The Adventure of Black Peter is one of the short stories about Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in 1905. It is now in the public domain. It has been transferred to electronic text by optical character recognition, and this copy has been reformatted for E2 and cleaned of OCR errors by rootbeer277. A paper version can be found in a collection of short stories called The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventure of Black Peter is somewhat misleadingly named, as "Black" Peter Carey is dead at the opening of the story, and thus not fit for much adventuring. In many Holmes stories, and all too often in real life, the victim is not a very nice person, and his associates are also not very nice people, which complicates the matter since none of them really want to talk to the police and many of them are not telling the whole truth because they have things to hide themselves. Sherlock Holmes gets to the root of the matter with his incredible detective skills and ability to see alternatives where the matter might seem, to some, to be straightforward (but wrong).
Black Peter is a former seaman who has a shed on his property done up like a ship's cabin, which he considers his own little private place away from his family. He's also an abusive husband and father, and a renowned drunkard. It was only a matter of time before he came to a bad end, and sure enough, one day he is found nailed the wall of his little cabin with a harpoon.
On the case is police detective Stanley Hopkins, a student of the by-now quite famous Holmes and admirer of his methods. Although he attempts to follow the case through, asking himself "What would Holmes do?" at every step of the way, he fails to take note of certain alternatives and possibilities, and Holmes is called in to assist.
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The Adventure of Black Peter
I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental
and physical, than in the year '95. His increasing fame had
brought with it an immense practice, and I should be guilty of an
indiscretion if I were even to hint at the identity of some of the
illustrious clients who crossed our humble threshold in Baker
Street. Holmes, however, like all great artists, lived for his art's
sake, and, save in the case of the Duke of Holdernesse, I have
seldom known him claim any large reward for his inestimable
services. So unworldly was he — or so capricious — that he
frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the
problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would
devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some
humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic
qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his
In this memorable year '95, a curious and incongruous
succession of cases had engaged his attention, ranging from his famous
investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca — an inquiry
which was carried out by him at the express desire of His
Holiness the Pope — down to his arrest of Wilson, the notorious
canary-trainer, which removed a plague-spot from the East End of
London. Close on the heels of these two famous cases came the
tragedy of Woodman's Lee, and the very obscure circumstances
which surrounded the death of Captain Peter Carey. No record of
the doings of Mr. Sherlock Holmes would be complete which
did not include some account of this very unusual affair.
During the first week of July, my friend had been absent so
often and so long from our lodgings that I knew he had something on hand. The fact that several rough-looking men called
during that time and inquired for Captain Basil made me understand that Holmes was working somewhere under one of the
numerous disguises and names with which he concealed his own
formidable identity. He had at least five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able to change his personality. He said nothing of his business to me, and it was not my
habit to force a confidence. The first positive sign which he gave
me of the direction which his investigation was taking was an
extraordinary one. He had gone out before breakfast, and I had
sat down to mine when he strode into the room, his hat upon his
head and a huge barbed-headed spear tucked like an umbrella
under his arm.
"Good gracious, Holmes!" I cried. "You don't mean to say
that you have been walking about London with that thing?"
"I drove to the butcher's and back."
"And I return with an excellent appetite. There can be no
question, my dear Watson, of the value of exercise before breakfast. But I am prepared to bet that you will not guess the form
that my exercise has taken."
"I will not attempt it."
He chuckled as he poured out the coffee.
"If you could have looked into Allardyce's back shop, you
would have seen a dead pig swung from a hook in the ceiling,
and a gentleman in his shirt sleeves furiously stabbing at it with
this weapon. I was that energetic person, and I have satisfied
myself that by no exertion of my strength can I transfix the pig
with a single blow. Perhaps you would care to try?"
"Not for worlds. But why were you doing this?"
"Because it seemed to me to have an indirect bearing upon the
mystery of Woodman's Lee. Ah, Hopkins, I got your wire last
night, and I have been expecting you. Come and join us."
Our visitor was an exceedingly alert man, thirty years of age,
dressed in a quiet tweed suit, but retaining the erect bearing of
one who was accustomed to official uniform. I recognized him at
once as Stanley Hopkins, a young police inspector, for whose
future Holmes had high hopes while he in turn professed the
admiration and respect of a pupil for the scientific methods of the
famous amateur. Hopkins's brow was clouded, and he sat down
with an air of deep dejection.
"No, thank you, sir. I breakfasted before I came round. I
spent the night in town, for I came up yesterday to report."
"And what had you to report?"
"Failure, sir, absolute failure."
"You have made no progress?"
"Dear me! I must have a look at the matter."
"I wish to heavens that you would, Mr. Holmes. It's my first
big chance, and I am at my wit's end. For goodness' sake, come
down and lend me a hand."
