Holmes starts off our twelfth adventure by complementing Watson for the cases he decides to record. Watson doesn't go for Holmes's best-known, most sensational cases. Instead, the doctor writes down the apparently small problems that have given Holmes his finest opportunities for careful detective work.
Still, Holmes does have a criticism: Watson keeps trying to give Holmes's work human interest. As documents of a detective's art, Watson's work should really be take a just-the-facts-ma'am approach.
Watson is hurt, and he feels like Holmes is being kind of snotty.
Holmes says not at all – logic is, by definition, impersonal. It shouldn't be about Holmes; it should be about the work.
Holmes is in a really bad mood. He finally decides that, if Watson is avoiding sensationalism, he's also picking cases that are almost too small: after all, four out of Watson's last eleven case studies (Mary Sutherland, the man with the twisted lip, the noble bachelor, and the King of Bohemia) were all problems that were resolved outside of the law.
But it's not Watson's fault. Criminals today, Holmes continues, are all completely boring. They've lost all originality. What is Holmes to do?
And here's proof of how low Holmes has fallen: he's just gotten a note from a woman named Violet Hunter asking whether or not she should become a governess.
(A governess is kind of like a nanny/tutor combo that was popular in upper-crust homes in England during the nineteenth century.)
Watson consoles Holmes: look at the case of the blue carbuncle! That started out looking really unimportant (remember, the goose and the hat?), and it turned into a serious one.
Holmes hopes so.
Just then, Violet Hunter arrives. She apologizes for bothering Holmes, but something really weird has just happened to her and she has no one else to talk to about it.
Hunter has been a governess for five years. She's been looking for a new position through an employment agency.
Last week, the owner of the agency found her a possible employer.
The minute she walks into the room where this employer is waiting for her, he says that she's exactly what he's looking for. He offers her a starting salary of 100 pounds a year – U.S. $13,045 today. That's about double what she got at her previous post.
Hunter is really surprised by this generous offer. What's more, he gives her half her salary up front to make it easier for her to move, something that she has found really useful.
Even so, something's kind of hinky about the whole thing. So Hunter asks what her duties will be.
She would be living at this man's rural home in the county of Hampshire, a place called the Copper Beeches. Hunter would be responsible for one six-year-old boy (who kills cockroaches very cleverly, his father adds).
That wouldn't be her only task, though. Her possible employer tells Hunter that he and his wife might expect her to perform small tasks around the home. In fact, he might ask her for some rather unusual things, because he and his wife believe in certain fads. For example, he might ask her to wear a particular dress, or might want her to sit in a particular place – and he insists that she must cut her hair.
Hunter's pretty disturbed by this last request. She loves her hair, which is an unusual reddish brown. So she refuses.
Her possible employer insists, though. If Hunter won't cut her hair, she won't get the job.
The manager of the employment agency tells Hunter point blank that, if Hunter won't do something as insignificant as cut her hair for a plum job like this one, then the employment agency's going to drop Hunter from its lists entirely.
Hunter goes home, realizes she's broke, sees some new bills on the table, and regrets her decision.
So she goes back to the employment agency the next day, and finds a letter from her potential employer waiting for her. He offers her a raise – 120 pounds per year now – and clarifies that these fads he mentioned the day before aren't that bad. His wife likes a particular blue, so Hunter would have to wear a dress in this shade indoors. Luckily, they already happen to have such a dress on hand!
As for the hair, that's absolutely nonnegotiable – get a haircut, or get lost.
Her potential employer's name is revealed at last: Jephro Rucastle.
Hunter has come straight from getting this letter to Holmes to ask his opinion: should she take the job, or what?
Holmes notices that her mind is made up, but he tells Hunter frankly that he wouldn't want a sister of his to take such a position.
Hunter puts forward her own theory: that Rucastle (who seems like a nice guy) has a crazy wife who he doesn't want to put in an institution. So Rucastle humors her to keep her calm.
Holmes agrees that this is the most likely explanation, but something still seems off. After all, why is Rucastle offering Hunter so much money when they could have their pick of governesses for a third of the price?
Hunter wants to take the job, but she's still nervous about the whole thing. Holmes promises her that, if she finds herself in trouble, she can count on Holmes for help. Any time, day or night.
Hunter goes away reassured, with the intention of heading to the Copper Beeches.
Both Holmes and Watson remain worried about Hunter, and wait anxiously for news.
News comes, in the form of a late-night telegram.
The telegram asks Holmes to come up to Hampshire the next day by noon.
Holmes asks Watson to come along, and Watson agrees.
As the two are traveling by train the next day, they zip past numerous charming little farmhouses. Watson likes the look of them, but Holmes is suspicious. He claims that the darkest alleys of London are no more sinful than these charming – but isolated – homesteads.
