"The Speckled Band" and
"The Copper Beeches":
A Brief Comparison
Part 2 of 3

by Drew R. Thomas

WARNING: Spoiler!

You may want to read "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" before reading this article.

(Both are found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.)

To continue our theme of Doyle's use of plot elements and devices in more than one instance, let us examine two short stories that are remarkably similar in structure, theme, and development. I consider the broad outline of each of these stories to be a skeletal framework, before the "meat" is put on to flesh them out.

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I also find it fascinating that both stories appear in the same collection of short stories. With Doyle's masterful craftsmanship (and sleight of hand) I never realized how very similar they are until I took a closer look. In addition, a non-Sherlock Holmes story -- "The Brazilian Cat" (which you can read for FREE in the Reading Room) relied on many of the same elements. In the two Holmes stories, the skeletal framework and the motivation are the same.

Similarities in Both Stories

In both cases, the villain is the step-father or father. It is his responsibility to manage the estate's money appropriately. A considerable portion is to go to his step-daughter (in "The Speckled Band") or daughter (in "The Copper Beeches") when she marries. (This is stipulated in the wife's will.) But in both cases the villain has been living extremely well at the young woman's expense, dipping into the money for his own selfish wants.

When the step-daughter becomes engaged or has a suitor, the villain's position is jeopardized. He will lose access to the money and be forced to reduce his lifestyle. Worse, still, he is threatened with exposure and may well be forced to give an account of his financial mismanagement/embezzlement. He would likely be expected to settle accounts and may face jail time. (None of this is explicitly mentioned in the canon but one can well imagine the legal consequences.)

In both stories, a young woman brings the case to Holmes:

  • In "The Speckled Band," Helen Stoner -- the step-daughter herself -- brings the case to Holmes. The poor girl is frightened.

  • In "The Copper Beeches," Miss Violet Hunter brings the case to Holmes. Miss Hunter is a governess hired by the villain, ostensibly to take charge of the villain's young son. (The man's daughter appears much later in the story.) The governess is not so much frightened as perplexed by the eccentric behavior of her employer. In fact, she initially comes to Holmes for advice on whether she should take a position with an individual who displays such erratic behavior.

Dr. Watson describes Miss Stoner's interview with Holmes:

"It is not the cold that makes me shiver, " said the woman in a low voice....

"What, then?"

"It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror."

--"The Speckled Band"

Miss Hunter describes the unusual and alarming questions her potential employer puts to her:

"'My sole duties, then,' I asked, 'are to take charge of a single child?'

"'No, no, not the sole, not the sole, my dear young lady,' he cried. 'Your duty would be, as I am sure your good sense would suggest, to obey any little commands my wife might give, provided always that they were such commands as a lady might with propriety obey. You see no difficulty, heh?'

"'I should be happy to make myself useful.'

"'Quite so. In dress now, for example. We are faddy people, you know--faddy but kind-hearted. If you were asked to wear any dress which we might give you, you would not object to our little whim. Heh?'

"'No,' said I, considerably astonished at his words.

"'Or to sit here, or sit there, that would not be offensive to you?'

"'Oh, no.'

"'Or to cut your hair quite short before you come to us?'

"I could hardly believe my ears. As you may observe, Mr. Holmes, my hair is somewhat luxuriant, and of a rather peculiar tint of chestnut. It has been considered artistic. I could not dream of sacrificing it in this offhand fashion.

"'I am afraid that that is quite impossible,' said I. He had been watching me eagerly out of his small eyes, and I could see a shadow pass over his face as I spoke.

"'I am afraid that it is quite essential,' said he. 'It is a little fancy of my wife's, and ladies' fancies, you know, madam, ladies' fancies must be consulted. And so you won't cut your hair?'

"'No, sir, I really could not,' I answered firmly.

"'Ah, very well; then that quite settles the matter. It is a pity, because in other respects you would really have done very nicely. In that case, Miss Stoper, I had best inspect a few more of your young ladies.'

--"The Copper Beeches"

In both stories, Holmes visits his client on the villain's estate. In order to investigate, Holmes must synchronize his visit to a time when the villain is off the premises. When concluding his investigation, he advises his clients to send him a telegram if and when they need him. In both cases this happens.

Both villains have animals that turn upon them in the end:

  • Dr. Roylott has a cheetah, a baboon, and "the deadliest snake in India."
  • Jephro Rucastle has a mastiff who is underfed in order to keep him vicious. 

Differences Between the Two Stories

But there were differences between the villains, too, and this contributes to the stories being so different and so memorable.

  • Dr. Grimesby Roylott was nasty all through. And he was short tempered and extremely strong.

  • Jephro Rucastle had a jovial veneer. But his true colors would show through every once in a while.

The following is from Helen Stoner's account to Holmes:

"In a fit of anger...he beat his native butler to death and narrowly escaped a capital sentence....

"Last week he hurled the local blacksmith over a parapet into a stream, and it was only by paying over all the money which I could gather together that I was able to avert another public exposure."

--"The Speckled Band"

Miss Hunter describes her interview with Jephro Rucastle:

"'And my duties, sir? I should be glad to know what they would be.'

"'One child--one dear little romper just six years old. Oh, if you could see him killing cockroaches with a slipper! Smack! smack! smack! Three gone before you could wink!' He leaned back in his chair and laughed his eyes into his head again.

"I was a little startled at the nature of the child's amusement, but the father's laughter made me think that perhaps he was joking."

--"The Copper Beeches"

Jephro Rucastle's description of his son gives Holmes immediate insight into Rucastle himself, as the following exchange between Holmes and Watson demonstrates:

"The most serious point in the case is the disposition of the child."

"What on earth has that to do with it?" I ejaculated.

"My dear Watson, you as a medical man are continually gaining light as to the tendencies of a child by the study of the parents. Don't you see that the converse is equally valid. I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children. This child's disposition is abnormally cruel, merely for cruelty's sake, and whether he derives this from his smiling father, as I should suspect, or from his mother, it bodes evil for the poor girl who is in their power."

--"The Copper Beeches"

Rucastle's disposition and true nature burst through his facade for a moment when he encounters Miss Hunter exploring a wing of the house which he considers off limits. She describes the encounter, and what he says to her, as follows:

" 'Why do you think that I lock this door?'

" 'I am sure that I do not know.'

" 'It is to keep people out who have no business there. Do you see?' He was still smiling in the most amiable manner.

" 'I am sure if I had known--'

" 'Well, then, you know now. 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.' "

--"The Copper Beeches"

Recommendation: First Read the Stories for Fun

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One wants to recommend reading the stories through in the order they were published first.

A number of Sherlockians have attempted to put the cases into a chronological order. Once you read through them one or more times, it is fun to try to follow such a chronology, for these Sherlockians attempt to answer many questions arising from loose ends and slight inconsistencies among the stories. (Doyle endeavored simply to tell a good story, and was not necessarily concerned with discrepancies.)

Finally, for those so inclined, it can be well worth your efforts to group stories as I have done in these two articles and to compare and contrast them to uncover their similarities and differences. 

Note: This is the second of a three-part series of articles. See Part 1: "For a Moment I Thought You Had Done Something Clever" and Part 3 : "The Adventure of the Cornish Boatman."

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