The story first appeared in 1890, three years after “A Study in Scarlet.” It’s explicitly set in 1888. Simple, right? Well, not really. Watson entered the army in 1878, was wounded in the Battle of Maiwand (1880), and is on convalescence in “A Study in Scarlet,” which is set around 1881, about six years before its publication. In “The Sign of the Four,” though, Watson a) is still recovering his health and b) still doesn’t know that Holmes writes monographs on various subjects. A discerning reader will also note that c) Wiggins, the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, hasn’t aged much since “A Study in Scarlet.” Other issues are even more perplexing, as I’ll note later.
“The Sign of the Four” opens with both Holmes and Watson at a bit of a low water mark.
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest. Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject, but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.
Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch, or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.
"Which is it to-day?" I asked,--"morphine or cocaine?"
You quickly realize a couple of things when you reread the Holmes stories as an adult in the early twenty-first century. For one thing, Holmes is pretty clearly bipolar. Doyle may not have understood the condition as we do, but he’d certainly seen it or perhaps experienced it. Holmes’s condition is far from crippling, and he usually is able to channel his mania into productive uses, particularly in casework or in chemical experiments; work also stimulates him sufficiently to kick him into a slightly manic state, or at least help him function in periods of black depression. Work is his chief palliative, and the absence of it is something Holmes can’t stand. (Watson’s remark “which is it today?” is particularly suggestive, as self-medication involving stimulants and depressants indicates not only bipolar disorder, but a case sufficiently manageable that the patient is capable of recognizing the need to treat his manic states.) The condition improves somewhat as Holmes ages; his mania lessens, and I don’t think he’s referenced as using morphine after this, just the cocaine.
Watson also has his problems:
I . . . sat nursing my wounded leg. I had a Jezail bullet through it some time before, and, though it did not prevent me from walking, it ached wearily at every change of the weather.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paid slightly less attention to continuity than did DC Comics during the Silver Age. Which is to say, absolutely none at all. According to the opening lines of “A Study in Scarlet,” Watson was wounded in the left shoulder. Throughout “The Sign of the Four,” the wound is to his leg. Holmes canon is suffused with such careful attention to detail, and thinking about it overmuch will give you a headache. My advice is that you do not try.
I want to highlight this opening scene, though, as one of the very best scenes in the whole canon, because it has some truly remarkable character work. Watson, who has recently come into possession of a gold watch, challenges Holmes to tell him something about the former owner. Holmes takes him up on it, as an alternative to another dose of cocaine.
And that’s how the shit hits the fan.
I handed him over the watch with some slight feeling of amusement in my heart, for the test was, as I thought, an impossible one, and I intended it as a lesson against the somewhat dogmatic tone which he occasionally assumed. He balanced the watch in his hand, gazed hard at the dial, opened the back, and examined the works, first with his naked eyes and then with a powerful convex lens. I could hardly keep from smiling at his crestfallen face when he finally snapped the case to and handed it back.
"There are hardly any data," he remarked. "The watch has been recently cleaned, which robs me of my most suggestive facts."
"You are right," I answered. "It was cleaned before being sent to me." In my heart I accused my companion of putting forward a most lame and impotent excuse to cover his failure. What data could he expect from an uncleaned watch?
"Though unsatisfactory, my research has not been entirely barren," he observed, staring up at the ceiling with dreamy, lack-lustre eyes. "Subject to your correction, I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother, who inherited it from your father."
"That you gather, no doubt, from the H. W. upon the back?"
"Quite so. The W. suggests your own name. The date of the watch is nearly fifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made for the last generation. Jewelry usually descends to the eldest son, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father. Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years. It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother."
"Right, so far," said I. "Anything else?"
"He was a man of untidy habits,--very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather."
I sprang from my chair and limped impatiently about the room with considerable bitterness in my heart.
