Copyright © 2015 by Anna Lord
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are
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purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
The large black door glimmered invitingly in the misty glow of a flickering London gaslight as Dr Watson thrust a key into the lock of number 221B Baker Street. The clatter of bone china from the basement kitchen told him Mrs Hudson was already preparing his supper.
Out of habit, he glanced at the comptoise clock on the landing – it was moments away from half past seven. Taking the risers by two set off a hacking cough that left him wheezing by the time he pushed open the door to the little sitting room at the top of the stairs. The parlour was a haven of sameness when so much else was in flux; quietly humming Auld Lang Syne when everyone else was counting down the days to the turn of the century. If Sherlock were to return this very minute he would feel at home. He would smile wryly at the bullet holes in the wallpaper, nod at the Persian slipper stuffed with shag, sigh at the Stradivarius propped artfully in the corner, and then scowl at the one change that had taken place: sniffing out the lack of noxious fumes imbuing the faded furnishings with ether de Bradley.
The chime for the half hour echoed up the stairs as the loyal housekeeper arrived with his supper on a tray, grimacing at the gilt-edged invitations lining the mantel and the coal bucket standing empty on the tiled hearth. “I shall fetch up more coal after I wash up the supper things. The coalman made his delivery after Mrs Pordage, the new char, had taken herself off home for the night. The coalman said he couldn’t deliver at the usual time because his lorry broke down on the Euston Road.”
“No need for it tonight, Mrs H, I shall be leaving in half an hour and I will not expect to return until after midnight. First thing in the morning will do.”
“And where are we off to on this fine Michaelmas night?”
She used the royal we. “Belgravia. Lady Fanshawe. An unrolling party.”
“Mrs Pordage says her nephew supplies bodies for unrolling parties. He gets the corpses from the unconsecrated graveyard at Southwark.”
“Stuff and nonsense! Grave-robbers have gone the way of whipping boys. Mummification is a serious avenue of scientific study. In fact, I have been thinking for some time of taking myself off to Egypt, partaking of a Nile cruise, and picking up a mummy or two while they are still to be had for a song on the blackmarket.”
“If you say so,” she sniffed, giving the doorknob a polish with her apron. “That’s a nasty cough you’ve got there. I heard you barking as you mounted the stairs. It might do you good to stay in for once. Mrs Pordage put your slippers by the fire. They should be toasty warm by now. She says you ought to take up smoking again. She says there is nothing like it for clearing out a man’s lungs.”
“Well, if Mrs Pordage says so…” he delivered dryly, breaking off a crust of cold pork pie. “I promise to give it some thought,” he added when she gave him one of those nanny-knows-best looks, though perhaps the new char was on to something. That bright young surgeon from Guy’s recommended it for improving circulation of the blood and balancing the humours. “Did you remember to air my white tie and tails?”
“Course I did, and though I am not one for taking umbrage, well, with all your fancy gallivanting, you might consider taking on a valet. By the way, there was a visitor to see you this morning – a foreign lady, well-to-do. I showed her up to the sitting room same as I always did for Mr Holmes. She left without leaving a message. I only knew she had taken herself off when I came upstairs to enquire if she should be wanting a cup of tea.”
The Belgravia drawing room of Lady Felicity Fanshawe was swarming with shareholders of American Tobacco. He was the only dissenter by the looks of things. Oh, there was one other, poised glamorously in the doorway leading to the music room, dressed a la mode, a svelte brunette draped in a daring, backless, ice-white gown. Svelte. Yes svelte. He liked that word. It had sprung from nowhere and suited her perfectly. She was perfectly svelte. His brain whirred in idle amusement which he likened to skating on a pond in winter. Her daring gown had him imagining her as one of those brave lady pilots, or should that be pilotesses? Their eyes met and he could have sworn she gave him one of those looks – young women were quite shameless these days – but before he had a chance to step up, the gong sounded for the commencement of the unrolling. Mahogany doors were thrown open with ecstatic fanfare and everyone hastened slowly into the adjoining ballroom to snaffle the best seat. Laid out on a catafalque was a mummy draped in bandages. Perfumed candles and Byzantine censers exuding exotic fragrances such as chypre and myrrh served to mask the smell of death, decay and tobacco fumes.
A noted Egyptologist wearing a white caftan and an expert in cadavers from St Bart’s wearing a white dustcoat hovered over the corpse like sorcerer’s apprentices. He wondered if they would pull a dung beetle out of a nostril for the grand finale. The svelte brunette had managed to snag a seat near the head of the bier. A Circean smile beckoned him toward the vacant seat alongside but as he ploughed through the perfume the vacant chair was claimed by old Lady Jarvis and he failed to snag anything at all.
The two magicians worked the gawping crowd like a pair of spruikers at Billingsgate fish market as they educated Belgravia’s finest on the art of mummification according to Herodotus. Male or female? Young or old? Third dynasty or tenth? All would soon be revealed!
His mind drifted to the notion of life after death, the enduring belief of an afterlife, bog bodies preserved in peat, and that urgent missive from Lady Laura Baskerville. Was some fresh horror stirring to life on the moor ten years after the hound from hell was put to rest?
A frightful odour forced his focus. Elegant hands were fumbling for scented handkerchiefs to mask the nauseating smell coming from the mummy. Bandages continued to unfurl and fall to the floor until the nether regions were exposed. When a male appendage popped up it became glaringly obvious that the ancient Egyptian mummy who was thought to be female at the commencement of proceedings turned out to be neither female nor a mummy, and not even Egyptian. He tried not to think of Mrs Pordage as he gagged on the stench while guests jostled for the door, handkerchiefs over their mouths to avoid sucking back noxious fumes, whetting their appetite on the sad carcass with the shrunken husk along the way.
“Dr Watson, I presume?”
What luck! The night was not a total loss! It was the svelte brunette! “I believe we have not had the pleasure of being introduced.”
“Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”
Bushy brows rocketed north. Her name certainly had Slavic verve but the exotic onomatopoeaia did not match the Anglicised patois. Her aristocratic accent was minus the thick nasally intonation that usually accompanies names from the Steppe.