"Well, well, it just happens that I have already read all the
available evidence, including the report of the inquest, with
some care. By the way, what do you make of that tobacco
pouch, found on the scene of the crime? Is there no clue there?"
Hopkins looked surprised.
"It was the man's own pouch, sir. His initials were inside it.
And it was of sealskin — and he was an old sealer."
"But he had no pipe."
"No, sir, we could find no pipe. Indeed, he smoked very
little, and yet he might have kept some tobacco for his friends."
"No doubt. I only mention it because, if I had been handling
the case, I should have been inclined to make that the starting-point of my investigation. However, my friend, Dr. Watson,
knows nothing of this matter, and I should be none the worse for
hearing the sequence of events once more. Just give us some
short sketches of the essentials."
Stanley Hopkins drew a slip of paper from his pocket.
"I have a few dates here which will give you the career of the
dead man, Captain Peter Carey. He was born in '45 — fifty years
of age. He was a most daring and successful seal and whale
fisher. In 1883 he commanded the steam sealer Sea Unicorn, of
Dundee. He had then had several successful voyages in succession, and in the following year, 1884, he retired. After that he
travelled for some years, and finally he bought a small place
called Woodman's Lee, near Forest Row, in Sussex. There he
has lived for six years, and there he died just a week ago to-day.
"There were some most singular points about the man. In
ordinary life, he was a strict Puritan — a silent, gloomy fellow.
His household consisted of his wife, his daughter, aged twenty,
and two female servants. These last were continually changing,
for it was never a very cheery situation, and sometimes it
became past all bearing. The man was an intermittent drunkard,
and when he had the fit on him he was a perfect fiend. He has
been known to drive his wife and daughter out of doors in the
middle of the night and flog them through the park until the
whole village outside the gates was aroused by their screams.
"He was summoned once for a savage assault upon the old
vicar, who had called upon him to remonstrate with him upon his
conduct. In short, Mr. Holmes, you would go far before you
found a more dangerous man than Peter Carey, and I have heard
that he bore the same character when he commanded his ship.
He was known in the trade as Black Peter, and the name was
given him, not only on account of his swarthy features and the
colour of his huge beard, but for the humours which were the
terror of all around him. I need not say that he was loathed and
avoided by every one of his neighbours, and that I have not
heard one single word of sorrow about his terrible end.
"You must have read in the account of the inquest about the
man's cabin, Mr. Holmes, but perhaps your friend here has not
heard of it. He had built himself a wooden outhouse — he always
called it the 'cabin' — a few hundred yards from his house, and it
was here that he slept every night. It was a little, single-roomed
hut, sixteen feet by ten. He kept the key in his pocket, made his
own bed, cleaned it himself, and allowed no other foot to cross
the threshold. There are small windows on each side, which
were covered by curtains and never opened. One of these windows was turned towards the high road, and when the light
burned in it at night the folk used to point it out to each other and
wonder what Black Peter was doing in there. That's the window,
Mr. Holmes, which gave us one of the few bits of positive
evidence that came out at the inquest.
"You remember that a stonemason, named Slater, walking
from Forest Row about one o'clock in the morning — two days
before the murder — stopped as he passed the grounds and looked
at the square of light still shining among the trees. He swears
that the shadow of a man's head turned sideways was clearly
visible on the blind, and that this shadow was certainly not that
of Peter Carey, whom he knew well. It was that of a bearded
man, but the beard was short and bristled forward in a way very
different from that of the captain. So he says, but he had been
two hours in the public-house, and it is some distance from the
road to the window. Besides, this refers to the Monday, and the
crime was done upon the Wednesday.
"On the Tuesday, Peter Carey was in one of his blackest
moods, flushed with drink and as savage as a dangerous wild
beast. He roamed about the house, and the women ran for it
when they heard him coming. Late in the evening, he went down
to his own hut. About two o'clock the following morning, his
daughter, who slept with her window open, heard a most fearful
yell from that direction, but it was no unusual thing for him to
bawl and shout when he was in drink, so no notice was taken.
On rising at seven, one of the maids noticed that the door of the
hut was open, but so great was the terror which the man caused
that it was midday before anyone would venture down to see
what bad become of him. Peeping into the open door, they saw
a sight which sent them flying, with white faces into the village.
Within an hour, I was on the spot and had taken over the case.
"Well, I have fairly steady nerves, as you know, Mr. Holmes,
but I give you my word, that I got a shake when I put my head
into that little house. It was droning like a harmonium with the
flies and bluebottles, and the floor and walls were like a
slaughter-house. He had called it a cabin, and a cabin it was, sure enough,
for you would have thought that you were in a ship. There was a
bunk at one end, a sea-chest, maps and charts, a picture of the
Sea Unicorin, a line of logbooks on a shelf, all exactly as one
would expect to find it in a captain's room. And there, in the
middle of it, was the man himself — his face twisted like a lost
soul in torment, and his great brindled beard stuck upward in his
agony. Right through his broad breast a steel harpoon had been
driven, and it had sunk deep into the wood of the wall behind
him. He was pinned like a beetle on a card. Of course, he was
quite dead, and had been so from the instant that he had uttered
that last yell of agony.
