Literature Study GuidesThe Adventures Of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventure Of The Speckled Band Summary

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Adventure of the Speckled Band | Summary

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Summary

Watson recalls an early adventure he had with Holmes around April 1883, involving a noble British family, the Roylotts of Stoke Moran; it was one of the first adventures Watson was involved in. Early in the morning a young woman pays a call to Baker Street in a deep state of distress. The woman, who is veiled and dressed in all black, introduces herself as Helen Stoner. She explains she lives with her stepfather in the decaying ancestral mansion of his family, the Roylotts, "one of the oldest Saxon families in England." Over the last four generations, however, the Roylotts have steadily descended into economic ruin.

Stoner and her twin sister Julia were born in India to a Major-General; their father died soon after their birth, however, and their mother married Dr. Grimesby Roylott, one of the Roylott family heirs, when the girls were only two. Roylott's father had been living in poverty in the family mansion, but Roylott had taken the initiative to move to Calcutta and start a medical practice. His practice was successful, but he had a terrible temper and in a fit of rage he beat one of his attendants to death. He served a long prison sentence and then returned to London bitter and angry. Shortly after the family arrived in England the Stoner girls' mother died, and Roylott took them to the Stoke Moran mansion. Their mother had bequeathed a sizable annual allowance to Roylott for taking care of the girls, with the condition that a portion of the allowance would be given to the girls after their marriage. In Stoke Moran Dr. Roylott became a social pariah because of his temper and willingness to fight. His only friends were groups of "wandering gypsies" he allowed to stay on his property, along with a baboon and a cheetah that were sent to him from India.

The girls' lives at the manor were dreary and lonely. Julia died two years ago, at the age of only 30. She died exactly two weeks after she was engaged to a "half-pay major of marines" whom she had met at the girls' aunt's house in a rare trip out. Helen has been haunted by her death, which is the reason why she has visited Holmes. She goes on to describe the circumstance surrounding Julia's death. First she explains that her, and her sister's, and Roylott's bedrooms are next to each other in the wing of the house that is still used (the rest of it has fallen into disrepair and is uninhabited). The night before she died, Julia—who slept in the middle room—went to Helen's room, unable to sleep because of the strong smell of Roylott's Indian cigars. Before she left she asked Helen if she had ever heard a whistling sound in the middle of the night, but Helen said she hadn't, probably because she was a heavier sleeper. Julia left the room, and both sisters locked themselves into their rooms for the evening, a precaution against the animals roaming on the manor.

Helen says she couldn't sleep that night because she felt like something bad was going to happen. Her fears were realized when she heard Julia's blood-curdling scream in the middle of the night. As she ran down the corridor to Julia's room, she heard a vague whistling noise and the sound of clanging metal, but she couldn't identify either. Her sister convulsed in pain, and said these final words: "Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!" She pointed toward the doctor's room, and then lost consciousness. Roylott then rushed into the room, but despite his efforts and the efforts of a medical team that had been summoned, Julia died.

Holmes asks for clarification of a few points, which Helen gladly provides. She insists she heard whistling and a metallic sound, but she admits they might have just been sounds from an old house. She tells Holmes her sister was in her nightgown when she died and was found with a burned match in her hand; Holmes interprets this as an indication she saw something before she died. The coroner could find no cause of death—including poisoning, a typical cause in cases where there is no sign of violence—so Helen has chosen to believe she died of "pure fear and nervous shock" as a result of seeing something horrifying. She confirms there were gypsies around the manor at the time of Julia's death, and at Holmes's prodding speculates maybe the "band" Julia spoke of referred to a band of gypsies or the speckled handkerchiefs they wear.

Helen has lived a quiet life since her sister's death, but a month ago a longtime friend named Percy Armitage proposed to her and she accepted. (Her stepfather has given the marriage his blessing.) The previous night, however, she had a terrible scare. She was lying in bed in her sister's room—recent house repairs put Helen's room out of commission—when she heard a whistling noise. She jumped up, terrified, and immediately lit the lamp in her room, but she didn't see anything. She was too scared to sleep, however, so she stayed up all night and traveled to see Holmes first thing in the morning. Holmes asks her if she has told him everything; she claims she has, but when Holmes points out bruises on her wrist she admits her stepfather has been rough with her.