“Names are an important adjunct to personality,” she observed blithely, noting his over-arching reaction. “That is why I chose to revert to my maiden name upon becoming widowed. It has esprit. Everyone to whom I am introduced displays a similar reaction to your own. Singularly impressed is how I define it.”
His eyes automatically checked for the gold wedding band. Right hand, check, nestled between some impressive sparklers, check, check, check. “Er, yes, indeed, singularly.”
Talking to her was not like skating on a pond in winter, more like skiing down the steep side of Mont Blanc, free-wheeling and exhilarating; he could almost feel the wind in his hair.
“Of course, when I say ‘maiden name’ I refer to my step-father.”
She was clearly heading somewhere while he was skiing in the dark minus flares and a compass. He decided to start steering the conversation in some meaningful direction. “Your step-father was Russian?”
“I believe they are one and the same; everything Ukrainian is Russian.”
“It is actually the other way around. Take the term Russian Cossack. There is no such thing. The Cossacks came from the zaporizhznya on the banks of the River Dnipr in Ukraine. Likewise the Antaeans, Scythians, Samartians, Cimmerians, Avars and Magyars sprang from the area above the Black Sea, not the Muskovy Marsh. I daresay you would baulk if I asserted that everything Scottish is Irish and everything English is French.” She enunciated as if he might be hard of hearing or slightly retarded. “But I digress. The Count of Odessos – Count Volodya Volodymyr – was unmarried and already fifty when he adopted me. He drowned while crossing the Volga one winter. I was consequently raised by his unmarried sister, Countess Zoya Volodymyrovna. I had numerous private tutors of various nationalities and that is why – as you have probably already noted – I do not speak with a Slavic accent. My step-aunt was an adventurous woman for her time. She enjoyed travelling more than anything and together we travelled almost everywhere. I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica.”
“And your mother?” he posed in a quasi-interested monotone, picturing her in peasant dress, flowers in her hair, kicking up her heels with some drunken Cossacks on the banks of the Volga where a blind begger strummed a balailaka.
“I have no memory of her at all. She gave me up without even naming me.”
This conversation was beginning to go round in circles – a bit like the folk-dance in his head. She was clearly a young woman of considerable vanity who believed that any stranger she bailed up would be interested in her life story the moment she opened her pretty rosebud lips.
“That is a very unfortunate tale, or perhaps fortunate if you enjoy travelling. Good evening, Countess.” With a polite inclination of the head he turned to go.
He felt like he’d just skied off the side of a mountain and crashed into a ravine. After picking himself up, he whirled back faster than a vodka-fuelled Cossack. “Your mother was Irene Adler?” he tested, and this time he didn’t care whether he appeared retarded or not.
An affirmative nod and sympathetic smile induced a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, as if that cold pork pie he’d had for his supper had been rancid. “And your father?” he dared, though he had an inkling he wouldn’t like this destination after all and would do better to avoid it. “Your biological father?” he clarified dyspeptically. “Not your step-father – Count Volodymyrovna.”
“Volodymyr,” she corrected with asperity. “The last two vowels denote the feminine. You disappoint me, Dr Watson. I thought you would have surmised that for yourself by now. I am the daughter of Sherlock Holmes.”
Of course! Of course! She wasn’t the first to claim kinship! There had been others! Clever charlatans! Kooks and nutters! One had held up the will for months. Another had stalked him all the way to Vienna and then attempted to strangle him at the opera. A third had ended up in the nuthouse after becoming dangerously deluded and gutting a prostitute in Whitechapel, claiming to be the son of Jack the Ripper one day and Sherlock Holmes the next – offering to solve his own sick crime! And yet, and yet, there was something in her manner, in the way she rattled on provocative and proud, and vain too, yes, above all, vain! He let rip a bully-ragging laugh. Several guests turned to look.
“So what brings the daughter of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler halfway across the world to the humble home of Lady Felicity Fanshawe on Michaelmas night?”
His tone bristled facetiousness.
“You – Dr Watson.”
“Six months ago I found myself all alone in the world, an orphan sans famille, and decided I needed to meet the only person who had meant anything to the father I never met.”
“Really?” he said peevishly.
She took hold of his two hands in a gesture implying intimacy. “Dear Dr Watson – my father’s comrade-in-arms, his stalwart companion, his closest confidante, his trusty sidekick, his one and only friend – would you agree that is a fair and honest summation?”
Sweaty hands always feel less cold and clammy nestled in warm, soft, scented palms, but he withdrew them as if she had just announced she had leprosy. “My opinion on the matter of your fanciful summation is pointless and immaterial. I am leaving forthwith and if you attempt to contact me again I shall initiate legal proceedings. Good evening, Countess, with or without the string of vowels!”
She pursued him out of the ballroom and down the hall like a shuttlecock on a string attached to his coat tails. “You cannot run from destiny. We are connected by history. We are family in all that the word implies.”
“Go tell that to Mycroft!” he shot back with keen-edged diction. “I am not, repeat not, family! Sherlock and I were never related!”
“Mycroft is harder to track down. I thought I should start with you.”
“Oh, really!” he huffed as he hurtled down the curve of cantilevered stairs.
“I can help you solve the Baskerville curse!”
Clever minx! His unknown foreign lady! She had visited his sitting room! Perused at leisure the two letters he left carelessly lying on his desk! He whirled round the scagliola column in the entry hall and confronted her head on as she made a brisk but balletic descent. “What do you know of the Baskerville curse?” he posed bluntly in order to expose her prying.
“I read the correspondence on your desk,” she confessed with disarming candour. “The initial invitation from Lady Laura Baskerville struck me as mildly interesting but the second missive stuck me as terribly urgent. We have no time to lose.”
“Sleuthing is in my blood. A medical man such as yourself who has embraced the extraordinary theory of the courageous Mr Darwin – I saw the book on your desk – should know that. You cannot solve this fresh curse without my superior brain.”
Good God! He could actually hear Sherlock in every word that fell from her rosebud lips. “I’ve a good mind to take you to Devon and slip you loose upon the moor on a moonless night mantled in drizzling mist. What I am about to embark upon is no game.”
“And I’ve a good mind to let you travel alone to Devon so that you can make a fool of yourself with that flowery turn of poesy. You have failed to solve a single case since the so-called ‘death’ of Sherlock – though that is another matter. You used the word ‘game’ and how apt it was. You will merely play at sleuthing until Fate overtakes you and sucks you down into the great Grimpen Mire called Failure.”
