The Adventure Of The Dancing Men
Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long,
thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a
particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and
he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull
gray plumage and a black top-knot.
"So, Watson," said he, suddenly, "you do not propose to invest in South
I gave a start of astonishment. Accustomed as I was to Holmes's curious
faculties, this sudden intrusion into my most intimate thoughts was
"How on earth do you know that?" I asked.
He wheeled round upon his stool, with a steaming test-tube in his hand,
and a gleam of amusement in his deep-set eyes.
"Now, Watson, confess yourself utterly taken aback," said he.
"I ought to make you sign a paper to that effect."
"Because in five minutes you will say that it is all so absurdly
"I am sure that I shall say nothing of the kind."
"You see, my dear Watson,"--he propped his test-tube in the rack, and
began to lecture with the air of a professor addressing his class--"it
is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each
dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after
doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents
one's audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may
produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect. Now, it was
not really difficult, by an inspection of the groove between your left
forefinger and thumb, to feel sure that you did NOT propose to invest
your small capital in the gold fields."
"I see no connection."
"Very likely not; but I can quickly show you a close connection. Here
are the missing links of the very simple chain: 1. You had chalk between
your left finger and thumb when you returned from the club last night.
2. You put chalk there when you play billiards, to steady the cue. 3.
You never play billiards except with Thurston. 4. You told me, four
weeks ago, that Thurston had an option on some South African property
which would expire in a month, and which he desired you to share with
him. 5. Your check book is locked in my drawer, and you have not asked
for the key. 6. You do not propose to invest your money in this manner."
"How absurdly simple!" I cried.
"Quite so!" said he, a little nettled. "Every problem becomes very
childish when once it is explained to you. Here is an unexplained one.
See what you can make of that, friend Watson." He tossed a sheet of
paper upon the table, and turned once more to his chemical analysis.
I looked with amazement at the absurd hieroglyphics upon the paper.
"Why, Holmes, it is a child's drawing," I cried.
"Oh, that's your idea!"
"What else should it be?"
"That is what Mr. Hilton Cubitt, of Riding Thorpe Manor, Norfolk, is
very anxious to know. This little conundrum came by the first post, and
he was to follow by the next train. There's a ring at the bell, Watson.
I should not be very much surprised if this were he."
A heavy step was heard upon the stairs, and an instant later there
entered a tall, ruddy, clean-shaven gentleman, whose clear eyes and
florid cheeks told of a life led far from the fogs of Baker Street. He
seemed to bring a whiff of his strong, fresh, bracing, east-coast air
with him as he entered. Having shaken hands with each of us, he was
about to sit down, when his eye rested upon the paper with the curious
markings, which I had just examined and left upon the table.
"Well, Mr. Holmes, what do you make of these?" he cried. "They told me
that you were fond of queer mysteries, and I don't think you can find a
queerer one than that. I sent the paper on ahead, so that you might have
time to study it before I came."
"It is certainly rather a curious production," said Holmes. "At first
sight it would appear to be some childish prank. It consists of a number
of absurd little figures dancing across the paper upon which they
are drawn. Why should you attribute any importance to so grotesque an
"I never should, Mr. Holmes. But my wife does. It is frightening her to
death. She says nothing, but I can see terror in her eyes. That's why I
want to sift the matter to the bottom."
Holmes held up the paper so that the sunlight shone full upon it. It was
a page torn from a notebook. The markings were done in pencil, and ran
in this way:
Holmes examined it for some time, and then, folding it carefully up, he
placed it in his pocketbook.
"This promises to be a most interesting and unusual case," said he.
"You gave me a few particulars in your letter, Mr. Hilton Cubitt, but I
should be very much obliged if you would kindly go over it all again for
the benefit of my friend, Dr. Watson."
"I'm not much of a story-teller," said our visitor, nervously clasping
and unclasping his great, strong hands. "You'll just ask me anything
that I don't make clear. I'll begin at the time of my marriage last
year, but I want to say first of all that, though I'm not a rich man,
my people have been at Riding Thorpe for a matter of five centuries, and
there is no better known family in the County of Norfolk. Last year I
came up to London for the Jubilee, and I stopped at a boarding-house in
Russell Square, because Parker, the vicar of our parish, was staying in
it. There was an American young lady there--Patrick was the name--Elsie
Patrick. In some way we became friends, until before my month was up
I was as much in love as man could be. We were quietly married at a
registry office, and we returned to Norfolk a wedded couple. You'll
think it very mad, Mr. Holmes, that a man of a good old family should
marry a wife in this fashion, knowing nothing of her past or of
her people, but if you saw her and knew her, it would help you to
"She was very straight about it, was Elsie. I can't say that she did not
give me every chance of getting out of it if I wished to do so. 'I have
had some very disagreeable associations in my life,' said she, 'I wish
to forget all about them. I would rather never allude to the past, for
it is very painful to me. If you take me, Hilton, you will take a woman
who has nothing that she need be personally ashamed of, but you will
have to be content with my word for it, and to allow me to be silent
as to all that passed up to the time when I became yours. If these
conditions are too hard, then go back to Norfolk, and leave me to the
lonely life in which you found me.' It was only the day before our
wedding that she said those very words to me. I told her that I was
content to take her on her own terms, and I have been as good as my
"Well we have been married now for a year, and very happy we have been.
