Now we go back even further in time, says Watson, to a case that Holmes investigated while he and Watson were still bachelor-ing it up together at the 221B Baker Street apartment.
Watson sets the stage: it's early April 1883, and Holmes wakes Watson at the ungodly hour of 7:15am to tell him that a young lady has come to Holmes with a case.
And indeed, in the sitting room is a lady of around thirty, dressed in black with a black veil, who's shaking with fear. She is pale and drawn, and her hair has strands of premature grey. She's desperate for help, and promises Holmes that, while she can't pay him anything now, she'll be married soon and have control of her own income. So she's good for the money, if he'll give her time.
Holmes says that it's no problem. He's in this business for the pleasure of the hunt, though he'll be happy to let her pay him back for any expenses he works up, at her convenience. So, he says, let's hear your story.
The lady's name is Helen Stoner, and she's living with her stepdad.
This stepdad is the last living member of a great English family, the Roylotts. The Roylotts once controlled huge tracts of land, but after generations of spending lots of money, nothing is left of the estate except an old house, heavily mortgaged.
The current (and final) Roylott, seeing that there's nothing left of his inheritance, goes to India to make his fortune on his own. He does succeed in making some cash – but Roylott also manages to get into trouble. He flies into a rage when his house gets robbed and beats his Indian butler to death, for which he is sent to prison for a while. Eventually, though, he goes back to England.
Roylott was pretty busy while he was in India: not only does he set up his own medical practice and beat his butler to death, but he also finds the time to marry Miss Stoner's mother, a young widow at the time. Miss Stoner also has a twin sister, Julia.
Miss Stoner's mother was left with quite a lot of money – one thousand pounds per year (about U.S. $132,000 now) – which she left to Roylott upon her death eight years prior. But her will does allow for some of that money to go to Miss Stoner and to Julia if/when the girls get married.
With the money his wife has left him, Roylott takes Miss Stoner and Julia away from London and to his old family home in Stoke Moran. For their part, Miss Stoner and Julia are psyched to go: they think they'll be happy there.
But then – Roylott changes. He becomes violent and starts frightening away all the neighbors. He has no friends except for a group of Roma (known kind of negatively throughout the story as "gipsies") who camp on the lawn. Roylott also keeps a cheetah and a baboon to roam the grounds.
Because of Roylott's hideous temper, Miss Stoner and Julia can't get any servants to stay at the house. The work, Miss Stoner says, contributed to Julia's death two years before.
The thing is, before her death (obviously, since she's not a zombie), Julia had gone to visit her mother's sister. It's there that she meets a guy who wants to marry her.
Roylott doesn't object openly to the marriage, but exactly two weeks before the date of the wedding, Julia is killed.
That fatal night, Roylott goes to bed early, but he isn't sleeping yet: the smell of his heavy Indian tobacco is bothering Julia, whose bedroom is right next to his. So Julia goes over to Miss Stoner's room, which is on the other side of Julia's room, to chat about her upcoming wedding.
At about 11pm, Julia heads back to her room to sleep, but before she goes, she asks Miss Stoner if she has ever heard anyone whistling in the middle of the night.
Miss Stoner says no.
Julia tells her sister that, for the past few nights, always at around 3am, she has heard a low whistle that has awakened her. But she can't hear where it's coming from.
Miss Stoner thinks it must be the people camped out on their lawn.
Julia supposes so. She heads off to sleep.
Miss Stoner mentions that she and Julia have always locked their doors before sleeping because they're afraid of the cheetah and the baboon.
That night, Miss Stoner can't sleep. She is certain that something bad is going to happen. And sure enough, in the middle of the night, she hears a woman screaming: it's Julia!
Miss Stoner throws open her door; as she does so, she hears the low whistle Julia described, followed by a metal clanging sound.
Miss Stoner runs to Julia's room, where the door is curiously unlocked.
Miss Stoner sees Julia, her face terrified, her body swaying, appear in the doorway.
Julia starts to convulse, but is able to say, "Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!" (Speckled. 50).
Miss Stoner rushes out to find her stepfather – he is, after all, a doctor – who's coming out of his own room while tugging on his dressing gown. He rushes to help Julia, but she's already unconscious. Julia dies.
Holmes is very interested in this bit about the whistle and the metal clanging sound. He also asks if Julia was dressed.
