This tale marks the final entry in the first collection of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Seems appropriate to end out the year for this project in this way.
The story revolves around Violet Hunter and one of the most bizarre job interviews ever recorded, at least in fiction. I’m sure that real life, especially in recent decades, would make this look quite tame by comparison. Still, it’s strange by the standards of Victorian era Britain, which is why Miss Hunter calls upon Holmes to whether or not she should accept the position as governess in the stately home of Jephro Rucastle. He seem a pleasant enough fellow, there is but one child to attend, and the salary is good, but one demand that is non-negotiable is that Miss Hunter should cut off her hair. She’s since second guessed and decided she’ll take the position, but wanted Holmes’ opinion first. Holmes, of course, sees this whole matter as a low point in his career, and it seems that if she’s already agreed, then this is beyond his involvement. If he’s truly needed, she need only send him a telegram.
After a fortnight, that telegram arrives. Holmes and Watson meet her in Winchester, where she relates a truly singular tale of her experiences. Mr. Ruscastle would have her sit in the front room, reading with her back to the window while wearing a particular electric blue dress that clearly had a previous owner. Sometimes he would tell her stories so funny she’d laugh hysterically, though Mrs. Ruscastle wouldn’t even smile. All of it was orchestrated that she should not see out the window, and on successive days when the same stories were related time and again, she sneaked a piece of mirror into a napkin and used it to see. Visible from the road was a man looking up into the window. Suspected of having used a mirror, the Ruscastles had her wave off the man before snapping the blinds closed.
The child she was to watch was of the cruel sort to small animals. The house servants, Mr. and Mrs. Toller, were a grim duo. The property was guarded at night by a large mastiff allowed to wander the grounds and kept under key by day, deliberately underfed so as to keep him hungry. Only his keeper could handle him safely. And Miss Hunter discovered in a locked drawer a length of cut hair that matched her own exactly, though once belonging to another person. Investigating a seemingly unused wing of the house, Miss Hunter was confronted by Mr. Rucastle, who claimed to use the rooms there as a darkroom for his photography hobby. Unconvinced, she waited until Mr. Toller was drunk to sneak in again. Observing some strange shadows and finding the place scary, she fled in a panic. She is intercepted by Mr. Rucastle, who threatens to feed her to the mastiff next time.
Holmes deduces there is a prisoner in that wing of the house, presumably the Ruscastles’ daughter Alice, whom they claimed was in Philadelphia. Giving Miss Hunter specific instructions on when and how to act, Holmes and Watson rescue Alice from her prison, and Mrs. Toller agrees to answer all remaining questions. Mr. Ruscastle is attacked by his mastiff, and while he survives, he is an invalid, kept alive only by his wife. Miss Hunter later becomes a principal at a girls’ school, meeting with “considerable success.”
The first time I read this story as a kid, the peculiarities held me fixated to the point where I missed the obvious. In my teens, this is one I often skipped just because the obviousness of it all annoyed me. Over the years, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for it. As with many of Holmes’ cases, it’s simple enough when you know the answer, but the presentation really makes it for me. This one is presented very well indeed. The setup is classic, with Holmes giving Watson his opinions on how his exploits have been exaggerated upon. As I keep saying, it’s these tiny bits of character that add so much to the overall canon and keep me coming back time and again. The touch of character flavors the rest of the story somehow and makes it better. It’s an excellent little story to round out the first collection.