GERALD BURNS SOCIETY
|GERALD BURNS SOCIETY|
Robert Louis Stevenson, as we know from his own remarks about writing, imagined the settings of his stories firstly as a quality of light, an atmosphere perceived as a painter would perceive it. In his monograph on RLS, Chesterton presents him as "the art student surrounded by easels on which other artists were debating the fine shades of Corot and Renoir, while he himself was gravely painting mariners a bright prussian blue out of a shilling paint-box and shedding their blood in streams of unmistakable crimson lake." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also had illustration in the blood, as a glance at his titles makes clear -- A Study in Scarlet, "The Red-headed League," and "The Adventure of the Red Circle," to stick with crimson, with "The Yellow Face," "Blue Carbuncle," "Five Orange Pips" and "Black Peter" to round out the palette. There are also the metallic colors -- "Silver Blaze," "The Golden Pince-Nez," and "The Copper Beeches" to consider, as if Doyle had a touch of William Morris's fascination with rubricated title-pages, gilt manuscript illuminations, and stained glass. (We wouldn't be that surprised to see, as one of his titles, "The Adventure of the Red House.")
His plots bear down heavily on color, and objects associated with color. This seems to me particularly well handled in "The Copper Beeches," a tale as full of contrasts and identities as Monet's late raw-color studies of his little Japanese bridge. I say "contrasts" deliberately. "The Copper Beeches" begins with what is almost a quarrel between Holmes, who thinks (or pretends to think) that reports of his cases should be "lectures," which is to say demonstrations, Vesalian anatomies of the deductive process, and Watson's more Stevensonian interest in the quality of events. "You have erred perhaps," says Holmes, "in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements." And yet the positions of both men are touched with shades, and some of these are Watson's doing. "And yet," said I, smiling, "I cannot quite hold myself absolved from the charge of sensationalism which has been urged against my records." The "smiling" is indicative -- Watson knows that the sensational is intrinsic to many of the events he records, "Rache" written in blood on a wall, a pygmy with a blow-pipe, dried orange pips that make men pale at the breakfast table. This is a narrator's notion of satire, implicit in a situation. Watson's tone, once he gets over a touch of coldness that comes from pique, is conciliatory. So, with the one lapse into clinical righteousness, is Holmes's. In the first line of the story Holmes refers to himself as "the man who loves art for its own sake," thinking of himself as an artist or connoisseur, perhaps on the order of De Quincey, not so far from Watson's position, since neither thinks, or quite dares to say, that crime is interesting as such. "Crime is common. Logic is rare," says Holmes. The art of deduction is quite at home in the trivial, and a good thing because Miss Violet Hunter is about to knock on the door with a problem she finds almost impossible to state. The mystery is an aspect of queerness in the generous offer of a position as governess in Hampshire. Her employer is a walking emblem of the Good Natured Man, in appearance something between G. K. Chesterton and one of the Cheeryble brothers. Yet he keeps striking false notes, and Miss Hunter very wisely consults Holmes.
The problem works itself out in terms of color. The fog is yellow against dun-colored houses, the gas shines on the white breakfast table. The client's name is Violet; it appears twice, at the beginning and end of the story. There are references to chestnut hair, the electric-blue dress she contracts to wear, a yellow-backed novel and the yellow envelope of her panic telegram, the Black Swan Hotel, the whitewashed house ("stained and streaked with damp and bad weather"), Watson admires the red and gray roofs under a light blue sky with "little fleecy white clouds." He makes the country sound like one of Constable's sketches; his approach is appropriately pastoral. Here again, as at the breakfast table, the difference surfaces as a difference in aspect, and we get Holmes's musings on the hideous crimes possible in rural retreats. It is Holmes, as an artist in crime, not Watson, who sees the sensational in the mundane. Both her employer and the alcoholic Toller appear with red faces. Toller carries a "large black linen bag," Carlo the mastiff has a black muzzle, Holmes refers to the case as a "black business."
The colors begin to make patterns. Mrs. Rucastle (who has light gray eyes) is "colourless in mind." Violet has "a bright, quick face" and freckles. Here if we are interested, as the story suggests, in the "finer shades of analysis" it gets useful to allow, in addition to words for the traditional chromatic sequence, the words for brightness, intensities, and dullness. The high point of Miss Hunter's second narrative is her finding, in a locked drawer, a coil of hair identical in color to her own, "a rather peculiar tint of chestnut hair," the "same peculiar tint." The clue that unlocks the mystery is a question of identity, so close that she wonders how her cut off hair, which she was just looking at, could have got there. As she says, "I returned the strange hair to the drawer." It is strange, that uncommon tint -- unaccountably not hers, "strange." At the heart of the narrative she finds that what is most personal to her is alien. I remember that even as a child the "copper" of the trees (mentioned seven times as the name of the house, and three more referring to the grove itself) resonated with me against the so-peculiar chestnut of her hair. There is something unearthly about it, rather like Edmund Gosse's "lavender hair" John Singer Sargent so wanted to render in a portrait, and did. Her hair is chestnut; the trees are copper.