Another matter. What did she mean by that? Hang on! He was getting side-tracked. “How do you know I haven’t solved a single case? Oh, never mind,” he gurgled, indignation rising up his throat. He hated that she was right, the same way he always secretly hated when Sherlock was right. Sidekick, indeed! For once, just for once, he wanted to be proved right, not wrong. He wanted to see a case through to its conclusion without Sherlock. Above all, he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it.
His mind was bunged up with unresolved grievances when he caught sight of a reflection in the mirror above the demi-line table that caused him to stop dead. The image that stared back at him was pale and terrified, as if running for its life. Sometime during the past year he had slipped from middle-age into comfortable old slippers, and his life had slipped into dull predictability. The bold man of action, adventurous and unafraid, had been replaced by a timid old man who played it safe. How many times had Sherlock entreated him pack his bags at the eleventh hour? And how many times had he refused? None! Never! Nix!
Who was this provocative young woman? Why did she have such a violent effect on his carefully balanced humours? Where did she spring from? What was her true motive in seeking him out? He had always consulted his betters, deferred to those he considered wiser and nobler, but Mycroft was currently out of the country – involved in something of national importance. As for Sherlock…well, the least said the better.
One phrase kept repeating in his head like a gatling gun as the hall porter passed him his evening cloak, silk scarf, top hat and trusty battered cane: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The door stood open for him to pass through. He could walk out that door and never see her again or he could put her – and himself – to the test.
“I shall be taking the 8.20 to Devon tomorrow morning. If you are on the platform at Paddington you may accompany me to Baskerville Hall. If not, it was a singular pleasure to meet you. Good evening, Countess Volodymyrovna.”
He made sure to put an emphasis on the vowels denoting the feminine.
Dr Watson hoped he would not live to regret his volte-face, but it was too late now, and besides, he could keep an eye on her in Devon. It was better than leaving her running fast and loose in London blabbing that she was Sherlock’s offspring. No doubt, this latest Baskerville business would be wrapped up by the close of the weekend and he would have a much better idea of her true character. What harm could she possibly do at a country house party in Dartmoor? He could pretend to take her into his confidence and if all went well it would be a feather in his cap for a change. His chest puffed out at the thought then deflated like a pricked balloon. If the svelte creature with the provocative repartee and propensity for startling honesty was who she claimed to be then she was her mother’s daughter as well as her father’s – a femme fatale, an arch enchantress, a diabolical villainess!
Fears began to multiply. She had somehow managed to secure a first class ticket for his own private smoker and had not only managed to meet him on the platform but had beaten him to it; looking perfectly unruffled, fresher than a daisy, as though she had slept like a newborn babe all night, greeting him with a smile so alarmingly charming it rattled him more than the wretched window to his left that gave onto scenes of unchanging Englishness as the train huffed and puffed toward Devon.
“By the way,” she said, “it is Castle.”
His attention returned to the mysterious young woman seated opposite. Her long brunette hair was roundly coifed and kept in place by a pert hat that sat jauntily to one side, and her tailored travelling costume looked as if it had been stitched into place by a Parisian seamstress that very morning. The tight bodice and fluid skirt, that hugged here and flared there, suited her narrow silhouette, and the soft shade – ashes of roses; one of Mary’s favourites – always managed to flatter. The gold wedding band was no longer on show thanks to a pair of soft suede gloves that matched a pair of soft suede ankle boots.
“I beg your pardon?” he replied, meeting her studied gaze and noting for the first time that she had pale grey eyes, tending toward a smoky blue, evocative of that moment between day and night, quaintly called the witching hour.
“Last night you referred to Baskerville Hall but it is now Baskerville Castle.”
He recalled the elaborate heraldic crest in the top right hand corner of the initial invitation. “Mmm, I wonder if a change of name was really necessary.”
“Not only necessary but a necessity, since you ask. It signals to the world the vast improvements Sir Henry has made to the bleak old pile he inherited from Sir Charles. Castle sounds more impressive, and it stamps his name on the transformation.”
“Ah, yes, names and all that,” he mumbled, realizing too late that he hadn’t asked anything of the sort.
“Exactly,” she returned with an absence of false modesty.
He wondered how this image a la mode could have known there had been any improvements at all and concluded she must have done some homework in the last twenty-four hours. It reminded him of someone else who always did their homework. His old friend had made looking knowledgeable easy, almost accidental, when in fact it took painstaking hours of study, a memory like a steel trap, an imagination able to connect random ideas, and a formidable mind bordering on genius. It was time to apprise her of some pertinent facts and take her into his confidence. It was time to put her to the test.
“You might care to re-read these,” he suggested, extracting two letters from his breast pocket. “And then we can discuss them.”
She appeared genuinely grateful. “Oh, I was just thinking how I might contrive to see them again and digest the wording a little more fully.”
After a few moments of intense perusal she rested the letters on her lap and looked up. “Am I correct in presuming that Lady Laura Baskerville, authoress of these missives, is Laura Lyons, the ill-used daughter of Mr Frankland of Lafter Hall?”
He nodded. “After the conclusion of that wretched business with Stapleton and the gigantic hound, Sir Henry and Dr Mortimer took themselves off on a Grand Tour – Rome, Venice, Vienna, Paris – the sort of thing that young men of wealth have always done, rounding off their education by acquiring artworks and sculptures for their great houses. When they returned twelve months later, Sir Henry Baskerville was still unmarried.”
“The acquisitive young man was in need of acquiring an heir.”
He overlooked the sardonic tone. “Mrs Beryl Stapleton, the original favourite, was out of the question. Her background was dubious and there was no escaping the fact she had been married to a scoundrel and had acted as co-conspirator with him for years while he committed burglaries and God knows what other crimes. She only refused to do his bidding in the end, most likely understanding the seriousness of being an accomplice to murder, but if he had succeeded in his fantastic plan to kill Sir Henry there is every possibility she would have become chatelaine of Baskerville and kept his terrible secret.”
“Damned if she did and damned if she didn’t – and a damned shortage of marriageable fillies in Devon!”
