More years than I care to remember have elapsed since I wrote down, for posterity, an account of the strange occurrences surrounding my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes and what the popular press at the time referred to as “The Cornish Horror,” but which I related under the title, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” The story first saw publication in 1910 and has been reprinted several times since.
In the ensuing years I recorded recollections of some of the more curious and interesting experiences which I associate with my long and intimate friendship with the Great Detective—so many have I in fact recorded, that I begin to fear that I have no further tales to share with an avid and enthusiastic public, and that the well has at last run dry.
And perhaps it has run dry. Or nearly so. But not quite. For though my eyesight is failing and my hands are crippled with arthritis, I find myself impelled to describe an incident which occurred shortly following “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” and which is tangentially connected to it.
To refresh your memory: the Devil’s Foot is the root of a plant found in West Africa which, when ground into powder and burned, produces smoke that causes madness and agonizing death in those who breathe its fumes. It was brought to England by the celebrated lion-hunter and African explorer, Dr. Leon Sterndale, who displayed it—unwisely as it turned out—in his cabinet of curiosities. Shortly after the dramatic events of “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” Dr. Sterndale left his home on the Cornish peninsula to return to Africa where, for all I know, he remains to this day.
You will recall that, as a consequence of overwork and his own indiscretions (an overindulgence in tobacco and what I have euphemistically called the seven-per-cent solution), Holmes had while in London suffered a near physical and nervous breakdown, and was induced by Dr. Moore Agar, of Harley Street, “to surrender himself to complete rest if he wished to avert a complete breakdown.”
For once the obstinate detective heeded the doctor’s advice (seldom did he heed mine!) and hied himself to Poldhu Bay in Cornwall, where he rented a small cottage and invited me to join him on a long holiday in that land of rolling moors, lonely and dun-colored and—well, you no doubt have read my description and need no further reminders. His rest was interrupted of course by the mysterious events to which I have already alluded. I must confess that his undertaking to solve the mystery of the Devil’s Foot did him more good than a month’s continued rest would have done.
With the perpetrator of the heinous crime dead and the famous Dr. Leon Sterndale at last on his way back to Africa, we settled down once more for periods of meditative relaxation interposed with long walks on the moor. Our repose, however, was to be short-lived. One morning shortly after breakfast, with Holmes puffing contentedly on his pipe and me perusing a two-day-old copy of the Times, there came a staccato knock on the door.
“It appears we have a visitor.”
“Brilliant deduction, Watson,” Holmes said, with more humor than sarcasm. “A desperate visitor, by the sound of his knock.”
“You deduce him to be a man and not a woman?”
“A man of middle age, balding, wearing spectacles and a tweed waistcoat.”
“You deduce all that from a mere knock on the door?” I exclaimed, astounded.
Holmes laughed. “Not so much by his knock as by the fact that I saw him approach as I gazed out the window.”
“Humph,” I muttered as I answered the door and ushered in Mr. Bertrand Petcavage—for so he identified himself.
“Mr. Holmes, I am at my wit’s end,” the man said, once comfortably seated. “I have been accused of a crime for which I am not guilty, and do not have the faintest notion as to how to exonerate myself.” He passed his hand over his head, as if smoothing non-existent hair. “In desperation I have come to you, having heard of your residence here in Cornwall.”
Holmes drew contentedly at his pipe. “You say you have been accused of a crime, and yet you are not in the custody of the local constabulary,” he observed. “By whom have you been accused?”
“Perhaps ‘accused’ is too strong a word,” Mr. Petcavage admitted. “ ‘Suspected’ would be more precise. I am suspected of having aided and abetted a thief. Mr. Holmes, my honor is at stake.”
“Perhaps you should begin at the beginning,” Holmes suggested.