The problem is, says Holmes, in the city you can hear your neighbors fighting or screaming, and you can go help out. The police are also close by. But in the lonely houses of the countryside, no one can hear you struggle. And the law feels – and often is – far away.
At least Holmes is comforted by the fact that Hunter can get away to meet them. The danger is not to Hunter personally.
Holmes, Watson, and Hunter all meet at an inn called the Black Swan. Hunter is relieved to see them.
No one has actually injured her, but the Rucastles' weird behavior is worrying Hunter.
See, Mrs. Rucastle is not crazy. She's quiet, pale, and much younger than her husband. Mr. Rucastle has been married before. His wife died, leaving him with a grown daughter who now lives in Philadelphia. Apparently, this daughter left because she hated her stepmother so much. And given that there can be no more than ten years' age difference between daughter and stepmother, Hunter can see why.
Mrs. Rucastle is passionately devoted to her husband and her young son, but she seems to have some secret worry or source of distress.
Hunter thinks Mrs. Rucastle could be distressed about her young son, who is awful: the worst child Hunter has ever had the misfortune to associate with. He's sulky and enjoys torturing small animals.
Something else that disturbs Hunter is the behavior of the servants: there are two, a husband and a wife, the Tollers. Mr. Toller is often drunk and Mrs. Toller is silent, withdrawn, and grim.
On the third day after her arrival to the Copper Beeches, Mr. Rucastle appears with that blue dress he mentioned he wants Hunter to wear. So she puts it on.
Then, he and his wife ask her to sit across from them in a specific chair in the drawing room.
At this point, Mr. Rucastle launches into a standup comedy routine that has Hunter basically rolling on the floor laughing.
After about an hour of Mr. Rucastle joking and Mrs. Rucastle staring at them without smiling, the head of the house suddenly stops his routine and sends Hunter about her business.
Two days later, the same thing happens. Mr. Rucastle once again asks Hunter to sit and read to them for a bit from a novel – but he stops her in the middle of a sentence after a time and dismisses her.
Hunter notices, amidst all of this weirdness, that Mr. and Mrs. Rucastle are always very careful to keep her back turned to the drawing room window.
Hunter wants to know what's going behind her.
So the next time the Rucastles go through this performance with the dress, she hides a piece of mirror in her handkerchief. Hunter manages, while pretending to dab her eyes, to see a man standing on the road and looking in her direction.
When Hunter lowers her handkerchief, she sees Mrs. Rucastle staring at her.
Mrs. Rucastle tells Mr. Rucastle that there's someone staring at Hunter from the road. Mr. Rucastle asks Hunter to wave him away, they then draw the blind over the window, and Hunter hasn't been called back into the drawing room in her blue dress since.
It's been a week since this event.
Hunter mentions that Mr. Rucastle took care, on her first day at the Copper Beeches, to show her his giant dog, Carlo. Carlo patrols the estate every night. They don't feed him very much because they want to keep him sharp, warns Mr. Rucastle.
And now, on with the story! After this aside, Hunter returns to her previous tale.
One night, after Hunter puts the brat to bed, she explores her own room. One drawer in her dresser is locked, but she finds the key easily enough on her own keychain. Inside the locked drawer, she finds a coil of hair that is absolutely identical to her own braid, so recently cut off at the Rucastles' request.
Hunter also notices that there's one wing of the house that seems not to have anyone living there. But one day, she observes Mr. Rucastle coming out of this part of the house looking furious. He locks the door behind him and walks past Hunter without a word.
Trying to look casual, Hunter strolls out to observe this wing from the outside. She sees four windows, three of which are dirty. But one is totally shuttered up.
Mr. Rucastle comes outside and apologizes for passing Hunter in the hall so rudely.
Hunter asks him about the shuttered room. Mr. Rucastle looks surprised, and says he's set up a dark room in that wing for his hobby, photography.
Hunter, not being stupid, is now certain that there's something in that wing of the house that's being hidden from her, something the Tollers (the servant couple) know about.
So one day, when everyone's downstairs, Hunter unlocks the door and sneaks inside.
After a short, bare passage, Hunter sees another door with a big padlock and no key – one that corresponds to the shuttered window she saw from outside.
There's a line of light under the door. A shadow passes in front of the light.
Hunter freaks out and runs away down the passage – and straight into Mr. Rucastle.
Mr. Rucastle asks what has frightened Hunter so much.
Hunter says that she finds the dim shadows terrifying.
Mr. Rucastle asks, is that all?
Hunter replies, well, what else could it be?
Mr. Rucastle tells her that he keeps that wing locked for a reason, and if he ever catches her there again, he'll throw her to his hungry dog.
