The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 Next page
Holmes shook his head gravely. "It would cease to be a danger if we could
define it," said he. "But at any time, day or night, a telegram would bring me
down to your help."
"That is enough." She rose briskly from her chair with the anxiety all
swept from her face. "I shall go down to Hampshire quite easy in my mind now. I
shall write to Mr. Rucastle at once, sacrifice my poor hair to-night, and start
for Winchester to-morrow." With a few grateful words to Holmes she bade us both
good-night and bustled off upon her way.
"At least," said I as we heard her quick, firm steps descending the stairs,
"she seems to be a young lady who is very well able to take care of herself."
"And she would need to be," said Holmes gravely. "I am much mistaken if we
do not hear from her before many days are past."
It was not very long before my friend's prediction was fulfilled. A
fortnight went by, during which I frequently found my thoughts turning in her
direction and wondering what strange side-alley of human experience this lonely
woman had strayed into. The unusual salary, the curious conditions, the light
duties, all pointed to something abnormal, though whether a fad or a plot, or
whether the man were a philanthropist or a villain, it was quite beyond my
powers to determine. As to Holmes, I observed that he sat frequently for half an
hour on end, with knitted brows and an abstracted air, but he swept the matter
away with a wave of his hand when I mentioned it. "Data! data! data!" he cried
impatiently. "I can't make bricks without clay." And yet he would always wind up
by muttering that no sister of his should ever have accepted such a situation.
The telegram which we eventually received came late one night just as I was
thinking of turning in and Holmes was settling down to one of those all-night
chemical researches which he frequently indulged in, when I would leave him
stooping over a retort and a test-tube at night and find him in the same
position when I came down to breakfast in the morning. He opened the yellow
envelope, and then, glancing at the message, threw it across to me.
"Just look up the trains in Bradshaw," said he, and turned back to his
The summons was a brief and urgent one.
"Please be at the Black Swan Hotel at Winchester at midday to-morrow," it
said. "Do come! I am at my wit's end. HUNTER."
"Will you come with me?" asked Holmes, glancing up.
"I should wish to."
"Just look it up, then."
"There is a train at half-past nine," said I, glancing over my Bradshaw.
"It is due at Winchester at 11:30."
"That will do very nicely. Then perhaps I had better postpone my analysis
of the acetones, as we may need to be at our best in the morning."
By eleven o'clock the next day we were well upon our way to the old English
capital. Holmes had been buried in the morning papers all the way down, but
after we had passed the Hampshire border he threw them down and began to admire
the scenery. It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little
fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very
brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to
a man's energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around
Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from
amid the light green of the new foliage.
"Are they not fresh and beautiful?" I cried with all the enthusiasm of a
man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.
But Holmes shook his head gravely.
"Do you know, Watson," said he, "that it is one of the curses of a mind
with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own
special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by
their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a
feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed
"Good heavens!" I cried. "Who would associate crime with these dear old
"They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson,
founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not
present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful
"You horrify me!"
"But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in
the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the
scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget
sympathy and indignation among the neighbors, and then the whole machinery of
justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is
but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each
in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know
little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness
which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser. Had this
lady who appeals to us for help gone to live in Winchester, I should never have
had a fear for her. It is the five miles of country which makes the danger.
Still, it is clear that she is not personally threatened."
"No. If she can come to Winchester to meet us she can get away."
"Quite so. She has her freedom."
"What CAN be the matter, then? Can you suggest no explanation?"
"I have devised seven separate explanations, each of which would cover the
facts as far as we know them. But which of these is correct can only be
determined by the fresh information which we shall no doubt find waiting for us.
Well, there is the tower of the cathedral, and we shall soon learn all that Miss
Hunter has to tell."
The Black Swan is an inn of repute in the High Street, at no distance from
the station, and there we found the young lady waiting for us. She had engaged a
sitting-room, and our lunch awaited us upon the table.
"I am so delighted that you have come," she said earnestly. "It is so very
kind of you both; but indeed I do not know what I should do. Your advice will be
altogether invaluable to me." "Pray tell us what has happened to you."
"I will do so, and I must be quick, for I have promised Mr. Rucastle to be
back before three. I got his leave to come into town this morning, though he
little knew for what purpose."
"Let us have everything in its due order." Holmes thrust his long thin legs
out towards the fire and composed himself to listen.
"In the first place, I may say that I have met, on the whole, with no
actual ill-treatment from Mr. and Mrs. Rucastle. It is only fair to them to say
that. But I cannot understand them, and I am not easy in my mind about them."
"What can you not understand?"
"Their reasons for their conduct. But you shall have it all just as it
occurred. When I came down, Mr. Rucastle met me here and drove me in his
dog-cart to the Copper Beeches. It is, as he said, beautifully situated, but it
is not beautiful in itself, for it is a large square block of a house,
whitewashed, but all stained and streaked with damp and bad weather. There are
grounds round it, woods on three sides, and on the fourth a field which slopes
down to the Southampton highroad, which curves past about a hundred yards from
the front door. This ground in front belongs to the house, but the woods all
round are part of Lord Southerton's preserves. A clump of copper beeches
immediately in front of the hall door has given its name to the place.