This oddity of metallic luster, that painters know is dark and bright at once, is everywhere in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches." It starts with simple ranges of brightness and darkness. Holmes lights his cherry-wood pipe (which, we find, he smokes when he's feeling disputatious), with a "glowing cinder" from the "cheery fire." The houses on the far side of Baker Street are "dark, shapeless blurs," but the gas is lit and shines on the "white cloth" with its "glimmer of china and metal." Metal in a sense reappears when Holmes confesses himself reduced to finding "lost lead pencils," an image of writing at the end of a quarrel about writing. Violet has a "bright, quick face," on the train the sun is "shining very brightly." Carlo has "two glowing eyes" which she can make out through "a slit between two planks." Jephro Rucastle's eyes, in the venal Miss Stoper's little office, are "two little shining slits." The words overlay each other like touches of Impressionist color. The (presumptive) silver of the breakfast tea service reappears in a rural nocturne; the lawn is "silvered over" and "almost as bright as day." Watson's rhapsodic approach to the "light green of the new foliage" is deliberately overwritten, to contrast with Holmes's sardonic view -- so many trees, so few policemen -- but when we get to the house the narrative contrast is with the titular, druidic trees which are surely sinister, "with their dark leaves shining like burnished metal in the light of the setting sun." Watson neglects to add the effect of the red-gold evening light on Miss Hunter's hair, but we know what it would be. A pause would be inappropriate, with Mrs. Toller banging on the cellar door and her husband drunk on the carpet. The end is sensational indeed, without much color beyond references to the dog's "keen white teeth" in Rucastle's neck, and the decamped Miss Alice's "beautiful hair."
There are, in the course of the narrative, a couple of odd little touches. One is when Rucastle is praising his son, the revolting Master Edward, who is six, for his skill at dispatching roaches with a slipper. "Three gone before you could wink," he says, and his eyes are "two little shining slits." He winks while he talks, reenacting it. As Holmes says, "I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children." We see the child in the father in these few lines, a quick sketch of perverted empathy, neatly repeated when Violet glimpses Alice's shadow "against the little slit of dim light which shone out from under the door." People professionally interested in optics, as Conan Doyle certainly was, are always shining lights through little slits for one purpose or another, and it is interesting that two of Miss Hunter's clues are framed, in nearly identical words, in terms of an elementary laboratory stratagem. They reflect each other, at least for me, in a peculiar way, a faint dissonance produced by consonance, an "interference pattern" perhaps, with a result or afterflavor I find unpleasant.
The remaining oddity is certainly trivial, a mere nothing, yet I mention it because it is in keeping with the thrust, the set of the images, in more important respects. Mrs. Toller claims lenience and Holmes, deducing as he goes, infers that Alice's young man, "having met you succeeded by certain arguments, metallic or otherwise, in convincing you that your interests were the same as his." It is an odd periphrasis, an insultingly overdelicate way of saying, "You were bribed with coins." It is the last appearance of metal in "The Copper Beeches." Mrs. Toller is not a wholly pleasant person because she isn't overdelicate, something like an accessory to something like a crime; the false delicacy of "metallic argument" reminds us of it. But it reminds us, as well, that Violet Hunter is nearly cozened by a bribe -- a fifty-pound note -- in Westaway's agency. She turns it down because she can't bring herself to cut her hair, and much of the human interest in this story is the frank account of her second thoughts about it. She has been tempted, and suspects it. She decides to accept, but consults Holmes as well. (He mocks her gently for having already decided.) So the feelings of Mrs. Toller and Miss Hunter are mixed, their motives good and bad, one might say darkly bright. We are relieved that both their compromises turn out well. Everyone succeeds, the Tollers by a kind of genteel blackmail, Alice by marriage, by special license in Southampton, and Violet becomes head of a school. Holmes, who thinks her "a quite exceptional woman," loses interest when her problem is solved, "rather," says Watson, "to my disappointment." We are back to art for its own sake, and the flavor in at least this reader's mouth is a bit like chewing on an old, tired penny. It is coppery, and romantics such as Watson are bound to render it as such. I can only wonder if Conan Doyle felt something of the same when he called the last Sherlock Holmes story of all "The Retired Colourman."