“A woman could do a lot worse,” he tempered advisedly. “On the other hand, Laura Lyons, born of good English stock, had been ill-used not by one man, but two, and sorely drawn into luring Sir Charles onto the moor and to his death by deceit of the most heinous kind of which she was not a willing participant but a hapless pawn. Sir Henry, being a good-natured and kind-hearted fellow and feeling somehow responsible for her predicament, offered her a small annuity and struck up an acquaintance-ship that soon developed into something more meaningful.”
“They have been married how long?”
“I’m surprised you cannot tell me, Countess Volodymyrovna.”
“Oh, come, come, Dr Watson. I only read these letters for the first time in your room yesterday morning and then met you for the first time last night. I could hardly be expected to learn every fact in the space of one day. Ordnance maps and surveyor’s reports are one thing, and mention of a grand garden party is an easy source from which to draw deductions, but as for personal details, I am sadly in the dark and will rely on you to enlighten me. And though I can boast that I am well-versed with the broad facts of my father’s cases, including the case of the Baskerville hound, the minor facts need updating. You are wasting time scoring points against me when we are both on the same side. Your condescension is counterproductive. ”
Feeling slightly ashamed, he winced inwardly. “Sir Henry and Lady Laura have been married seven years and she is currently expecting their first-born child. She is seven months gone. They have two other children, twins, five years of age, not legally adopted, but wards of Sir Henry. Lady Baskerville suffered two miscarriages and believed herself unable to bear children due to some complication with her womb caused by the abuse of her first husband, Robert Lyons. The children cannot inherit.”
“Unofficially adopted when, where and from whom?”
“Five years ago from a young unmarried girl on the Baskerville estate who died in childbirth. Another unmarried girl from the estate, who had recently given birth, was employed as wet nurse until the children were weaned. Mrs Stapleton is their governess.”
Elegant brows arched with astonishment. “Lady Laura Baskerville is a rare member of her sex. To retain her husband’s former love-interest as governess is uncommonly kind. I swear I do not know if that fact is significant or merely interesting and therefore seemingly significant. Please go on.”
“Well,” he thought for a moment, he thought how women looked at things differently, saw them differently. He had never given a moment’s thought to the fact Mrs Stapleton was employed as governess, whereas this young woman found it interesting and significant. As far as he was concerned Beryl Stapleton was an educated woman in need of suitable employment following the death of her husband in the mire. “What else would you like to know?”
She glanced back down at the two letters resting in her lap and picked up the one on parchment, the one he had received first, one month ago. It was a charming letter which ended with an invitation to return to Baskerville Castle under happier circumstances and join an intimate celebration of the tenth anniversary of Sir Henry’s inheritance and the completion of the transformation of the gardens by the noted French landscaper – Gaston de Garonne – prior to the grand garden opening to the public on the first day of spring next year, marking Sir Henry’s 40th birthday and the christening of his soon-to-be-heir. She picked up the second letter and held the two missives in her two hands, as if weighing them on imaginary scales.
“Something happened between this first letter, beautifully transcribed in calligraphy on expensive parchment and sent by post, and this second letter hastily scribbled on a page roughly torn from a scented note pad. How was it delivered?”
“It was delivered by hand yesterday morning – a scruffy-looking courier according to Mrs H. The man didn’t even wait for a tip.”
“Why not send a telegram?”
“My thought exactly.”
“It sounds slightly hysterical.”
“I am glad we concur. I thought perhaps I was looking at it from the point of view of a man.”
She gave a scornful laugh. “Hystera and all that anatomical nonsense! Spare me the claptrap, doctor. Men can be hysterical too. It takes more than a womb.” Her eyes returned to the second letter. “Amongst the hysteria it lists the guests who will be present for the anniversary party. I find that fact important.”
“Lady Laura knows I detest large gatherings and was forewarning me to put me at ease.”
She looked unconvinced. “I think it is more than that. She wanted you to know exactly who would be attending, not just how many.” She ran her eyes over the names. “The Barrymores are listed. How is it that ex-servants – butler and housekeeper – can find themselves invited to an intimate house party of local grandees?” She replaced the missives on her lap and steepled her fingers the way Sherlock did when trying to centre his thoughts. “Tell me about the Barrymores.”
“The Barrymores turned their small fortune of 500 pounds apiece, bequeathed by Sir Charles, into a much larger fortune in Australia running a boarding house somewhere near Melbourne then sold up when Mrs Barrymore became homesick. They purchased Lafter Hall from Mr Frankland who moved into Baskerville Hall, er, Castle with his daughter and son-in-law. It was a good arrangement for all concerned, especially Sir Henry who acquired genuine Devon folk as neighbours. Plus the fact his father-in-law, a retired lawyer with a mania for costly litigation, could be kept out of the law courts and the poorhouse via the distractions that a large estate brings.”
She re-checked the names. “Mr James Desmond – isn’t that the old clergyman who would have inherited if not for young Sir Henry turning up from Canada?”
“Correct. He has retired and resides in Cumbria. Sir Henry provides him with a small annuity that allows him to live in moderate comfort.”
“Dr James Mortimer and Mrs Meredith Mortimer are listed. I presume that is the same capable and trustworthy Dr Mortimer who assisted my father all those years ago.”
It was half question, half statement. “He is indeed, and Meredith Mortimer is his wife. They have six daughters who are all married and now live in neighbouring counties.”
“They would probably have had seven if he hadn’t gone roaming with Sir Henry. I bet she breathed a sigh of relief when he announced he would be doing the Grand Tour.”
“They are salt-of-the-earth types. I think she missed him terribly and vice versa.”
“Oh, you are such a sentimentalist!” she teased. “And at your age, Dr Watson!”
He coloured slightly and turned to look out of the window to avoid her gaze.
“Gaston de Garonne,” she read next, purring out the French cognomen. “I had the pleasure of meeting him and viewing some work he did at the Chateau de Cheville in France several years ago when I summered with the Duc de Cheville. The terraced parterre was a masterpiece of geometry. But it was what he did with the ancient oak forest surrounding the chateau that impressed me most.”
“And that was?”
“He left it alone. There’s one name here that I fail to recognize – Mr Roderick Lysterfield.”
