The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
|"The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist"|
1903 illustration by Sidney Paget
|Author||Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Series||The Return of Sherlock Holmes|
"The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist", one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes is contacted by Miss Violet Smith of Farnham, Surrey about an unusual turn in her and her mother’s lives. Violet’s father has recently died and left his wife and daughter rather poor. There was an ad in the news asking about their whereabouts. Answering it, they met Mr. Carruthers and Mr. Woodley, the former a pleasant enough man, but the latter a bully. They had come from South Africa, where they had known Violet’s uncle Ralph Smith, who had now also died in poverty and apparently wanted to see that his relatives were provided for. This struck Violet as odd, since she and her family had not heard a word from Smith since his departure for South Africa 25 years ago. Carruthers and Woodley explained that before dying, Ralph had heard of his brother’s death and felt responsible for his survivors’ welfare.
Carruthers began by offering Violet a job as a live-in music teacher for his ten-year-old daughter at £100 a year, about twice the going rate. She accepted after Carruthers said that she could visit her mother on weekends. That went well until Mr. Woodley came to stay for a week. He made the most oafish, clumsiest sexual advances and boasted that if Violet married him, she would have a life of luxury. He even grabbed her and demanded a kiss, precipitating expulsion by his host, Carruthers. Violet has not seen Woodley since.
The specific thing that has brought Violet to seek Holmes’s services, however, is the strange man who follows her on his bicycle as she cycles to and from the railway station for her weekend visits to her mother. The strange man always keeps his distance behind her and disappears without a trace, never letting her near him, and always along the same lonely stretch of road. Violet does not recognize him, but he has a black beard. Holmes asks her about her admirers, and other than Woodley, if he can be styled as such, she can only think of Mr. Carruthers, who, although a perfect gentleman at all times, seems attracted to her.
After Violet leaves, Holmes observes that it is odd that a household would pay £100 a year for a music teacher but be too cheap to pay for a horse and trap. He sends Dr. Watson to Surrey to see what he can find out. This turns out to be virtually nothing, except to establish that the lady’s story is true, and that the mystery man comes out of and goes back into a local house, Charlington Hall. Holmes upbraids Watson for his lackluster results. They also receive a letter from Violet that evening saying that Carruthers has proposed to her, but she had to refuse since she is already engaged to a man named Cyril Morton, an electrical engineer in Coventry.
Holmes goes to Surrey himself, and gets into a fight in a pub for his troubles; when he returns and tells Watson what happened, he actually considers his experience in Surrey to be hilarious. It seems that Mr. Woodley has been in the taproom at the pub and heard his name mentioned in conversation. He comes out and demands to know who Holmes is and what he wants. The discussion escalates to violence; Holmes emerges with a few bruises, whereas Woodley has to be carried home. The innkeeper has merely mentioned that Woodley is a regular weekend guest at Charlington Hall, which is rented by Williamson, who, rumor has it, is a clergyman.
Holmes returns to 221B Baker Street with his face somewhat marred, and another letter arrives from Violet, saying that her situation has become impossible owing to Mr. Carruthers’s proposals, and Mr. Woodley’s reappearance. She is quitting. Holmes knows that some intrigue is afoot, and he tells Watson that they must get themselves to Surrey to see that Violet makes it to the station. Carruthers has at last acquired a trap, and she need not ride her bicycle this time.
Through a failure to realize that Violet might take an earlier train than usual, Holmes discovers that he is too late to meet Violet. The trap comes along the road, but by the time it does, no one is in it: Violet has been abducted. Holmes and Watson board the empty trap in an attempt to go after the kidnappers. They come face-to-face with the mysterious cyclist, who pulls a revolver on them; however, both parties quickly realise that they are on the same side - both have Violet’s welfare in mind. The cyclist declares that the abductors are Woodley and Williamson. He evidently knows something of the intrigue.
The group first find an unconscious groom, who was driving the trap, in the bushes, and then they find all three persons that they have been seeking on the Charlington Hall grounds, with the apparently defrocked clergyman performing a wedding ceremony between the other two. The bride is somewhat unwilling, judging from the gag over her mouth. Woodley's boast of having married Violet leads the mysterious cyclist, unmasking himself as Carruthers, to pull out his revolver and shoot Woodley, wounding him.
The intrigue does indeed involve Uncle Ralph in South Africa. He was dying when Carruthers and Woodley left; far from being penniless at his death, it is revealed that in reality, Uncle Ralph had amassed a large fortune. As he was illiterate, he would surely die intestate, and therefore Violet would inherit his wealth as Ralph’s next of kin. The two crooks made their way to England in the hopes that one of them would get to marry Violet - Woodley having won the chance in a card game on the ship - and they had to draw Williamson into the plot, promising him a share of the lucre. The plan went awry when first, Woodley proved to be a brute, and next, Carruthers fell in love with Violet, and thereafter wanted nothing to do with his former confederates. He took to disguising himself and following her as she rode her bicycle past Charlington Hall, where he knew Woodley and Williamsom might be lying in wait for her.
Heavy penalties await Woodley and Williamson, but Carruthers only gets a few months due to Woodley's less-than-savory reputation. Holmes reassures Carruthers the "marriage" performed by Williamson was void; not only was it performed against Violet's will, but Williamson had been defrocked and therefore had no authority to legalise a marriage.
The first version of the story was refused by the editor of Strand Magazine because Holmes was not very involved in the plot.
Conan Doyle was not very pleased with the story and believed that the first three stories of The Return of Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Empty House", "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder", and "The Adventure of the Dancing Men") were better than this story.
The Granada TV version with Jeremy Brett was relatively faithful to the original story; however, it has a comic relief ending when Holmes's chemical experiment causes the flat to fill up with smoke, and brings the fire brigade to the scene. (The chemical experiment – sans smoke – is from "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty".)
"The Solitary Cyclist" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1993 by Bert Coules as part of his complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and features Denis Quilley as Bob Carruthers, Susannah Harker as Violet Smith, David Holt as Jack Woodley, and Peter Penry-Jones as Williamson.