Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Devil's Foot


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Devil's Foot in March of 1897.  Watson collaborates this date, telling us that the story took place in the spring of 1897, and then thrice mentioning the month of March.  The story was first published in December of 1910.


When Sherlock Holmes' constitution takes a turn for the worse, Watson forces him to take an extended vacation in the country.  Holmes goes only reluctantly, but his spirits are soon lifted, for shortly into their visit to Cornwall a sinister murder is committed.  Holmes and Watson's neighbour, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis, then seeks Holmes' aid in uncovering what devilry has claimed the life of his sister, and the sanity of his two brothers.  Despite Watson's objections, Holmes takes up the case, and soon discovers that what should be elementary is actually quite complex.  It'll take a second murder (this time Mr. Mortimer Tregennis himself) before Holmes has enough evidence to piece together the final solution.  Proving his findings, however, is another matter all together, and Holmes' experiment, with what is later revealed to be a substance called Devil's Foot, comes dangerously close to costing both him and Watson their lives.

The Subtext:

In recording from time to time some of the curious experiences and interesting recollections which I associate with my long and intimate friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes...

Watson's introduction to The Adventure of the Devil's Foot is quite apropos, for this story marks a shift in Watson's long and intimate relationship with Sherlock Holmes.  Indeed, as the story progresses, Holmes and Watson's bond will continue to strengthen until at long last they are finally set upon the path which will lead them to open declarations of love and affection.  The story, therefore, is quite pivotal in terms of their relationship, for, while still guarded, Holmes is no longer able to hide the true depth of his feelings for Watson.

We will return to this in a moment (and indeed, throughout the story) but first we must examine a very interesting statement.  Watson tells us:

It was, then, with considerable surprise that I received a telegram from Homes last Tuesday [in 1910, thereabouts] --he has never been known to write where a telegram would serve...

This story was first published in 1910, some seven years into Holmes' retirement, and Watson would have us believe that Holmes was living a peaceful, if isolated, existence in Sussex, while Watson remained apart, in London.  It is your author's opinion (and we shall return to this theory as we continue to examine the later Canon, for it becomes quite apparent) that Watson is, in fact, lying.  Holmes did not telegram at all, for Holmes had no need; Watson, we will demonstrate, accompanied Holmes to Sussex where the pair lived out their retirement together.

Curious, though, is it not, that Watson should specify that Holmes sent his request via telegram.  One would imagine, even if Holmes did mistrust the invention, that by 1910 Holmes would have adopted the modern convenience of the telephone.  He certainly used it often enough during the later years in Baker Street (RETI).

With this in mind, let us turn now to an additional theory; that of Holmes' cocaine use, and the years Watson spent attempting to wean Holmes from the drug.

It was, then, in the spring of the year 1897 that Holmes's iron constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant hard work of a most exacting kind, aggravated, perhaps, by occasional indiscretions of his own.

Note Watson's comment concerning Holmes' occasional indiscretion.  We begin to see here an interesting theme, which runs throughout the stories set in 1896 and 1897.  Indeed, it is during this window that Watson refers to Holmes' cocaine use, and it is during this period of time that Holmes and Watson's relationship seems most strained.  It is not difficult to imagine, then, that it was during this time that Holmes first attempted to set aside his damaging habit.

Holmes' return is dated in the spring of 1894, and we first hear confirmation of Holmes' weaning from cocaine in December of 1896 (MISS).  While Watson does not mention Holmes' cocaine use prior to this, this does not necessarily imply that Holmes had quit before his return (EMPT).  Indeed, several cases prior to the hiatus do not mention cocaine, despite evidence of prior, and later, use.

We can therefore safely suggest that it was some time after Holmes' return that Watson first sought to aid Holmes in setting aside his addiction, and that that process was not without its difficulties.  Indeed, we see several relapses (via Watson's references) in both 1896 and 1897.  In fact, it is your author's opinion that it was Dr. Moore Agar (see below) who aided Watson in his quest to wean Holmes from the drug mania which once threatened his career:

In March of that year Dr. Moore Agar, of Harley Street, whose dramatic introduction to Holmes I may some day recount...

And so it was Dr. Agar who suggested a visit to the country so that Holmes might avoid yet another series of relapses.  Although we do not doubt that Watson has threatened to leave at this point, we know Watson far too well to expect him to keep his word.  Indeed, he cannot possibly leave Holmes, and so he continues to seek the means to free Holmes from his addiction once and for all.  Holmes' fragile constitution, then, is directly tied to years (indeed, decades) worth of drug abuse.

That Watson would go to such lengths, and sacrifice so much to save his Holmes is quite touching.  Truly, Holmes was an exceedingly lucky man.

Thus it was that in the early spring of that year we found ourselves together in a small cottage near Poldhu Bay, at the further extremity of the Cornish peninsula.

That Watson should care enough for Holmes' wellbeing to secure a small cottage on the Cornish peninsula, where the pair might eke out their days in solitude (save for one another's company) is also quite suggestive.