“He is the American engineer who has overseen all of the major works at Baskerville er,” he checked himself in the nick of time, “Castle, discounting the architectural ones – the extensions to the old Hall and so forth orchestrated by a talented pupil of Pugin. Mr Roderick Lysterfield can take credit for the reshaping of Dartmoor. He has supervised drainage works on a massive scale, road works that would put the Romans to shame, and taken personal charge of all the heavy landscaping work dreamt up by Gaston de Garonne. He lives at Merripit House. I believe he is charm personified.”
There! He put that in to rattle her; revenge for her teasing!
“Oh, how wonderful!” she trilled, clapping her hands like a child at a birthday party who is about to blow out some candles and make a wish. “I was beginning to think that this house party was going to be stupendously dull. They sound like such a stiff lot: Saintly Sir Henry and his Lady Bountiful, dopey Frankland, doddery Desmond, the blessed Barrymores, the salt-of-the-earth Mortimers, and sad Mrs Stapleton like a poor relation confined to the nursery or a rare tropical flower confined to the hothouse. The Gallic gardener would have been the only one worth bothering with. Roderick Lysterfield sounds totally charming. Even his name sounds charming – it recalls lilies in the field and fleur-de-lis. I might allow myself to be totally charmed.”
“I think you are forgetting something.”
Her flirtatious smile extinguished itself and she looked at him earnestly, seriously, more like a man. “You refer to the second letter.”
“I do indeed. This is not some jolly house party we will be attending for the purposes of amusez-vous, though on the surface it appears to be just that. Read the second letter to me,” he instructed sternly. “I would like to hear the intonation and emphasis you put on each word.”
She drew breath and commenced.
“Dr Watson, I beg you to make haste to Baskerville Hall/Castle. Your help is desperately needed, and your uncommon commonsense urgently sought. Something terrible has befallen us. I cannot explain further for fear of sounding deranged. But I warn you, you will find my husband greatly changed. The curse of the Baskerville’s has returned in stranger and more frightening form than either you or I could ever have imagined. LLB. (p.s. see other side for names of guests)”
“What do you make of it?”
“Mmm, penned in a desperate hurry. It leaps straight into the Dr Watson. No formal valediction with amicably yours either, just some scribbled initials. The word Hall has been crossed out and Castle added without starting afresh as you would normally do with a letter. It also implies that she forgot the name of her own house, giving form to that deranged mind. The word ‘warn’ stands out as serious. She is preparing you for something unpleasant which she then chooses not to elaborate upon, another example of a feverish pen and mind. She is frightened of something, of that there is no doubt.”
“No doubt, but is it imaginary or real?”
The reliable Devon Railway had them in Exeter prior to midday. While the train took on water, unloaded freight and decoupled some carriages, the passengers had time to stretch their legs on the platform. In no time at all they were back on the train and skirting the hem and haw of Dartmoor. Autumn came late to this part of the world, and on this last day of September the russet and golden leaves were still clinging to the pendulous limbs of oak and beech and birch.
The further west they travelled the more unsettled Dr Watson grew. Every now and then he fingered the silver cigarette case buried deep in the pocket of his tweed jacket, which he had impulsively nabbed at the last moment. His travelling companion appeared calm and composed. She was not gazing fretfully at the torpid undulations unfolding either side of them but gazing intently at Stanford’s Ordnance Map which radiated out from her lap, across the divide, and came to rest on his knees as he sat opposite.
“I see there is a prison 14 miles to the south of Baskerville Castle,” she said, tracing a line with her finger to a tiny icon on the map.
“Princeton,” he replied, grateful for some diverting conversation that might help take his mind off the feeling of impending doom that continued to increase in inverse proportion to the decrease of miles. “It is the place from which Selden the notorious Notting Hill murderer escaped the last time I found myself in this part of the world. He died of a broken neck at Cleft Tor, half a mile from the old Hall, running for his life from the gigantic hound unloosed by Stapleton who mistook him for Sir Henry.”
“If I recall correctly, Selden was Eliza Barrymore’s younger brother?”
“Yes, an evil villain through and through. I suspect it was his violent end that prompted the Barrymores to migrate to Australia after receiving their inheritance from Sir Charles. The Barrymore family had been faithful retainers to the Baskervilles for more than one hundred years.”
She moved her finger to another spot on the map. “There is a small village marked about 4 miles to the other side of the castle.”
“That would be Grimpen hamlet, a clutch of grey cottages straddling an old coaching inn attached to a post office-cum-grocer shop. The hamlet also included the once modest home of Dr Mortimer before he moved his family to High Tor Farm, a gift from Sir Henry in appreciation of devoted service which the doctor promptly turned from a rustic farmstead into something resembling a fine manor house befitting a man of his standing in the community.”
“Oh, yes, here it is – High Tor Farm. It covers quite a sizeable plot.”
“The map is a little deceptive and not up to date. High Tor Farm is no longer a farm as such. There is a sunken garden, a wildflower meadow and a small orchard, but Sir Henry retained most of the land for himself when he purchased the old farm from the widow who owned it. It has since been absorbed into the vast Baskerville estate.”
“There is another farm situated to the other side of the hamlet,” she said, moving on, “Foalmere Farm. It looks even larger.”
“Foulmire Farm,” he corrected. “It belongs to a family of gypsies who have lived on the moor for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, they are more like a tribe than a family. The head of the clan is a man called Jago, a wild and ruthless fellow by all accounts. Sir Henry made the gypsies several generous offers for their land but Jago refused to sell due to some longstanding grievance, though why he would want to hang onto it is beyond me. The fourteenth century longhouse is in a parlous state and the outbuildings are dilapidated. The gypsies live in caravans that are really just shepherds huts on wheels. How the little urchins manage not to drown in the quakes is anyone’s guess. The farmland is worthless, mainly blanket bog with patches of sedge. It feeds a few sheep and a couple of goats. The gypsies used to guide the horses for the Haytor Tramway, but today they scratch out a meagre living as horse traders and peat gatherers.”
“I didn’t realize a tramway went all the way to Haytor,” she queried, checking the map.
“Not a passenger tramway. I was referring to a granite track with flanges that helped to guide the wheels of wagons carrying granite from Haytor Rock to the Stover Canal for shipment to large cities. When cheaper granite could be quarried in Cornwall it became unprofitable and fell into disuse.”