But about a month ago, at the end of June, I saw for the first time
signs of trouble. One day my wife received a letter from America. I saw
the American stamp. She turned deadly white, read the letter, and threw
it into the fire. She made no allusion to it afterwards, and I made
none, for a promise is a promise, but she has never known an easy hour
from that moment. There is always a look of fear upon her face--a look
as if she were waiting and expecting. She would do better to trust me.
She would find that I was her best friend. But until she speaks, I can
say nothing. Mind you, she is a truthful woman, Mr. Holmes, and whatever
trouble there may have been in her past life it has been no fault of
hers. I am only a simple Norfolk squire, but there is not a man in
England who ranks his family honour more highly than I do. She knows it
well, and she knew it well before she married me. She would never bring
any stain upon it--of that I am sure.
"Well, now I come to the queer part of my story. About a week ago--it
was the Tuesday of last week--I found on one of the window-sills a
number of absurd little dancing figures like these upon the paper. They
were scrawled with chalk. I thought that it was the stable-boy who had
drawn them, but the lad swore he knew nothing about it. Anyhow, they had
come there during the night. I had them washed out, and I only mentioned
the matter to my wife afterwards. To my surprise, she took it very
seriously, and begged me if any more came to let her see them. None did
come for a week, and then yesterday morning I found this paper lying on
the sundial in the garden. I showed it to Elsie, and down she dropped
in a dead faint. Since then she has looked like a woman in a dream, half
dazed, and with terror always lurking in her eyes. It was then that I
wrote and sent the paper to you, Mr. Holmes. It was not a thing that
I could take to the police, for they would have laughed at me, but you
will tell me what to do. I am not a rich man, but if there is any danger
threatening my little woman, I would spend my last copper to shield
He was a fine creature, this man of the old English soil--simple,
straight, and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad,
comely face. His love for his wife and his trust in her shone in his
features. Holmes had listened to his story with the utmost attention,
and now he sat for some time in silent thought.
"Don't you think, Mr. Cubitt," said he, at last, "that your best plan
would be to make a direct appeal to your wife, and to ask her to share
her secret with you?"
Hilton Cubitt shook his massive head.
"A promise is a promise, Mr. Holmes. If Elsie wished to tell me she
would. If not, it is not for me to force her confidence. But I am
justified in taking my own line--and I will."
"Then I will help you with all my heart. In the first place, have you
heard of any strangers being seen in your neighbourhood?"
"I presume that it is a very quiet place. Any fresh face would cause
"In the immediate neighbourhood, yes. But we have several small
watering-places not very far away. And the farmers take in lodgers."
"These hieroglyphics have evidently a meaning. If it is a purely
arbitrary one, it may be impossible for us to solve it. If, on the other
hand, it is systematic, I have no doubt that we shall get to the bottom
of it. But this particular sample is so short that I can do nothing, and
the facts which you have brought me are so indefinite that we have no
basis for an investigation. I would suggest that you return to Norfolk,
that you keep a keen lookout, and that you take an exact copy of any
fresh dancing men which may appear. It is a thousand pities that we
have not a reproduction of those which were done in chalk upon the
window-sill. Make a discreet inquiry also as to any strangers in the
neighbourhood. When you have collected some fresh evidence, come to me
again. That is the best advice which I can give you, Mr. Hilton Cubitt.
If there are any pressing fresh developments, I shall be always ready to
run down and see you in your Norfolk home."
The interview left Sherlock Holmes very thoughtful, and several times in
the next few days I saw him take his slip of paper from his notebook
and look long and earnestly at the curious figures inscribed upon it. He
made no allusion to the affair, however, until one afternoon a fortnight
or so later. I was going out when he called me back.
"You had better stay here, Watson."
"Because I had a wire from Hilton Cubitt this morning. You remember
Hilton Cubitt, of the dancing men? He was to reach Liverpool Street at
one-twenty. He may be here at any moment. I gather from his wire that
there have been some new incidents of importance."
We had not long to wait, for our Norfolk squire came straight from the
station as fast as a hansom could bring him. He was looking worried and
depressed, with tired eyes and a lined forehead.
"It's getting on my nerves, this business, Mr. Holmes," said he, as he
sank, like a wearied man, into an armchair. "It's bad enough to feel
that you are surrounded by unseen, unknown folk, who have some kind of
design upon you, but when, in addition to that, you know that it is just
killing your wife by inches, then it becomes as much as flesh and blood
can endure. She's wearing away under it--just wearing away before my
"Has she said anything yet?"
"No, Mr. Holmes, she has not. And yet there have been times when the
poor girl has wanted to speak, and yet could not quite bring herself
to take the plunge. I have tried to help her, but I daresay I did it
clumsily, and scared her from it. She has spoken about my old family,
and our reputation in the county, and our pride in our unsullied honour,
and I always felt it was leading to the point, but somehow it turned off
before we got there."
"But you have found out something for yourself?"
"A good deal, Mr. Holmes. I have several fresh dancing-men pictures for
you to examine, and, what is more important, I have seen the fellow."
"What, the man who draws them?"
"Yes, I saw him at his work. But I will tell you everything in order.