Indeed, from the moment they arrive, despite Holmes' ill health, they fall instantly into a life of blissful domesticity.  Watson tells us:

From the windows of our little whitewashed house, which stood high upon a grassy headland, we looked down upon the whole sinister semicircle of Mounts Bay...

Particular attention should be drawn to Watson's description of our little whitewashed house.

Watson seems quite pleased by country life, and eventually Holmes is able to take some solace in it.  It is not long, then, before his health begins to improve, and we soon see hints of Holmes of old.

He had received a consignment of books upon philology and was settling down to develop this thesis when suddenly, to my sorrow and to his unfeigned delight, we found ourselves, even in that land of dreams, plunged into a problem at our very doors which was more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London.

The above sentence, in addition to demonstrating Holmes' slow recovery, hints at what is to come, for the instant Holmes hears of a potential new case Watson slips into the role of overprotective husband.

I glared at the intrusive vicar with no very friendly eyes...

So much, so, in fact, that he is willing to glare at a member of the cloth (the man responsible for intruding upon their solitude).

When Watson is not scowling at those who invaded their sanctuary, he is busy observing Holmes; seeming to hover at Holmes' side, taking particular care to watch for signs of strain.

...but never once did I see that sudden brightening of his eyes and tightening of his lips which would have told me that he saw some gleam of light in this utter darkness.

Indeed, the whole of Watson's behaviour borders on paranoia and one can easily imagine the terror contained within Watson's breast; that he might yet lose Holmes, after all he had done.

Holmes seems to sense this, for he is quick to reassure Watson, and takes rest when the case comes to a standstill.

My friend smiled and laid his hand upon my arm. "I think, Watson, that I shall resume that course of tobacco-poisoning which you have so often and so justly condemned," said he.

Slowly, Watson's fears seem to lessen, and this has much to do with Holmes' mood; Holmes appears more relaxed than he has in the past, and despite the presence of a case, he still seems whole and healthy.  Indeed, even faced with the frustration of not enough evidence, Holmes does not retreat into the darkness of his thoughts, but rather, suggests that he and Watson engage in physical activity.

"It won't do, Watson!" said he with a laugh. "Let us walk along the cliffs together and search for flint arrows."

There is such open boyishness in the above statement, and we cannot help but note the drastic shift in Holmes mood.  It becomes obvious, then, that without or without his newfound case, Holmes is quite content to spend his vacation in quiet pursuits with Watson at his side.  Your author would also like to note Holmes' suggestion that he and Watson walk along the isolated cliffs so that they might search for phallic shaped objects.

Outdoor sex aside, Holmes continues to reassure Watson, going out of his way to relieve any residual worries Watson might be carrying.

"Meanwhile, we shall put the case aside until more accurate data are available, and devote the rest of our morning to the pursuit of Neolithic man."

It would appear, then, as if Holmes has truly come to an understanding, for the whole of Holmes' actions can be interpreted as his desire to appease and comfort a distinctly worried Watson.  We will not, of course, comment on Holmes' apparently kinky tendencies.

Holmes' attempts to reassure Watson eventually work, for as the case progresses Watson's anxieties lessen.  Watson even goes so far as to agree, without question, to participate in what is undoubtedly the most dangerous experiment in all of Canon.

Upon discovering that Mr. Mortimer Tregennis has fallen victim to whatever it was that killed his sister and drove his brothers insane, and that in both circumstances combustion was taking place in a stuffy atmosphere, Holmes' thoughts immediately turn to poison.  He discovers a residual powder in the home of Dr. Tregennis, which he suspects to be the substance responsible for the destruction of what is now the entire Tregennis family.  His supposition, however, is inconclusive, and so Holmes must test the substance by recreating the atmosphere in which they found Tregennis' body.

Watson, upon hearing of Holmes' intentions, expresses some alarm, to which Holmes offers Watson the option of leaving, Holmes offering to complete the experiment in solitude.  Watson, naturally, refuses to leave Holmes' side, to which Holmes replies:

"I thought I knew my Watson."

Recall that Holmes is intending to recreate an atmosphere which has killed two people.  In doing this, he is willingly risking his own life (and Watson's) and yet Watson remains.  Watson knows that, although Holmes will not begrudge him his leaving, if he were to leave, Holmes would simply conduct the experiment on own his.  In an effort to keep Holmes safe, Watson willingly risks his life (and sanity) just so that he can prevent any ill from befalling Holmes.  If this is not love, I do not know what is.

Or perhaps I do, for Watson's role in this strange experiment, and indeed, his love for Holmes, takes an interesting twist. As the poison begins its work, Watson tells us:

At the same moment, in some effort of escape, I broke through that cloud of despair and had a glimpse of Holmes's face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror — the very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength.

