Watson heads to Baker Street and reconvenes with Holmes, Jones and Jonathan Small. Watson shows them the empty treasure box. Small admits that this was his doing—he scattered the jewels in the Thames during the boat chase. He says that the only men who have any right to the treasure are him and the three others that make up “the sign of the four”; as none of them can have it, neither can anyone else.
Small’s sense of entitlement to the treasure glosses over the fact that they stole it from an Indian prince in the first place. Paradoxically, now that the treasure has gone, it can longer bring harm to those involved.
Jones accuses Small of thwarting justice. Small snarls back, “Where is the justice that I should give it up to those who have never earned it? […] Twenty long years in that fever-ridden swamp, all day at work under the mangrove-tree, all night chained up in the filthy convict-huts, bitten by mosquitoes, racked with ague, bullied by every cursed black-faced policeman who loved to take it out of a white man. That was how I earned the Agra treasure.”
Small embodies the racist attitudes that are on display elsewhere in the novella. Black people are once again characterized as fundamentally bad and evil. Small’s story makes him a kind of returning figure, an explorer who has a tale to tell of “the East.”
Holmes reminds Small that they are yet to hear his side of the story, and so can’t judge whether he has been treated unjustly or not. Small agrees to tell his story, and for it to be “god’s truth”; he has nothing left to lose.
Small is restored a certain degree of moral virtue by now speaking his truth and having distanced himself from the “authentic” evil of Tonga.
Small launches into his story. He was born into a humble country life in Worcestershire. He joined the British army after getting “into a mess over a girl” and was sent out to India. Early on in his time there, a crocodile bit off one of his legs.
The “mess over a girl” is a euphemistic statement, but given that Small felt he had to leave the country, the implications are that it was a serious incident. The mention of the crocodile ties in with the idea of the East as exotic and foreign.
After recovering from his injury, Small was employed as an overseer on a plantation, tasked with making sure the men worked hard. Around this time, the Indian mutiny began: “there were two hundred thousand black devils let loose, and the country was a perfect hell.” Small’s boss and his boss’ wife were killed by mutineers. Small escaped on a horse and found safety within the ancient fort city of Agra.
Black people are once again presented as sub-human, deserving of colonial subjugation. The Indian mutiny of 1857 saw sepoys—British-hired Indian soldiers—turning on the British authorities (embodied by the East India Company).
In Agra, Small joined a volunteer corps that set up base in the old fort. Here, he served as a guard in one of the many outer guardhouses. He had two Punjabi men under his command, Mahomet Singh and Abdullah Khan. One night, one of these men held a knife to Small’s throat. They told him either to be with them or against them, giving him three minutes to decide. They promised that their plan was nothing to do with the safety of the fort, and that Small would have the opportunity to be rich.
Doyle mistakenly gives the guards under Small’s watch Arabic names instead of Punjabi ones. They are also presented as the originators of the plot, meaning that Small can imply that the ultimate responsibility of what’s happened lies with them, rather than him. Small’s extraction of the promise that those at the fort will be safe is also another attempt to present him as morally relatable.
Small swore to be on their side, as long as no one at the fort was endangered. The two men then explained about the Agra treasure, which they proposed would be divided by four (the fourth man, Dost Akbar, wasn’t there yet). They explained that a rajah from the northern provinces intended to split his fortune into separate parts and hide them so that, whichever side was victorious in the conflict, he would be able to retrieve at least half of his luxurious belongings.
The Agra treasure, then, belonged to an Indian man. At no point in the story does any question whether the treasure should have been taken in the first place, or if it ought to be have been returned to its rightful owner.
The rajah’s merchant, continued Abdullah Khan, would be travelling to Agra to hide part of the treasure there. He would be with Dost Akbar, Abdullah’s foster brother; the men therefore had the opportunity to intercept the treasure and divide it among themselves. Small agreed to the plan.
The treasure can be read as a metaphor for the British presence in India itself. British colonial and trade activities were an attempt to procure wealth by taking advantage of an imbalance in military and technological power.
That night, the men executed their plan, killing the merchant and snatching the treasure. Small pauses for a drink of whiskey and water and then continues his story. After burying the merchant in the fort, the men looked at the treasure; it was an incredible collection of gleaming jewels—emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and so on. They counted the treasure and “renewed our oath to stand by each other and be true to our secret.” They concealed the loot in the fort wall, intending to retrieve it when the country had calmed down. Small drew up plans for them all to keep for later.
Small is treated with relative respect by his captors, echoing the idea that as a white man he is more legitimate. This is the first real description of the Agra treasure, which is a cornucopia of jewels and gems. It’s worth noting here that India was considered the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire—that is, it was considered the foremost treasure under the rule of British power.