"I know your methods, sir, and I applied them. Before I permitted
anything to be moved, I examined most carefully the ground outside,
and also the floor of the room. There were no footmarks."
"Meaning that you saw none?"
"I assure you, sir, that there were none."
"My good Hopkins, I have investigated many crimes, but I have never
yet seen one which was committed by a flying creature. As long as the
criminal remains upon two legs so long must there be some indentation,
some abrasion, some trifling displacement which can be detected by the
scientific searcher. It is incredible that this blood-bespattered room
contained no trace which could have aided us. I understand, however,
from the inquest that there were some objects which you failed to
The young inspector winced at my companion's ironical comments.
"I was a fool not to call you in at the time, Mr. Holmes. However,
that's past praying for now. Yes, there were several objects in the
room which called for special attention. One was the harpoon with
which the deed was committed. It had been snatched down from a rack
on the wall. Two others remained there, and there was a vacant place
for the third. On the stock was engraved 'SS. Sea Unicorn, Dundee.'
This seemed to establish that the crime had been done in a moment
of fury, and that the murderer had seized the first weapon which
came in his way. The fact that the crime was committed at two in the
morning, and yet Peter Carey was fully dressed, suggested that he had
an appointment with the murderer, which is borne out by the fact that
a bottle of rum and two dirty glasses stood upon the table."
"Yes," said Holmes, "I think that both inferences are permissible.
Was there any other spirit but rum in the room?"
"Yes, there was a tantalus containing brandy and whisky on the
sea-chest. It is of no importance to us, however, since the decanters
were full, and it had therefore not been used."
"For all that, its presence had some significance," said Holmes.
"However, let us hear some more about the objects which do seem to
you to bear upon the case."
"There was the tobacco-pouch upon the table."
"What part of the table?"
"It lay in the middle. It was of coarse sealskin — the straight-haired skin, with a leather thong to bind it. Inside was 'P. C.' on
the flap. There was half an ounce of strong ship's tobacco in it."
"Excellent! What more?"
Stanley Hopkins drew from his pocket a drab-covered notebook. The outside was rough and worn, the leaves discoloured.
On the first page were written the initials "J. H. N." and the
date "1883." Holmes laid it on the table and examined it in his
minute way, while Hopkins and I gazed over each shoulder. On
the second page were the printed letters "C. P. R.," and then
came several sheets of numbers. Another heading was "Argentine," another "Costa Rica," and another "San Paulo," each
with pages of signs and figures after it.
"What do you make of these?" asked Holmes.
"They appear to be lists of Stock Exchange securities. I
thought that 'J. H. N.' were the initials of a broker, and that
'C. P. R.' may have been his client."
"Try Canadian Pacific Railway," said Holmes.
Stanley Hopkins swore between his teeth, and struck his thigh
with his clenched hand.
"What a fool I have been!" he cried. "Of course, it is as you
say. Then 'J. H. N.' are the only initials we have to solve. I
have already examined the old Stock Exchange lists, and I can
find no one in 1883, either in the house or among the outside
brokers, whose initials correspond with these. Yet I feel that the
clue is the most important one that I hold. You will admit, Mr.
Holmes, that there is a possibility that these initials are those of
the second person who was present — in other words, of the
murderer. I would also urge that the introduction into the case of
a document relating to large masses of valuable securities gives
us for the first time some indication of a motive for the crime."
Sherlock Holmes's face showed that he was thoroughly taken
aback by this new development.
"I must admit both your points," said he. "I confess that this
notebook, which did not appear at the inquest, modifies any
views which I may have formed. I had come to a theory of the
crime in which I can find no place for this. Have you endeavoured to trace any of the securities here mentioned?''
"Inquiries are now being made at the offices, but I fear that
the complete register of the stockholders of these South American concerns is in South America, and that some weeks must
elapse before we can trace the shares."
Holmes had been examining the cover of the notebook with
his magnifying lens.
"Surely there is some discolouration here," said he.
"Yes, sir, it is a blood-stain. I told you that I picked the book
off the floor."
"Was the blood-stain above or below?"
"On the side next the boards."
"Which proves, of course, that the book was dropped after the
crime was committed."
"Exactly, Mr. Holmes. I appreciated that point, and I conjectured that it was dropped by the murderer in his hurried flight. It
lay near the door."
"I suppose that none of these securities have been found
among the property of the dead man?"