When I got back after my visit to you, the very first thing I saw next
morning was a fresh crop of dancing men. They had been drawn in chalk
upon the black wooden door of the tool-house, which stands beside the
lawn in full view of the front windows. I took an exact copy, and here
it is." He unfolded a paper and laid it upon the table. Here is a copy
of the hieroglyphics:
"Excellent!" said Holmes. "Excellent! Pray continue."
"When I had taken the copy, I rubbed out the marks, but, two mornings
later, a fresh inscription had appeared. I have a copy of it here:"
Holmes rubbed his hands and chuckled with delight.
"Our material is rapidly accumulating," said he.
"Three days later a message was left scrawled upon paper, and placed
under a pebble upon the sundial. Here it is. The characters are, as you
see, exactly the same as the last one. After that I determined to lie in
wait, so I got out my revolver and I sat up in my study, which overlooks
the lawn and garden. About two in the morning I was seated by the
window, all being dark save for the moonlight outside, when I heard
steps behind me, and there was my wife in her dressing-gown. She
implored me to come to bed. I told her frankly that I wished to see who
it was who played such absurd tricks upon us. She answered that it was
some senseless practical joke, and that I should not take any notice of
"'If it really annoys you, Hilton, we might go and travel, you and I,
and so avoid this nuisance.'
"'What, be driven out of our own house by a practical joker?' said I.
'Why, we should have the whole county laughing at us.'
"'Well, come to bed,' said she, 'and we can discuss it in the morning.'
"Suddenly, as she spoke, I saw her white face grow whiter yet in the
moonlight, and her hand tightened upon my shoulder. Something was moving
in the shadow of the tool-house. I saw a dark, creeping figure which
crawled round the corner and squatted in front of the door. Seizing my
pistol, I was rushing out, when my wife threw her arms round me and held
me with convulsive strength. I tried to throw her off, but she clung to
me most desperately. At last I got clear, but by the time I had opened
the door and reached the house the creature was gone. He had left a
trace of his presence, however, for there on the door was the very same
arrangement of dancing men which had already twice appeared, and which
I have copied on that paper. There was no other sign of the fellow
anywhere, though I ran all over the grounds. And yet the amazing thing
is that he must have been there all the time, for when I examined the
door again in the morning, he had scrawled some more of his pictures
under the line which I had already seen."
"Have you that fresh drawing?"
"Yes, it is very short, but I made a copy of it, and here it is."
Again he produced a paper. The new dance was in this form:
"Tell me," said Holmes--and I could see by his eyes that he was much
excited--"was this a mere addition to the first or did it appear to be
"It was on a different panel of the door."
"Excellent! This is far the most important of all for our purpose. It
fills me with hopes. Now, Mr. Hilton Cubitt, please continue your most
"I have nothing more to say, Mr. Holmes, except that I was angry with
my wife that night for having held me back when I might have caught the
skulking rascal. She said that she feared that I might come to harm. For
an instant it had crossed my mind that perhaps what she really feared
was that HE might come to harm, for I could not doubt that she knew who
this man was, and what he meant by these strange signals. But there is a
tone in my wife's voice, Mr. Holmes, and a look in her eyes which forbid
doubt, and I am sure that it was indeed my own safety that was in her
mind. There's the whole case, and now I want your advice as to what I
ought to do. My own inclination is to put half a dozen of my farm lads
in the shrubbery, and when this fellow comes again to give him such a
hiding that he will leave us in peace for the future."
"I fear it is too deep a case for such simple remedies," said Holmes.
"How long can you stay in London?"
"I must go back to-day. I would not leave my wife alone all night for
anything. She is very nervous, and begged me to come back."
"I daresay you are right. But if you could have stopped, I might
possibly have been able to return with you in a day or two. Meanwhile
you will leave me these papers, and I think that it is very likely that
I shall be able to pay you a visit shortly and to throw some light upon
Sherlock Holmes preserved his calm professional manner until our visitor
had left us, although it was easy for me, who knew him so well, to see
that he was profoundly excited. The moment that Hilton Cubitt's broad
back had disappeared through the door my comrade rushed to the table,
laid out all the slips of paper containing dancing men in front of him,
and threw himself into an intricate and elaborate calculation. For
two hours I watched him as he covered sheet after sheet of paper with
figures and letters, so completely absorbed in his task that he had
evidently forgotten my presence. Sometimes he was making progress and
whistled and sang at his work; sometimes he was puzzled, and would sit
for long spells with a furrowed brow and a vacant eye. Finally he sprang
from his chair with a cry of satisfaction, and walked up and down the
room rubbing his hands together. Then he wrote a long telegram upon a
cable form. "If my answer to this is as I hope, you will have a very
pretty case to add to your collection, Watson," said he. "I expect that
we shall be able to go down to Norfolk tomorrow, and to take our friend
some very definite news as to the secret of his annoyance."
I confess that I was filled with curiosity, but I was aware that Holmes
liked to make his disclosures at his own time and in his own way, so I
waited until it should suit him to take me into his confidence.
But there was a delay in that answering telegram, and two days of
impatience followed, during which Holmes pricked up his ears at every
ring of the bell. On the evening of the second there came a letter from
Hilton Cubitt. All was quiet with him, save that a long inscription had
appeared that morning upon the pedestal of the sundial. He inclosed a
copy of it, which is here reproduced:
Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then
suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay.
His face was haggard with anxiety.