I’ve mentioned before that, from a fannish, character-based standpoint, the appeal of the Holmes-Watson partnership is the way that interaction with each other changes them both. Working with Holmes makes Watson more proactive, more observant. Working with Watson makes Holmes more human. Because Holmes, who doesn’t give a damn about people unless they’re interesting facets of a problem, cares deeply about Watson and what Watson thinks. There are several occasions in the canon where Holmes makes it quite clear how little he has in the way of friendships; in the underrated “Adventure of the Gloria Scott,” Holmes states quite matter-of-factly that thoughout his university days, he only ever had one friend (and young Victor Trevor left the country after his father’s death). Solitude is Holmes’s natural state, in part because he’s suited for it; if you look at his various acquaintanceships throughout the canon, they’re not with people he finds interesting, but with people he finds useful.
Here, Holmes really hurts Watson’s feelings, but doesn’t realize it until Watson, in an angry outburst, accuses him of having known Watson’s brother’s unhappy situation all along, and just pretending to deduce it. And now Holmes has to mend this inadvertent injury to the only friend he’s got.
This is, if I haven’t mentioned it, one hell of a scene.
"My dear doctor," said he, kindly, "pray accept my apologies. Viewing the matter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful a thing it might be to you. I assure you, however, that I never even knew that you had a brother until you handed me the watch."
A still-wounded Watson asks how he guessed, prompting Holmes’s famous rejoinder that he never guesses: “it is a shocking habit -- destructive to the logical faculty.” And then, carefully, he explains:
“For example, I began by stating that your brother was careless. When you observe the lower part of that watch-case you notice that it is not only dinted in two places, but it is cut and marked all over from the habit of keeping other hard objects, such as coins or keys, in the same pocket. Surely it is no great feat to assume that a man who treats a fifty-guinea watch so cavalierly must be a careless man. Neither is it a very far-fetched inference that a man who inherits one article of such value is pretty well provided for in other respects."
I nodded, to show that I followed his reasoning.
"It is very customary for pawnbrokers in England, when they take a watch, to scratch the number of the ticket with a pin-point upon the inside of the case. It is more handy than a label, as there is no risk of the number being lost or transposed. There are no less than four such numbers visible to my lens on the inside of this case. Inference,--that your brother was often at low water. Secondary inference,--that he had occasional bursts of prosperity, or he could not have redeemed the pledge. Finally, I ask you to look at the inner plate, which contains the key-hole. Look at the thousands of scratches all round the hole,--marks where the key has slipped. What sober man's key could have scored those grooves? But you will never see a drunkard's watch without them. He winds it at night, and he leaves these traces of his unsteady hand. Where is the mystery in all this?"
I love that last sentence. When Holmes asks, “Where is the mystery?” you can almost hear his voice. It isn’t strong, confident, ringing with arrogance. It’s sympathetic, quiet, very gentle. Gentleness isn’t something for which Sherlock Holmes is noted. One of the reasons Watson and Holmes are such a beloved pair, I think, is the way Watson brings out of Holmes things that he wouldn’t ordinarily be able to express.
For me, this is possibly the most touching scene in all of the Holmes stories. I find it hard to explain why I love it so much; it’s something to do with how it illustrates the characters, by touching on something deeply personal to both men, and how it really shows Holmes’s willingness, on occasion, to navigate unfamiliar waters. Holmes is not very good at apologizing, but he does it anyway. And Watson apologizes to Holmes:
"It is as clear as daylight," I answered. "I regret the injustice which I did you. I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty. May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?"
"None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth."
Oh, yes, Doyle understood mood swings quite well. It’s amazing to see Holmes this way – we see more of his weakness than he shows in many later tales.
Also, I love Watson’s line: “I should have had more faith.” YOU CAN’T NOT LOVE THESE GUYS.
This, of course, is the point where Mrs. Hudson announces the arrival of Holmes’s new client, Mary Morstan.
Her face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic. In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.
Three separate continents? Awwwwww yeah, Watson was a player.
Mary Morstan, age twenty-seven, is a governess for a wealthy family. Her mother died when she was a girl. Her father, an Army captain who ran a military prison in the Andaman Islands, boarded her in Edinburgh while he was overseas.
