Literature Study GuidesThe Adventures Of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventure Of The Copper Beeches Summary

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Adventure of the Copper Beeches | Summary



Holmes and Watson discuss previous cases. As Watson observes, Holmes's cherry-wood pipe is out during the discussion, a signal "he [is] in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" (for the latter, he reserves his clay pipe). Holmes complains his practice "seems to be degenerating into an agency for recovering lost lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding schools." To prove his point, he passes to Watson a letter that arrived in the morning from a woman named Violet Hunter. She is seeking advice about whether or not she should accept a governess position that was offered to her, and it says she will be stopping by Baker Street that day.

As if on cue, the doorbell rings and Hunter enters. She introduces herself and explains she has come to Holmes because she doesn't have any relatives to consult with. She says she has been a governess for five years, but two months ago the family she had been working for moved to North America. In need of money and work, she recently visited a governess-placement agency in West London. At the agency she sat for an interview with the manager, Miss Stoper, and a potential client, a smiling and very fat man. When she entered the room the man "gave quite a jump in his chair" and immediately informed Stoper that Hunter was his choice. Despite her modest knowledge of French and German, the man offered her £100 per annum in exchange for taking care of a single child. The offer seemed exorbitant given the relatively modest responsibility and the fact that Hunter had received £4 per month at her previous job.

The man said he lived in a country house in Hampshire, five miles away from the town of Winchester. He explained that while the tasks were mostly straightforward—help bring up a six-year-old son and assist the man's wife—the family had a few additional requests. They would like Hunter to wear a dress they give her and to cut her hair short. The demands left Hunter flabbergasted; while she was willing to wear the dress, she was not willing to cut her hair, so she declined the offer and returned home. After seeing her bare cupboards and bills on the table, however, she decided it was silly to reject the position on account of the family's "strange fads," especially one that paid so well. Two days later she resolved to return to the agency, but before she left she received a letter from the man, Jephro Rucastle. Rucastle said his wife badly wanted Hunter to work for them, so they were raising their offer to £120 a year for humoring their fads. He said they would like her to wear an electric blue dress in the mornings, but rather than buy one she may wear an old dress of the Rucastles' daughter, who has gone to live in Philadelphia. She will, of course, also have to cut her hair.

Hunter asks Holmes what she should do. In typical understatement he says, "I confess it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for," but adds he has no idea what to make of the situation because he has "no data." Holmes worries the abnormally large payment is a red flag, but Hunter rationalizes accepting the job: the eccentric request is probably because of Mrs. Rucastle, who is probably mentally ill, and after all, it is a lot of money. Holmes assures her she may contact him any time if she's ever in danger. She thanks Holmes for his offer and goes home to write to Rucastle—and cut her hair. After she leaves Holmes tells Watson he will be surprised if they don't hear from her before long.

As Holmes predicted he receives a telegram from Hunter only two weeks later, asking him to come to the Black Swan Hotel in the town of Winchester the following day, and ending with the plea "Do come! I am at my wit's end." Watson and Holmes take the train to Winchester the following morning. It's a pleasant spring day, and Watson comments on how beautiful the countryside looks. Holmes strongly disagrees, saying that when he sees isolated houses, he sees crimes being committed with impunity, away from watchful eyes.

Holmes and Watson meet Hunter in a sitting room at the hotel, and she explains why she contacted Holmes. She says neither Mr. Rucastle nor his wife has actually mistreated her, but their bizarre conduct has been making her uneasy. As Rucastle said, the family lives in a large country house named Copper Beeches (so-named for the group of copper-colored beech trees in front). Mrs. Rucastle isn't mentally ill; she's a "silent, pale-faced woman" who appears around 30 years old, significantly younger than her husband, who seems to be in his mid-40s. Mr. Rucastle is a widower, and his daughter is from his first marriage. According to Mr. Rucastle, his daughter—who Hunter thinks is at least 20—was uneasy around her stepmother because they are so close in age. Mrs. Rucastle was completely inoffensive, "a nonentity," but occasionally she burst out in crying fits. She is a devoted mother to her six-year-old son, a mean and spoiled-rotten brat who takes pleasure in hurting small animals. A pair of servants, a married couple named the Tollers, also live in the house. Mr. Toller is frequently drunk, and Mrs. Toller seems to be humorless and quiet.

