Musings about The Musgrave Ritual

The Musgrave RitualThe Sunday Outpatients’ Meeting of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, the Denver Sherlock Holmes scion society, discussed The Musgrave Ritual this past Sunday. I couldn’t stay long for the meeting, however, because we had tickets for a Colorado Rockies game (we won 3-2 against the Los Angeles Dodgers) and so missed out on the quiz. But I had reread the story before the meeting and doing so I remembered what fun it is despite it not being a standard Baker Street tale. (If you’ve never read MUSG before, there are spoilers below.)

I’m sure you remember the tale that occurred early in Holmes’ career, before he met his “biographer,” John H. Watson. Watson would very much like to know about Holmes early cases and Holmes is eager to put off Watson’s insistence that they tidy their sitting room at 221b Baker Street, so Holmes distracts Watson by relating the case.

Holmes had been at college with Reginald Musgrave (you keep expecting him to be Sir Reginald) and although not close friends, Musgrave had been impressed with the talents Holmes had displayed in school. When Musgrave’s butler Brunton goes missing not long after being found rifling through Musgrave family papers, Musgrave asks Holmes for help.

Brunton had been looking at a scrap of paper that held the Musgrave ritual, a piece of doggerel handed down to each Musgrave heir:

“‘Whose was it?’
“‘His who is gone.’
“‘Who shall have it?’
“‘He who will come.’
“‘Where was the sun?’
“‘Over the oak.’
“‘Where was the shadow?’
“‘Under the elm.’
“How was it stepped?’
“‘North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.’
“‘What shall we give for it?’
“‘All that is ours.’
“‘Why should we give it?’
“‘For the sake of the trust.’”

Holmes quickly deduces the words are a map to a treasure and follows the clues. He and Musgrave eventually find a flagstone with an iron ring in a cellar of Hurlstone, the ancient Musgrave family estate. After contacting the local police, they lift the flagstone and find the butler at the bottom of a small pit, dead of suffocation. Next to the body are the remains of a chest and several corroded coins. Everyone is baffled except Holmes, who connects the chest and coins to some bits of metal and glass stones that the police had earlier found when dragging the estate’s lake. The police had been searching the lake for the body of second housemaid Rachel Howe, who had also gone missing. She had been Brunton’s favorite before he discarded her for another maid and had basically been on suicide watch after the butler’s disappearance (suffering from that wonderful Victorian malady, brain fever).

Portrait of King Charles I at the National Portrait GalleryAgain, Holmes is the only person who connects the ancient ritual, the missing butler, the missing maid and the fact that the Musgraves were supporters of King Charles I, who lost not only his crown but also his head in 1649. According to the official British monarchy website, Charles’ crown was broken up by command of Oliver Cromwell, lord protector of England whose New Model Army defeated the royalists in the Second English Civil War.

MUSG, of course, isn’t a standard Baker Street story. Although it begins in their sitting room and Watson informs us of a number of Holmes peculiarities (the Persian slippers used as tobacco case, the correspondence affixed to the mantel with a jackknife and the patriotic VR shot into the wall) and a plethora of previous cases (“the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife”), Watson is left behind because as previously mentioned, “these were all done prematurely before my biographer had come to glorify me.” (The story also doesn’t have the familiar Holmes surprising a client by dissecting his life à la Jabez Wilson from The Red-Headed League.)

We rejoin Watson at the end of the story, making a neat bookend, but I always feel the loss of Watson as the narrator. I always feel Watson would have done more justice to Brunton’s tawdry romance and betrayal of the maid Rachel, which Holmes rather too succinctly relates. Holmes does indulge in a nice bit of speculation as to the distress of the maid Rachel, after she abandons Brunton to his fate in the pit. (We never learn Rachel’s fate.)

The story has been dramatized in the Granada series (reset so that Watson can take part) and loosely adapted in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. I love the old Universal movie, even though it’s one of those World War II-era Holmes stories. The ritual has been remade as moves in a chess game (with human chess pieces). And wikipedia informs me MUSG was done as part of the BBC Peter Cushing series, but the episode has been lost.