"Have you any reason to suspect robbery?"
"No, sir. Nothing seemed to have been touched."
"Dear me, it is certainly a very interesting case. Then there
was a knife, was there not?"
"A sheath-knife, still in its sheath. It lay at the feet of the
dead man. Mrs. Carey has identified it as being her husband's
Holmes was lost in thought for some time.
"Well," said he, at last, "I suppose I shall have to come out
and have a look at it."
Stanley Hopkins gave a cry of joy.
"Thank you, sir. That will, indeed, be a weight off my mind. "
Holmes shook his finger at the inspector.
"It would have been an easier task a week ago," said he.
"But even now my visit may not be entirely fruitless. Watson, if
you can spare the time, I should be very glad of your company.
If you will call a four-wheeler, Hopkins, we shall be ready to
start for Forest Row in a quarter of an hour."
Alighting at the small wayside station, we drove for some
miles through the remains of widespread woods, which were
once part of that great forest which for so long held the Saxon
invaders at bay — the impenetrable "weald," for sixty years the
bulwark of Britain. Vast sections of it have been cleared, for this
is the seat of the first iron-works of the country, and the trees
have been felled to smelt the ore. Now the richer fields of the
North have absorbed the trade, and nothing save these ravaged
groves and great scars in the earth show the work of the past.
Here, in a clearing upon the green slope of a hill, stood a long,
low, stone house, approached by a curving drive running through
the fields. Nearer the road, and surrounded on three sides by
bushes, was a small outhouse, one window and the door facing
in our direction. It was the scene of the murder.
Stanley Hopkins led us first to the house, where he introduced
us to a haggard, gray-haired woman, the widow of the murdered
man, whose gaunt and deep-lined face, with the furtive look of
terror in the depths of her red-rimmed eyes. told of the years of
hardship and ill-usage which she had endured. With her was her
daughter, a pale, fair-haired girl, whose eyes blazed defiantly at
us as she told us that she was glad that her father was dead, and
that she blessed the hand which had struck him down. It was a
terrible household that Black Peter Carey had made for himself,
and it was with a sense of relief that we found ourselves in the
sunlight again and making our way along a path which had been
worn across the fields by the feet of the dead man.
The outhouse was the simplest of dwellings, wooden-walled,
shingle-roofed, one window beside the door and one on the
farther side. Stanley Hopkins drew the key from his pocket and
had stooped to the lock, when he paused with a look of attention
and surprise upon his face.
"Someone has been tampering with it," he said.
There could be no doubt of the fact. The woodwork was cut,
and the scratches showed white through the paint, as if they had
been that instant done. Holmes had been examining the window.
"Someone has tried to force this also. Whoever it was has
failed to make his way in. He must have been a very poor
"This is a most extraordinary thing," said the inspector, "I
could swear that these marks were not here yesterday evening."
"Some curious person from the village, perhaps," I suggested.
"Very unlikely. Few of them would dare to set foot in the
grounds, far less try to force their way into the cabin. What do
you think of it, Mr. Holmes?"
"I think that fortune is very kind to us."
"You mean that the person will come again?"
"It is very probable. He came expecting to find the door open.
He tried to get in with the blade of a very small penknife. He
could not manage it. What would he do?"
"Come again next night with a more useful tool."
"So I should say. It will be our fault if we are not there to
receive him. Meanwhile, let me see the inside of the cabin."
The traces of the tragedy had been removed, but the furniture
within the little room still stood as it had been on the night of the
crime. For two hours, with most intense concentration, Holmes
examined every object in turn, but his face showed that his quest
was not a successful one. Once only he paused in his patient
"Have you taken anything off this shelf, Hopkins?"
"No, I have moved nothing."
"Something has been taken. There is less dust in this corner
of the shelf than elsewhere. It may have been a book lying on its
side. It may have been a box. Well, well, I can do nothing more.
Let us walk in these beautiful woods, Watson, and give a few
hours to the birds and the flowers. We shall meet you here later,
Hopkins, and see if we can come to closer quarters with the
gentleman who has paid this visit in the night."
It was past eleven o'clock when we formed our little ambuscade. Hopkins was for leaving the door of the hut open, but
Holmes was of the opinion that this would rouse the suspicions
of the stranger. The lock was a perfectly simple one, and only a
strong blade was needed to push it back. Holmes also suggested
that we should wait, not inside the hut, but outside it, among the
bushes which grew round the farther window. In this way we
should be able to watch our man if he struck a light, and see
what his object was in this stealthy nocturnal visit.
