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Novel Summary

Mr Sherlock Holmes

A forgotten item

The novel begins in the sitting room of Sherlock Holmes-the consulting detective living at 221B Baker Street, London. Dr John Watson-Holmes’s friend and assistant—stands upon the hearth rug examining a walking stick left by an unknown visitor the night before. Holmes observes Watson with the stick and asks him to use it to describe its owner.

Mental workout

A ‘broad silver band’ on the walking stick carries the name of its owner-a ‘James Mortimer, M.R.C.S.’ Watson likens the stick to what ‘the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry’. He observes the worn down condition of the stick. Consequently, he concludes that the man must be a ‘successful, elderly medical man’ who practises in the countryside and travels a lot on foot. The silver band also displays the words ‘from his friends of the C.C.H.’ and the year ‘1884’. Watson infers that the stick must have been a presentation from a local hunt.

Holmes is at first congratulatory about Watson’s deductive abilities. However, after examining the stick himself, he declares most of his friend’s conclusions to be ‘erroneous’. He points out that the stick must have been presented to the doctor by a hospital and C.C.H. would then mean ‘Charing Cross Hospital’. He further reasons out the following about the visitor: that Dr Mortimer must have practised in town before shifting his practice to the country five years back; that he is a young man under thirty; that he is ‘amiable’, ‘unambitious’ and ‘absent-minded’; and that he possesses a dog, whose teeth marks are visible on the stick.

The owner returns

A medical directory in Watson’s possession and the arrival of Mortimer himself help confirm Holmes’s deductions. Mortimer turns out to be a craniology enthusiast and displays much interest in Holmes’s skull. When urged on by Holmes, Mortimer tells him that he requires the detective’s assistance in a ‘most serious and extraordinary problem’.

A legend of the moors

Mortimer carries an old manuscript – entrusted to him by a Sir Charles Baskerville who died some months back in Dartmoor, Devonshire. Holmes correctly dates it as an early-eighteenth-century document. It contains a statement of a certain legend that runs in the Baskerville family. Mortimer narrates the tale.

During the ‘Great Rebellion’ (the English Civil War during the seventeenth century), the Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor was inhabited by Hugo Baskerville –‘a most wild, profane, and godless man’. He once forcibly carried away a man’s daughter to the Hall. As he sat carousing with his friends, the girl managed to escape. Finding her to be missing, an enraged Hugo declared that he would give his body and soul to the devil if he was able to overtake the maiden. Setting his hounds upon her, he rode away in pursuit towards the moorland. Hugo’s friends followed suit after a while. On their way, they found Hugo’s mare galloping back without a rider. A little farther, they saw the hounds whimpering together at the head of a deep depression upon the moor. Three of them went forward and looked into the depression. They saw the girl lying dead due to fear and exhaustion. Near her lay the body of Hugo, with a ‘great, black beast, shaped like a hound’ tearing out his throat.

It is also mentioned in the manuscript how the hound has plagued the Baskervilles ever since, with many in the family meeting a ‘sudden, bloody, and mysterious’ end.

The sudden death

Holmes dismisses this narrative as a fairy tale. Mortimer then takes out a newspaper that features an article on the circumstances surrounding Sir Charles Baskerville’s death.

The article goes something like this. Having made ‘large sums of money in South African speculation’, Charles started living at the Baskerville Hall two years back. He took it upon himself to restore the ‘fallen grandeur of his line’. Being of an amiable and generous disposition, his desire was that his riches should benefit the entire countryside. A simple and retiring man, he kept only two servants at the Baskerville Hall –John Barrymore (the butler) and his wife (the housekeeper). Charles’s health had been impaired for a while and he was suffering from some ailment of the heart. He was in the habit of walking down the ‘Yew Alley’ of the Hall before going to bed at night.

On the night of his death, Charles had asked his butler to prepare his luggage; he was to leave for London the next day. That night, he went for a walk as usual but never returned. At midnight, the alarmed butler went out in search of his master and found his footprints on the walk. Charles seemed to have stood for some minutes halfway down the Alley, near a gate that opened out on to the moor. Thereafter, his footprints became altered (as though he had been walking on tiptoe) and farther down the Alley, his dead body was discovered. Though there were no signs of physical violence upon the body, Charles’s face was incredibly distorted. This indicated that he had died of dyspnoea and cardiac exhaustion. A drunken gipsy was out on the moor at the time. Apparently, he had heard some cries.

The article also mentions Charles’s next of kin to be a certain Henry Baskerville, the son of his younger brother.

The mystery

Mortimer then goes on to speak of some facts relating to Charles that are not known to the publ…

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