"We have let this affair go far enough," said he. "Is there a train to
North Walsham to-night?"
I turned up the time-table. The last had just gone.
"Then we shall breakfast early and take the very first in the morning,"
said Holmes. "Our presence is most urgently needed. Ah! here is our
expected cablegram. One moment, Mrs. Hudson, there may be an answer. No,
that is quite as I expected. This message makes it even more essential
that we should not lose an hour in letting Hilton Cubitt know how
matters stand, for it is a singular and a dangerous web in which our
simple Norfolk squire is entangled."
So, indeed, it proved, and as I come to the dark conclusion of a story
which had seemed to me to be only childish and bizarre, I experience
once again the dismay and horror with which I was filled. Would that I
had some brighter ending to communicate to my readers, but these are the
chronicles of fact, and I must follow to their dark crisis the strange
chain of events which for some days made Riding Thorpe Manor a household
word through the length and breadth of England.
We had hardly alighted at North Walsham, and mentioned the name of our
destination, when the station-master hurried towards us. "I suppose that
you are the detectives from London?" said he.
A look of annoyance passed over Holmes's face.
"What makes you think such a thing?"
"Because Inspector Martin from Norwich has just passed through. But
maybe you are the surgeons. She's not dead--or wasn't by last accounts.
You may be in time to save her yet--though it be for the gallows."
Holmes's brow was dark with anxiety.
"We are going to Riding Thorpe Manor," said he, "but we have heard
nothing of what has passed there."
"It's a terrible business," said the stationmaster. "They are shot, both
Mr. Hilton Cubitt and his wife. She shot him and then herself--so the
servants say. He's dead and her life is despaired of. Dear, dear, one
of the oldest families in the county of Norfolk, and one of the most
Without a word Holmes hurried to a carriage, and during the long seven
miles' drive he never opened his mouth. Seldom have I seen him so
utterly despondent. He had been uneasy during all our journey from
town, and I had observed that he had turned over the morning papers with
anxious attention, but now this sudden realization of his worst fears
left him in a blank melancholy. He leaned back in his seat, lost in
gloomy speculation. Yet there was much around to interest us, for we
were passing through as singular a countryside as any in England, where
a few scattered cottages represented the population of to-day, while on
every hand enormous square-towered churches bristled up from the flat
green landscape and told of the glory and prosperity of old East Anglia.
At last the violet rim of the German Ocean appeared over the green edge
of the Norfolk coast, and the driver pointed with his whip to two old
brick and timber gables which projected from a grove of trees. "That's
Riding Thorpe Manor," said he.
As we drove up to the porticoed front door, I observed in front of it,
beside the tennis lawn, the black tool-house and the pedestalled sundial
with which we had such strange associations. A dapper little man, with
a quick, alert manner and a waxed moustache, had just descended from a
high dog-cart. He introduced himself as Inspector Martin, of the Norfolk
Constabulary, and he was considerably astonished when he heard the name
of my companion.
"Why, Mr. Holmes, the crime was only committed at three this morning.
How could you hear of it in London and get to the spot as soon as I?"
"I anticipated it. I came in the hope of preventing it."
"Then you must have important evidence, of which we are ignorant, for
they were said to be a most united couple."
"I have only the evidence of the dancing men," said Holmes. "I will
explain the matter to you later. Meanwhile, since it is too late to
prevent this tragedy, I am very anxious that I should use the knowledge
which I possess in order to insure that justice be done. Will you
associate me in your investigation, or will you prefer that I should act
"I should be proud to feel that we were acting together, Mr. Holmes,"
said the inspector, earnestly.
"In that case I should be glad to hear the evidence and to examine the
premises without an instant of unnecessary delay."
Inspector Martin had the good sense to allow my friend to do things
in his own fashion, and contented himself with carefully noting the
results. The local surgeon, an old, white-haired man, had just come down
from Mrs. Hilton Cubitt's room, and he reported that her injuries were
serious, but not necessarily fatal. The bullet had passed through the
front of her brain, and it would probably be some time before she could
regain consciousness. On the question of whether she had been shot or
had shot herself, he would not venture to express any decided opinion.
Certainly the bullet had been discharged at very close quarters. There
was only the one pistol found in the room, two barrels of which had
been emptied. Mr. Hilton Cubitt had been shot through the heart. It was
equally conceivable that he had shot her and then himself, or that
she had been the criminal, for the revolver lay upon the floor midway
"Has he been moved?" asked Holmes.
"We have moved nothing except the lady. We could not leave her lying
wounded upon the floor."
"How long have you been here, Doctor?"
"Since four o'clock."
"Yes, the constable here."
"And you have touched nothing?"
"You have acted with great discretion. Who sent for you?"
"The housemaid, Saunders."
"Was it she who gave the alarm?"
"She and Mrs. King, the cook."
"Where are they now?"
"In the kitchen, I believe."
"Then I think we had better hear their story at once."
The old hall, oak-panelled and high-windowed, had been turned into a
court of investigation. Holmes sat in a great, old-fashioned chair, his
inexorable eyes gleaming out of his haggard face. I could read in them
a set purpose to devote his life to this quest until the client whom he
had failed to save should at last be avenged. The trim Inspector Martin,
the old, gray-headed country doctor, myself, and a stolid village
policeman made up the rest of that strange company.