It was a long and melancholy vigil, and yet brought with it
something of the thrill which the hunter feels when he lies beside
the water-pool, and waits for the coming of the thirsty beast of
prey. What savage creature was it which might steal upon us out
of the darkness? Was it a fierce tiger of crime, which could only
be taken fighting hard with flashing fang and claw, or would it
prove to be some skulking jackal, dangerous only to the weak
In absolute silence we crouched amongst the bushes, waiting
for whatever might come. At first the steps of a few belated
villagers, or the sound of voices from the village, lightened our
vigil, but one by one these interruptions died away, and an
absolute stillness fell upon us, save for the chimes of the distant
church, which told us of the progress of the night, and for the
rustle and whisper of a fine rain falling amid the foliage which
roofed us in.
Half-past two had chimed, and it was the darkest hour which
precedes the dawn, when we all started as a low but sharp click
came from the direction of the gate. Someone had entered the
drive. Again there was a long silence, and I had begun to fear
that it was a false alarm, when a stealthy step was heard upon the
other side of the hut, and a moment later a metallic scraping and
clinking. The man was trying to force the lock. This time his
skill was greater or his tool was better, for there was a sudden
snap and the creak of the hinges. Then a match was struck, and
next instant the steady light from a candle filled the interior of
the hut. Through the gauze curtain our eyes were all riveted upon
the scene within.
The nocturnal visitor was a young man, frail and thin, with a
black moustache, which intensified the deadly pallor of his face.
He could not have been much above twenty years of age. I have
never seen any human being who appeared to be in such a
pitiable fright, for his teeth were visibly chattering, and he was
shaking in every limb. He was dressed like a gentleman, in
Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, with a cloth cap upon his
head. We watched him staring round with frightened eyes. Then
he laid the candle-end upon the table and disappeared from our
view into one of the corners. He returned with a large book, one
of the logbooks which formed a line upon the shelves. Leaning
on the table, he rapidly turned over the leaves of this volume
until he came to the entry which he sought. Then, with an angry
gesture of his clenched hand, he closed the book, replaced it in
the corner, and put out the light. He had hardly turned to leave
the hut when Hopkins's hand was on the fellow's collar, and I
heard his loud gasp of terror as he understood that he was taken.
The candle was relit, and there was our wretched captive, shivering and cowering in the grasp of the detective. He sank down
upon the sea-chest, and looked helplessly from one of us to the
"Now, my fine fellow," said Stanley Hopkins, "who are
you, and what do you want here?"
The man pulled himself together, and faced us with an effort
"You are detectives, I suppose?" said he. "You imagine I am
connected with the death of Captain Peter Carey. I assure you
that I am innocent."
"We'll see about that," said Hopkins. "First of all, what is
"It is John Hopley Neligan."
I saw Holmes and Hopkins exchange a quick glance.
"What are you doing here?"
"Can I speak confidentially?"
"No, certainly not."
"Why should I tell you?"
"If you have no answer, it may go badly with you at the
The young man winced.
"Well, I will tell you," he said. "Why should I not? And yet
I hate to think of this old scandal gaining a new lease of life. Did
you ever hear of Dawson and Neligan?"
I could see, from Hopkins's face, that he never had, but
Holmes was keenly interested.
"You mean the West Country bankers," said he. "They
failed for a million, ruined half the county families of Cornwall,
and Neligan disappeared."
"Exactly. Neligan was my father."
At last we were getting something positive, and yet it seemed
a long gap between an absconding banker and Captain Peter
Carey pinned against the wall with one of his own harpoons. We
all listened intently to the young man's words.
"It was my father who was really concerned. Dawson had
retired. I was only ten years of age at the time, but I was old
enough to feel the shame and horror of it all. It has always been
said that my father stole all the securities and fled. It is not true.
It was his belief that if he were given time in which to realize
them, all would be well and every creditor paid in full. He
started in his little yacht for Norway just before the warrant was
issued for his arrest. I can remember that last night, when he
bade farewell to my mother. He left us a list of the securities he
was taking, and he swore that he would come back with his
honour cleared, and that none who had trusted him would suffer.
Well, no word was ever heard from him again. Both the yacht
and he vanished utterly. We believed, my mother and I, that he
and it, with the securities that he had taken with him, were at the
bottom of the sea. We had a faithful friend, however, who is a
business man, and it was he who discovered some time ago that
some of the securities which my father had with him had reappeared on the London market. You can imagine our amazement.
I spent months in trying to trace them, and at last, after many
doubtings and difficulties, I discovered that the original seller
had been Captain Peter Carey, the owner of this hut.
"Naturally, I made some inquiries about the man. I found that
he had been in command of a whaler which was due to return
from the Arctic seas at the very time when my father was
crossing to Norway. The autumn of that year was a stormy one,
and there was a long succession of southerly gales. My father's
yacht may well have been blown to the north, and there met by
Captain Peter Carey's ship. If that were so, what had become of
my father? In any case, if I could prove from Peter Carey's
evidence how these securities came on the market it would be a
proof that my father had not sold them, and that he had no view
to personal profit when he took them.