"I was driven over by my employer, who was as amiable as ever, and was
introduced by him that evening to his wife and the child. There was no truth,
Mr. Holmes, in the conjecture which seemed to us to be probable in your rooms at
Baker Street. Mrs. Rucastle is not mad. I found her to be a silent, pale-faced
woman, much younger than her husband, not more than thirty, I should think,
while he can hardly be less than forty-five. From their conversation I have
gathered that they have been married about seven years, that he was a widower,
and that his only child by the first wife was the daughter who has gone to
Philadelphia. Mr. Rucastle told me in private that the reason why she had left
them was that she had an unreasoning aversion to her stepmother. As the daughter
could not have been less than twenty, I can quite imagine that her position must
have been uncomfortable with her father's young wife.
"Mrs. Rucastle seemed to me to be colorless in mind as well as in feature.
She impressed me neither favorably nor the reverse. She was a nonentity. It was
easy to see that she was passionately devoted both to her husband and to her
little son. Her light gray eyes wandered continually from one to the other,
noting every little want and forestalling it if possible. He was kind to her
also in his bluff, boisterous fashion, and on the whole they seemed to be a
happy couple. And yet she had some secret sorrow, this woman. She would often be
lost in deep thought, with the saddest look upon her face. More than once I have
surprised her in tears. I have thought sometimes that it was the disposition of
her child which weighed upon her mind, for I have never met so utterly spoiled
and so ill-natured a little creature. He is small for his age, with a head which
is quite disproportionately large. His whole life appears to be spent in an
alternation between savage fits of passion and gloomy intervals of sulking.
Giving pain to any creature weaker than himself seems to be his one idea of
amusement, and he shows quite remarkable talent in planning the capture of mice,
little birds, and insects. But I would rather not talk about the creature, Mr.
Holmes, and, indeed, he has little to do with my story."
"I am glad of all details," remarked my friend, "whether they seem to you
to be relevant or not."
"I shall try not to miss anything of importance. The one unpleasant thing
about the house, which struck me at once, was the appearance and conduct of the
servants. There are only two, a man and his wife. Toller, for that is his name,
is a rough, uncouth man, with grizzled hair and whiskers, and a perpetual smell
of drink. Twice since I have been with them he has been quite drunk, and yet Mr.
Rucastle seemed to take no notice of it. His wife is a very tall and strong
woman with a sour face, as silent as Mrs. Rucastle and much less amiable. They
are a most unpleasant couple, but fortunately I spend most of my time in the
nursery and my own room, which are next to each other in one corner of the
"For two days after my arrival at the Copper Beeches my life was very
quiet; on the third, Mrs. Rucastle came down just after breakfast and whispered
something to her husband.
"'Oh, yes,' said he, turning to me, 'we are very much obliged to you, Miss
Hunter, for falling in with our whims so far as to cut your hair. I assure you
that it has not detracted in the tiniest iota from your appearance. We shall now
see how the electric-blue dress will become you. You will find it laid out upon
the bed in your room, and if you would be so good as to put it on we should both
be extremely obliged.'
"The dress which I found waiting for me was of a peculiar shade of blue. It
was of excellent material, a sort of beige, but it bore unmistakable signs of
having been worn before. It could not have been a better fit if I had been
measured for it. Both Mr. and Mrs. Rucastle expressed a delight at the look of
it, which seemed quite exaggerated in its vehemence. They were waiting for me in
the drawing-room, which is a very large room, stretching along the entire front
of the house, with three long windows reaching down to the floor. A chair had
been placed close to the central window, with its back turned towards it. In
this I was asked to sit, and then Mr. Rucastle, walking up and down on the other
side of the room, began to tell me a series of the funniest stories that I have
ever listened to. You cannot imagine how comical he was, and I laughed until I
was quite weary. Mrs. Rucastle, however, who has evidently no sense of humour,
never so much as smiled, but sat with her hands in her lap, and a sad, anxious
look upon her face. After an hour or so, Mr. Rucastle suddenly remarked that it
was time to commence the duties of the day, and that I might change my dress and
go to little Edward in the nursery.
"Two days later this same performance was gone through under exactly
similar circumstances. Again I changed my dress, again I sat in the window, and
again I laughed very heartily at the funny stories of which my employer had an
immense repertoire, and which he told inimitably. Then he handed me a
yellow-backed novel, and moving my chair a little sideways, that my own shadow
might not fall upon the page, he begged me to read aloud to him. I read for
about ten minutes, beginning in the heart of a chapter, and then suddenly, in
the middle of a sentence, he ordered me to cease and to change my dress.
"You can easily imagine, Mr. Holmes, how curious I became as to what the
meaning of this extraordinary performance could possibly be. They were always
very careful, I observed, to turn my face away from the window, so that I became
consumed with the desire to see what was going on behind my back. At first it
seemed to be impossible, but I soon devised a means. My hand-mirror had been
broken, so a happy thought seized me, and I concealed a piece of the glass in my
handkerchief. On the next occasion, in the midst of my laughter, I put my
handkerchief up to my eyes, and was able with a little management to see all
that there was behind me. I confess that I was disappointed. There was nothing.
At least that was my first impression. At the second glance, however, I
perceived that there was a man standing in the Southampton Road, a small bearded
man in a gray suit, who seemed to be looking in my direction. The road is an
important highway, and there are usually people there. This man, however, was
leaning against the railings which bordered our field and was looking earnestly
up. I lowered my handkerchief and glanced at Mrs. Rucastle to find her eyes