Though the situation in the country calmed down soon enough, Small and the others were arrested for murdering the merchant. It turned out that a second man had been following the merchant to check on his safety and had reported back that he never emerged from the fort. All four men were given penal servitude for life.
India represented a fluid situation, which is why Small and the others get caught before they can return to the treasure.
Small was eventually sent to the Andaman Islands, where he got along well with his guards. During his incarceration, he learned about medication and healthcare, helping the camp surgeon. Major Sholto and Captain Morstan were stationed at the same camp, often playing cards with the prison-officials.
Here the reader starts to understand how Small came to have a link with the Andaman Islands and, by extension, Tonga. The medical learning adds another detail to Small’s moral picture.
Major Sholto eventually lost quite a lot of money playing cards. Small decided to tell him and Captain Morstan about the treasure, offering to share it with them if they aided his escape. The men agreed and allowed Small to get the others from “the sign of the four” to consent to the plan too. Sholto didn’t see why that was necessary: “what have three black fellows to do with our agreement?”
As part of the plan, Major Sholto was supposed to first verify that the treasure was where Small said it was, before reporting back. Sholto double-crossed them and stole the treasure, never returning to the Andaman Islands. Tracking Sholto down became Small’s life passion.
Sholto’s theft of the treasure can also be read as a metaphor for the British reason for being in India.
Around this time, Small met Tonga, a native of the islands. Tonga was sick, but Small nursed him back to health, instilling in Tonga a fierce loyalty to the other man. Small says of Tonga that “no man ever had a more faithful mate.”
Small is presented has having a caring side, while Tonga is characterized as a faithful and obedient creature—again, like a dog more than a human.
Tonga helped Small escape by bringing a boat. Small got past the guard by hitting him with his wooden leg, before sailing off with Tonga. He and Tonga had numerous adventures, all the while intending to track Sholto down in London. Three or four years ago, they finally made it to England.
Tonga becomes a kind of sidekick to Small. There is little sense of Tonga having had a life of his own on the Andaman Islands. The reader doesn’t learn much anything about the years between the Andaman Islands and the arrival in England.
Hearing that Sholto was dying, Small tracked him down to his deathbed, searching the room for a clue as to where the treasure was now hidden. He left the “sign of the four” on a piece of paper on Sholto’s body as a “token from the men whom [Sholto] had robbed and befooled.”
The sign of the four thus functions as a kind of calling card signaling Small’s presence and lending a sense of fated eeriness to proceedings.
During this time, Small and Tonga earned a living by exhibiting Tonga at fairs as “the black cannibal,” at which he would eat raw meat and perform a “war-dance.” Finally, Small heard from an insider at Pondicherry Lodge that the treasure had been found and was told about the trapdoor in the roof.
This kind of display of “exotic” human figures was a real phenomenon, with human zoos exhibiting different peoples from around the world in cruel and inhumane conditions. This tapped into the fear and fascination with the “other.”
At Pondicherry Lodge, Tonga climbed up the roof with a rope tied round his waist so that Small could climb up. Unbeknownst to Small, Tonga instinctively killed Bartholomew with a blow-dart when he reached the attic room. Tonga was surprised that Small was angry about the murder. They gathered up the jewels and made their escape, heading to Mordecai Smith in order to hire the Aurora.
Tonga is painted as being intellectually inferior, dog-like in his attempt to do right by his master, Small. His diminutive size explains the small footprints.
Holmes remarks that he was surprised to have nearly been hit by one of Tonga’s darts, given that he had found the casing with all the darts inside. Small reminds him that Tonga would have had one already loaded in the blowpipe. With this, Small’s story is concluded.
The mistake over the darts is a small chink in Holmes’ otherwise impenetrable intellectual powers.
Athelney Jones thanks Holmes for his assistance and bids him goodbye. As Holmes and Watson leave, Watson indicates that this may be the last case on which he is able to help, as Miss Morstan has accepted his marriage proposal. At this news, Holmes groans, “I really cannot congratulate you […] love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.”
Jones knows he owes the success of the case to Holmes’ brilliance. Holmes here reinforces his stark separation of the rational from the emotional, as if the two could—or should—never overlap. The betrothal of Watson, for the reader, is a kind of heroic happy ending in keeping with gothic literature.
Watson remarks that it seems unfair that Holmes gets nothing out of the case’s resolution—Jones has his suspect, and Watson has Miss Morstan. Holmes replies that “there still remains the cocaine-bottle,” before reaching out to grab it.