The servant leads Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan to Thaddeus Sholto. He is an odd-looking 30-year-old man with a jerky manner. The house is decked out in oriental paintings and tapestries, with two tiger-skins spread upon the floor. Thaddeus crudely lets slip that Captain Morstan died from a heart attack; his lack of awareness angers Watson.
Thaddeus smokes a hookah pipe as he explains that he has had a disagreement with his brother, Bartholomew. They will need to visit him later, he says. Thaddeus talks about his father, Major Sholto, who came back to England from India with a small fortune, enough to take care of his sons. According to Thaddeus, Major Sholto had a marked fear of men with wooden legs, and once shot at a man who had one.
Thaddeus’ hookah pipe strengthens the tie between the mystery and the East. Later in the novella, Holmes will cite this conversation as part of the proof of why Jonathan Small—who has a wooden leg—is the man they are looking for.
In early 1882, Thaddeus explains, Major Sholto received a letter from India that caused a great shock from which he never recovered. By the end of April, he was on his deathbed. At this point, Major Sholto told his sons that he felt guilty about how Miss Morstan had been treated. He asked them to give Miss Morstan her fair share of the Agra treasure, and to send her some pearls that he had kept with him.
This treasure, continued Major Sholto at the time, had come into his and Captain Morstan’s possession in India. When Morstan had come back to London, he went to Sholto to claim his share. They had an argument, causing Morstan to have a heart attack and hit his head on the corner of the treasure chest. Sholto had concealed the body, afraid of the possible repercussions.
Given the reader later learns that Sholto had double-crossed Morstan and Jonathan Small in order to acquire the treasure for himself, it’s possible that his deathbed story is not entirely true. The reader gets a sense that those involved in the treasure have been visited by misfortune.
Just at that moment, Sholto had been about to reveal the location of the Agra treasure. But looking up from his bed, he saw a bearded face at the window; this face terrified him, and moments later he was dead from shock.
This apparition at the window borrows from the gothic genre, bringing with it an air of the supernatural.
Thaddeus and Bartholomew searched for the strange man; looking in the flower-bed, they could see only a single footprint. The next morning, the brothers discovered that Major Sholto’s room had been searched, a piece of paper reading “the sign of the four” left upon the dead man’s chest.
The “sign of the four” paper acts as a kind of prophetic signature that also links with the gothic genre and contributes to the deepening sense of mystery. For attentive readers, the single footprint in the flowerbed chimes with the earlier reveal that Major Sholto was afraid of men with wooden legs—that is, men with one leg and therefore one footprint.
Thaddeus recounts how he and his brother searched high and low for the treasure. Bartholomew didn’t want to send the pearls to Miss Morstan, but Thaddeus insisted, seeing himself as her “trustee.” Thaddeus explains that he learned yesterday that the treasure has been found at the Major’s old home, and that they must go there now to divide it up.
This raises the question of what benefit the treasure really served for Major Sholto, if it was hidden at his home along. The mention of his fortune upon returning from India wasn’t specifically linked to the treasure, so it seems that possessing the jewels only caused him misfortune.
The group gets into a cab outside. Thaddeus explains that the value of the treasure is around “half a million sterling.” Watson thinks to himself how this will make Miss Morstan the richest heiress in England; he offers congratulations but inwardly feels disheartened. They arrive at Pondicherry Lodge.
The amount of money that is proposed as Miss Morstan’s share is truly life-changing, representing approximately 53 million pounds in today’s money. Watson feels that her newfound wealth will make her socially beyond his reach, catapulting her into the upper class of society.