Ten years ago, he telegraphed to announce he was coming home. He reached London, checked into a hotel, and promptly disappeared. Six years ago, someone began mailing Mary very large and valuable pearls. One a year.
This morning, she got a letter inviting her to a private meeting. The letter stipulates that she may bring two friends for security, but on no account is she to involve the police. Morstan has led a largely retired life, and does not have many acquaintances. So she hires Holmes and Watson.
Mary is an underdrawn character, but one with a lot of potential. She lacks the flair of, say, Irene Adler, but she’s very sharp: she saves the wrapping from the boxes the pearls were shipped in and brings them along so Holmes can compare the handwriting to that of the letter. And, of course, she has a hell of an effect on Watson.
"What a very attractive woman!" I exclaimed, turning to my companion.
He had lit his pipe again, and was leaning back with drooping eyelids. "Is she?" he said, languidly. "I did not observe."
"You really are an automaton,--a calculating-machine!" I cried. "There is something positively inhuman in you at times."
Hee! I like the way Watson is so appalled at Holmes just not reacting. (Slashers, ahoy!) Actually, the way Holmes reacts to Mary is very interesting, especially near the end of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To Holmes, “A client is . . . a mere unit,--a factor in a problem.” For Watson, though…
My mind ran upon our late visitor,--her smiles, the deep rich tones of her voice, the strange mystery which overhung her life. If she were seventeen at the time of her father's disappearance she must be seven-and-twenty now,--a sweet age, when youth has lost its self-consciousness and become a little sobered by experience. So I sat and mused, until such dangerous thoughts came into my head that I hurried away to my desk and plunged furiously into the latest treatise upon pathology. What was I, an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking-account, that I should dare to think of such things? She was a unit, a factor,--nothing more. If my future were black, it was better surely to face it like a man than to attempt to brighten it by mere will-o'-the-wisps of the imagination.
Awwww, Watson. Really, it’s impossible not to be horribly fond of him as the dark mysteries of the case unfold, and Watson tries to stay cool but muffs it horribly:
Miss Morstan's demeanor was as resolute and collected as ever. I endeavored to cheer and amuse her by reminiscences of my adventures in Afghanistan; but, to tell the truth, I was myself so excited at our situation and so curious as to our destination that my stories were slightly involved. To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.
I won’t spoil the whole plot for you, but the upshot is that the pearls are part of Mary Morstan’s legacy, an Indian treasure of great value in which she has a partial interest. This, of course, creates problems for Watson: he’s quite impressed by her spirit and her bravery, but he doesn’t want to press himself on her at a time when she’s “shaken in mind and nerve.” And then there’s the little matter of the treasure:
If Holmes's researches were successful, she would be an heiress. Was it fair, was it honorable, that a half-pay surgeon should take such advantage of an intimacy which chance had brought about?
Meanwhile, even as Mary Morstan learns the secrets of her father’s past, new intrigues are afoot. After a murder most foul and uncanny, the treasure its stolen, which leads to one of the immortal chase sequences in fiction: Holmes and Watson tracking the criminals through London with the aid of an spaniel-ish mongrel named Toby. Who is adorable and awesome, and at one point they even take him home and feed him scraps while planning their next move. The odd thing about rereading the Holmes canon with an eye for fanfic fodder is that you keep seeing stuff like that that would be total fanbait (OMG HOLMES AND WATSON WITH A DOG). There’s fluff in there, I tell you.
Toby’s caretaker, incidentally, is Dickensianly picturesque:
Pinchin Lane was a row of shabby two-storied brick houses in the lower quarter of Lambeth. I had to knock for some time at No. 3 before I could make my impression. At last, however, there was the glint of a candle behind the blind, and a face looked out at the upper window.
"Go on, you drunken vagabone," said the face. "If you kick up any more row I'll open the kennels and let out forty-three dogs upon you."
"If you'll let one out it's just what I have come for," said I.
"Go on!" yelled the voice. "So help me gracious, I have a wiper in the bag, an' I'll drop it on your 'ead if you don't hook it."
"But I want a dog," I cried.
