Chapter 3 - The Problem
I confess at these words a shudder passed through me. There was a thrill in the doctor's voice which showed that he was himself deeply moved by that which he told us. Holmes leaned forward in his excitement and his eyes had the hard, dry glitter which shot from them when he was keenly interested.
"You saw this?"
"As clearly as I see you."
"And you said nothing?"
"What was the use?"
"How was it that no one else saw it?"
"The marks were some twenty yards from the body and no one gave them a thought. I don't suppose I should have done so had I not known this legend."
"There are many sheep-dogs on the moor?"
"No doubt, but this was no sheep-dog."
"You say it was large?"
"But it had not approached the body?"
"What sort of night was it?'
"Damp and raw."
"But not actually raining?"
"What is the alley like?"
"There are two lines of old yew hedge, twelve feet high and impenetrable. The walk in the centre is about eight feet across."
"Is there anything between the hedges and the walk?"
"Yes, there is a strip of grass about six feet broad on either side."
"I understand that the yew hedge is penetrated at one point by a gate?"
"Yes, the wicket-gate which leads on to the moor."
"Is there any other opening?"
"So that to reach the yew alley one either has to come down it from the house or else to enter it by the moor-gate?"
"There is an exit through a summer-house at the far end."
"Had Sir Charles reached this?"
"No; he lay about fifty yards from it."
"Now, tell me, Dr. Mortimer--and this is important--the marks which you saw were on the path and not on the grass?"
"No marks could show on the grass."
"Were they on the same side of the path as the moor-gate?"
"Yes; they were on the edge of the path on the same side as the moor-gate."
"You interest me exceedingly. Another point. Was the wicket-gate closed?"
"Closed and padlocked."
"How high was it?"
"About four feet high."
"Then anyone could have got over it?"
"And what marks did you see by the wicket-gate?"
"None in particular."
"Good heaven. Did no one examine?"
"Yes, I examined, myself."
"And found nothing?"
"It was all very confused. Sir Charles had evidently stood there for five or ten minutes."
"How do you know that?"
"Because the ash had twice dropped from his cigar."
"Excellent. This is a colleague, Watson, after our own heart. But the marks?"
"He had left his own marks all over that small patch of gravel. I could discern no others."
Sherlock Holmes struck his hand against his knee with an impatient gesture.
"If I had only been there!" he cried. "It is evidently a case of extraordinary interest, and one which presented immense opportunities to the scientific expert. That gravel page upon which I might have read so much has been long ere this smudged by the rain and defaced by the clogs of curious peasants. Oh, Dr. Mortimer, Dr. Mortimer, to think that you should not have called me in. You have indeed much to answer for."
"I could not call you in, Mr. Holmes, without disclosing these facts to the world, and I have already given my reasons for not wishing to do so. Besides, besides--"
"Why do you hesitate?"
"There is a realm in which the most acute and most experienced of detectives is helpless."
"You mean that the thing is supernatural?"
"I did not positively say so."
"No, but you evidently think it."
"Since the tragedy, Mr. Holmes, there have come to my ears several incidents which are hard to reconcile with the settled order of Nature."
"I find that before the terrible event occurred several people had seen a creature upon the moor which corresponds with this Baskerville demon, and which could not possibly be any animal known to science. They all agreed that it was a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral. I have cross-examined these men, one of them a hard-headed countryman, one a farrier, and one a moorland farmer, who all tell the same story of this dreadful apparition, exactly corresponding to the hell-hound of the legend. I assure you that there is a reign of terror in the district, and that it is a hardy man who will cross the moor at night."
"And you, a trained man of science, believe it to be supernatural?"
"I do not know what to believe."
Holmes shrugged his shoulders. "I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world," said he. "In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task. Yet you must admit that the footmark is material."
"The original hound was material enough to tug a man's throat out, and yet he was diabolical as well."
"I see that you have quite gone over to the supernaturalists. But now, Dr. Mortimer, tell me this. If you hold these views, why have you come to consult me at all. You tell me in the same breath that it is useless to investigate Sir Charles's death, and that you desire me to do it."
"I did not say that I desired you to do it."
"Then, how can I assist you?"
