What caused the marks on Helen's wrist?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Before Helen Stoner begins her long tale, Sherlock Holmes does something that seems a bit unusual for him, since he rarely displays much emotion.

“You must not fear,” said he soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt." 

We realize much later, after Helen has told Holmes and Watson everything, that Holmes only wanted to get a look at her wrist. The dresses women wore in those days covered them from neck to ankles. Helen's arms would have been covered down to her wrists. No doubt Holmes pushes her sleeve back a little by patting her forearm. After she tells her whole back story:

“You have done wisely,” said my friend. “But have you told me all?”

“Yes, all.”

“Miss Roylott, you have not. You are screening your stepfather.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

For answer Holmes pushed back the frill of black lace which fringed the hand that lay upon our visitor's knee. Five little livid spots, the marks of four fingers and a thumb, were printed upon the white wrist.

“You have been cruelly used,” said Holmes.

The lady coloured deeply and covered over her injured wrist. “He is a hard man,” she said, “and perhaps he hardly knows his own strength.”

So the marks on Helen's wrist were made by her stepfather Dr. Roylott. The "five little livid spots" are the impressions of his thumb and four fingers.This not only shows that Roylott is a violent man, but it is a further indication that Helen tries her best to cover up for him. Obviously she does not suspect him of having had anything to do with her sister Julia's death. During her story she tells Holmes and Watson:

“Last week he hurled the local blacksmith over a parapet into a stream, and it was only by paying over all the money which I could gather together that I was able to avert another public exposure."

The fact that Helen Stoner wishes to protect the reputation of her stepfather is used to account for what Watson writes at the very beginning of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band."

It is possible that I might have placed them upon record before, but a promise of secrecy was made at the time, from which I have only been freed during the last month by the untimely death of the lady to whom the pledge was given.

So even after Helen realized that her stepfather was trying to kill her with a poisonous snake, and even after she realized that he killed her sister with that snake two years earlier, she was still trying to protect her stepfather's reputation. This seems like strange fidelity, but it was necessary for the real author, Arthur Conan Doyle, to explain why Watson hadn't published the "adventure" much more recently. As Watson says in his introduction, this case dates back to the time when he was still sharing rooms with Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. He says it was in April of 1883. The story had to open early in the morning, and there was no way that Watson could have overheard Helen's story at such an early hour unless he had actually been living at Baker Street.

Helen is terribly frightened and takes an early train to London to see Holmes. The station at Leatherhead is only a short distance from London, so she can arrive at Baker Street quickly. The whole case is solved in a single day. Holmes and Watson go down to Stoke Moran that afternoon. Fortunately, the dangerous Dr. Roylott is spending the day in London. Holmes and Watson hide in the bedroom next to Roylott's room that night, and Holmes strikes a light when he hears that "low whistle," probably right around three o'clock in the morning. He drives the snake back through the ventilator and it kills Dr. Roylott.

Conan Doyle wanted to wrap up the whole mystery in one day, which meant that he had to start early in the morning. But Watson had to be living at Baker Street if he was going to be in on the case from the beginning. There was no way that Doyle could reveal all the details of Helen Stoner's long back story to Watson unless he was present at the initial interview. But Doyle had to explain why Watson had waited so long to tell the story. It was because he had promised Helen Stoner to keep it secret. She had exacted that promise because she was protective of Dr. Roylott and the family name. As Watson says in his introduction:

It is possible that I might have placed them upon record before, but a promise of secrecy was made at the time, from which I have only been freed during the last month by the untimely death of the lady to whom the pledge was given.

Watson does not say how Helen died. Perhaps it was in childbirth, since she was getting married. The marks on Helen's wrist, which do not escape Holmes' acute observation, are evidence both of Roylott's violent temper and Helen's concern for protecting the family name. Her concern for the family name explains why Watson has waited so long to publish the story. And this explains why Watson was able to get in on Helen's extremely long back story from the very beginning when she arrived at Baker Street at about seven o'clock in the morning. The story was first published in Strand Magazine in February 1892, but it deals with events that occurred in April 1883.

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