The two women told their story clearly enough. They had been aroused
from their sleep by the sound of an explosion, which had been followed
a minute later by a second one. They slept in adjoining rooms, and Mrs.
King had rushed in to Saunders. Together they had descended the stairs.
The door of the study was open, and a candle was burning upon the table.
Their master lay upon his face in the centre of the room. He was quite
dead. Near the window his wife was crouching, her head leaning against
the wall. She was horribly wounded, and the side of her face was red
with blood. She breathed heavily, but was incapable of saying anything.
The passage, as well as the room, was full of smoke and the smell of
powder. The window was certainly shut and fastened upon the inside. Both
women were positive upon the point. They had at once sent for the
doctor and for the constable. Then, with the aid of the groom and the
stable-boy, they had conveyed their injured mistress to her room. Both
she and her husband had occupied the bed. She was clad in her dress--he
in his dressing-gown, over his night-clothes. Nothing had been moved in
the study. So far as they knew, there had never been any quarrel between
husband and wife. They had always looked upon them as a very united
These were the main points of the servants' evidence. In answer to
Inspector Martin, they were clear that every door was fastened upon the
inside, and that no one could have escaped from the house. In answer to
Holmes, they both remembered that they were conscious of the smell of
powder from the moment that they ran out of their rooms upon the top
floor. "I commend that fact very carefully to your attention," said
Holmes to his professional colleague. "And now I think that we are in a
position to undertake a thorough examination of the room."
The study proved to be a small chamber, lined on three sides with books,
and with a writing-table facing an ordinary window, which looked out
upon the garden. Our first attention was given to the body of the
unfortunate squire, whose huge frame lay stretched across the room. His
disordered dress showed that he had been hastily aroused from sleep.
The bullet had been fired at him from the front, and had remained in
his body, after penetrating the heart. His death had certainly been
instantaneous and painless. There was no powder-marking either upon his
dressing-gown or on his hands. According to the country surgeon, the
lady had stains upon her face, but none upon her hand.
"The absence of the latter means nothing, though its presence may
mean everything," said Holmes. "Unless the powder from a badly fitting
cartridge happens to spurt backward, one may fire many shots without
leaving a sign. I would suggest that Mr. Cubitt's body may now be
removed. I suppose, Doctor, you have not recovered the bullet which
wounded the lady?"
"A serious operation will be necessary before that can be done. But
there are still four cartridges in the revolver. Two have been fired and
two wounds inflicted, so that each bullet can be accounted for."
"So it would seem," said Holmes. "Perhaps you can account also for the
bullet which has so obviously struck the edge of the window?"
He had turned suddenly, and his long, thin finger was pointing to a hole
which had been drilled right through the lower window-sash, about an
inch above the bottom.
"By George!" cried the inspector. "How ever did you see that?"
"Because I looked for it."
"Wonderful!" said the country doctor. "You are certainly right, sir.
Then a third shot has been fired, and therefore a third person must have
been present. But who could that have been, and how could he have got
"That is the problem which we are now about to solve," said Sherlock
Holmes. "You remember, Inspector Martin, when the servants said that on
leaving their room they were at once conscious of a smell of powder, I
remarked that the point was an extremely important one?"
"Yes, sir; but I confess I did not quite follow you."
"It suggested that at the time of the firing, the window as well as the
door of the room had been open. Otherwise the fumes of powder could not
have been blown so rapidly through the house. A draught in the room was
necessary for that. Both door and window were only open for a very short
"How do you prove that?"
"Because the candle was not guttered."
"Capital!" cried the inspector. "Capital!
"Feeling sure that the window had been open at the time of the tragedy,
I conceived that there might have been a third person in the affair, who
stood outside this opening and fired through it. Any shot directed at
this person might hit the sash. I looked, and there, sure enough, was
the bullet mark!"
"But how came the window to be shut and fastened?"
"The woman's first instinct would be to shut and fasten the window. But,
halloa! What is this?"
It was a lady's hand-bag which stood upon the study table--a trim little
handbag of crocodile-skin and silver. Holmes opened it and turned
the contents out. There were twenty fifty-pound notes of the Bank of
England, held together by an india-rubber band--nothing else.
"This must be preserved, for it will figure in the trial," said Holmes,
as he handed the bag with its contents to the inspector. "It is now
necessary that we should try to throw some light upon this third bullet,
which has clearly, from the splintering of the wood, been fired from
inside the room. I should like to see Mrs. King, the cook, again. You
said, Mrs. King, that you were awakened by a LOUD explosion. When you
said that, did you mean that it seemed to you to be louder than the
"Well, sir, it wakened me from my sleep, so it is hard to judge. But it
did seem very loud."
"You don't think that it might have been two shots fired almost at the
"I am sure I couldn't say, sir."
"I believe that it was undoubtedly so. I rather think, Inspector Martin,
that we have now exhausted all that this room can teach us. If you will
kindly step round with me, we shall see what fresh evidence the garden
has to offer."
