Sherlock Holmes had retired from detective work. He was residing in Sussex near the sea. However, even in this remote area, a strange mystery forced itself on his attention.
Sherlock did not have many neighbors in this isolated area. However, he lived close to The Gables, where young men were preparing for various professions under the guidance of competent teachers, headed by Harold Stackhurst, who became one of Sherlock’s friends.
In July, 1907, a terrific gale occurred. When the wind died down, Sherlock decided to enjoy the fresh air. He happened to meet Stackhurst and began to converse with him. Suddenly, Fitzroy McPherson, a science teacher at The Gables, emerged into view. He was suffering intense pain. After uttering several unintelligible words, he shouted “The lion’s mane,” and died.
McPherson had a weak heart, but his body bore marks similar to those made by a thin wire scourge. His pain had been so intense that he bit through his lower lip.
At this point, Ian Murdoch entered the scene. Though he had a violent temper and had once vented it on McPherson’s dog, he seemed to be genuinely shocked by the scene and asked what he could do to help. Sherlock sent him to inform the police.
McPherson’s tragedy had occurred at his favorite swimming spot. Sherlock noticed that there was no one on the beach except a few people who were too far away to have caused the tragedy. He also noted that the only footsteps leading to and from the swimming spot were those of McPherson himself. The footprints at the swimming spot revealed that McPherson first had shoes on his feet, but then walked barefoot, so he was evidently getting ready to swim. However, Sherlock thought that he had never entered the water, since his towel was still on the beach, folded and dry. He was, however, aware of the possibility that he may have entered the water but did not dry himself after returning to shore.
Sherlock then returned to the place where the body of McPherson was lying. Murdoch had brought Anderson, the constable of a nearby village. Sherlock searched the dead man’s pockets and found a note from Maudie, who was evidently McPherson’s girl friend. From correspondence found in McPherson’s desk, the police later learned that the girl in question was Miss Maud Bellamy, who lived in Fulworth with her father Tom Bellamy and her brother.
Ian Murdoch was one of Sherlock’s suspects. Stackhurst assured Sherlock that although Murdoch and McPherson had once been at odds with one another, they had been cordial friends for about a year.
When Sherlock and Stackhurst visited the Bellamy residence, they saw Murdoch leaving the house. Stackhurst wanted to know what he had been doing there. When Murdoch refused to tell him, an argument ensued. Stackhurst fired Murdoch, and Murdoch retorted that he was planning to leave anyway. This enhanced Sherlock’s suspicions. It looked like Murdoch was anxious to get away from the scene of the crime.
In the Bellamy residence, Sherlock learned that McPherson had been Maud’s fiancé. Maud also admitted that Murdock had been interested in her at one time. To Sherlock, this increased the probability of Murdock’s guilt.
A week later, McPherson’s dog died in the very same place in which McPherson had received his fatal wound. The dog was apparently suffering intense agony when he died.
Sherlock felt that he was missing something. When he remembered something that he had read long ago, it proved to be the key to the mystery. He was about to examine the spot where the dog died when Inspector Bardle of the Sussex Constabulary visited him. He was trying to decide whether he should arrest Murdoch for murder. His reasons for suspecting Murdoch were similar to those previously harbored by Sherlock himself.
Sherlock pointed out that Murdoch had an alibi for the time when McPherson died. He also showed the inspector an enlarged photograph of the marks on McPherson’s body, which could only have been made with a very unusual instrument. Sherlock told him that he might have an alternative solution. He promised to discuss it with the inspector in about an hour.
While they were talking, Murdoch and Stackhurst came to the residence of Sherlock Holmes. Murdoch was suffering the same symptoms as those from which McPherson and his dog had died. Fortunately, Murdoch’s heart was stronger, so he managed to pass the critical stage with the help of brandy.
When a peaceful sleep finally showed that Murdoch was no longer in danger, Sherlock, Stackhurst, and the inspector went to the beach to investigate.
When they arrived, Sherlock spotted the culprit. It was Cyanea capillata, an aquatic creature that was as dangerous as a cobra. Its tawny mass of membranes and fibers bore some resemblance to the mane of a lion. The wound left by its sting resembled what Sherlock had seen in the enlarged photograph of McPherson’s wound, and it caused symptoms similar to those experienced by McPherson and Murdoch.
It was unusual for Cyanea capillata to frequent the shores of Sussex. Sherlock thought that the recent gale might have brought it there.
Murdoch suggested that he owed his exoneration to the fact that he nearly suffered the same fate as his friend, but Sherlock assured him that he had already been on the right track. If Sherlock had managed to get to the beach earlier, he might have spared Murdoch his painful experience.
Sherlock admitted that he should have solved the mystery more quickly. He was fooled by McPherson’s unused towel. If he knew that McPherson had been in the water, the true solution would have suggested itself to his mind.
“Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Bantam Classic