The Speckled Band is one of those Sherlock Holmes stories that’s almost as famous for its bizarre errors as it is for the exciting story of the wait in the darkened room for the swamp adder to come slithering down the bell pull. And it was the topic at the most recent Outpatients meeting of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, the Sherlock Holmes scion society in Denver.
Julia had mentioned to her sister that she’d heard a strange whistling at night in the days before her death. Julia was in the bedroom next to that of her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, a villain if ever there were one. He’d married Helen and Julia’s mother in India when the twin girls were two. Mrs. Roylott died eight years previous and Dr. Roylott took the girls to live in his ancestral home, Stoke Moran in Surrey. It’s a suitably awful place, left in bad repair by previous generations of Roylotts and now home to a menagerie that includes a baboon and a cheetah and also a band of gypsies. Roylott’s only income comes from the money his wife left him; his career in India having been marred by long imprisonment for having beat his native butler to death.
Now two years later, Helen Stoner finds herself in Julia’s room because of unexplained renovations to Helen’s room and now Helen hears strange whistling in the night.
Immediately after she leaves, Roylott shows up, threatens Holmes and demonstrates his strength by bending a poker with his bare hands, which Holmes straightens after Roylott leaves.
Another parallel to Julia’s death is that Helen is also engaged to be married soon. Holmes soon discovers that according to the will of the girls’ mother, each daughter would get £250 per year upon their marrying and that the total value of the income was £750. Holmes tells Watson Roylott could ill afford either girl marrying. They then travel to Surrey, having told Helen they would meet her at Stoke Moran before her stepfather returned home from London.
Holmes investigates the bedroom where Julia died and his original theory that someone had entered the room from outside won’t work because the window, doors and chimney are secure. He does discover some peculiarities about the room however: there’s a ventilator shared with Roylott’s bedroom and not the outside; there’s a bell pull that doesn’t actually communicate with the servants’ hall; and the bed is bolted to the floor (although he doesn’t inform Watson of this until later). He also investigates Roylott’s bedroom and sees a chair directly underneath the ventilator, a locked safe and a bowl of milk on top of it.
These clues are enough for Holmes. He tells Helen to stay in her bedroom, despite the renovations to it, and to leave the window open to Julia’s room. They return that night and take up vigil in the darkened bedroom. Then Watson smells something burning and deduces that Roylott has lit a dark lantern in his room and then hears a sound like “a small jet of steam escaping continually from a kettle.” Holmes springs into action and attacks something with his cane. A few seconds later, they hear a scream from Roylott’s room. Holmes, Watson and Miss Stone, alarmed by the sound, rush to Roylott’s room and find him dead, with a speckled band wound tightly about his head. “It is a swamp adder!” cried Holmes; “the deadliest snake in India.”
Roylott had trained his snake, which he kept in the safe, to crawl up and down the bell pull and after several attempts it bit Julia. He recalled the snake by whistling and fed it milk from the saucer atop the safe. He’d tried the same with Helen the previous night. On this night, however, Holmes striking the snake with his cane drove it back to his master.
It’s a great story, despite the well-known errors: there is no such snake as a swamp adder, snakes can’t crawl up ropes, snakes are lactose intolerant and snakes are deaf. Fortunately it’s the broader elements of the story that we remember: the baboon and cheetah on the estate; Holmes straightening the poker; the sneering Roylott; the vigil in the dark room (very reminiscent of The Red-Headed League); and Holmes’ concern for Watson.
That last element we see very plainly here:
“Do you know, Watson,” said Holmes as we sat together in the gathering darkness, “I have really some scruples as to taking you to-night. There is a distinct element of danger.”
Watson brushes this off, however, eager to help his friend. What’s odd is that if Holmes were truly concerned for Watson, he should have explained the exact nature of the risk: I’m expecting a deadly snake to come slithering down a bell pull in a pitch dark room.
Another puzzling element is that if I, like Julia, had seen a snake come down a bell pull and bite me, my first words would be “Snake bit me!” Julia had time to light a candle, so she presumably clearly saw the snake and one of the peculiarities about humans, I think, is that we know a snake when we see one.
At times it almost seems as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were deliberately toying with us. For instance, Helen Stoner says she was able to come to London to talk to Holmes because her stepfather was also coming to London for business. She then refuses to have breakfast with Holmes and Watson because of her own business in London. And we know from stories like The Five Orange Pips that it’s never a good idea for Holmes to let a client wander off on their own. And this story begins with Watson telling us he is only able to relate the story because of the untimely death of their client. Naturally you’re left wondering whether she met a natural death. You also suspect the death of the girls’ mother.
Finally, for those of you who are Janeites, there’s a nice reference to the Regency. Speaking of Stoke Moran, Helen Stoner says:
“In the last century, however, four successive heirs were of a dissolute and wasteful disposition, and the family ruin was eventually completed by a gambler in the days of the Regency. Nothing was left save a few acres of ground, and the two-hundred-year-old house, which is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage.”
In his annotated Sherlock Holmes, Baring-Gould likes to imagine a Roylott being part of the inner circle of the Prince Regent, playing cards with Beau Brummel and Lord Byron, and I also like to think of an earlier Roylott being a member of the Hellfire Club. Of course something completely counter to the works of Jane Austen is the thought of Stoke Moran being heavily mortgaged, making it unlikely that it was entailed. An entail protected an estate from spendthrift heirs because it effectively couldn’t be mortgaged; an heir would inherit on the death of the predecessor regardless of the mortgage.
The next Outpatients meeting is at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at Pint’s Pub in Denver. The story to be discussed will The Gloria Scott.