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A Study in Scarlet, Page 2

Arthur Conan Doyle


  WE met next day as he had arranged, and inspected the rooms at No. 221B,[5] Baker Street, of which he had spoken at our meeting. Theyconsisted of a couple of comfortable bed-rooms and a single largeairy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broadwindows. So desirable in every way were the apartments, and so moderatedid the terms seem when divided between us, that the bargain wasconcluded upon the spot, and we at once entered into possession.That very evening I moved my things round from the hotel, and on thefollowing morning Sherlock Holmes followed me with several boxes andportmanteaus. For a day or two we were busily employed in unpacking andlaying out our property to the best advantage. That done, wegradually began to settle down and to accommodate ourselves to our newsurroundings.

  Holmes was certainly not a difficult man to live with. He was quietin his ways, and his habits were regular. It was rare for him to beup after ten at night, and he had invariably breakfasted and gone outbefore I rose in the morning. Sometimes he spent his day at the chemicallaboratory, sometimes in the dissecting-rooms, and occasionally in longwalks, which appeared to take him into the lowest portions of the City.Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; butnow and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he wouldlie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or movinga muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed sucha dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected himof being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperanceand cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

  As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to hisaims in life, gradually deepened and increased. His very person andappearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casualobserver. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessivelylean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp andpiercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded;and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air ofalertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squarenesswhich mark the man of determination. His hands were invariablyblotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed ofextraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observewhen I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.

  The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess howmuch this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavouredto break through the reticence which he showed on all that concernedhimself. Before pronouncing judgment, however, be it remembered, howobjectless was my life, and how little there was to engage my attention.My health forbade me from venturing out unless the weather wasexceptionally genial, and I had no friends who would call upon me andbreak the monotony of my daily existence. Under these circumstances, Ieagerly hailed the little mystery which hung around my companion, andspent much of my time in endeavouring to unravel it.

  He was not studying medicine. He had himself, in reply to a question,confirmed Stamford's opinion upon that point. Neither did he appear tohave pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree inscience or any other recognized portal which would give him an entranceinto the learned world. Yet his zeal for certain studies was remarkable,and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ampleand minute that his observations have fairly astounded me. Surely no manwould work so hard or attain such precise information unless he had somedefinite end in view. Desultory readers are seldom remarkable for theexactness of their learning. No man burdens his mind with small mattersunless he has some very good reason for doing so.

  His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporaryliterature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing.Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who hemight be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however,when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theoryand of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized humanbeing in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earthtravelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary factthat I could hardly realize it.

  "You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression ofsurprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

  "To forget it!"

  "You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally islike a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furnitureas you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that hecomes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him getscrowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so thathe has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workmanis very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He willhave nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but ofthese he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. Itis a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and candistend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for everyaddition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It isof the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowingout the useful ones."

  "But the Solar System!" I protested.

  "What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you saythat we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make apennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

  I was on the point of asking him what that work might be, but somethingin his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. Ipondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to drawmy deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge whichdid not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which hepossessed was such as would be useful to him. I enumerated in my ownmind all the various points upon which he had shown me that he wasexceptionally well-informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down.I could not help smiling at the document when I had completed it. It ranin this way--

  SHERLOCK HOLMES--his limits.

  1. Knowledge of Literature.--Nil. 2. Philosophy.--Nil. 3. Astronomy.--Nil. 4. Politics.--Feeble. 5. Botany.--Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening. 6. Geology.--Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them. 7. Chemistry.--Profound. 8. Anatomy.--Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature.--Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

  When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair."If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling allthese accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all,"I said to myself, "I may as well give up the attempt at once."

  I see that I have alluded above to his powers upon the violin. Thesewere very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments.That he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, becauseat my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn's Lieder, and otherfavourites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce anymusic or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his arm-chair ofan evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddlewhich was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous andmelancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly theyreflected the thoughts which possessed him, but
whether the music aidedthose thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whimor fancy was more than I could determine. I might have rebelled againstthese exasperating solos had it not been that he usually terminated themby playing in quick succession a whole series of my favourite airs as aslight compensation for the trial upon my patience.

  During the first week or so we had no callers, and I had begun to thinkthat my companion was as friendless a man as I was myself. Presently,however, I found that he had many acquaintances, and those in the mostdifferent classes of society. There was one little sallow rat-faced,dark-eyed fellow who was introduced to me as Mr. Lestrade, and who camethree or four times in a single week. One morning a young girl called,fashionably dressed, and stayed for half an hour or more. The sameafternoon brought a grey-headed, seedy visitor, looking like a Jewpedlar, who appeared to me to be much excited, and who was closelyfollowed by a slip-shod elderly woman. On another occasion an oldwhite-haired gentleman had an interview with my companion; and onanother a railway porter in his velveteen uniform. When any of thesenondescript individuals put in an appearance, Sherlock Holmes used tobeg for the use of the sitting-room, and I would retire to my bed-room.He always apologized to me for putting me to this inconvenience. "I haveto use this room as a place of business," he said, "and these peopleare my clients." Again I had an opportunity of asking him a point blankquestion, and again my delicacy prevented me from forcing another man toconfide in me. I imagined at the time that he had some strong reason fornot alluding to it, but he soon dispelled the idea by coming round tothe subject of his own accord.

  It was upon the 4th of March, as I have good reason to remember, that Irose somewhat earlier than usual, and found that Sherlock Holmes had notyet finished his breakfast. The landlady had become so accustomed to mylate habits that my place had not been laid nor my coffee prepared. Withthe unreasonable petulance of mankind I rang the bell and gave a curtintimation that I was ready. Then I picked up a magazine from the tableand attempted to while away the time with it, while my companion munchedsilently at his toast. One of the articles had a pencil mark at theheading, and I naturally began to run my eye through it.