As with most Holmes stories, the various adaptations, all the Baring-Gould and Klinger annotations and my deteriorating brain cells have colluded to make MUSG a happy memory greater than the sum of its parts. For there are some problems and discordant notes in the original story. The most glaring problem is the seemingly complete imbecility of the Musgrave heirs:

Musgrave tells Holmes:
“To my surprise it was nothing of any importance at all, but simply a copy of the questions and answers in the singular old observance called the Musgrave Ritual. It is a sort of ceremony peculiar to our family, which each Musgrave for centuries past has gone through on his coming of age—a thing of private interest, and perhaps of some little importance to the archaeologist, like our own blazonings and charges, but of no practical use whatever.”

At some point in the Musgrave lineage, the true meaning of the ritual was lost, and yet it could not be more clearly directions to a treasure than if it had a large X to mark the spot. As Holmes remarks: “You will excuse me, Musgrave, if I say that your butler appears to me to have been a very clever man, and to have had a clearer insight than ten generations of his masters.” And the Musgrave family could clearly have used the money to repair the abandoned older wing of the manor.

Second, Musgrave rather summarily dismisses his supposedly highly valued butler (“The butler of Hurlstone is always a thing that is remembered by all who visit us”) for looking at something “of no practical use whatever.”

He tells Brunton: “This is how you repay the trust which we have reposed in you. You will leave my service to-morrow.” And later: “You don’t deserve much consideration, Brunton,” I answered. “Your conduct has been most infamous. However, as you have been a long time in the family, I have no wish to bring public disgrace upon you. A month, however is too long. Take yourself away in a week, and give what reason you like for going.”

Musgrave doesn’t offer Brunton a second chance or ask him for an explanation, despite the butler’s twenty years service.

Further difficulties are found in Baring-Gould’s annotations where he mentions the exclusion of the lines indicating in what month to observe the shadow cast by the elm (“The sixth from the first” was added in later editions) and the fact that the height of the oak and the elm may have been considerably different at the time the ritual was originally composed. (In fact the elm had been cut down ten years previous but Musgrave remembered its height because his old tutor had used the height of the tree in trigonometry lessons.)

And one of my fellow DWNP Sherlockians Sunday pointed out that successive generations of Musgraves had failed to investigate the flagstone with its iron ring in the cellar, although presumably the generations who still understood the meaning of the ritual would have no reason to open the slab. (Musgrave led Holmes to the cellar, so he was aware of it, although the flagstone had been covered up.)

The final difficulty lies in the description of the items dragged from the lake: “It was a linen bag which contained within it a mass of old rusted and discolored metal and several dull-colored pieces of pebble or glass.” Even if we accept the idea that the crown had escaped destruction and that the ancient Musgraves had hidden it, its gold and precious jewels should still have been apparent even to PC Plod in western Sussex.

In fact the story concludes with Holmes telling Watson that, quite improbably: “They have the crown down at Hurlstone—though they had some legal bother and a considerable sum to pay before they were allowed to retain it.” I doubt Queen Victoria was amused at the idea of the Musgraves keeping what was obviously the property of the monarch no matter how considerable a sum the Musgraves had raised to retain “a mass of old rusted and discolored metal and several dull-colored pieces of pebble or glass.”

These are all quibbles, of course, and none of them reflect adversely on Holmes’ skill in solving the mystery. The adventure is full of those details that provide so much of what we associate with that sitting room on Baker Street and even though Watson is not part of the story, it is impossible to miss the easy familiarity between the two men. I don’t wish to add fuel to those speculations about their relationship, but I can’t help but think of spouses who know how to sidetrack their mate, the way Holmes distracts Watson with one of his early cases. And thank goodness it worked, or we would not have learned of The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.

PS You might also want to read Jaime Mahoney’s post comparing Musgrave with another of Holmes’ college chums and Sherlock Peoria’s musings (they call him Sir Reginald) on the story. And the next Outpatients’ Meeting should be at 12:30 p.m. July 8th at Pint’s Pub and the story to be discussed will be The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: