Ralph Edwards - Fri, 13 Jan 1995
The Canonical stories in
which Holmes appears without Watson are often cited as evidence that the
Johnson is lost without his Boswell -- a gem without its setting is dull
-- they also serve who only stand and wait. All that being the case, how
does The Musgrave Ritual, without Watson, manage to be such a good
As we launch another reading of The Musgrave Ritual, a personal favorite of many Hounds, I offer the following observations:
In Holmes's early days as
a consulting detective in private practice, his cases were far and few
between. He had left college and come to London, where he whiled away the
time studying all manner of obscure lore in the British Museum. His third
case came to him in the form of Reginald Musgrave, a school friend and
wealthy member of the landed gentry.
Musgrave told Holmes a tale which apparently involved not one but three mysteries: a missing butler, a missing waiting-maid, and a strange document which had been in his family for generations but which no one could understand. The central figure in all this was the butler, one Richard Brunton. Brunton had been engaged to marry the missing maid, an excitable girl of Welsh heritage named Rachel Howells, but he had broken the engagement in favor of another girl. Brunton had been caught reading the strange document, and it cost him his job because the paper was a part of his employer's private life.
On the night of the second day after his dismissal, Brunton, who had been given a week to make his departure, vanished. His disappearance was revealed the next morning by Rachel Howells, who went into a fit of hysteria and was sent to her bed to recover. A thorough search revealed that Brunton had left his wallet, boots, and other personal items behind although his black suit and slippers were missing and he himself was nowhere to be found. After two days, Rachel Howells silently slipped out of her sick-bed and also vanished. Her footprints were found leading up to the edge of a nearby lake, but dragging failed to produce her body. A linen bag containing some twisted metal and a few rusty disks of metal was found in the lake.
Where were Richard Brunton and Rachel Howells? And what was the meaning of the strange catechism or ritual that may have been linked to it all? In a few minutes, the Mâitre de Chasse will sound his great hunting horn to summon the Hounds to a pursuit of the answers. They may find that their quarry has gone to ground.
The astronomy and trigonometry
of MUSG has been gone into many times in the past,
and I do not propose to inquire as to the relative position of the sun
at a given spot on earth more than 300 years prior to the adventure. Nor
do I wish to delve into the significance of "the sixth from the first"
taken in conjunction with the Julian calendar, although it is interesting
to note that the question, "What was the month?" and the response, "The
sixth from the first." do not appear in the Strand Magazine, which
first carried the story.
Brad Keefauver - Thu, 11 Jan 2001
Nevertheless, there are a few trivial matters of interest; for example, when Holmes produced the mementos of his experience at Hurlstone, one of them is described as "a crumpled piece of paper." What might the paper have been, and why was it crumpled?
In a household the size of Hurlstone, and with the social responsibilities attendant upon the owner, one would think that an experienced butler would have been a necessity. The butler's position is of great importance in a household and consequently requires considerable training to be carried off well. Yet Reginald Musgrave's father hired an out-of-work, twenty-year-old schoolteacher for the position. What might have been his reasons for so doing?
Brunton was apparently a man of many mnemonic accomplishments, since he played "nearly every instrument" and spoke several languages. Yet Holmes surmised that on the evening Musgrave surprised Brunton during the latter's examination of the Ritual, "'[Brunton] wished to refresh his memory upon that last occasion.'" The Ritual is straightforward and brief. Many Sherlockians know it by heart. What was there about the Ritual that required refreshing of the butler's memory?
The position of Brunton's body in the fatal chamber is described as "'...squatted down upon his hams with his forehead sunk upon the edge of the box and his two arms thrown out on each side of it....'" Would this be a likely position for a dead man's body? And lest the Hounds think that rigor mortis would account for the maintenance of that position, Nysten's Law posits that rigor mortis begins with the muscles of mastication, and progresses slowly downward, with the legs and feet remaining relatively limber until the last.
If Brunton and Howells were using all their combined strength to raise the stone, who put the billets of wood under it to hold it open? Further, it appears that Holmes is convinced ("'her crime'") that Howells knocked away the final billet, which had the entire weight of the stone resting on its upper end, with a dash of her hand. Would a woman's strength be sufficient to accomplish this?
Musgrave states that the majestic oak "'was probably there at the Norman Conquest'" (1066) and "'has a girth of 23 feet.'" By the 1870's the tree would have been about 800 years old. The State Tree of Maryland is the Wye Oak, estimated to be 450 years old. It has a girth of more than 31 feet. Could it be that oak trees shrink with age?
Lastly, why was the "'battered and shapeless'" Crown twisted out of its original shape, and by whom? And what was the purpose of the few coins, which were rusty and therefore of little monetary value since they were not made of silver or gold?
Rosemary Michaud - Thu, 4 Nov 1999
Return to Introducing the 60 Stories
Brad Keefauver - Thu, 11 Jan 2001