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Last Updated on December 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four (1890) is the second Sherlock Holmes novel (following A Study in Scarlet, 1887). The opening chapter makes reference to the previous case, as Watson and Holmes sit in Holmes's study and Watson presents a brochure titled A Study in Scarlet ,...

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Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four (1890) is the second Sherlock Holmes novel (following A Study in Scarlet, 1887). The opening chapter makes reference to the previous case, as Watson and Holmes sit in Holmes's study and Watson presents a brochure titled A Study in Scarlet, making an overt reference to the pair's previous case. Holmes, who is shooting cocaine, explains that he resorts to the drug only when his mind is not sufficiently stimulated. Holmes showcases his flair for detective work when making observations about a watch held by Watson.

One Mary Morston, to whom her employer recommended Holmes for his perspicacity in solving cases, comes to their apartment explaining that she has received a letter instructing her to go to the Lyceum theater at an appointed time. Morston also explains to Holmes and Watson that her father was an officer in India who died about ten years ago, shortly after returning to England in 1878. After this time, she received a pearl in the mail at the address where she was then working as a governess. The script of the address matches that of the more recent letter. The letter explains that Mary has been wronged, but that she shall have justice.

Watson and Holmes travel with Mary to the Lyceum, where they are taken to the house of a strange man named Thaddeus Sholto. Sholto explains that he is the son of Major John Sholto, with whom Mary's father served in India. He and his brother, Bartholomew, have searched for a treasure belonging to their father, whose only evidence is a chaplet full of pearls, which, at Thaddeus's insistence, were sent individually Mary at month intervals in order that she never feel destitute. When their father died, a note reading "The Sign of the Four" was attached to the body.

The group travels to Bartholomew's home, but he has been poisoned. Holmes uses dogs to track the scent from the crime scene, and discovers that the men responsible for the crime have hired a boat and have taken to the Thames.

Holmes enlists the help of the police to catch the barge, which carries one Johnathan Small and a pygmy man named Tonga. At the police station, Small explains that.while stationed in India, three Indian men bribed him to allow their escape when they murdered an emissary who carries the so-called "Agra treasure" (from a tea plantation overseer fleeing from the Indian Rebellion of 1857). The plan ultimately fails, and the four men are arrested. Sholto goes to a penal colony where Majors Sholto and Morstan (Mary's father) are in stationed. Small bribes the two to let him escape to find the treasure in exchange for a promise of the proceeds. Sholto himself goes in search of the treasure but absconds with it rather than returning for Morstan and Small as promised.

Thaddeus's brother, Bartholomew, found the treasure after his father died before revealing its location. Meanwhile, Small tracked down Sholto and his pygmy accomplice, Tonga, killed Sholto (according to Small, this man was not instructed to do so, but rather it was a misunderstanding).

When Mary Morstan attempts to open the iron box, there is no treasure inside, and it is revealed that Small, haunted by memories of his original accomplices, cast it overboard.

Meanwhile, with the case thus solved, Watson has fallen in love with Mary, though Holmes finds marriage too emotional and prefers his cocaine habit.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065

Miss Mary Morstan goes to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with something of a mystery. Her father, formerly an officer in an Indian regiment, sent her word from London that she was to meet him at a certain hotel. When she kept the appointment, her father failed to appear, and he has not been heard from in the ten years elapsed since that time. His only known friend in England was Major Sholto, a brother officer, but that gentleman disclaimed any knowledge of Morstan’s presence in London. For the past six years, Mary has received one large and valuable pearl on a certain date each year. That morning, she received a note asking her to meet the writer at a certain spot near a theater. She is to bring two friends if she likes, but not the police. Apprehensive and puzzled, she turns to Holmes for help.

