Gerald Burns signature    


"Give me the most abstruse cryptogram"

"you would find a heap of Smalls"

The second Sherlock Holmes novel is filled with twins, doublings, and repetition of all sorts. It is safe to say that in The Sign of Four nothing happens just once. Locales are visited twice, routes double back, the characters cluster into pairs, repeat what they say, repeat each other's words. Even objects have their partners. Thaddeus Sholto carries "quack nostrums" in a "leather case" on the way to Pondicherry Lodge, an echo of the "neat morocco case" from which Holmes takes his hypodermic syringe with its "delicate needle"; Tonga's poison darts are kept in a small pouch "not unlike a cigarette-case." There are paired sets of footprints, both odd. The Sholto brothers are identical twins; Bartholomew has a chemical laboratory with "Bunsen burners, test-tubes, and retorts." Holmes diverts his mind from the case with his own test-tubes and retorts. The Sholto brothers are small. One of the villains is very small; the other is named Small. There are four important letters in the first chapters, and four telegrams, one of which figures in the first of Holmes's demonstrations of observation and deduction. The second concerns Watson's brother's watch (yet another object with writing on it), the first piece of inherited jewelry in a plot about inherited jewels.

Holmes pits his monographs, written more geometricum, against Watson's "fantastic" A Study in Scarlet; in a neat reversal, Watson discards The Martyrdom of Man for "the latest treatise upon pathology." The figure this makes, abba, when it dictates the structure of a sentence, is in rhetoric called chiasmus. In the story there are four of them. McMurdo, one of two prize-fighters in The Sign of Four, is paid "to do my duty, and my duty I'll do." A page later the housekeeper says, "Oh, Mr. Thaddeus, sir, I am so glad you have come! I am so glad you have come, Mr. Thaddeus, sir!" The bumptious Athelney Jones says of the Aurora's skipper, "Well, if he has done no wrong we shall see that no wrong comes to him." And Abdullah Khan remarks, with a triumph of Anglo-Indo symmetry, "But the Sikh knows the Englishman, and the Englishman knows the Sikh."

The chiasmic construction necessarily repeats words, but verbal doubling is not restricted to chiasmus. Everybody does it. "But what a strange compensation! And how strangely made!" exclaims Watson. To which Holmes replies, "There are difficulties; there are certainly difficulties." A page later Holmes says, of the map of the Agra treasure, "It has been kept carefully in a pocketbook," and his client replies, "It was in his pocketbook that we found it." A page later Watson remarks, "We were driving to an unknown place, on an unknown errand." Thaddeus Sholto doubles his twin's name when he mentions him, and reports his father as saying, "I could not bear to share it with another. . . . Even that I could not bear to part with." (Compare Jonathan Small's motive for distributing the treasure along a six-mile stretch of the Thames, "I cannot bear to feel that I have paid this price only that another may enjoy it!" The alert reader may also feel a flashback, from Abdullah Khan's "The place is lonely, and none shall know of his coming. The world shall know the merchant Achmet no more," to Major Sholto's "He had told me that no soul upon earth knew where he had gone. There seemed to be no necessity why any soul ever should know.")

For me the first chapters of A Study in Scarlet are the cleanest, most driving narrative of all the Holmes pieces. It is a wonder that verbal repetition in The Sign of Four does so little to retard its progress. The worst offenders are Watson and Miss Morstan, and the problem is that they are in love. What they say, the actual burden of their sentences, is less important than what they don't say. Here is Watson delivering the treasure-box. "I have brought you something which is worth all the news in the world. I have brought you a fortune." She responds, coolly, "Is that the treasure then?" "Yes," he replies, "this is the great Agra treasure." He has brought it, he says, "thinking that it would interest you to be the first to see it." She replies, "It would be of the greatest interest to me." The two of them sound drugged, and this was certainly intended. "It is nothing," she says. Three lines later he says, "It was nothing." The end of this duet is the end of the chapter: "That is why I said, 'Thank God.'" "Then I say 'Thank God,' too." We expect no less

There is a small stage wait in A Study in Scarlet, when the Baker Street Irregulars are catching up with Jefferson Hope. The Sign of Four has a longer one, when the Aurora can't be found. An old sailor stumps up the stairs of 221B, wanting to see Holmes. Watson says (twice), "I am acting for him." The sailor says (twice), "It was to him I was to tell it," and delivers this little aria: "I knows well where it is. An' I knows where the men he is after are. An' I knows where the treasure is. I knows all about it." Suddenly Holmes is in the room and the sailor is gone. "Here is the old man," says Holmes, "Here he is," showing a handful of white crepe hair. The repetition in this scene is impossible to get over, and of course deliberately comic.