Miss Stoner says no, that her sister was in her nightgown, and that she was carrying a burned-out match and matchbox in her hand.
She also tells Holmes that the coroner tried to find evidence that would prove Roylott was involved in Julia's death. Everyone in the neighborhood knows he's dangerous, but no one has been able to find any actual proof that he murdered his stepdaughter.
Julia's windows were locked and barred, and there were no bruises or anything on her body. There's also no evidence of poison.
Miss Stoner thinks Julia died of fright, and that "the speckled band" might have meant a group of people – the gypsies, with their spotted handkerchiefs?
To get back to Miss Stoner's story, two years have passed since this terrible event. She has since gotten engaged to a guy named Percy Armitage.
Roylott has not objected to the marriage, and they couple is supposed to be married in the spring.
Two days ago, Miss Stoner continues, some construction on the outside wall of her bedroom made it necessary for her to switch rooms. So now she's sleeping in the room her sister Julia died in (creeeeeepy!).
Doubling the creepiness is this: now that Miss Stoner has moved into her dead sister's room, she, too, has heard the whistle that Julia heard before she died. Miss Stoner was so freaked out that she decided to seek help. So she has come to Holmes to ask for his protection.
Holmes says Miss Stoner's made the right choice, but she still hasn't told him everything: he reaches over and lifts a frill of lace covering Miss Stoner's wrist. On her skin are five dark bruises, shaped like fingerprints. Roylott has been abusing her.
Holmes asks if he and Watson can come up to the house at Stoke Moran that day, without her stepdad knowing.
Miss Stoner agrees, and they decide to meet at Stoke Moran in the early afternoon. Miss Stoner heads off.
Holmes chats with Watson about the case for a few moments, when suddenly the door swings open.
A tall, fierce, vicious-looking man stands in the doorway.
He introduces himself as Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran. He demands to know what Miss Stoner has been telling Holmes.
Holmes won't answer, and seems to find Roylott ridiculously funny.
Roylott has heard of Holmes, and understands that Holmes likes to get involved in other people's affairs. Roylott warns Holmes not to get involved in this one: Roylott's a tough guy, and he won't be messed with.
To prove his overall toughness, Roylott grabs a poker from the fireplace and bends it. He tosses the bent poker at Holmes as though to say, "See what a powerful guy I am!" and then flounces off.
Holmes responds, though Roylott's unfortunately not there to see it, by bending the poker back straight again.
Holmes is most offended that Roylott seems to have confused Holmes with the official police: he is, above all, a private detective.
Before going on their afternoon journey to Stoke Moran, Holmes visits a public office to see the will of Miss Stoner's dead mother. It turns out that her estate had originally been worth about 1,100 pounds (now U.S. $131,000) a year in interest, but its value has dropped to 750 pounds (U.S. $89,000). Each of the girls, if married, is supposed to get 250 pounds in income. Which would leave Roylott with only 250 pounds a year of his own (around U.S. $30,000), enough to ruin him financially. So he's got a great motive for killing off his engaged stepdaughter(s).
Holmes and Watson head to Stoke Moran – Watson is armed, by the way.
They meet Miss Stoner as she's walking across a field towards the house.
Holmes tells her that her stepdad knows she visited Holmes that morning. He tells her to keep her door locked that night.
They reach the house, and Holmes begins his investigation. Half the house is totally falling down, but the right wing, where Miss Stoner and Roylott live, is in pretty good condition. In fact, the house repairs seem unnecessary, and Miss Stoner admits that she thinks Roylott started the construction to make her move from her own bedroom to Julia's.
It would be totally impossible to get into Miss Stoner's current room from the outside if the shutters were closed and barred from the inside. So Holmes is confused.
They enter the room, and there's a lot going on that seems suggestive to Holmes: the room itself is pretty bare, but there's a beautiful bell-pull, newer than all the other things in the room, that was installed just a couple of years ago. But Julia never used it, nor did she ask for it to be put in. As Holmes looks more closely, he finds that she couldn't have used it even if she wanted to, because it's not attached to anything.
Something else that's pretty odd: at the same time as the fake bell-pull was installed, a new ventilating duct was placed in the wall of the room. But it doesn't go outside, oh no: it leads from Julia's bedroom to Roylott's, a strange choice if you're looking to bring fresh air into a room.