“You have been thorough, doctor, and done your homework. I’m seriously impressed. How did you glean all this information?”
He tried valiantly to suppress a chuffed flush. “During the last ten years I have kept up a regular correspondence with Dr Mortimer, just a friendly exchange of general news along with discussions regarding scientific advances and medical breakthroughs. He is still passionately interested in skulls and has amassed quite a collection of Neolithic specimens. Last year he gave a lecture to The Royal Society. It was favourably received and he has been invited to give another lecture next year. I also receive the occasional letter from Sir Henry keeping me abreast of changes at Baskerville Hall, er, Castle. And there is the annual Christmas card from Lady Laura detailing news regarding family and household matters. A hopeless fantasy of one day penning a memoir induced me to keep all my correspondence, and so, when the invitation arrived from Lady Laura I sought out all the old letters and one dreary evening began sifting through them. I was surprised to find I had a substantial record of Dartmoor history on my hands.”
“Damn it all! Why don’t you just light up a cigarette!”
“I beg your pardon?” He managed to sound offended and perplexed at the same time.
“Your hand has been skulking inside your pocket ever since we said goodbye to London. And since we bid adieu to Exeter your skulking has turned positively feverish. I thought at first it might be a rabbit’s foot or some other good luck charm that you have been frantically fingering, but since you do not appear to be the superstitious type, and since you used to be a prolific smoker and I have not seen you light up a cigarette all day, I have concluded that the item in your pocket must be a cigarette case and you are hankering for a Bradley!”
He felt like a naughty boy caught by his nanny with his hand in the biscuit jar. He flushed accordingly and sheepishly drew out the silver etui, which, now that she mentioned it, did represent a sort of talisman. “It was gift from Sherlock. It is quite valuable but the sentimental value means even more. He gave it to me shortly before we travelled to Switzerland. Unfortunately, my late wife hated my smoking. She regarded it as a filthy habit. She refused to believe any of its health benefits. I gave it up for her sake and vowed never to smoke again. But here I am. I cannot explain it. I feel quite ashamed.”
“I will have one with you if it will make you feel better.”
“Like a chimney since I was sixteen. Turkish cigarettes mostly, though the ones currently coming out of Morocco are quite aromatic. Show me the case.” She held out her hand. “Fine workmanship,” she approved, examining it closely, while he lit up two cigarettes and handed one to her. “Haigh and Sons – Silversmiths of Bond Street; I bet there is an inscription inside.”
He snatched it back. “Yes, and it is private!”
They smoked without speaking, enjoying the mutual silence as plumes of tobacco smoke drifted on motes of slanted sunlight that penetrated the window. He felt calmer after he had finished smoking and extinguished the butt in an ashtray built into the burr walnut paneling. She handed her butt to him to do likewise and went back to scouring the map.
“What is this area here,” she quizzed, “between the castle and this little dot on the map?”
“The little dot of which you speak is Merripit House. It has been leased by the American engineer overseeing the drainage works, Roderick Lilies-in-the-field.”
She laughed at his joke. “You should light up a Bradley more often if it helps you to lighten up. The same house that was leased by Stapleton?”
“The very same.”
“And what is this area here with all the odd markings on it, between the old Hall and Merripit House?”
He leaned back against the padded leather seat, closed his eyes and tried to recall the lay of the land from ten years ago. “As you leave the old Hall and make your way to Merripit House you pass an old granite quarry. Doune Quarry, as it was called, which had fallen into disuse but I believe it is where Sir Henry obtained the stone for his vast remodeling. The plain to the north is the great Grimpen Mire. It extends for unknown miles and cannot be successfully drained because each new rainfall opens up new quakes, or feather beds, as they are called locally. They are particularly dangerous because they are topped with bright green moss and look like harmless cushions of sphagnum. The hills to this side with the scattering of tiny squares represent Neolithic huts dating from the Bronze Age and the slightly larger squares depict long barrows which are the burial sites of important chieftans.”
“There seem to be a lot of churches in this part of Dartmoor – here, here and here.”
“Those symbols depict stone crosses, not churches. They date from medieval times, possibly even Celtic or Saxon, and denote where several paths intersect. They were used by wayfarers, monks and shepherds to find their bearings since the weather can turn in the blink of an eye and thick fog can close in without warning. The moor can become a dangerous place fairly quickly. Rainstorms are frequent. Today the cross stones are used by ramblers and hikers. The nearest church is at Coombe Tracey, and it is for this reason that Sir Henry incorporated a chapel in the design of his new castle. That is also the reason Mr James Desmond accepted Lady Laura’s invitation and agreed to travel all the way to Devon though he has not been enjoying good health of late. He will consecrate the new chapel and bestow a blessing on the house. And speaking of Coombe Tracey – here we are.”
The train chugged into a small wayside station just as the clouds cleared and the autumn sun bestowed its own blessing on the land, turning the gloomy fields and scraggly woods into a fiat of colour and light as if to welcome them. It allayed the feeling of dread hanging like the sword of Damocles over his head. A landau with a pair of fine chestnut mares was standing to one side of the road. On it sat a hunched figure that the doctor remembered as the same gnarly groom who met him with a wagonette when he first arrived with Sir Henry all those years ago. He searched his memory for the name of the groom as he helped the Countess from the train and wondered how they were going to fit themselves plus all her trunks and hat boxes into the carriage. The name eluded him and he was soon distracted. Two passengers had disembarked from second class and were striding purposefully toward them. The Countess acknowledged the duo and addressed them curtly in Ukrainian before turning back to the doctor.
“Dr Watson,” she offered by way of introduction, “this is my personal maid, Xenia, and my manservant, Fedir. They are brother and sister. I never travel without them.”
The maid was a woman in her thirties, solidly built, with long hair fashioned into a single braid that fell down her back like a golden serpent. Around her broad shoulders sat a flecked woolen shawl and around her throat was a loosely knotted red neckerchief.
The manservant was of similar age, stocky and powerfully built, with broad shoulders and huge hands. He wore high leather boots and a tweed jacket belted at the waist. He also sported a red neckerchief and was endowed with golden hair, but with the addition of a thick blond moustache that was on a par with his own prized example of manhood.