"By advising me as to what I should do with Sir Henry Baskerville, who arrives at Waterloo Station"--Dr. Mortimer looked at his watch--"in exactly one hour and a quarter."
"He being the heir?"
"Yes. On the death of Sir Charles we inquired for this young gentleman and found that he had been farming in Canada. From the accounts which have reached us he is an excellent fellow in every way. I speak now not as a medical man but as a trustee and executor of Sir Charles's will."
"There is no other claimant, I presume?"
"None. The only other kinsman whom we have been able to trace was Rodger Baskerville, the youngest of three brothers of whom poor Sir Charles was the elder. The second brother, who died young, is the father of this lad Henry. The third, Rodger, was the black sheep of the family. He came of the old masterful Baskerville strain and was the very image, they tell me, of the family picture of old Hugo. He made England too hot to hold him, fled to Central America, and died there in 1876 of yellow fever. Henry is the last of the Baskervilles. In one hour and five minutes I meet him at Waterloo Station. I have had a wire that he arrived at Southampton this morning. Now, Mr. Holmes, what would you advise me to do with him?"
"Why should he not go to the home of his fathers?"
"It seems natural, does it not. And yet, consider that every Baskerville who goes there meets with an evil fate. I feel sure that if Sir Charles could have spoken with me before his death he would have warned me against bringing this, the last of the old race, and the heir to great wealth, to that deadly place. And yet it cannot be denied that the prosperity of the whole poor, bleak countryside depends upon his presence. All the good work which has been done by Sir Charles will crash to the ground if there is no tenant of the Hall. I fear lest I should be swayed too much by my own obvious interest in the matter, and that is why I bring the case before you and ask for your advice."
Holmes considered for a little time.
"Put into plain words, the matter is this," said he. "In your opinion there is a diabolical agency which makes Dartmoor an unsafe abode for a Baskerville--that is your opinion?"
"At least I might go the length of saying that there is some evidence that this may be so."
"Exactly. But surely, if your supernatural theory be correct, it could work the young man evil in London as easily as in Devonshire. A devil with merely local powers like a parish vestry would be too inconceivable a thing."
"You put the matter more flippantly, Mr. Holmes, than you would probably do if you were brought into personal contact with these things. Your advice, then, as I understand it, is that the young man will be as safe in Devonshire as in London. He comes in fifty minutes. What would you recommend?"
"I recommend, sir, that you take a cab, call off your spaniel who is scratching at my front door, and proceed to Waterloo to meet Sir Henry Baskerville."
"And then you will say nothing to him at all until I have made up my mind about the matter."
"How long will it take you to make up your mind?"
"Twenty-four hours. At ten o'clock tomorrow, Dr. Mortimer, I will be much obliged to you if you will call upon me here, and it will be of help to me in my plans for the future if you will bring Sir Henry Baskerville with you."
"I will do so, Mr. Holmes.. He scribbled the appointment on his shirt-cuff and hurried off in his strange, peering, absent-minded fashion. Holmes stopped him at the head of the stair.
"Only one more question, Dr. Mortimer. You say that before Sir Charles Baskerville's death several people saw this apparition upon the moor?"
"Three people did."
"Did any see it after?"
"I have not heard of any."
"Thank you. Good-morning."
Holmes returned to his seat with that quiet look of inward satisfaction which meant that he had a congenial task before him.
"Going out, Watson?"
"Unless I can help you."
"No, my dear fellow, it is at the hour of action that I turn to you for aid. But this is splendid, really unique from some points of view. When you pass Bradley's, would you ask him to send up a pound of the strongest shag tobacco. Thank you. It would be as well if you could make it convenient not to return before evening. Then I should be very glad to compare impressions as to this most interesting problem which has been submitted to us this morning."
I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial. I therefore spent the day at my club and did not return to Baker Street until evening. It was nearly nine o'clock when I found myself in the sitting-room once more.
My first impression as I opened the door was that a fire had broken out, for the room was so filled with smoke that the light of the lamp upon the table was blurred by it. As I entered, however, my fears were set at rest, for it was the acrid fumes of strong coarse tobacco which took me by the throat and set me coughing. Through the haze I had a vague vision of Holmes in his dressing-gown coiled up in an armchair with his black clay pipe between his lips. Several rolls of paper lay around him.