A flower-bed extended up to the study window, and we all broke into an
exclamation as we approached it. The flowers were trampled down, and the
soft soil was imprinted all over with footmarks. Large, masculine feet
they were, with peculiarly long, sharp toes. Holmes hunted about among
the grass and leaves like a retriever after a wounded bird. Then, with
a cry of satisfaction, he bent forward and picked up a little brazen
"I thought so," said he, "the revolver had an ejector, and here is the
third cartridge. I really think, Inspector Martin, that our case is
The country inspector's face had shown his intense amazement at the
rapid and masterful progress of Holmes's investigation. At first he
had shown some disposition to assert his own position, but now he was
overcome with admiration, and ready to follow without question wherever
"Whom do you suspect?" he asked.
"I'll go into that later. There are several points in this problem which
I have not been able to explain to you yet. Now that I have got so far,
I had best proceed on my own lines, and then clear the whole matter up
once and for all."
"Just as you wish, Mr. Holmes, so long as we get our man."
"I have no desire to make mysteries, but it is impossible at the moment
of action to enter into long and complex explanations. I have the
threads of this affair all in my hand. Even if this lady should never
recover consciousness, we can still reconstruct the events of last night
and insure that justice be done. First of all, I wish to know whether
there is any inn in this neighbourhood known as 'Elrige's'?"
The servants were cross-questioned, but none of them had heard of such a
place. The stable-boy threw a light upon the matter by remembering that
a farmer of that name lived some miles off, in the direction of East
"Is it a lonely farm?"
"Very lonely, sir."
"Perhaps they have not heard yet of all that happened here during the
"Maybe not, sir."
Holmes thought for a little, and then a curious smile played over his
"Saddle a horse, my lad," said he. "I shall wish you to take a note to
He took from his pocket the various slips of the dancing men. With these
in front of him, he worked for some time at the study-table. Finally he
handed a note to the boy, with directions to put it into the hands
of the person to whom it was addressed, and especially to answer no
questions of any sort which might be put to him. I saw the outside of
the note, addressed in straggling, irregular characters, very unlike
Holmes's usual precise hand. It was consigned to Mr. Abe Slaney, Elriges
Farm, East Ruston, Norfolk.
"I think, Inspector," Holmes remarked, "that you would do well to
telegraph for an escort, as, if my calculations prove to be correct, you
may have a particularly dangerous prisoner to convey to the county jail.
The boy who takes this note could no doubt forward your telegram. If
there is an afternoon train to town, Watson, I think we should do well
to take it, as I have a chemical analysis of some interest to finish,
and this investigation draws rapidly to a close."
When the youth had been dispatched with the note, Sherlock Holmes gave
his instructions to the servants. If any visitor were to call asking for
Mrs. Hilton Cubitt, no information should be given as to her condition,
but he was to be shown at once into the drawing-room. He impressed these
points upon them with the utmost earnestness. Finally he led the way
into the drawing-room, with the remark that the business was now out of
our hands, and that we must while away the time as best we might until
we could see what was in store for us. The doctor had departed to his
patients, and only the inspector and myself remained.
"I think that I can help you to pass an hour in an interesting and
profitable manner," said Holmes, drawing his chair up to the table,
and spreading out in front of him the various papers upon which were
recorded the antics of the dancing men. "As to you, friend Watson, I owe
you every atonement for having allowed your natural curiosity to remain
so long unsatisfied. To you, Inspector, the whole incident may appeal
as a remarkable professional study. I must tell you, first of all, the
interesting circumstances connected with the previous consultations
which Mr. Hilton Cubitt has had with me in Baker Street." He then
shortly recapitulated the facts which have already been recorded. "I
have here in front of me these singular productions, at which one
might smile, had they not proved themselves to be the forerunners of
so terrible a tragedy. I am fairly familiar with all forms of secret
writings, and am myself the author of a trifling monograph upon the
subject, in which I analyze one hundred and sixty separate ciphers,
but I confess that this is entirely new to me. The object of those who
invented the system has apparently been to conceal that these characters
convey a message, and to give the idea that they are the mere random
sketches of children.
"Having once recognized, however, that the symbols stood for letters,
and having applied the rules which guide us in all forms of secret
writings, the solution was easy enough. The first message submitted to
me was so short that it was impossible for me to do more than to say,
with some confidence, that the symbol XXX stood for E. As you are aware,
E is the most common letter in the English alphabet, and it predominates
to so marked an extent that even in a short sentence one would expect
to find it most often. Out of fifteen symbols in the first message, four
were the same, so it was reasonable to set this down as E. It is true
that in some cases the figure was bearing a flag, and in some cases not,
but it was probable, from the way in which the flags were distributed,
that they were used to break the sentence up into words. I accepted this
as a hypothesis, and noted that E was represented by XXX.
"But now came the real difficulty of the inquiry. The order of
the English letters after E is by no means well marked, and any
preponderance which may be shown in an average of a printed sheet may be
reversed in a single short sentence. Speaking roughly, T, A, O, I, N, S,
H, R, D, and L are the numerical order in which letters occur, but T,
A, O, and I are very nearly abreast of each other, and it would be an
endless task to try each combination until a meaning was arrived at.
I therefore waited for fresh material. In my second interview with Mr.
Hilton Cubitt he was able to give me two other short sentences and one
message, which appeared--since there was no flag--to be a single word.
Here are the symbols. Now, in the single word I have already got the
two E's coming second and fourth in a word of five letters. It might
be 'sever,' or 'lever,' or 'never.' There can be no question that
the latter as a reply to an appeal is far the most probable, and
the circumstances pointed to its being a reply written by the lady.