Holmes and Dr. Watson eagerly accept the assignment, Holmes from a need for excitement, and Dr. Watson from a newly kindled love for the young girl. When the three people keep the appointment at the theater, they are met by a coachman who drives them some distance and then deposits them in front of a house in a long row of new, dreary houses of the same design. Inside they are met by Dr. Thaddeus Sholto, the son of Major Sholto, who tells them a strange and frightening story that their father told him and his twin brother shortly before the major died.

In India, Morstan and Major Sholto came upon a large fortune that Sholto brought back to England. When Morstan arrived in London, where he planned to meet his daughter, he called on Major Sholto. In a disagreement over the division of the treasure, Morstan was stricken by a heart attack, fell, and struck his head a mortal blow. Fearing that he would be accused of murder, Major Sholto disposed of the body with the help of a servant. On his deathbed, Major Sholto wanted to make restitution to Morstan’s daughter and called his twin sons to his side to tell them where the treasure was hidden. As he was about to reveal the hiding place, however, he saw a horrible face staring in the window, and he died before he could disclose his secret.

On the following morning, his sons found the room ransacked and on the dead man’s chest a piece of paper bearing the words “The Sign of Four.” The two brothers differ over their responsibility to Mary; Thaddeus wants to help her, and his twin wants to keep everything for themselves should the treasure be found. It is Thaddeus who sends her the pearl each year, their father having taken the pearls out of the treasure chest before he died.

The day before his meeting with Mary, Holmes, and Dr. Watson, Thaddeus learns that his brother found the treasure chest in a sealed-off portion of the attic in their father’s house. Thaddeus declares his intention to take Mary and the two men to his brother and force him to give the girl her share of the wealth. When they arrive at the brother’s house, however, they find him murdered and the treasure gone. It is a baffling case, for the door to his room is locked from the inside and the wall to the window impossible to scale. Nevertheless, Holmes finds certain clues that lead him to believe there were two accomplices, one of whom pulled the other up through a trapdoor in the roof. He also ascertains that one of the men had a wooden leg and the other had exceedingly small feet.

During the ten years since Morstan’s death, various notes were found with the names of four men on them, the only English name being that of Jonathan Small. Many of the notes were signed “The Sign of Four,” the words that were written on the paper left on the late Major Sholto’s body. Using this clue and the evidence found in the murder room, Holmes goes to work. He believes that Small is the key to the mystery, and he tracks Small to a steam launch. After a harrowing chase on the river, Holmes catches up with him. Before Holmes can overtake Small, however, he has to kill the little man with the small feet. About to be taken, Small empties the treasure into the river. After his capture, he tells a story that unravels the mystery.

When he was a young man, Small fled from home because of trouble over a girl. He joined the army and went to India. Soon after his arrival there, he lost a leg to a crocodile. His accident necessitated a wooden leg, and he was discharged from the army. For a time, he worked on a plantation. When the natives staged an uprising, he accidentally came upon a treasure chest filled with precious jewels. Three natives, his partners in the discovery, swore loyalty to one another and called themselves The Four. After the uprising, the four men were imprisoned. In order to escape, they had entrusted their secret to Morstan and Major Sholto, and Major Sholto took charge of the treasure until the others could reach safety. Major Sholto, however, tricked his confederates; his treachery resulted in Morstan’s and his own conscience-stricken deaths. Holmes was right in assuming that Small left the paper with “The Sign of Four” written on it. Small escaped from prison and made his way back to England with a native companion, the man with the small feet. After Major Sholto’s death, he waited until the son found the treasure. Small did not intend violence, but his companion murdered young Sholto with a poison splinter before Small could enter the locked room by means of a rope suspended through the trapdoor.

The rest of the story is known by Holmes. Small, attempting to escape the country with the treasure, dumped it into the river rather than part with it. To Dr. Watson, the loss is a happy circumstance, for he could now tell Mary of his love for her. He would not do this while he thought her an heir. Mary accepts his proposal, and the happy pair receive the good wishes of Holmes. As for Holmes, he prefers the stimulation of mystery to the stimulation of love.

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