"I came down to Sussex with the intention of seeing the
captain, but it was at this moment that his terrible death occurred.
I read at the inquest a description of his cabin, in which it stated
that the old logbooks of his vessel were preserved in it. It struck
me that if I could see what occurred in the month of August,
1883, on board the Sea Unicorn, I might settle the mystery of
my father's fate. I tried last night to get at these logbooks, but
was unable to open the door. To-night I tried again and succeeded, but I find that the pages which deal with that month have
been torn from the book. It was at that moment I found myself a
prisoner in your hands."
"Is that all?" asked Hopkins.
"Yes, that is all." His eyes shifted as he said it.
"You have nothing else to tell us?"
"No, there is nothing."
"You have not been here before last night?''
"Then how do you account for that?" cried Hopkins, as he
held up the damning notebook, with the initials of our prisoner on
the first leaf and the blood-stain on the cover.
The wretched man collapsed. He sank his face in his hands,
and trembled all over.
"Where did you get it?" he groaned. "I did not know. I
thought I had lost it at the hotel."
"That is enough," said Hopkins, sternly. "Whatever else
you have to say, you must say in court. You will walk down
with me now to the police-station. Well, Mr. Holmes, I am very
much obliged to you and to your friend for coming down to help
me. As it turns out your presence was unnecessary, and I would
have brought the case to this successful issue without you, but,
none the less, I am grateful. Rooms have been reserved for you
at the Brambletye Hotel, so we can all walk down to the village
"Well, Watson, what do you think of it?" asked Holmes, as
we travelled back next morning.
"I can see that you are not satisfied."
"Oh, yes, my dear Watson, I am perfectly satisfied. At the
same time, Stanley Hopkins's methods do not commend themselves to me. I am disappointed in Stanley Hopkins. I had hoped
for better things from him. One should always look for a possible alternative, and provide against it. It is the first rule of
"What, then, is the alternative?"
"The line of investigation which I have myself been pursuing.
It may give us nothing. I cannot tell. But at least I shall follow it
to the end."
Several letters were waiting for Holmes at Baker Street. He
snatched one of them up, opened it, and burst out into a triumphant chuckle of laughter.
"Excellent, Watson! The alternative develops. Have you telegraph forms? Just write a couple of messages for me: 'Sumner,
Shipping Agent, Ratcliff Highway. Send three men on, to arrive
ten to-morrow morning. — Basil.' That's my name in those parts.
The other is: 'Inspector Stanley Hopkins, 46 Lord Street, Brixton.
Come breakfast to-morrow at nine-thirty. Important. Wire if unable to come. — Sherlock Holmes.' There, Watson, this infernal
case has haunted me for ten days. I hereby banish it completely
from my presence. To-morrow, I trust that we shall hear the last
of it forever."
Sharp at the hour named Inspector Stanley Hopkins appeared,
and we sat down together to the excellent breakfast which Mrs.
Hudson had prepared. The young detective was in high spirits at
"You really think that your solution must be correct?" asked
"I could not imagine a more complete case."
"It did not seem to me conclusive."
"You astonish me, Mr. Holmes. What more could one ask
"Does your explanation cover every point?"
"Undoubtedly. I find that young Neligan arrived at the
Brambletye Hotel on the very day of the crime. He came on the
pretence of playing golf. His room was on the ground-floor, and
he could get out when he liked. That very night he went down to
Woodman's Lee, saw Peter Carey at the hut, quarrelled with
him, and killed him with the harpoon. Then, horrified by what
he had done, he fled out of the hut, dropping the notebook which
he had brought with him in order to question Peter Carey about
these different securities. You may have observed that some of
them were marked with ticks, and the others — the great majority —
were not. Those which are ticked have been traced on the
London market, but the others, presumably, were still in the
possession of Carey, and young Neligan, according to his own
account, was anxious to recover them in order to do the right
thing by his father's creditors. After his flight he did not dare to
approach the hut again for some time, but at last he forced
himself to do so in order to obtain the information which he
needed. Surely that is all simple and obvious?"
Holmes smiled and shook his head.
"It seems to me to have only one drawback, Hopkins, and
that is that it is intrinsically impossible. Have you tried to drive a
harpoon through a body? No? Tut, tut, my dear sir, you must
really pay attention to these details. My friend Watson could tell
you that I spent a whole morning in that exercise. It is no easy
matter, and requires a strong and practised arm. But this blow
was delivered with such violence that the head of the weapon
sank deep into the wall. Do you imagine that this anaemic youth
was capable of so frightful an assault? Is he the man who
hobnobbed in rum and water with Black Peter in the dead of the
night? Was it his profile that was seen on the blind two nights
before? No, no, Hopkins, it is another and more formidable
person for whom we must seek."
