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|"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"|
"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the last of the twelve stories collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was first published in The Strand Magazine in June 1892.
Violet Hunter asks Sherlock Holmes whether to accept a job as governess, with very strange conditions. She is enticed by the phenomenal salary which, as originally offered, is £100 a year, later increased to £120 when Miss Hunter baulks at having to cut her long hair off, which is one of many peculiar provisos to which she must agree. The employer, Jephro Rucastle, seems pleasant enough, yet Miss Hunter obviously has her suspicions.
She announces to Holmes, after the raised salary offer, that she will take the job, and Holmes suggests that if he is needed, a telegram will bring him to Hampshire, where Mr Rucastle's country estate, the Copper Beeches, is situated.
In about a fortnight, Holmes receives such a message, beseeching him to come and see her in Winchester. Once Holmes and Dr Watson arrive, Miss Hunter tells them one of the most singular stories that they have ever heard. Mr Rucastle would sometimes have Miss Hunter wear an electric blue dress and sit in the front room reading, with her back to the front window. She began to suspect that she was not supposed to see something outside the window, and a small mirror shard hidden in her handkerchief showed her that she was right: there was a man standing there on the road looking towards the house.
At another such session, Mr Rucastle told a series of funny stories that made Miss Hunter laugh until she was quite weary. The one astonishing thing about this was that Mrs Rucastle not only didn't laugh, but didn't even smile.
There were other unsavoury things about the household. The six-year-old child that she was supposed to look after was astonishingly cruel to small animals. The servants, Mr and Mrs Toller, were quite a sour pair. A great mastiff was kept on the property, and always kept hungry. It was let out to prowl the grounds at night and Miss Hunter was warned not to cross the threshold after dark. Also, Toller, who was quite often drunk, was the only one who had any influence over this brute.
There was also the odd discovery by Miss Hunter of her own tresses in a locked drawer. Upon checking her own luggage, however, they turned out to be another woman's, but identical in every way to Miss Hunter's, even to the unusual colour.
However, the most unsavoury thing of all about the household was the mystery wing. Miss Hunter had observed that there was a part of the house that did not seem to be used. The windows were either dirty or shuttered, and once she saw Mr Rucastle coming out of the door leading into the wing looking most perturbed. Later, he explained that he used the rooms for his photography hobby, but Miss Hunter was not convinced.
She sneaked into the wing one evening, and had a truly frightening experience there. She thought she saw someone. Running out of the room, she found herself right in Mr Rucastle's clutches. He seemed convinced that she had seen nothing of the prisoner in the forbidden wing. He also threatened to throw her to the mastiff if she ever went into the wing again.
It seems clear to Holmes that Miss Hunter has been hired to impersonate someone who looks very much like her, and he surmises quite reasonably that it is probably Mr Rucastle's daughter by his first marriage, Alice. The story has been that she moved to Philadelphia. Holmes further surmises that the man watching the house is likely Alice's lover, or perhaps even her fiancé. The purpose of hiring Miss Hunter seems clear: she is to convince the man watching from the road that Alice is no longer interested in seeing him.
Holmes, Watson and Miss Hunter find Miss Alice's room empty; Rucastle thinks the trio has helped his daughter escape and goes to fetch the mastiff. Unfortunately for Rucastle, the great dog has been accidentally starved for longer than usual and attacks Rucastle instead. Watson shoots the dog with his revolver. Later, Mrs Toller confirms Holmes' theory about Rucastle's daughter and reveals that when Alice came of age she was to receive an annuity from her late mother's will; Rucastle tried to force his daughter to sign over control of the inheritance to him, which only resulted in Alice becoming ill with brain fever, hence the cut hair. Rucastle then tried to keep Alice away from her fiancé by locking her up in the mystery wing and hiring Miss Hunter to unwittingly impersonate Alice. Mrs Toller herself aided Miss Alice and her fiancé to communicate, motivated by payment as well as possible affection.
Rucastle's daughter escapes with her fiancé, and they marry soon after. Watson notes, at the end of the story, that Holmes appears to have been drawn to Miss Hunter. However, to his disappointment, Holmes does not show any interest in Miss Hunter after the mystery has been solved, which was the real force behind his feelings. Rucastle becomes an invalid, kept alive solely by the determined, continuous care of his second wife. Miss Hunter keeps a girls school.