Holmes says that too much is unknown and that he must visit Stoke Moran that day to investigate. Helen agrees to meet Holmes and Watson at the house that afternoon and then leaves. Holmes and Watson mull over the perplexing case. Holmes offers this working hypothesis: Roylott enlisted the help of the "band" of gypsies to break into Julia's room from the outside of the house (thus the "metallic" sound of shutters being pried opened and closed). Watson is skeptical, and Holmes agrees he really doesn't know what to think. While they are talking a huge man stalks into the room. He identifies himself as Grimesby Roylott, and demands to know what his stepdaughter has told the men. Holmes plays coy, and Roylott leaves in a huff, but not before warning the men to stay away from Helen. An unflustered Holmes laughs off the showdown and tells Watson he must leave for some time. He returns to Baker Street at one o'clock after having spent time researching the Roylott family's finances. He found that the family's income is now only £750, and because of the will stipulation each daughter is guaranteed a payment of £250 upon marriage. This convinces him Roylott had a strong motive for killing Julia, and that he and Watson must get to Stoke Moran immediately to protect Helen. Holmes instructs Watson to get his pistol ready, and the two head out toward the mansion. They take a train from London and then pick up a cab for the last five miles to the house.

They walk up to the house and meet Helen Stoner. Holmes tells her about their meeting with her stepfather, which unsettles her. She leads the men to the front of the wing that is in use, just outside the bedroom windows. There are some superficial signs of construction outside the last room (Helen's old room), but she says there were no issues with her room and surmises the "repairs" were a ploy to move her into her sister's old room. Holmes inspects the metal shutters on Julia's room, and concludes they can't be breached when they are closed.

Next they enter the mansion and examine Julia's old room. Holmes observes a ventilator (air vent) in the ceiling that opens into Roylott's room, which is adjacent. There's also a bell hanging from the ceiling with a long, thick pull that extends all the way to the bed's pillow, but after further inspection he determines the bell is a dummy: it hangs from a hook right next to the ventilator, and thus it cannot communicate with any other room in the house. When Holmes asks Helen about the bell, she says it was installed a few years ago, around the same time the ventilator was fitted, though her sister hadn't actually requested either. The group then moves on to Roylott's room. The doctor's room is similarly spare and basic as Julia's, but it contains a safe and a wooden chair that backs up against the wall Roylott shares with Julia. He also spots a saucer of milk and a dog leash that has been curled up and manipulated into a whipcord.

Holmes is satisfied but alarmed by his findings, and he instructs Helen to follow his instructions exactly lest the fate of her sister befall her, too: he and Watson will hole up in a nearby inn through sundown. When her stepfather goes to his room for bed, Helen is to light up her room with her lamp, which will signal Holmes and Watson (who will have a clear view of the mansion from the inn) to come to the house, entering through the window in Julia's old room. At that point Helen is to move into her old room—the one currently undergoing repair—and Holmes and Watson will move into Julia's room. Helen agrees to this plan, and Holmes and Watson take off for their temporary lodgings.

Settled in a room at the Crown Inn, the pair watches as Roylott's hulking figure makes his way across the property and returns to the mansion at dusk. As they wait for Helen's signal, Holmes expands on his findings in Julia's and Roylott's rooms. He says he knew a ventilator was installed between the rooms before he even viewed them because of Julia's complaints about Roylott's cigars. He noticed the bed in her room is bolted to the floor, next to the bell and the ventilator. The fact that the ventilator and dummy bell were installed right before her death means they had some role in her death. As for what role, the two of them will find out themselves that evening. At eleven o'clock a light appears in Helen's room, and the two men set out for the mansion. Once they're on the lawn, they see what appears to be a "hideous and distorted child" running across the grass. Horror turns to laughter when they realize it is the resident baboon. The two men noiselessly make their way into the room, close the shutters, and wait—Watson armed with a pistol and Holmes with a cane.

Just past 3:00 a.m., a momentary flash of light appears through the ventilator. The smell of a lantern being lit follows. Thirty minutes later, they hear a new noise: "a very gentle, soothing sound, like that of a jet of escaping continually from a kettle." At the first trace of this strange noise Holmes lights a match and then starts beating the bell pull with his cane; Watson cannot see anything except for Holmes's terror-stricken face. A few moments later, however, a tortured scream comes from Roylott's bedroom. Watson and Holmes enter his bedroom, Watson with his gun cocked. In the room Roylott is lying dead in his bedclothes; there's a "peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles," wrapped around his forehead. Watson takes a step and sees the band is actually a swamp adder, "the deadliest snake in India," according to Holmes. Holmes wraps the dog leash around the snake and leads it into the safe.

