Like almost all the Sherlock Holmes stories authored by Arthur Conan Doyle, this one is presented as a memoir written by Watson, the first-person narrator. The story begins in Holmes and Watson’s Baker Street apartment in London. Holmes, who appears to be deeply engrossed in his chemicals and test-tubes, surprises Watson by apparently reading his mind: “So, Watson . . . you do not propose to invest in South African securities?” Watson, astonished by Holmes’s remark, demands an explanation, and Holmes complies, relating an intricate chain of reasoning that begins with the presence of chalk on Watson’s left hand the previous night and concludes with his investment decision.
Holmes then hands Watson a sheet of paper bearing some stick figures and asks him what he makes of it. Watson believes it to be a child’s drawing, but Holmes tells him that a client, Mr. Hilton Cubitt, is calling on them soon to seek an explanation of the stick figures drawn on the paper, figures that seem to resemble dancing men. When Cubitt arrives, he explains that he has been married for about a year to a young American woman. He knew little about his wife, Elsie, when they met, and she requested that he not ask her about her past, a past she says she would like to forget. He has honored her request, but recently she seemed quite shaken after receiving a letter from the United States. Shortly after she read and burned that letter, the dancing men hieroglyphics were found written in chalk on the window sill. Cubitt washed them off but noticed his wife’s dismay when he told her about them. Then the paper that Holmes had shown Watson was found on the sundial in the garden. When Cubitt found it and showed it to Elsie, she promptly fainted. He does not wish to violate his promise to his wife and ask whether these dancing men are related to her unknown past, so he has come to Holmes for help in understanding this apparent mystery involving the woman he loves so dearly.
Holmes asks Cubitt some questions about the neighborhood and sends him home, asking him to watch for more dancing men drawings and urging Cubitt to copy down faithfully any that he finds. Holmes studies the drawing silently and makes no remarks about the case to Watson. About two weeks later, Cubitt returns with more hieroglyphics; some have been written in chalk on a door, others have been scrawled on a paper left on the sundial. One night, Cubitt reports, he saw a figure moving through the darkness in the yard; he took his pistol and, despite his wife’s protests, went after the man. He did not find anyone, but the next morning more dancing men, apparently drawn by this mysterious visitor, were found chalked on the door. Cubitt believes that his wife possibly knows who this man is; he remains true to his promise, however, and refuses to interrogate her about the matter.
Cubitt returns to his home—Riding Thorpe Manor—on the train, and Holmes puzzles over the drawings some more. When Cubitt mails him another set of drawings found...
(The entire section is 1232 words.)