Watson, overcome by a drug which has killed two and rendered another two insensible, is able to overcome its effects simply by the force of his concern for Holmes' well being.  Remarkable.  Truly remarkable, and we must cite this as extreme proof of the depths of Watson's feelings for Holmes.  Indeed, Watson then goes on to tell us:

I dashed from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes, and together we lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in.

Such a feat of strength and determination, and yet it should not have occurred, for Watson should have been rendered senseless by the choking poison.  Watson, however, was able to rally against this and defeat its sinister intents (even when Holmes could not) solely by the strength of his need to save Holmes.  The implications behind Watson's actions are staggering.  Any doubt as to the depths of Watson's feelings for Holmes are now officially vanquished.

Watson's affections, however, do not go unreciprocated, for Holmes is just as concerned for Watson's safety.

Slowly it rose from our souls like the mists from a landscape until peace and reason had returned, and we were sitting upon the grass, wiping our clammy foreheads, and looking with apprehension at each other to mark the last traces of that terrific experience which we had undergone.

One can almost picture the scene Watson dare not write; Holmes and Watson, looking at one another in apprehension, running careful fingers over each other so that they might reassure one another of their vitality.

In fact, it is here that we are first treated to a glimpse of the true depth of Holmes' emotions.

"Upon my word, Watson!" said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, "I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one's self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry."

Holmes' heartfelt apology, and the horror within his tone as he realizes what he has just put Watson through; to see Holmes so shaken over the affair and to know that it is Watson's welfare that concerns Holmes is truly a mark of how deep Holmes' affections for Watson run.  Indeed, Watson is so moved by Holmes' words that he is driven to state:

"You know," I answered with some emotion, for I had never seen so much of Holmes's heart before, "that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you."

This moment is perhaps the most touching in all of Canon, for we are given undeniable proof of Holmes' love for Watson, and, indeed, of Watson's love for Holmes.  That Watson would do anything for Holmes is not surprising; that Holmes should reveal so large a piece of his heart is truly remarkable.

It soon becomes obvious that Holmes is much overwhelmed by Watson's words, for Watson tells us:

He relapsed at once into the half-humorous, half-cynical vein which was his habitual attitude to those about him.

An obvious attempt on Holmes' behalf to lighten the atmosphere, lest the strength of his emotions overcome his usually reserved nature.

Once Holmes has recovered, and he and Watson have aired out the poisonous atmosphere that has become their country cottage, Holmes once again turns his attention back to the case.  He has arranged for Dr. Leon Sterndale to attend them at the cottage, where Holmes, upon Sterndale's arrival, immediately accuses the man of murder.

For a moment I wished that I were armed. Sterndale's fierce face turned to a dusky red, his eyes glared, and the knotted, passionate veins started out in his forehead, while he sprang forward with clenched hands towards my companion.

Sterndale does not, of course, take the accusation well.  Here, however, we wish to note Watson's language, and, indeed, his protective nature.  Watson's reference to Holmes as my companion is quite amusing, for we can well imagine that, perhaps twice, Watson wrote my Holmes and was then forced to cross it out.  Either way, Watson's desire to protect his long-time friend and companion is quite obvious.

Sterndale does not, of course, assault Holmes, and Holmes is soon able to extract a full confession from Sterndale.  After hearing Sterndale's story (one of love, and bitter familial betrayal), Holmes decides to let Sterndale go.  This is not the first time we have been witness to Holmes' willingness to break English law so that justice might prevail.  It is quite interesting, however, to note that, in this occasion, as in every past occasion, it is a tale of love that stays Holmes' hand.  Clearly Holmes knew of love, for why else should he have been so moved?

And so, as Watson writes:

"You would not denounce the man?"

"Certainly not," I answered.

"I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done."

We begin to suspect an alteration, for we know the truth of the matter, and very much doubt that Holmes would have been capable of so bold a lie.  Indeed, it is quite easy to imagine that Holmes' actual words were thus:

"I have never loved a woman, Watson."

It is easy, too, to imagine that it was Watson who made this slight change, so as to shield both he and Holmes from public speculation.  That Holmes has loved in not in doubt, for too often now we have seen a glimpse of his great heart, and in each of those incidences, Watson was the cause.

Holmes himself collaborates this theory, for his next words:

"Well, Watson, I will not offend your intelligence by explaining what is obvious."

It is safe to say, then, that Holmes' original statement read as follows:

"I have never loved [a woman], Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done. Who knows? Well, Watson, I will not offend your intelligence by explaining what is obvious [that I have, in fact, loved a man]."

Truly Holmes is making great leaps and bounds towards confessing the whole of his heart, and as the case comes to a close, we see Holmes and Watson falling back into the domestic life which so well suited them, Holmes suggesting:

"And now, my dear Watson, I think we may dismiss the matter from our mind and go back with a clear conscience to the study of those Chaldean roots which are surely to be traced in the Cornish branch of the great Celtic speech."

On a final note, it is once again of interest to note that, like ABBE, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot centres around the theme of divorce, and the deplorable laws of England which prevented many an unhappy marriage from finding absolution.

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