But there is worse yet. There is poetry. I don't refer to the scraps of Goethe Holmes is fond of quoting, but to the curious stretches of alliterative description. In Chapter III we find this thicket of p's: particular, Papa's, Papa, paper, Papa's, suppose, importance, paper, upon, paper, pinned, upon, appears, plan, part, passages, point, pencil, importance -- ending with the pocketbook/pocketbook doubling and Holmes's saying, "Preserve it carefully," a prelude to Watson's night piece in the key of D: "the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mudcoloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets." It is as if Watson has been reading Bleak House. Outside the Lyceum Theatre we get this pair of Morstanisms: "Are you the parties who come with Miss Morstan?" "I am Miss Morstan, and these two gentlemen are my friends," and "I was to ask you to give me your word . . ." "I give you my word on that." Just after that is the first of two instances of verbal dislocation in Watson (perturbed by the proximity of his future wife), in which he fires a double-barrelled tiger cub in the direction of his musket. We are approaching, that is to say, at the level of style either Lewis Carroll or Symbolist poetry, and hit both in the figure of the Tweedledee aesthete Thaddeus Sholto. Though Wilkie Collins is suggested as one model, and his trick of passing his hand over the lower part of his face to conceal his bad teeth was Oscar Wilde's habit (which Doyle would have seen at the dinner which assigned The Sign of Four to Lippincott's Monthly), his physical appearance and twitchy manner are surely Swinburne's -- who would have noticed the rhyme concealed in Thaddeus's three painters: Corot, Salvator Rosa, and Bouguereau. Thaddeus, a vulgarian stocking as his only wines Chianti and Tokay (Holmes is pleased to offer his guests "something a little choice in white wines") describes his house as "my little sanctum. A small place, miss, but furnished to my own liking. An oasis of art in the howling desert of South London." Since we approached, in one of the wettest rides in all Holmes literature, the suburb described as a "tentacle" of the city, the younger Sholto's oasis seems surrounded by water. The Sign of Four is full of animals -- horse, dog (hound, bloodhound, mongrel), cat, tiger, jackal, mole, snake, badger, stoat, weasel, monkey, dove, peacock, flamingo, white eagle, hawk, herring, shark, crocodile, dragon, not to mention a sponge and coral reef, and man, described as "a soul concealed in an animal." My favorites, outside the "inimitable" Toby, are the four rabbits. One of them becomes the hat Thaddeus wears to Pondicherry Lodge, and I feel obliged to remark that though his collar is astrakhan the cap is Crusoe's.

My approach is a poet's approach. If you say in a poem, "he had no hair," from the poet's point of view there is hair in the poem. By this route I could have augmented my list of animals by one bull, since at one point Holmes borrows a bull's eye lantern from a Sergeant. Still, on rereading The Sign of Four it seemed to my eye riddled with six words, head and heart, hand and foot, little and small. The reader will notice the near association of "little" and "small" in Thaddeus's oasis speech. And that, their distribution, is the curious incident. The same reader may object, with reason, that my list is hardly surprising in a tale which hinges on footprints, a criminal named Small, and (from the first words of the story) a conflict between head and heart, the "science of detection" and the atmosphere desirable in a thriller. But a reader who is also a writer will be the first to remark that if you invent a character called "Mr. Hat" you don't show him putting on his hat, the first thing out of the box. The Brothers Sholto are Munchkins, little men. One of them is killed by Tonga, an aborigine small as a child, whose friend is constantly referred to as "Small." That is his name and we are stuck with it, though stuck is too kind a word. We are pelted with it. Athelney Jones has arrested Sholto. Holmes promises to clear him: "Not only will I clear him, Mr. Jones, but I will make you a free present of the name and description of one of the two people who were in the room last night. His name, I have every reason to believe, is Jonathan Small. He is a poorly educated man, small, active," and so on. When Small is arrested he tells his story:

I am a Worcestershire man myself, born near Pershore. I dare say you would

find a heap of Smalls living there now if you were to look. I have often thought

of taking a look round there, but the truth is that I was never much of a credit to

the family, and I doubt if they would be so very glad to see me. They were all

steady, chapel-going folk, small farmers, well known . . .

and so on. Ten pages later Major Sholto says, "Let me hear all about it, Small. Give me the facts." The next line reads, "I told him the whole story, with small changes," and so on. It is a righthand page. On the facing page I find, in order: precious little chance, a small place, our little clearings, had a little time, little or no wind, a small window, A very snug little party, had done little else. No writer, I have to think, as practiced as Conan Doyle was at this period, could be so flagrantly cavalier with paired adjectives. He knows he's doing it and, it seems to me, goes out of his way to do it.