“Do they speak any English?” he asked, stroking his pride and joy with thumb and forefinger.
“A little, but they will understand if you speak slowly and don’t run your words together.” They in fact spoke quite well and understood even better but travels with her aunt had taught her that people tend to say things in front of foreigners that they wouldn’t normally say in front of their own countrymen, and there had been occasions where this had come in handy. “Shall we decamp to that inn and share a pot of tea while my servants see to the luggage? My throat is parched and I suspect that dinner at Baskerville Castle may be a late affair.”
“A splendid idea,” he wheezed after a short bout of coughing brought on by a whirlwind of dust. “The Thistlethwaite Inn, if memory serves me correctly, does a decent Cornish pastie. But you can have the tea to yourself. I will order a pint of Devon’s finest to lubricate my throat.”
The maid took charge of the luggage, loading a plethora of huge leather trunks, monogrammed portmanteaux and pretty hatboxes into the landau where the back-bent groom remained fixed on his sullen perch. She treated the heaviest and the lightest as if they were mere bundles of bedstraw. Dr Watson pictured her pulling a plough single-handedly across the Steppe. All but two pieces of luggage belonged to the Countess, evident from the travel posters of exotic destinations such as Cairo, Constantinople, Odessa and Montenegro. While the maid was taking care of the luggage the manservant was marching towards the rear of the train where a freight wagon was in the process of being unhitched.
The Countess and the doctor returned sated thirty minutes later. He was beginning to relax his guard in her company and there were fleeting moments when he wondered if perhaps she might be who she claimed to be. The unashamed vanity, the tilt of her chin, the steepling of her fingers, all reminded him of his friend. But it was more than that. It was the indefinable tone of voice lifting when she outlined a theory, the glint in her eye when she discussed a possible course of action, the fierce intellect, the drive, the determination, the single-mindedness and above all, the logical way she looked at the world.
“I say!” exclaimed the doctor. “That horseless carriage looks exactly like the one that competed in the Paris-Marseilles race of 1896! A 4 h.p. Peugeot! What a marvel! Sir Henry has sent transportation fit for royalty!”
“You’re right with regards to the horse power, the make, the model, and the Paris-Marseilles race, but it does not belong to Sir Henry.”
He was quick to contradict her. “I cannot think of anyone else from these parts having the necessary fortune to purchase such a magnificent machine.”
“I can confirm that there are only two such automobiles in existence. One is in France. The other was commissioned by me – a replica of the original. It arrived last week from Calais. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it behind in London so I had it transported on the goods wagon. Fedir has the makings of an excellent chauffeur. You can sit in the front seat alongside me. There is room for three. How does that suit you?”
“That suits me very well!” he gushed like a goggle-eyed schoolboy as she donned a double-breasted, wool Redingote with curved revers, the sort that was de rigeur for motoring.
They rumbled out of Coombe Tracey and down a broad chalk road. The foreign maid claimed a seat alongside the back-bent groom and it didn’t take long before the pair of them was left to trail behind. The Peugeot trundled along gracefully, eating up the rustic miles as the setting sun gilded the westerly ridge and threw some of the larger tors into spectacular silhouette.
Dusk was wrapping its mantle around the moor by the time they came over the final spur and there, at last, out of the brooding frets and folds, arose a granite beast, a grey monster, a quarried, chiseled, squared, blunted, brutal monolith, more fanciful than Belliver, more fantastic than Vixen; its big brutish blocks tinged purple in the painterly light, slightly softened yet still austere; its bulging, mullioned windows catching the dying rays of the sun, glowing yellow like demon’s eyes, beckoning them to enter, willing them to cross its portal, to step into the maw and peer into the belly of the beast, and there to find a light in the darkness, to escape the harsh reality of day, the unreality of night, to be delivered from dreadful dreams, mists and shades, hounds from hell, fresh curses, fear of death and Fate.
“Oh, look!” marvelled the Countess. “There it is at long last – Baskerville Castle! Has it greatly changed, Dr Watson?”
The twin towers marking the formal entrance were in situ but they were taller and sturdier. The old Hall had not been gentrified and romanticized, tarted up with Queen Anne facades, tricked up with gothick spires, prettied up with Palladian pediments and urns. Baskerville Hall had undergone the opposite. It was an asymmetric bastion, stronger, bulkier, fiercer, an indomitable fortress built to withstand some new enemy, to keep the natural world at bay and perhaps more to the point, to keep the supernatural out.
Apart from the twin towers the castle sat crouched in its goyal, a strange hybrid beast with wings and arms and tentacles, clenched, clutched and tightly coiled, waiting for something to come its way. It did not resemble a creature preparing to strike, outwardly threatening, rather a creature waiting to suck you in and swallow you whole. The formidable towers stretched to seven stories while the rest of the structure appeared no more than two, but where the lay of the land dipped to the rear, out of sight, so did the construction hide more levels. Daylight began fading and electric lights began blinking. The creature watched with a hundred eyes.
“Is it deserving of the epithet: castle?”
“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “I think it might be the only residence erected entirely out of granite anywhere in this vast kingdom in this last century. I feel it safe to predict it will be the last castle built in England…the last of its kind.”
As the sun sank behind the purple hills and mauvish mist settled in the valleys, they felt the chill of evening and hurried inside.
The baronial hall was still the first room you entered but the noble proportions had been stretched up and out. The modest galleried timber landing that ran around the perimeter was now supported by massive stone columns that rose to two stories to accommodate the increase in size and stature. Crepuscular light filtered in through a huge glass lantern that centred the roof, lending the great hall the feel of an airy pantheon. The fireplace had not been altered and a big cheery fire dispelled the gloomy shadows as of old. Above the substantial chimneypiece was the same heraldic coat-of-arms but the inscription carved in stone was new: nomen et omen. The old double staircase was in place but it had been widened and the timber treads had been regally broadened for stately footfalls. Numerous hunting trophies – stags and sangliers – still adorned the walls. But the electric light made all the difference. Golden rays illumined the trappings of wealth and history and power.
Lady Laura Baskerville, seven months with child, sprang out of a tapestried wing chair like a demented Harpy who had swallowed a stone.
