Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Mystery of the Speckled Band,” Sherlock Holmes is called upon to calm a frightened client, Helen Stoner, who fears for her very life. Helen tells Holmes that and when she and her twin sister Julia were two years old, their mother married into a wealthy and prestigious Surrey family, the Roylotts. Dr. Roylott is extremely eccentric, keeping a menagerie of wild animals at the family homestead; he also has a violent temper. Helen’s mother is now dead, and nothing remains to protect Helen from the ferocity of her stepfather’s anger.
But something even more acutely ominous has caused Helen to contact Sherlock Holmes. As Helen describes the situation, several years ago Julia Stoner became engaged to a major in the British military. Dr. Roylott did not seem to object to the match, but ten days before the wedding, Julia mentioned to Helen that her sleep had lately been disturbed by a strange whistling in the night. Helen said she herself had heard no whistling. Julia went to bed, saying it was probably nothing, but Helen was worried and did not sleep well that night. A few hours later she heard a low whistling sound, followed by the clank of metal, and then a terrible scream emanated from her sister’s room. Julia was obviously in great pain, and before dying, she pointed toward Dr. Roylott’s room and gasped, “It was the band! The speckled band!”
Now, two years later, Helen has herself become engaged. The previous evening she also heard the ominous low whistle that had heralded her sister’s death. She sprang out of bed and immediately headed for London to see Sherlock Holmes. Holmes agrees this is a very serious business, and suggests that later on that same day, he and Watson should go out to Surrey to get a feel for the situation.
Helen has no sooner left than her stepfather, Dr. Roylott, bursts into Holmes’ parlor. He has traced Helen here; now he wants to know the object of her visit. Holmes refuses to tell Roylott anything, which so infuriates him that he grabs the fireplace poker and bends it back upon itself, threatening Holmes as he exits.
Now Holmes is absolutely convinced that Helen is in danger. He and Watson immediately set off for Surrey, arriving about the same time as Helen. She shows them the arrangement of the bedrooms, and Holmes notes although Helen used to sleep down the hall, Dr. Roylott has recently moved her to the same room Julia occupied when she died. Only a single wall separates Helen from her stepfather, and the most notable fixture of this wall is a bell-pull—a rope feeding through the ceiling, which when pulled is supposed to summon the servants. Holmes pulls the rope, and no servants come; upon further examination he finds it’s attached, not to a wire, but to a hook just above the ventilator. Moreover, the placement of the ventilator is also strange, in that it opens not to the outside (where the fresh air is) but into Dr. Roylott’s room. Most strangely of all, the bed in which Helen sleeps is bolted to the floor, just underneath the ventilator and the hanging bell-pull.
Holmes has seen enough. He advises Helen to move secretly back to her old room, while he and Watson will spend the night in hers. Midway through the night, they see a light flash at the site of the ventilator, and they hear a low, whistling sound. Holmes lights the lamp and begins smacking the bell-pull with his cane, yelling “You see it, Watson? You see it?”
“It” is a swamp adder, a deadly Indian snake which Dr. Roylott has been coaxing through the ventilator into Helen’s room on the other side. Suddenly a terrible scream comes from Dr. Roylott’s room, showing that the swamp adder has backtracked and attacked the first human being it came across—Dr. Roylott himself. Holmes reveals that he had a chance to look at Helen and Julia’s mother’s will, and as he suspected, a good percentage of the money left to Dr. Roylott would be diverted to the girls if they married. Dr. Roylott therefore had a very lucrative reason for keeping his stepdaughters single—even if that meant rendering them dead.
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