  Its somewhat ambitious title was "The Book of Life," and it attempted toshow how much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematicexamination of all that came in his way. It struck me as being aremarkable mixture of shrewdness and of absurdity. The reasoning wasclose and intense, but the deductions appeared to me to be far-fetchedand exaggerated. The writer claimed by a momentary expression, a twitchof a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man's inmost thoughts.Deceit, according to him, was an impossibility in the case of onetrained to observation and analysis. His conclusions were as infallibleas so many propositions of Euclid. So startling would his results appearto the uninitiated that until they learned the processes by which he hadarrived at them they might well consider him as a necromancer.

  "From a drop of water," said the writer, "a logician could infer thepossibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard ofone or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which isknown whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts,the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquiredby long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortalto attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning tothose moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatestdifficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementaryproblems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance todistinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession towhich he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens thefaculties of observation, and teaches one where to look and what to lookfor. By a man's finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by histrouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by hisexpression, by his shirt cuffs--by each of these things a man's callingis plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten thecompetent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable."

  "What ineffable twaddle!" I cried, slapping the magazine down on thetable, "I never read such rubbish in my life."

  "What is it?" asked Sherlock Holmes.

  "Why, this article," I said, pointing at it with my egg spoon as I satdown to my breakfast. "I see that you have read it since you have markedit. I don't deny that it is smartly written. It irritates me though. Itis evidently the theory of some arm-chair lounger who evolves all theseneat little paradoxes in the seclusion of his own study. It is notpractical. I should like to see him clapped down in a third classcarriage on the Underground, and asked to give the trades of all hisfellow-travellers. I would lay a thousand to one against him."

  "You would lose your money," Sherlock Holmes remarked calmly. "As forthe article I wrote it myself."


  "Yes, I have a turn both for observation and for deduction. Thetheories which I have expressed there, and which appear to you to be sochimerical are really extremely practical--so practical that I dependupon them for my bread and cheese."

  "And how?" I asked involuntarily.

  "Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in theworld. I'm a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is.Here in London we have lots of Government detectives and lots of privateones. When these fellows are at fault they come to me, and I manage toput them on the right scent. They lay all the evidence before me, and Iam generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history ofcrime, to set them straight. There is a strong family resemblance aboutmisdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your fingerends, it is odd if you can't unravel the thousand and first. Lestradeis a well-known detective. He got himself into a fog recently over aforgery case, and that was what brought him here."

  "And these other people?"

  "They are mostly sent on by private inquiry agencies. They areall people who are in trouble about something, and want a littleenlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, andthen I pocket my fee."

  "But do you mean to say," I said, "that without leaving your room youcan unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although theyhave seen every detail for themselves?"

  "Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way. Now and again a caseturns up which is a little more complex. Then I have to bustle about andsee things with my own eyes. You see I have a lot of special knowledgewhich I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully.Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused yourscorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me issecond nature. You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on ourfirst meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan."

  "You were told, no doubt."

  "Nothing of the sort. I _knew_ you came from Afghanistan. From longhabit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that Iarrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps.There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is agentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearlyan army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face isdark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists arefair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face saysclearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff andunnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor haveseen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.' Thewhole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that youcame from Afghanistan, and you were astonished."

  "It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remindme of Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals didexist outside of stories."

  Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you arecomplimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in myopinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breakingin on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter ofan hour's silence is re
ally very showy and superficial. He had someanalytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon asPoe appeared to imagine."

  "Have you read Gaboriau's works?" I asked. "Does Lecoq come up to youridea of a detective?"

  Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. "Lecoq was a miserable bungler,"he said, in an angry voice; "he had only one thing to recommend him, andthat was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question washow to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-fourhours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book fordetectives to teach them what to avoid."

  I felt rather indignant at having two characters whom I had admiredtreated in this cavalier style. I walked over to the window, and stoodlooking out into the busy street. "This fellow may be very clever," Isaid to myself, "but he is certainly very conceited."

  "There are no crimes and no criminals in these days," he said,querulously. "What is the use of having brains in our profession. I knowwell that I have it in me to make my name famous. No man lives or hasever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of naturaltalent to the detection of crime which I have done. And what is theresult? There is no crime to detect, or, at most, some bungling villainywith a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can seethrough it."

  I was still annoyed at his bumptious style of conversation. I thought itbest to change the topic.

  "I wonder what that fellow is looking for?" I asked, pointing to astalwart, plainly-dressed individual who was walking slowly down theother side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He hada large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of amessage.

  "You mean the retired sergeant of Marines," said Sherlock Holmes.

  "Brag and bounce!" thought I to myself. "He knows that I cannot verifyhis guess."

  The thought had hardly passed through my mind when the man whom we werewatching caught sight of the number on our door, and ran rapidly acrossthe roadway. We heard a loud knock, a deep voice below, and heavy stepsascending the stair.

  "For Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he said, stepping into the room and handingmy friend the letter.

  Here was an opportunity of taking the conceit out of him. He littlethought of this when he made that random shot. "May I ask, my lad," Isaid, in the blandest voice, "what your trade may be?"

  "Commissionaire, sir," he said, gruffly. "Uniform away for repairs."

  "And you were?" I asked, with a slightly malicious glance at mycompanion.

  "A sergeant, sir, Royal Marine Light Infantry, sir. No answer? Right,sir."

  He clicked his heels together, raised his hand in a salute, and wasgone.