The next day Holmes and Watson send Helen to her aunt's house. On their way to Baker Street, Holmes debriefs Watson on how he uncovered the plot. At first he thought Julia Stoner's dying remarks about a "band" referred to the gypsies roaming the premises, but after he surveyed her old room and Doctor Roylott's old room he realized Julia's killer must have come from inside the house. Roylott's interest in dangerous animals from India strengthened his conviction. A poisonous snake would be the perfect murder weapon, because it would kill without leaving a trace of the kind of poison any coroner would check for. Holmes confirmed his hunch after examining the wooden chair in Roylott's room; its marks indicated the chair had been stood upon, no doubt so Roylott could reach the ventilator. The milk, dog leash, and safe—which makes a clanging sound when closed—further confirmed Holmes's suspicions. Despite the fact that he saved Helen Stoner's life and solved her sister's murder, he says the death of Roylott "is likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience."

Analysis

"The Adventure of the Speckled Band" has all of the elements of a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery, but it's also an example of a gothic horror tale. The setting—a decrepit country mansion inhabited by the brutish and troubled heir of a once-powerful dynasty—evokes a deep sense of dread, and it could just as easily be included in any work by Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, or Bram Stoker (whose name, it's worth mentioning, bears a close resemblance to Stoke Moran). The exotic and dangerous animals and groups of gypsies that roam freely across the manor add another layer of danger to the Roylott homestead, which would be quite spooky even without them. The cumulative effect is of a sinister, haunted place.

This volatile setting challenges, yet again, romantic views of rural areas. There are no laughing cows and friendly farmers at Stoke Moran—but there is a rampaging baboon. Far from idyllic, rural isolation is depicted as creepy and dangerous. The more the reader learns about the manor, the more the reader fears for Helen Stoner, who is left to fend for herself in the midst of such madness. As a result Holmes's unfolding investigation takes on a dramatic sense of urgency, and readers cannot but turn the pages, wondering: will Holmes save Helen Stoner or not? "Twelve struck, and one and two and three, and still we sat waiting silently for whatever might befall," Watson says gravely, as he and Holmes linger in literal and figurative darkness in Julie Stoner's lethal bedroom. This is a thriller disguised as a deduction-based mystery.

Roylott himself is a perfectly scary figure: hulking, menacing, and troubled by a violent past. Violence seems to lurk whenever he's around. Watson's descriptions of Roylott as he arrives home by cab paint a monster in human form. From their perch at the Crown Inn Watson and Holmes observe Roylott's "huge form looming up beside the little figure of the lad who drove him"; they hear "the hoarse roar of the doctor's voice" and see "the fury with which he shook his clenched fists at [the boy]."

Additional details give the story an air of creepiness. There's the "hideous and distorted child" that turns out to be the roaming baboon imported from the Orient. The house itself, an epitome of faded grandeur, is designed in a bizarre style with wings "like the claws of a crab." Even Helen Stoner, the damsel in distress, seems to be a bit off. Her face is "drawn and grey," and her hair is "shot with premature" grey; she has eyes "like those of some hunted animal," Watson observes. When she visits Baker Street, she's dressed in black from head to toe and is even wearing a veil, an article of clothing usually associated with funerals and death.

Despite the sinister feeling throughout the story, there are moments of levity throughout it. Roylott's visit to Baker Street is especially absurd. When his over-the-top descriptions of his adversary—"Holmes, the meddler"; "Holmes, the busybody"; and "Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-Office"—are juxtaposed with Holmes's nonchalant responses, the effect is comical. "He seems a very amiable person," Holmes deadpans to Watson moments after his fire poker is so rudely assaulted. Right after this Holmes pretends to be angry over the fact that Roylott thinks he is from Scotland Yard. "Fancy his having the insolence to confound me with the official detective force!" he fake-complains to Watson. This scene temporarily lightens the mood of an otherwise deeply spooky tale.

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