Three days after Hunter's arrival, the Rucastles asked Hunter to try on the blue dress Mr. Rucastle had mentioned in his letter. The dress, which was laid out for Hunter in her bedroom, was a remarkably perfect fit. The couple then asked Hunter to sit in a chair next to one of the huge windows in the drawing room, a large space in the front of the house that overlooked the front lawn. The chair was turned around so Hunter faced the room. While she sat, Mr. Rucastle told different stories she found completely hilarious. This continued for an hour. This "performance" was repeated exactly two days later, except after telling funny stories for a while Mr. Rucastle directed Hunter to read a book out loud, which she did for 10 minutes.

Because her back was turned toward the window, Hunter wondered what was happening behind her, outside. During a subsequent performance, she took with her a small shard of glass, which she used to sneak glances behind her. On her second look, she saw a bearded man in a gray suit looking toward her. Mrs. Rucastle seemed to recognize that Hunter had seen something, however, and she dramatically objected to Mr. Rucastle that "there is an impertinent fellow upon the road there who stares up at Miss Hunter." Mr. Rucastle told Hunter to turn around and wave the man away; as she did so he dropped the blinds. Hunter has not been asked to stage her performance again since the incident.

Hunter offers other seemingly random tidbits about life at Copper Beeches. She learned there is an enormous and menacing mastiff that is let out to prowl the property at night. One night, while inspecting a chest of drawers in her room, she unlocked the bottom drawer and found a coil of hair that perfectly matched her own. Her most unsettling discovery, however, occurred in the wing of the house that was kept locked at all times. The door to it faces the door to the Tollers' quarters. One day, while Hunter was walking up the stairs, she came across Mr. Rucastle, who was exiting the mysterious locked door. He passed her wordlessly but appeared to be uncharacteristically agitated. When Hunter took the child outside for a walk a bit later, she walked around the house to casually inspect the wing from the outside. She noticed four windows; three were dirty, and one was shuttered. While she was walking, Mr. Rucastle came over to her and apologized for not acknowledging her on the stairs. She accepted his apologies, and then inquired about the rooms in the wing, a question that "surprised" and "startled" Rucastle; he responded that he kept a darkroom up there.

Hunter tells Holmes her interest in seeing inside the forbidden area only grew stronger—maybe because of her "woman's instinct"—and she determined to find her way in at the first opportunity. Her opportunity arrived the day before, when she sent her telegram to Holmes. The Tollers had access to the wing, and the previous day a drunken Mr. Toller left his keys in the lock; Hunter snuck in. She walked down an empty passage, and then turned right. This passage contained three rooms. The first and the third were empty, but the middle room was secured with bars and a padlock. This was the same passage she had viewed from outside during her walk, and the barricaded door aligned with the shuttered window. While Hunter was contemplating what was behind the barricade, she heard footsteps coming from within the room and seemed to make out a shadow at the bottom of the door. Terrified, she ran out of the wing —and into Mr. Rucastle.

She told Rucastle the room's quiet spooked her, not mentioning what she heard or saw. At first Rucastle comforted her, but then his tone changed and he warned that if she goes into the wing again he will "throw [her] to the mastiff." She went into town, half a mile away, and sent Holmes the telegraph asking for his help.

She tells Holmes she has to get back to the house by three o'clock, and then she will be watching the child that evening, while the Rucastles are out. Holmes asks if Mr. Toller is still drunk and if the house has a wine cellar with a lock; Hunter affirms both. Holmes comes up with a plan: he and Watson will come to Copper Beeches at seven o'clock, by which point the Rucastles should be gone and Mr. Toller will still be out of commission. He instructs Hunter to ask Mrs. Toller for something from the cellar, and then lock her in. Hunter signs on to the plan.

Holmes asserts that Hunter has clearly been used to impersonate whoever is locked in the room, who he thinks must be Rucastle's 20-something daughter. The scheme must be intended to drive away the man she saw through the drawing-room window, Holmes reasons. She was made to laugh to demonstrate how great everything is, and she was instructed to wave him off to show she had no use for him. Meanwhile, the mastiff, which guards the house at night, keeps the man away.

At seven o'clock Holmes and Watson meet Hunter at the front of the house. Mrs. Toller is locked in the cellar, and her husband is snoring on the rug. Hunter opens the door to the wing with Mr. Toller's keys, and the group makes their way to the padlocked room. When they arrive, though, none of the keys work, and no sound comes from the room. Watson and Holmes push through the door, but the room is empty; the skylight, however, is open. Holmes climbs up to the roof and sees a ladder perched against the house. He says Mr. Rucastle must have figured out Hunter's plan and pulled the prisoner out through the skylight. Hunter, however, says there was no ladder when the Rucastles left.