"I won't be argued with!" shouted Mr. Sherman. "Now stand clear, for when I say 'three,' down goes the wiper."
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes--" I began, but the words had a most magical ffect, for the window instantly slammed down, and within a minute the door was unbarred and open. Mr. Sherman was a lanky, lean old man, with stooping shoulders, a stringy neck, and blue-tinted glasses.
"A friend of Mr. Sherlock is always welcome," said he. "Step in, sir. Keep clear of the badger; for he bites.”
There is fanfic all over Toby and No. 3 Pinchin Lane. I’m just sayin’.
At any rate, the villains are tracked, and they’re caught after a great, action-packed riverboat chase. The treasure chest is rounded up, and Watson gets to take the box back to Mary in triumph.
With trembling fingers I flung back the lid. We both stood gazing in astonishment. The box was empty!
No wonder that it was heavy. The iron-work was two-thirds of an inch thick all round. It was massive, well made, and solid, like a chest constructed to carry things of great price, but not one shred or crumb of metal or jewelry lay within it. It was absolutely and completely empty.
"The treasure is lost," said Miss Morstan, calmly.
As I listened to the words and realized what they meant, a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down, until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us. "Thank God!" I ejaculated from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile. "Why do you say that?" she asked.
"Because you are within my reach again," I said, taking her hand. She did not withdraw it. "Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, 'Thank God.'"
"Then I say, 'Thank God,' too," she whispered, as I drew her to my side. Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one.
This part of the story has a loose end, actually. The pearls that Mary was sent every year were from a separate part of the treasure. It wasn’t in the box, wasn’t stolen… and so wasn’t lost. Which means she’s going to get a small part of the legacy, after all. Mary isn’t going to be one of the wealthiest women in England, but she’s going to be pretty damn comfortable. Doyle never mentions this, but my suspicion is that Mary’s pearls provided the money for Watson to buy their house and his practice.
At the end, of course, Watson has to break the news to Holmes. The way Holmes takes it is… interesting.
"Well, and there is the end of our little drama," I remarked, after we had set some time smoking in silence. "I fear that it may be the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods. Miss Morstan has done me the honor to accept me as a husband in prospective."
He gave a most dismal groan. "I feared as much," said he. "I really cannot congratulate you."
I was a little hurt. "Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?" I asked.
"Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met, and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way: witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father. But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment."
I don’t know about you, but to me that reads like a pretty long pause between “Have you any reason…” and Holmes’s “Not at all.”
It’s a very painful moment for Holmes, whatever your interpretation. There are a couple of ways you could go, fannishly; one, obviously, being the slash route. Actually, on rereading the canon I’m struck by the thought that Holmes/Watson isn’t anywhere near the stretch I’d thought it was. Watson is with Jim Gordon in the “too straight to slash” category for me, but you could make a hell of a case for Sherlock Holmes’s celibacy and devotion to “true cold reason” being his coping strategy for locking his disquieting homosexual leanings well out of the way.
You don’t need to be thinking in slash terms, though, for this to hurt. Remember the first scene, and its demonstration of how much Holmes really cares for Watson. Remember, too, that Holmes suffers from painful periods of depression, with which Watson tries to help him cope (by offering a watch for his consideration, for example). They’ve worked and lived together for six or seven years, and by now Watson is a big part of what helps keep Holmes afloat. He nags at Holmes, helps him out, and has a remarkable tendency to ask just the right questions to stimulate Holmes’s investigations. Watson is Holmes’s back-up man, his confidante, and pretty much his only friend in all the world.
And Watson’s leaving.
It’s interesting to note that Holmes does like Mary, in his fashion: he drops a comment that I think fans today would seize on, and regret that Doyle didn’t: Holmes mentions that Mary “might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way.” Mary working with Holmes and Watson. How much would that have kicked ass? OT3, y’all.
The last line, though Holmes delivers it lightly, just gets sadder every time I read it:
“The division seems rather unfair," I remarked. "You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones [the police detective] gets the credit, pray what remains for you?"
"For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine-bottle." And he stretched his long white hand up for it.