Nothing succeeds like success and by all measures The Adventure of the Abbey Grange is a success for Sherlock Holmes, but it’s chilling how nearly he failed to understand the actual events that led to the death of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. Of course, a peculiarity of this adventure is that the outcome would be the same even had Holmes not sussed out the truth.
The story, part of the The Return of Sherlock Holmes, starts in the early morning of a cold and frosty day in 1897 with Holmes rousing his friend and biographer Dr. John H. Watson from sleep with that famous phrase: “Come, Watson, come! … The game is afoot.” Holmes has received a message from Inspector Stanley Hopkins requesting Holmes’ help:
Abbey Grange, Marsham, Kent, 3:30 A.M. MY DEAR MR. HOLMES:
I should be very glad of your immediate assistance in what promises to be a most remarkable case. It is something quite in your line. Except for releasing the lady I will see that everything is kept exactly as I have found it, but I beg you not to lose an instant, as it is difficult to leave Sir Eustace there. Yours faithfully, STANLEY HOPKINS.
When they arrive, Hopkins tells them he may have been premature in asking for help, for Lady Brackenstall has told him that Sir Eustace was killed when burglars invaded the baronet’s picturesque home, Abbey Grange. Although Hopkins is satisfied with the explanation, he asks Lady Brackenstall, the former Miss Mary Fraser of Adelaide, Australia, to relate the events to Holmes. She tells him that she never trusted her husband, a notorious and violent drunkard (he set her dog alight with petroleum), “to see that all was right” before going upstairs (presumably checking that the doors were locked). She was in the dining room when she noticed the French doors were opened and was startled by the entry of an elderly but powerful man who hit her over the head. She was felled to the ground and when she awoke later saw that she was bound to a chair and that the man had two accomplices, younger men whom she took to be sons of the older man.
Presently her husband arrived, armed with his “favourite blackthorn cudgel,” and rushed the burglars, but the older man took a fireplace poker and struck Sir Eustace dead. After this, the men took what silver they could, shared a glass of wine and left. She eventually managed to work free the gag they had placed in her mouth and called for help. Her maid, Theresa Wright, a faithful servant who had nursed her as a baby, heard the lady’s cries and roused the household.
It’s pretty clear to Watson that Holmes found this cut-and-dried account disappointing, having hoped for Hopkin’s promise of a remarkable case, but he still examines the dining room and the terrible corpse of Sir Eustace, the bell cord that the burglars had pulled down to secure Lady Brackentstall to the chair and the wine glasses, that still contain dregs. He notices that the 2/3s full wine bottle was opened with the screw from a “multiplex” knife—a Swiss Army knife to us—and that only one glass contained beeswing, the sediment that forms under the cork of very old wine.
Despite a few misgivings, he agrees with Hopkins’ belief that the assault was the work of the Lewisham gang and leaves with Watson for the train back to London. Those misgivings fester, however, and before they reach London they leave the train at a suburban station and go back to the Abbey Grange. Once they return, Holmes searches the dining room more thoroughly and finds a bloodstain on the chair where Lady Brackenstall was bound, indicating Sir Eustace was killed before she was bound. Also, Holmes climbs the fireplace mantle to examine where the bell rope was pulled down and sees that it actually was cut. His exertions also show him that “No one but an acrobat or a sailor could have got up to that bell-rope from the bracket, and no one but a sailor could have made the knots with which the cord was fastened to the chair.”
Armed with this information, Holmes and Watson return to London and check the shipping lines between England and Australia. They learn that the first officer of the ship on which Mary Fraser traveled to England is now the captain of his own ship and lives in Kent while waiting to sail. Holmes does not give this information to the police, however. Holmes says: “Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience.”
Instead, they return to Baker Street and wait for a visit from Crocker, who has been told of Holmes’ interest in him. He tells Holmes he fell in love with Mary Fraser on that trip, although they parted without any commitments. He later learns of her marriage to Sir Eustace and hopes she is happy. It is only on his last trip to Kent, while waiting for the ship, that he meets Lady Brackenstall’s maid who tells him of Sir Eustace’s cruel treatment of his wife.
Crocker also tells Holmes and Watson that he visited Abbey Grange the night of Sir Eustace’s death. “I crept round there last night and scratched at the window. At first she would not open to me, but in her heart I know that now she loves me, and she could not leave me in the frosty night.” She let him into the dining room and she confirms the abuse she has suffered at the hands of Sir Eustace. They are interrupted by the arrival of that man, however, and to defend himself, Crocker kills Sir Eustace with the poker. The maid arrives and takes charge and quickly composes the story told to the police.
Holmes agrees to let Crocker flee with twenty-four hours head start, but the captain says he won’t abandon the former Miss Fraser. Holmes offer was really a test of Crocker’s character, which passed, and Holmes and Watson find Crocker not guilty in the matter. “You are acquitted, Captain Crocker. So long as the law does not find some other victim you are safe from me. Come back to this lady in a year, and may her future and yours justify us in the judgment which we have pronounced this night!”