At this, Hunter really panics. It's this threat that has finally made her think of sending Holmes a telegram on the sly, sneaking out while Mr. Toller is passed out drunk.
Holmes asks if Toller is still drunk, if the Rucastles are going out tonight, and if there's a cellar with a strong lock.
Hunter answers yes to all of this.
Holmes tells Hunter that he and Watson will arrive at the Copper Beeches at 7pm, at which point the Rucastles should be out, and Toller, unconscious. He wants Hunter to try and lure Mrs. Toller into the wine cellar and then lock her in, if she can.
Hunter agrees to this plan.
Holmes is delighted at Hunter's bravery.
He explains: all of this stuff about making Hunter wear a special dress, sit in a particular place, and so on, is because she has been hired to impersonate someone.
This someone is probably Mr. Rucastle's missing twenty-year-old daughter, who Hunter must resemble in height and looks.
The man in the road is probably the young Miss Rucastle's fiancé.
Having seen Hunter's laughter and her gesture at him to go away that one time, the fiancé has probably been convinced that Miss Rucastle is (a) fine, and (b) doesn't want to see him anymore.
The giant dog has been released every night to keep the fiancé from talking directly to Miss Rucastle (or to Hunter).
Holmes's biggest proof of all of this is the awfulness of the Rucastle family's child. Real cruelty in a child usually says a lot about the character of his parents, concludes Holmes.
Hunter is absolutely convinced, and is totally fired up about helping poor imprisoned Miss Rucastle.
So they proceed with Holmes's plan. Hunter is successful in locking Mrs. Toller in the cellar and everyone else is out when Holmes and Watson arrive at the Copper Beeches.
Holmes forces open the door to the shuttered room, but no one is inside.
Holmes thinks that Mr. Rucastle has already disposed of his daughter, and that he has brought a ladder around and dragged her out through the skylight to avoid anyone seeing her in the main part of the house.
Just then, in comes Mr. Rucastle. Holmes demands to know what's happened to Miss Rucastle.
Mr. Rucastle asks the same thing, shouts that Holmes and Watson are thieves, and then runs for his big dog.
Holmes and Watson run after him to block the front door against the hound.
They hear a dog howling, a scream, and then the sound of the dog chewing at something.
An elderly guy stumbles in (it's drunk Mr. Toller) and tells them that the dog hasn't been fed in two days.
They all rush out to find the starving dog basically gnawing on Mr. Rucastle. Watson shoots the dog (not that it's the dog's fault that it has been mistreated) and then does what he can to soothe Mr. Rucastle's pain.
Mr. Toller goes to tell his wife what has happened.
Mrs. Toller comes in, having been released from the cellar by Mr. Rucastle before he went up to confront Holmes and Watson.
Mrs. Toller knows all.
Mrs. Toller explains that she has always been Miss Alice Rucastle's friend. She felt pity for the girl because, with Mr. Rucastle's remarriage, she was always getting the short end of the stick around the house. No one ever gave her any say in anything.
But Miss Rucastle's life didn't really get bad until she got engaged to a certain Mr. Fowler.
See, Miss Rucastle had an inheritance from her mother's will that Mr. Rucastle handled for her. Once her marriage came on the horizon, Mr. Rucastle wanted his daughter to sign a contract giving him control of her funds whether she was married or not.
Miss Rucastle wouldn't do it, and the stress over the whole thing made her sick. That's why her hair had to be cut off – according to medical practice of the time, her hair appeared literally to be wearing her down.
Despite her reduced beauty, her fiancé stuck by Miss Rucastle.
So after six weeks of recovery, Mr. Rucastle shut her up in that abandoned wing of the house.
That's when Mr. Rucastle went up to London to hire Hunter, so that she could make Miss Rucastle's fiancé go away.
But the fiancé, Mr. Fowler, really loves Miss Rucastle. So he bribes Mrs. Toller to leave a ladder by Miss Rucastle's window the instant the Rucastles go out for the evening, and Miss Rucastle manages to escape through the skylight.
Mrs. Toller has now solved it all for them.
Holmes, Watson, and Hunter return to town once they see Mrs. Rucastle and a doctor coming to the house – Holmes doesn't want any of them to get in trouble for Mr. Rucastle's injuries.
Mr. Rucastle survives being mauled by his dog, but he never really recovers. His wife sticks by him, as do his servants – who he can never really fire because they know too much about him.
Mr. Fowler and Miss Rucastle have gotten married and now live in Mauritius (an island nation off the southeast of Africa).
Hunter goes on to a great career as the head of a private school – not that Holmes cares. Once he's solved her mystery of the Copper Beeches, he loses interest in the young lady entirely.