The detective's face had grown longer and longer during
Holmes's speech. His hopes and his ambitions were all crumbling about him. But he would not abandon his position without
"You can't deny that Neligan was present that night, Mr.
Holmes. The book will prove that. I fancy that I have evidence
enough to satisfy a jury, even if you are able to pick a hole in it.
Besides, Mr. Holmes, I have laid my hand upon my man. As to
this terrible person of yours, where is he?"
"I rather fancy that he is on the stair," said Holmes, serenely.
"I think, Watson, that you would do well to put that revolver
where you can reach it." He rose and laid a written paper upon a
side-table. "Now we are ready," said he.
There had been some talking in gruff voices outside, and now
Mrs. Hudson opened the door to say that there were three men
inquiring for Captain Basil.
"Show them in one by one," said Holmes.
The first who entered was a little Ribston pippin of a man,
with ruddy cheeks and fluffy white side-whiskers. Holmes had
drawn a letter from his pocket.
"What name?" he asked.
"I am sorry, Lancaster, but the berth is full. Here is half a sovereign for your trouble. Just step into this room and wait
there for a few minutes."
The second man was a long, dried-up creature, with lank hair
and sallow cheeks. His name was Hugh Pattins. He also received
his dismissal, his half-sovereign, and the order to wait.
The third applicant was a man of remarkable appearance. A
fierce bull-dog face was framed in a tangle of hair and beard,
and two bold, dark eyes gleamed behind the cover of thick,
tufted, overhung eyebrows. He saluted and stood sailor-fashion,
turning his cap round in his hands.
"Your name?" asked Holmes.
"Yes, sir. Twenty-six voyages."
"Dundee, I suppose?"
"And ready to start with an exploring ship?"
"Eight pounds a month."
"Could you start at once?"
"As soon as I get my kit."
"Have you your papers?"
"Yes, sir." He took a sheaf of worn and greasy forms from
his pocket. Holmes glanced over them and returned them.
"You are just the man I want," said he. "Here's the agreement on the side-table. If you sign it the whole matter will be
The seaman lurched across the room and took up the pen.
"Shall I sign here?'' he asked, stooping over the table.
Holmes leaned over his shoulder and passed both hands over
"This will do," said he.
I heard a click of steel and a bellow like an enraged bull. The
next instant Holmes and the seaman were rolling on the ground
together. He was a man of such gigantic strength that, even with
the handcuffs which Holmes had so deftly fastened upon his
wrists, he would have very quickly overpowered my friend had
Hopkins and I not rushed to his rescue. Only when I pressed the
cold muzzle of the revolver to his temple did he at last understand that resistance was vain. We lashed his ankles with cord
and rose breathless from the struggle.
"I must really apologize, Hopkins," said Sherlock Holmes.
"I fear that the scrambled eggs are cold. However, you will
enjoy the rest of your breakfast all the better, will you not, for
the thought that you have brought your case to a triumphant
Stanley Hopkins was speechless with amazement.
"I don't know what to say, Mr. Holmes," he blurted out at
last, with a very red face. "It seems to me that I have been
making a fool of myself from the beginning. I understand now,
what I should never have forgotten, that I am the pupil and you
are the master. Even now I see what you have done, but I don't
know how you did it or what it signifies."
"Well, well," said Holmes, good-humouredly. "We all learn
by experience, and your lesson this time is that you should never
lose sight of the alternative. You were so absorbed in young
Neligan that you could not spare a thought to Patrick Cairns, the
true murderer of Peter Carey."
The hoarse voice of the seaman broke in on our conversation.
"See here, mister," said he, "I make no complaint of being
man-handled in this fashion, but I would have you call things by
their right names. You say I murdered Peter Carey, I say I killed
Peter Carey, and there's all the difference. Maybe you don't
believe what I say. Maybe you think I am just slinging you a
"Not at all," said Holmes. "Let us hear what you have to
"It's soon told, and, by the Lord, every word of it is truth. I
knew Black Peter, and when he pulled out his knife I whipped a
harpoon through him sharp, for I knew that it was him or me.
That's how he died. You can call it murder. Anyhow, I'd as
soon die with a rope round my neck as with Black Peter's knife
in my heart."
"How came you there?" asked Holmes.
"I'll tell it you from the beginning. Just sit me up a little, so
as I can speak easy. It was in '83 that it happened — August of
that year. Peter Carey was master of the Sea Unicorn, and I was
spare harpooner. We were coming out of the ice-pack on our
way home, with head winds and a week's southerly gale, when
we picked up a little craft that had been blown north. There was
one man on her — a landsman. The crew had thought she would
founder and had made for the Norwegian coast in the dinghy. I
guess they were all drowned. Well, we took him on board, this
man, and he and the skipper had some long talks in the cabin.