Holmes also looks into Roylott's room, which has a safe.
Miss Stoner says the safe must hold his business papers, but Holmes thinks otherwise – he suggests that an animal is inside, because there's a saucer of milk on top of the safe.
He also checks out the seat of Roylott's chair and then spots a small dog whip hung on a corner of Roylott's bed, tied in a loop.
Holmes seems to have figured it all out by looking at these clues, but Watson and Miss Stoner are still lost.
Holmes decides that he and Watson have to spend the night in Miss Stoner's current room. She must go to bed early, pretending to have a headache, and then sneak quietly into her former bedroom (despite the repairs) for the evening.
Holmes and Watson get a nearby hotel room, from which they can see Roylott's house.
Holmes confesses to Watson that he feels kind of bad about bringing Watson along on this one because he'll be in some danger.
Watson's all, "No worries!" (Dr. John Watson laughs in the face of danger.) He also admits that he has no clue what's going on.
Holmes throws him a bone: first, Holmes tells Watson that he knew there was a ventilator between Julia and Roylott's bedrooms even before they saw the house. How? Because Julia was bothered by the smell of her stepdad's cigar smoke the night she died.
Holmes also points out that it's pretty weird that the fake bell-pull and the ventilator were both put it in just around the time that Julia died. What's more, her bed has been nailed to the floor. So it can't be moved.
All of this is evidence, Watson says, of some "subtle and horrible crime" (Speckled. 218).
So, Holmes and Watson settle in to watch the Stoke Moran house from their local inn until 11pm, when Miss Stoner lights a lamp in her sister's bedroom window to signal to Holmes and Watson that she's heading over to her old bedroom.
Holmes and Watson sneak onto the estate. Watson is surprised to see something that looks like a deformed child running across the grounds. It's the baboon. The cheetah's also probably around somewhere.
Holmes and Watson creep quietly into Julia's former bedroom, through the window. They lock the shutters behind them and turn off the light for fear that Roylott will see the light through the ventilator shaft.
They wait, wide awake. Watson has his pistol ready for action.
Finally, around 3am, they see a brief flash of light. A smell of burning oil and heated metal wafts in, and Watson realizes that someone in the next room has lit a dark-lantern, a lamp with a special sliding panel for blocking light.
After half an hour, there is another tiny sound, like a jet of steam from a kettle.
Holmes strikes a match and starts beating at the bell-pull with his cane.
Watson can't see what it is that Holmes is hitting, though he can see that Holmes's face is filled with disgust and horror.
Holmes stops with the cane, but he's watching the ventilator carefully.
Suddenly, they hear a terrible yell. Holmes tells Watson to bring his gun, and they enter Roylott's room.
Roylott is dead, sitting in his wooden chair with that small leather dog whip across his chest. Around his forehead is a weird yellow band with brown spots – a band that moves! It is, in fact, a snake, an Indian swamp adder (tragically, not a real snake).
Holmes grabs the dog whip from Roylott's body and uses the loop tied at the end as a noose to catch the snake and put it back in the safe.
Holmes and Watson bring Miss Stoner (who's fairly freaked out) to her aunt at Harrow.
The coroner decides that Roylott's death is the result of an accident while playing with a dangerous pet.
Holmes explains the rest of the case to Watson: Holmes admits that he started out on completely the wrong track. He also thought the "speckled band" reference was probably to the Roma group living on Roylott's land. But Holmes realized that he was wrong when he saw how impossible it would be to get into the room from the outside.
Once Holmes saw the ventilator, the bell-pull, and the nailed-down bed, he figured that the ventilator must be some kind of bridge for something to travel between the two rooms.
The whole snake thing then seemed obvious, especially given Roylott's history in India.
As for the whistle, Roylott probably trained the snake to respond to a whistle to make it return to his room before it could be seen by its potential victim, if it didn't bite her right away.
In Roylott's room, Holmes saw signs that Roylott liked to stand on his chair (to get access to the ventilator). The safe, the milk, and the whipcord all pointed to the training and management of this dangerous animal. The clang Miss Stoner heard the night before was the sound of Roylott quickly closing the door of the safe to shut in the snake. And the rest is history!
Holmes admits that, by attacking the snake and sending it back to its owner, he's probably responsible for it striking out at Roylott on the other side of the vent. He also can't say that he feels too bad about that.