"Caught cold, Watson?" said he.
"No, it's this poisonous atmosphere."
"I suppose it is pretty thick, now that you mention it."
"Thick. It is intolerable."
"Open the window, then. You have been at your club all day, I perceive."
"My dear Holmes!"
"Am I right?"
"Certainly, but how?"
He laughed at my bewildered expression. "There is a delightful freshness about you, Watson, which makes it a pleasure to exercise any small powers which I possess at your expense. A gentleman goes forth on a showery and miry day. He returns immaculate in the evening with the gloss still on his hat and his boots. He has been a fixture therefore all day. He is not a man with intimate friends. Where, then, could he have been. Is it not obvious?"
"Well, it is rather obvious."
"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes. Where do you think that I have been?"
"A fixture also."
"On the contrary, I have been to Devonshire."
"Exactly. My body has remained in this armchair and has, I regret to observe, consumed in my absence two large pots of coffee and an incredible amount of tobacco. After you left I sent down to Stamford's for the Ordnance map of this portion of the moor, and my spirit has hovered over it all day. I flatter myself that I could find my way about."
"A large-scale map, I presume?"
He unrolled one section and held it over his knee. "Here you have the particular district which concerns us. That is Baskerville Hall in the middle."
"With a wood round it?"
"Exactly. I fancy the yew alley, though not marked under that name, must stretch along this line, with the moor, as you perceive, upon the right of it. This small clump of buildings here is the hamlet of Grimpen, where our friend Dr. Mortimer has his headquarters. Within a radius of five miles there are, as you see, only a very few scattered dwellings. Here is Lafter Hall, which was mentioned in the narrative. There is a house indicated here which may be the residence of the naturalist--Stapleton, if I remember right, was his name. Here are two moorland farmhouses, High Tor and Foulmire. Then fourteen miles away the great convict prison of Princetown. Between and around these scattered points extends the desolate, lifeless moor. This, then, is the stage upon which tragedy has been played, and upon which we may help to play it again."
"It must be a wild place."
"Yes, the setting is a worthy one. If the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men--"
"Then you are yourself inclining to the supernatural explanation."
"The devil's agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not? There are two questions waiting for us at the outset. The one is whether any crime has been committed at all; the second is, what is the crime and how was it committed. Of course, if Dr. Mortimer's surmise should be correct, and we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation. But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one. I think we'll shut that window again, if you don't mind. It is a singular thing, but I find that a concentrated atmosphere helps a concentration of thought. I have not pushed it to the length of getting into a box to think, but that is the logical outcome of my convictions. Have you turned the case over in your mind?"
"Yes, I have thought a good deal of it in the course of the day."
"What do you make of it?"
"It is very bewildering."
"It has certainly a character of its own. There are points of distinction about it. That change in the footprints, for example. What do you make of that?"
"Mortimer said that the man had walked on tiptoe down that portion of the alley."
"He only repeated what some fool had said at the inquest. Why should a man walk on tiptoe down the alley?"
"He was running, Watson--running desperately, running for his life, running until he burst his heart--and fell dead upon his face."
"Running from what?"
"There lies our problem. There are indications that the man was crazed with fear before ever he began to run."
"How can you say that?"
"I am presuming that the cause of his fears came to him across the moor. If that were so, and it seems most probable, only a man who had lost his wits would have run from the house instead of towards it. If the gipsy's evidence may be taken as true, he ran with cries for help in the direction where help was least likely to be. Then, again, whom was he waiting for that night, and why was he waiting for him in the yew alley rather than in his own house?"
"You think that he was waiting for someone?"
"The man was elderly and infirm. We can understand his taking an evening stroll, but the ground was damp and the night inclement. Is it natural that he should stand for five or ten minutes, as Dr. Mortimer, with more practical sense than I should have given him credit for, deduced from the cigar ash?"
"But he went out every evening."
"I think it unlikely that he waited at the moor-gate every evening. On the contrary, the evidence is that he avoided the moor. That night he waited there. It was the night before he made his departure for London. The thing takes shape, Watson. It becomes coherent. Might I ask you to hand me my violin, and we will postpone all further thought upon this business until we have had the advantage of meeting Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry Baskerville in the morning."