The same is true for "hands," "feet," "head" and "heart." On page 163 of my edition I find, in order: bundle in his hand, his hands twitched, his head kept turning, my heart set as hard as a flint within me, tramp of their footsteps, a rush of footsteps, knife flashing in his hand, My heart softened, stagger to his feet. There are also four instances of "little." Not content to write, in Chapter XI, "He sat now with his handcuffed hands upon his lap," Doyle repeats the effect in the next chapter: "while his eyes blazed, and the handcuffs clanked together with the impassioned movement of his hands." There is a kind of density you achieve this way, as when the glass you set down on the table in Chapter I is still there in Chapter II -- the sort of thing playwrights do when they describe a certain sort of person who then enters, exhibiting the described characteristics. When I think about it I call this pleasure, and it is a pleasure, Expectation Fulfilled. Yet in The Sign of Four descriptions waver. Holmes's description of Small, sight unseen but calculated from the length of his stride (a trick he also pulls off in A Study in Scarlet), is of a "small, active" man. His voice, described by the skipper's wife, is "kind o' thick and foggy." On the river as Watson first sees him, "cursing the while in a high, cracked voice," Small is "a good-sized, powerful man." The difference in timbre might be the effect of rage. For his augmented stature there are two motives: first, to contrast him to his companion, "a little black man -- the smallest I have ever seen --" and second, to make the pair of them more formidable. Needs must where plot drives. I have no problem with it.

On page 125 of my edition I find, besides "a little climbing": hands in his pockets, my handkerchief, footsteps, footmarks, print of a right foot, my naked foot, handkerchief in my hand, put his foot. Why, incidentally, does Holmes hang a bit of card around his neck, before crawling around on the roof? Also by the way, there are five instances of "naked foot" or "naked feet" in this book: Tonga's, Holmes's, Tonga's (in recapitulation), the Baker Street Irregulars's (a dozen of them here, as opposed to six in A Study in Scarlet, hence by inference twenty-four naked feet on the stairs if not on the page), and Tonga's again. Holmes removes his boots and socks to make a test print in the dust and facilitate his investigation of the roof, which is tiled. His motive is overdetermined, and so is Conan Doyle's; the reader follows Tonga's progress almost tactilely.

In short, or perhaps in little, The Sign of Four is salted if not peppered with repetitions of all kinds, from alliterated letters to stuttering phrases, diminutive villains and victims, paired objects (Tonga loses his wooden club, Small kills a man with his wooden leg), and settings. (Bartholomew's chem lab is required to explain the cracked carboy of creosote. Holmes's is for fun, but we hope the hydrocarbon he "succeeds in dissolving" is creosote. It certainly left a bad smell.) Any of these by itself would be odd, not counting subsidiary patterns such as that the boat Holmes can't find is named Aurora, and his "poetic" apostrophe is to the dawn -- giving us, incidentally, a "little cloud like a pink feather," to match the one on Mary Morstan's hat. "How small," his argument runs, "we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of nature! . . . the chief proof of man's real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness." If a reader quotes against me Watson's acidic remark at the beginning of this story, "You have an extraordinary genius for minutiae," I adopt the substance if not the tone of Holmes's reply, "I appreciate their importance."



Page numbering from The Complete Sherlock Holmes, preface by C. Morley,
Doubleday, 1953, vol. 1 (numbers refer to pages)

l: little s:small S:Small h: hand f:foot H:heart H:Head


l hHhhhhHh
ll f
ll f
lSSS Hhh
ll fhh
l HfHhH
sSsl hffHffh
Ssl H
l hhfhhf
ssssSS fHfhH
sl HHhHfh
s hhf
ls fffhh
l fh
ssl Hhh
sl hhh
l Hhfhff
ssl HfH
s HhH
ls Hh
s fh
s h
l hhh
s H
ll hHhH
lSs Hhh
llll hhHHffhHf
ll h
ls hh
l h
SSl Hh
l fHHh
llss h
lslllsll H
sls Hhh
l hhfffffhhf
l fhHfHH
s fhHhf
S hhhh
lll HhH
lSS hfh
ls hHHH
sll h
ii Hh
Slss fH
lssl Hhff
ll fh
Slls hhHh
ll ffff
ll H
Sl hffH