Accepting it as correct, we are now able to say that the symbols stand
respectively for N, V, and R.
"Even now I was in considerable difficulty, but a happy thought put me
in possession of several other letters. It occurred to me that if these
appeals came, as I expected, from someone who had been intimate with the
lady in her early life, a combination which contained two E's with
three letters between might very well stand for the name 'ELSIE.' On
examination I found that such a combination formed the termination of
the message which was three times repeated. It was certainly some appeal
to 'Elsie.' In this way I had got my L, S, and I. But what appeal could
it be? There were only four letters in the word which preceded 'Elsie,'
and it ended in E. Surely the word must be 'COME.' I tried all other
four letters ending in E, but could find none to fit the case. So now I
was in possession of C, O, and M, and I was in a position to attack the
first message once more, dividing it into words and putting dots for
each symbol which was still unknown. So treated, it worked out in this
.M .ERE ..E SL.NE.
"Now the first letter CAN only be A, which is a most useful discovery,
since it occurs no fewer than three times in this short sentence, and
the H is also apparent in the second word. Now it becomes:
AM HERE A.E SLANE.
Or, filling in the obvious vacancies in the name:
AM HERE ABE SLANEY.
I had so many letters now that I could proceed with considerable
confidence to the second message, which worked out in this fashion:
A. ELRI. ES.
Here I could only make sense by putting T and G for the missing letters,
and supposing that the name was that of some house or inn at which the
writer was staying."
Inspector Martin and I had listened with the utmost interest to the full
and clear account of how my friend had produced results which had led to
so complete a command over our difficulties.
"What did you do then, sir?" asked the inspector.
"I had every reason to suppose that this Abe Slaney was an American,
since Abe is an American contraction, and since a letter from America
had been the starting-point of all the trouble. I had also every cause
to think that there was some criminal secret in the matter. The lady's
allusions to her past, and her refusal to take her husband into her
confidence, both pointed in that direction. I therefore cabled to my
friend, Wilson Hargreave, of the New York Police Bureau, who has more
than once made use of my knowledge of London crime. I asked him whether
the name of Abe Slaney was known to him. Here is his reply: 'The most
dangerous crook in Chicago.' On the very evening upon which I had his
answer, Hilton Cubitt sent me the last message from Slaney. Working with
known letters, it took this form:
ELSIE .RE.ARE TO MEET THY GO.
The addition of a P and a D completed a message which showed me that the
rascal was proceeding from persuasion to threats, and my knowledge of
the crooks of Chicago prepared me to find that he might very rapidly
put his words into action. I at once came to Norfolk with my friend and
colleague, Dr. Watson, but, unhappily, only in time to find that the
worst had already occurred."
"It is a privilege to be associated with you in the handling of a case,"
said the inspector, warmly. "You will excuse me, however, if I speak
frankly to you. You are only answerable to yourself, but I have to
answer to my superiors. If this Abe Slaney, living at Elrige's, is
indeed the murderer, and if he has made his escape while I am seated
here, I should certainly get into serious trouble."
"You need not be uneasy. He will not try to escape."
"How do you know?"
"To fly would be a confession of guilt."
"Then let us go arrest him."
"I expect him here every instant."
"But why should he come."
"Because I have written and asked him."
"But this is incredible, Mr. Holmes! Why should he come because you
have asked him? Would not such a request rather rouse his suspicions and
cause him to fly?"
"I think I have known how to frame the letter," said Sherlock Holmes.
"In fact, if I am not very much mistaken, here is the gentleman himself
coming up the drive."
A man was striding up the path which led to the door. He was a tall,
handsome, swarthy fellow, clad in a suit of gray flannel, with a Panama
hat, a bristling black beard, and a great, aggressive hooked nose, and
flourishing a cane as he walked. He swaggered up a path as if as if
the place belonged to him, and we heard his loud, confident peal at the
"I think, gentlemen," said Holmes, quietly, "that we had best take up
our position behind the door. Every precaution is necessary when dealing
with such a fellow. You will need your handcuffs, Inspector. You can
leave the talking to me."
We waited in silence for a minute--one of those minutes which one can
never forget. Then the door opened and the man stepped in. In an instant
Holmes clapped a pistol to his head, and Martin slipped the handcuffs
over his wrists. It was all done so swiftly and deftly that the fellow
was helpless before he knew that he was attacked. He glared from one to
the other of us with a pair of blazing black eyes. Then he burst into a
"Well, gentlemen, you have the drop on me this time. I seem to have
knocked up against something hard. But I came here in answer to a letter
from Mrs. Hilton Cubitt. Don't tell me that she is in this? Don't tell
me that she helped to set a trap for me?"
"Mrs. Hilton Cubitt was seriously injured, and is at death's door."
The man gave a hoarse cry of grief, which rang through the house.
"You're crazy!" he cried, fiercely. "It was he that was hurt, not she.
Who would have hurt little Elsie? I may have threatened her--God forgive
me!--but I would not have touched a hair of her pretty head. Take it
back--you! Say that she is not hurt!"
"She was found badly wounded, by the side of her dead husband."
He sank with a deep groan on the settee and buried his face in his
manacled hands. For five minutes he was silent. Then he raised his face
once more, and spoke with the cold composure of despair.
