
"Man, I'll admeet that I had my doubts if there was ever an
outsider," said MacDonald, "but that's all past now. We've had
the bicycle identified, and we have a description of our man; so
that's a long step on our journey."
"It sounds to me like the beginning of the end," said Holmes.
"I'm sure I congratulate you both with all my heart."
"Well, I started from the fact that Mr. Douglas had seemed
disturbed since the day before, when he had been at Tunbridge
Wells. It was at Tunbridge Wells then that he had become
conscious of some danger. It was clear, therefore, that if a nlan
had come over with a bicycle it was from Tunbridge Wells that
he might be expected to have come. We took the bicycle over
with us and showed it at the hotels. It was identified at once by
the manager of the Eagle Commercial as belonging to a man
named Hargrave, who had taken a room there two days before.
This bicycle and a small valise were his whole belongings. 'He
had registered his name as coming from London, but had given
no address. The valise was London made, and the contents were
British; but the man himself was undoubtedly an American."
"Well, well," said Holmes gleefully, "you have indeed done
some solid work while I have been sitting spinning theories with
my friend! It's a lesson in being practical, Mr. Mac."
"Ay, it's just that, Mr. Holmes," said the inspector with
"But this may all fit in with your theories," I remarked.
"That may or may not be. But let us hear the end, Mr. Mac.
Was there nothing to identify this man?"
"So little that it was evident that he had carefully guarded
himself against identification. There were no papers or letters,
and no marking upon the clothes. A cycle map of the county lay
on his bedroom table. He had left the hotel after breakfast
yesterday morning on his bicycle, and no more was heard of him
until our inquiries."
"That's what puzzles me, Mr. Holmes," said White Mason.
"If the fellow did not want the hue and cry raised over him, one
would imagine that he would have returned and remained at the
hotel as an inoffensive tourist. As it is, he must know that he
will be reported to the police by the hotel manager and that his
disappearance will be connected with the murder."
"So one would imagine. Still, he has been justified of his
wisdom up to date, at any rate, since he has not been taken. But
his description -- what of that?"
MacDonald referred to his notebook. "Here we have it so far
as they could give it. They don't seem to have taken any very
particular stock of him; but still the porter, the clerk, and the
chambermaid are all agreed that this about covers the points. He
was a man about five foot nine in height, fifty or so years of age,
his hair slightly grizzled, a grayish moustache, a curved nose,
and a face which all of them described as fierce and forbidding."
"Well, bar the expression, that might almost be a description
of Douglas himself," said Holmes. "He is just over fifty, with
grizzled hair and moustache, and about the same height. Did you
get anything else?"
"He was dressed in a heavy gray suit with a reefer jacket, and
he wore a short yellow overcoat and a soft cap."
"What about the shotgun?"
"It is less than two feet long. It could very well have fitted
into his valise. He could have carried it inside his overcoat
"And how do you consider that all this bears upon the general
"Well, Mr. Holmes," said MacDonald, "when we have got
our man -- and you may be sure that I had his description on the
wires within five minutes of hearing it -- we shall be better able
to judge. But, even as it stands, we have surely gone a long way.
We know that an American calling himself Hargrave came to
Tunbridge Wells two days ago with bicycle and valise. In the
latter was a sawed-off shotgun; so he came with the deliberate
purpose of crime. Yesterday morning he set off for this place on
his bicycle, with his gun concealed in his overcoat. No one saw
him arrive, so far as we can learn; but he need not pass through
the village to reach the park gates, and there are many cyclists
upon the road. Presumably he at once concealed his cycle among
the laurels where it was found. and possibly lurked there
himself, with his eye on the house, waiting for Mr. Douglas to come
out. The shotgun is a strange weapon to use inside a house; but
he had intended to use it outside. and there it has very obvious
advantages. as it would be impossible to miss with it, and the
sound of shots is so common in an English sporting
neighbourhood that no particular notice would be taken."
"That is all very clear," said Holmes.
"Well, Mr. Douglas did not appear. What was he to do next?
He left his bicycle and approached the house in the twilight. He
found the bridge down and no one about. He took his chance,
intending, no doubt, to make some excuse if he met anyone. He
met no one. He slipped into the first room that he saw, and
concealed himself behind the curtain. Thence he could see the
drawbridge go up, and he knew that his only escape was through
the moat. He waited until quarter-past eleven, when Mr. Douglas
upon his usual nightly round came into the room. He shot him
and escaped, as arranged. He was aware that the bicycle would
be described by the hotel people and be a clue against him; so he
left it there and made his way by some other means to London or
to some safe hiding place which he had already arranged. How is
that, Mr. Holmes?"
"Well, Mr. Mac, it is very good and very clear so far as it
goes. That is your end of the story. My end is that the crime was
committed half an hour earlier than reported; that Mrs. Douglas
and Barker are both in a conspiracy to conceal something; that
they aided the murderer's escape -- or at least that they reached
the room before he escaped -- and that they fabricated evidence
of his escape through the window, whereas in all probability they
had themselves let him go by lowering the bridge. That's my
reading of the first half."
The two detectives shook their heads.
"Well, Mr. Holmes, if this is true, we only tumble out of one
mystery into another," said the London inspector.
"And in some ways a worse one," added White Mason. "The
lady has never been in America in all her life. What possible
connection could she have with an American assassin which
would cause her to shelter him?"
"I freely admit the difficulties," said Holmes. "I propose to
make a little investigation of my own to-night, and it is just
possible that it may contribute something to the common cause."
"Can we help you, Mr. Holmes?"
"No, no! Darkness and Dr. Watson's umbrella -- my wants are
simple. And Ames, the faithful Ames, no doubt he will stretch a
point for me. All my lines of thought lead me back invariably
to the one basic question -- why should an athletic man develop
his frame upon so unnatural an instrument as a single dumb-bell?"
It was late that night when Holmes returned from his solitary
excursion. We slept in a double-bedded room, which was the
best that the little country inn could do for us. I was already
asleep when I was partly awakened by his entrance.
"Well, Holmes," I murmured, "have you found anything
He stood beside me in silence, his candle in his hand. Then
the tall, lean figure inclined towards me. "I say, Watson," he
whispered, "would you be afraid to sleep in the same room with
a lunatic, a man with softening of the brain, an idiot whose mind
has lost its grip?"
"Not in the least," I answered in astonishment.
"Ah, that's lucky," he said, and not another word would he
utter that night.