Sometimes I appreciate a Sherlock Holmes story because of the Great Detective’s inspired logic—“the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”—or because of its Gothic horror—“the footprints of a gigantic hound”—or the insight it offers into the relationship between the detective and his Boswell—“You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”1 But I also enjoy a Sherlock Holmes story that has faulty logic, Gothic horror and a possible weird insight into the Holmes-Watson dynamic—in short, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.
Please don’t think that I dislike the story. It’s quite a good read, if you ignore the fact that it’s one of those Holmes stories that really doesn’t require the presence of Holmes and Watson. In the cold light of the logic of which Holmes waxes poetic at the beginning of the story, we’d have to say things might have turned out better for some of the characters (poor Carlo!) had the Baker Street duo not been involved.
Here’s a synopsis (click here to bypass the synopsis): After waxing poetic about logic and teasing Watson about his treatment and the choice of their published adventures, they receive a visit from Miss Violet Hunter, who asks whether she should accept the position of governess offered by Mr. Jephro Rucastle. She’s been reluctant to do so because although he has offered very generous wages, he requires that she cut short her long hair. Being very proud of her hair she at first refuses, but her outstanding debts and a further entreaty from Rucastle (and an even more generous salary), has made her decide to accept the offer. Still, she’d appreciate Holmes’ advice and would like to know whether he would “have the back of me” should anything untoward happen.
Holmes advises her: “I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for.” However, he adds: “any time, day or night, a telegram would bring me down to your help.” Two weeks later, such a telegram arrives and Holmes and Watson travel to Winchester where they meet Miss Hunter at an inn.
She explains: “In the first place, I may say that I have met, on the whole, with no actual ill-treatment” from Mr. Rucastle or his wife, but she has found their behavior and their demands quite unsettling. The Rucastle’s child, who is her charge, has a cruel streak and “shows quite remarkable talent in planning the capture of mice, little birds, and insects.” Rucastle also keeps a hungry mastiff, Carlo, who wanders the grounds of his home, The Copper Beeches, at night. His servants, the Tollers, are also unpleasant, while his wife seems a non-entity. Rucastle, however, for the most part, treats her well and plays the part of a jolly fat man, with some exceptions.
Their demands are quite strange. In addition to their requirement that she cut her hair, which she had already done, they ask her to wear an electric blue dress that belonged to their daughter, who Rucastle explains now lives in America. They sit her in their drawing-room with her back to the windows that overlook the busy road to Southampton. Then Rucastle entertains her for an hour with funny stories that cause her to laugh uncontrollably, after which she returns to her normal clothing and the care of little Edward.
The third time she’s asked to do this, she uses a mirror to observe what might be happening in the road behind her and she sees a small, bearded man observing her! Mrs. Rucastle also sees the man, and possibly Miss Hunter’s trick with the mirror, and asks Miss Hunter to turn and shoo the man away, which she does.
As odd at this seems, an even more odd thing happens when she discovers, in a locked drawer in her own room, a coil of hair identical in color to her own. It’s so identical, in fact, that she thought it was her own hair that she saved after cutting it. She finds her own hair, however, still in her trunk.
Another unsettling incident happens when she investigates locked rooms from which she has seen Rucastle and the man Toller leave. When the drunken Toller leaves his keys in the door, she finds a hallway leading to a locked room. In the dim light and close air, she is alarmed by the presence of someone inside the room, and runs away straight into the arms of Rucastle, who warns her: “‘And if you ever put your foot over that threshold again’—here in an instant the smile hardened into a grin of rage, and he glared down at me with the face of a demon—‘I’ll throw you to the mastiff.’”
She tells all this to Holmes and Watson at the inn. She’s been able to get away to meet them, but must return before the Rucastles leave for the evening. Holmes asks whether the servant Toller is drunk and whether there is a locked cellar where Miss Hunter could imprison Mrs. Toller.
Miss Hunter says Toller is still drunk, the mastiff is locked up and there is a locked cellar. It is agreed that she will lure Mrs. Toller into the wine cellar, lock her in and await her arrival. Holmes also tells her and Watson of his surmises—that she has been hired to unknowingly impersonate Rucastle’s daughter from his first marriage and that Alice Rucastle is being kept prisoner in the locked room.
“You were chosen, doubtless, as resembling her in height, figure, and the colour of your hair. Hers had been cut off, very possibly in some illness through which she has passed, and so, of course, yours had to be sacrificed also.”
Watson and Holmes arrive at The Copper Beeches, but five miles distant from Winchester in rural Hampshire, at seven that evening. Miss Hunter greets them at the door and a loud, thudding noise assures them that Mrs. Toller is out of play. They ascend to the mysterious room but are surprised to find it empty. I reproduce the next passage in full because of its curious implications.
It was an old rickety door and gave at once before our united strength. Together we rushed into the room. It was empty. There was no furniture save a little pallet bed, a small table, and a basketful of linen. The skylight above was open, and the prisoner gone.
“There has been some villainy here,” said Holmes; “this beauty has guessed Miss Hunter’s intentions and has carried his victim off.”
“Through the skylight. We shall soon see how he managed it.” He swung himself up onto the roof. “Ah, yes,” he cried, “here’s the end of a long light ladder against the eaves. That is how he did it.”
“But it is impossible,” said Miss Hunter; “the ladder was not there when the Rucastles went away.”
“He has come back and done it. I tell you that he is a clever and dangerous man. I should not be very much surprised if this were he whose step I hear now upon the stair. I think, Watson, that it would be as well for you to have your pistol ready.”
Then Rucastle enters the room and Holmes confronts him:
“You villain!” said he, “where’s your daughter?”
The fat man cast his eyes round, and then up at the open skylight.
“It is for me to ask you that,” he shrieked, “you thieves! Spies and thieves! I have caught you, have I? You are in my power. I’ll serve you!” He turned and clattered down the stairs as hard as he could go.
“He’s gone for the dog!” cried Miss Hunter.
Rucastle does indeed leave them to release the mastiff but the hungry beast falls on Rucastle instead. To save the man’s life, Watson shoots the dog.
Mrs. Toller, who’d been freed by Rucastle after he’d returned home, confirms that indeed Alice Rucastle had been imprisoned by her father because of her refusal to sign over the rights to her inheritance to him. Miss Rucastle had fallen in love with a seaman, Mr. Fowler, the same man that Miss Hunter had seen observing her from the road. Fowler had also been paying Mrs. Toller for information about Alice and also plying Mr. Toller with drink.
Rucastle survives but is a broken man. Fowler and Alice marry and he attains a government position in Mauritius. Miss Hunter becomes a headmistress at a private school.