"I have nothing to hide from you, gentlemen," said he. "If I shot the
man he had his shot at me, and there's no murder in that. But if you
think I could have hurt that woman, then you don't know either me or
her. I tell you, there was never a man in this world loved a woman more
than I loved her. I had a right to her. She was pledged to me years ago.
Who was this Englishman that he should come between us? I tell you that
I had the first right to her, and that I was only claiming my own.
"She broke away from your influence when she found the man that you
are," said Holmes, sternly. "She fled from America to avoid you, and she
married an honourable gentleman in England. You dogged her and followed
her and made her life a misery to her, in order to induce her to abandon
the husband whom she loved and respected in order to fly with you, whom
she feared and hated. You have ended by bringing about the death of a
noble man and driving his wife to suicide. That is your record in this
business, Mr. Abe Slaney, and you will answer for it to the law."
"If Elsie dies, I care nothing what becomes of me," said the American.
He opened one of his hands, and looked at a note crumpled up in his
palm. "See here, mister! he cried, with a gleam of suspicion in his
eyes, "you're not trying to scare me over this, are you? If the lady is
hurt as bad as you say, who was it that wrote this note?" He tossed it
forward on to the table.
"I wrote it, to bring you here."
"You wrote it? There was no one on earth outside the Joint who knew the
secret of the dancing men. How came you to write it?"
"What one man can invent another can discover," said Holmes. There is a
cab coming to convey you to Norwich, Mr. Slaney. But meanwhile, you have
time to make some small reparation for the injury you have wrought. Are
you aware that Mrs. Hilton Cubitt has herself lain under grave suspicion
of the murder of her husband, and that it was only my presence here, and
the knowledge which I happened to possess, which has saved her from the
accusation? The least that you owe her is to make it clear to the whole
world that she was in no way, directly or indirectly, responsible for
his tragic end."
"I ask nothing better," said the American. "I guess the very best case I
can make for myself is the absolute naked truth."
"It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you," cried the
inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.
Slaney shrugged his shoulders.
"I'll chance that," said he. "First of all, I want you gentlemen to
understand that I have known this lady since she was a child. There were
seven of us in a gang in Chicago, and Elsie's father was the boss of the
Joint. He was a clever man, was old Patrick. It was he who invented that
writing, which would pass as a child's scrawl unless you just happened
to have the key to it. Well, Elsie learned some of our ways, but she
couldn't stand the business, and she had a bit of honest money of her
own, so she gave us all the slip and got away to London. She had been
engaged to me, and she would have married me, I believe, if I had taken
over another profession, but she would have nothing to do with anything
on the cross. It was only after her marriage to this Englishman that I
was able to find out where she was. I wrote to her, but got no answer.
After that I came over, and, as letters were no use, I put my messages
where she could read them.
"Well, I have been here a month now. I lived in that farm, where I had
a room down below, and could get in and out every night, and no one the
wiser. I tried all I could to coax Elsie away. I knew that she read the
messages, for once she wrote an answer under one of them. Then my temper
got the better of me, and I began to threaten her. She sent me a letter
then, imploring me to go away, and saying that it would break her heart
if any scandal should come upon her husband. She said that she would
come down when her husband was asleep at three in the morning, and speak
with me through the end window, if I would go away afterwards and leave
her in peace. She came down and brought money with her, trying to bribe
me to go. This made me mad, and I caught her arm and tried to pull
her through the window. At that moment in rushed the husband with his
revolver in his hand. Elsie had sunk down upon the floor, and we were
face to face. I was heeled also, and I held up my gun to scare him off
and let me get away. He fired and missed me. I pulled off almost at the
same instant, and down he dropped. I made away across the garden, and as
I went I heard the window shut behind me. That's God's truth, gentlemen,
every word of it, and I heard no more about it until that lad came
riding up with a note which made me walk in here, like a jay, and give
myself into your hands."
A cab had driven up whilst the American had been talking. Two uniformed
policemen sat inside. Inspector Martin rose and touched his prisoner on
"It is time for us to go."
"Can I see her first?"
"No, she is not conscious. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I only hope that if ever
again I have an important case, I shall have the good fortune to have
you by my side."
We stood at the window and watched the cab drive away. As I turned back,
my eye caught the pellet of paper which the prisoner had tossed upon the
table. It was the note with which Holmes had decoyed him.
"See if you can read it, Watson," said he, with a smile.
It contained no word, but this little line of dancing men:
"If you use the code which I have explained," said Holmes, "you will
find that it simply means 'Come here at once.' I was convinced that
it was an invitation which he would not refuse, since he could never
imagine that it could come from anyone but the lady. And so, my dear
Watson, we have ended by turning the dancing men to good when they have
so often been the agents of evil, and I think that I have fulfilled my
promise of giving you something unusual for your notebook. Three-forty
is our train, and I fancy we should be back in Baker Street for dinner."
Only one word of epilogue. The American, Abe Slaney, was condemned to
death at the winter assizes at Norwich, but his penalty was changed to
penal servitude in consideration of mitigating circumstances, and the
certainty that Hilton Cubitt had fired the first shot. Of Mrs. Hilton
Cubitt I only know that I have heard she recovered entirely, and that
she still remains a widow, devoting her whole life to the care of the
poor and to the administration of her husband's estate.