Footsteps are heard, and the group goes back into the room; Watson takes out his pistol. Mr. Rucastle appears at the door and then looks at the skylight. He screams at the group and then runs back down the stairs after yelling "you are in my power, I'll serve you!" As they head downstairs to close the door they hear the mastiff howl, and then a human scream. The group runs outside, followed by Mr. Toller, who had recently woken up, and Watson shoots the dog, which is attacking Mr. Rucastle. They bring Rucastle back into the house, and Watson treats him. Mrs. Toller enters the room, explaining Mr. Rucastle let her out of the cellar when he arrived. She tells Hunter she should have let her in on her plans, "for I would have told you that your pains were wasted."

She then explains what happened to the daughter, Alice, starting from the beginning. She says the girl has been unhappy since her father remarried, but the trouble really started after she met Mr. Fowler, the man whom Hunter saw outside the house. Alice had inherited money from her mother's will, but her father had always controlled it. Her marriage to Fowler, however, would take the money out of her father's hands, so Mr. Rucastle tried to get Alice to sign the will over to him. She refused, but his constant needling provoked a bout of "brain fever" in the girl (which led to the need to cut her hair). Despite all of this, Fowler remained loyal to her. To get rid of him once and for all, the Rucastles imprisoned Alice and hired Hunter to unwittingly impersonate the girl.

Holmes, who knows where this is going, finishes the story. He says the determined Mr. Fowler convinced Mrs. Toller by "certain arguments, metallic or otherwise" to help him out, and thus she ensured a ladder was in place and her husband was passed out drunk this evening, while the Rucastles were out. Alice escaped from the room by climbing up the ladder and out the skylight into Fowler's arms.

Although the details of the case have all been presented, the narrative returns to Watson's explanation of what has happened to the various parties involved. Mr. Rucastle survived his mauling, but has become an invalid and subject to the care of his wife. Mr. Fowler and Alice Rucastle were married, and Hunter now runs a private school.


This story begins with an unusually long discussion between Holmes and Watson before the actual mystery begins. Perhaps it's because Holmes has his cherry-wood pipe out, which signals to Watson (and the reader) that the detective is in an argumentative mood. The debate centers around how Watson has presented Holmes's adventures; Holmes, who is in an atypically argumentative mood, criticizes Watson for presenting the cases in narrative form rather than as a "course of lectures." He also complains Watson has chronicled too many cases in which no crimes were technically committed at all: the Irene Adler affair, the account of the beggar with the twisted lip, and so on. He argues that in avoiding the sensational, Watson may have focused excessively on the trivial. There is a good deal of situational irony in this statement, given Holmes's famously obsessive interest in trivial details. Perhaps Holmes is just in a bad mood, especially after his letter from Hunter, whose reasons for consulting him—advice on her governess job—seem completely frivolous to him. Regardless, the long (and somewhat tense) philosophical exchange and numerous references to earlier cases are atypical.

This story punctures the myth of pure, idyllic rural life. Holmes's statements about the countryside, which he makes during the train ride to Winchester, foreshadow the sordid discovery Miss Hunter makes. Country houses, which Watson finds so charming, "always fill [Holmes] with a certain horror." As Holmes elaborates with remarkable astuteness, "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 there." This is exactly what has happened at Copper Beeches, the ever-so-lovely Rucastle estate: Mr. and Mrs. Rucastle have been keeping their daughter Alice locked away in a room.

In the city, Holmes argues, social pressure forces people to respond to crime, thereby reducing it. Had Hunter been working for a family in the city of Winchester, Holmes says, "I should never have had a fear for her." Holmes's argument—that the city is safer (and thus more desirable) than the country—is interesting, especially because Holmes's entire career revolves around solving crimes, mostly in the city of London. His investigations take him through slums, rough docks, opium dens, and other shabby places, but yet he feels the countryside is more perilous. Perhaps the ordeal of Alice Rucastle is the best piece of evidence to support this argument.

Several other stories in the collection echo this argument. "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," "The Five Orange Pips," "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," and "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" are all set in rural areas, and they all reinforce the association between the countryside and violence. Taken together these stories indicate that Holmes (and Doyle) had a suspicious view of rural romanticism.

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