All the baggage we took off with him was one tin box. So far as
I know, the man's name was never mentioned, and on the
second night he disappeared as if he had never been. It was
given out that he had either thrown himself overboard or fallen
overboard in the heavy weather that we were having. Only one
man knew what had happened to him, and that was me, for, with
my own eyes, I saw the skipper tip up his heels and put him over
the rail in the middle watch of a dark night, two days before we
sighted the Shetland Lights.
"Well, I kept my knowledge to myself, and waited to see
what would come of it. When we got back to Scotland it was
easily hushed up, and nobody asked any questions. A stranger
died by accident, and it was nobody's business to inquire. Shortly
after Peter Carey gave up the sea, and it was long years before I
could find where he was. I guessed that he had done the deed for
the sake of what was in that tin box, and that he could afford
now to pay me well for keeping my mouth shut.
"I found out where he was through a sailor man that had met
him in London, and down I went to squeeze him. The first night
he was reasonable enough, and was ready to give me what would
make me free of the sea for life. We were to fix it all two nights
later. When I came, I found him three parts drunk and in a vile
temper. We sat down and we drank and we yarned about old
times, but the more he drank the less I liked the look on his face.
I spotted that harpoon upon the wall, and I thought I might need
it before I was through. Then at last he broke out at me, spitting
and cursing, with murder in his eyes and a great clasp-knife in his
hand. He had not time to get it from the sheath before I had the
harpoon through him. Heavens! what a yell he gave! and his face
gets between me and my sleep. I stood there, with his blood
splashing round me, and I waited for a bit, but all was quiet, so I
took heart once more. I looked round, and there was the tin box
on the shelf. I had as much right to it as Peter Carey, anyhow, so
I took it with me and left the hut. Like a fool I left my
baccy-pouch upon the table.
"Now I'll tell you the queerest part of the whole story. I had
hardly got outside the hut when I heard someone coming, and I
hid among the bushes. A man came slinking along, went into the
hut, gave a cry as if he had seen a ghost, and legged it as hard as
he could run until he was out of sight. Who he was or what he
wanted is more than I can tell. For my part I walked ten miles,
got a train at Tunbridge Wells, and so reached London, and no
one the wiser.
"Well, when I came to examine the box I found there was no
money in it, and nothing but papers that I would not dare to sell.
I had lost my hold on Black Peter and was stranded in London
without a shilling. There was only my trade left. I saw these
advertisements about harpooners, and high wages, so I went to
the shipping agents, and they sent me here. That's all I know
and I say again that if I killed Black Peter, the law should give
me thanks, for I saved them the price of a hempen rope."
"A very clear statement," said Holmes, rising and lighting his
pipe. "I think, Hopkins, that you should lose no time in conveying your prisoner to a place of safety. This room is not well
adapted for a cell, and Mr. Patrick Cairns occupies too large a
proportion of our carpet."
"Mr. Holmes," said Hopkins, "I do not know how to express
my gratitude. Even now I do not understand how you attained
"Simply by having the good fortune to get the right clue from
the beginning. It is very possible if I had known about this
notebook it might have led away my thoughts, as it did yours.
But all I heard pointed in the one direction. The amazing strength,
the skill in the use of the harpoon, the rum and water, the
sealskin tobacco-pouch with the coarse tobacco — all these pointed
to a seaman, and one who had been a whaler. I was convinced
that the initials 'P. C.' upon the pouch were a coincidence, and
not those of Peter Carey, since he seldom smoked, and no pipe
was found in his cabin. You remember that I asked whether
whisky and brandy were in the cabin. You said they were. How
many landsmen are there who would drink rum when they could
get these other spirits? Yes, I was certain it was a seaman."
"And how did you find him?"
"My dear sir, the problem had become a very simple one. If it
were a seaman, it could only be a seaman who had been with
him on the Sea Unicorn. So far as I could learn he had sailed in
no other ship. I spent three days in wiring to Dundee, and at the
end of that time I had ascertained the names of the crew of the
Sea Unicorn in 1883. When I found Patrick Cairns among the
harpooners, my research was nearing its end. I argued that the
man was probably in London, and that he would desire to leave
the country for a time. I therefore spent some days in the East
End, devised an Arctic expedition, put forth tempting terms for
harpooners who would serve under Captain Basil — and behold
"Wonderful!" cried Hopkins. "Wonderful!"
"You must obtain the release of young Neligan as soon as
possible," said Holmes. "I confess that I think you owe him
some apology. The tin box must be returned to him, but, of
course, the securities which Peter Carey has sold are lost forever.
There's the cab, Hopkins, and you can remove your man. If you
want me for the trial, my address and that of Watson will be
somewhere in Norway — I'll send particulars later."
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