“Oh, Dr Watson,” she chirred, the high notes a touch shrill and the quavers on the verge of nervous breakdown, “thank goodness you have come, come at last, I was so worried, so worried there might be some delay, so worried you might not arrive in time, so worried that -”
She stopped dead mid-stream when her eyes fell upon a third party standing slightly to one side.
“Let me introduce Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna,” he said, secretly enjoying the way the foreign name rolled off his tongue like a poetic stream.
“A pleasure to meet you, Countess,” Lady Laura chirred. “Any friend of the Earl of Winchester, the Marchioness of Minterne-Magna and Viscount Setterfield is a friend of the Baskervilles.”
“You received my letters of introduction, then?”
“Oh, yes, they arrived by special courier yesterday. It is an honour to welcome you to Devon. You are most welcome, most, most, oh dear, oh dear!” Her lovely face crumpled and her chirring voice crackled. “Except we will be thirteen to dinner now,” she lamented. “I could have organized for an extra dinner guest but the squire of Drogo was otherwise engaged and there was no one else who was suitable except old Lady Pomphrett who suffers from palsy. There were thirteen at Hugo’s carouse, you see. I fear it is an omen, an evil sign, a malign turn of events from which there is no escape, no salvation and no hope.”
“Dear Lady Baskerville, I would not dream of causing you distress by landing on your doorstep at such short notice. I will be quite content to have supper on a tray in my room. The journey has been tiring; I welcome the chance to rest. That way you will still be twelve. And if it is not too inconvenient, I would prefer to have my two servants housed near to my bedroom.”
Tears of gratitude swam in Lady Laura’s eyes. A guest bedroom had been prepared in the east wing and it was no problem to re-house two servants. The maid could sleep in the adjoining dressing room which already had a day bed, and the manservant could sleep in the box room at the end of the passage with the empty travel trunks where a pallet could be set up.
While the doctor and the Countess were enjoying a fortifying sherry in front of the fire, the front door opened and a man shuffled in bringing flurries of Devon dust with him. It was the sullen fellow who had steered the landau. He had a message for Lady Baskerville.
“I begs your pardon, m’lady,” he said, doffing his cap to his mistress. “A rider just came through as I were unloading the carriage. He brung an urgent message from Mr Lysterfield.”
Lady Laura read the note which had been hastily scribbled: Lady Baskerville, I beg you to excuse me from dinner. The signpost on the road to the Doune Quarry came down in last night’s storm and a horse and cart carrying a heavy load went into one of the quakes, along with the driver. I wish to supervise the rescue personally for there is no time to lose. RL
Lady Laura immediately explained to her guests what had transpired and appeared to absorb this grave news with greater equanimity. To her it was a blessing in disguise. It meant the Countess would be able to join them for dinner. Her presence would make twelve. Not thirteen.
“Was that your old groom?” enquired the doctor.
“No,” replied Lady Laura. “You are thinking of Perkins. That was his twin brother. He is very good with dogs and has been put in charge of the kennels. My husband was keen to do some hunting as soon as Monsieur de Garonne finished contouring the hills surrounding Holywell Pool. He purchased some hunting hounds from the squire at Drogo, Sir Olwen Goodwood, who is Master of the Hunt, our local magistrate and the man who oversees all our legal affairs. The kennel keeper is known as Dogger.”
“Speaking of your husband,” continued the doctor, suppressing a cough and adopting a genial tone. “Will I have time to meet with Sir Henry prior to dinner?”
The chirring notes dropped several registers. “I am afraid not, Dr Watson. He has locked himself in his study and rarely comes out. I begged him on my knees to join us for dinner tonight and he consented not because he took pity on me but because he holds you in such high regard. I dare not say anymore now. I will come to your bed chamber in half an hour and explain myself.”
“Do you mind if I sit in?” asked the Countess.
Lady Laura put the bold request down to the forwardness of foreigners. “No, no, what I wish to impart is, well, it is a life and death matter.”
“I am acquainted with the tragic history of this house. I am cognizant of the depth of your fears. I am the daughter of –”
“The Count of Odessos!”
Lady Laura regarded the doctor’s outburst with dismay. “Yes, yes, so I understand, but, well, oh, why not? Why ever not? It cannot do any harm? You will hear of our curse soon enough, now that you are a guest in our tragic house.”
Countess Volodymyrovna, with the help of her Slavic maid, dressed in record time, choosing an evening gown of lemon chiffon lavishly adorned with looped rows of pearls secured at intervals by crème tassels. She was rapping on the doctor’s bedroom door in the south wing less than one hour after being ushered upstairs. He was pacing the Persian carpet by the hearth where a fire blazed brightly; dinner-suited and smoking a cigarette. He offered one to her. She declined.
“I take it you want me to refrain from declaring my relationship to Sherlock Holmes?”
“Most certainly! In fact, I must insist upon it! If you wish to remain in this house and retain my confidence in…”
There was a soft rap on the door. Lady Laura entered, dressed in a vibrant velvet gown of cobalt blue that did little to disguise her girth. A stunning parure of blue sapphires graced her heaving bosom. She was still a striking looking woman, despite her current fraught demeanour. She chose a comfortable chair by the fire, rested her manicured hands on her belly and commenced her monologue. They listened without interrupting.
“For the last seven years, while the old Hall was being remodeled, my husband and I resided at Lafter Hall with my father. It was an excellent arrangement that gave me time to rekindle the paternal bond severed after my first marriage to a brute so violent it makes me shudder to think of him even now. When we moved back here, my father came with us. The landscaping was well on the way to being finished and we decided to hold a small party this weekend to celebrate the tenth anniversary of my husband’s inheritance and the magnificent transformation of our home, prior to the grand fete a few months from now which will celebrate the birth of our first child and my husband’s fortieth birthday. But at the start of this month my husband received an anonymous letter. It predicted he would kill himself before the month was out. He dismissed it as the rant of a madman. But I could see him brooding on it. He soon received another. It predicted he would throw himself into the mire on the last day of the month. Again he laughed it off. But he became withdrawn. His manner changed. Soon there came another. I managed to catch a glimpse of it but he tossed it on the fire before I could finish reading it. It was more cryptic than the first two. I tried to broach the subject but it made him angry just to speak of it. I knew others came, one after another, and I questioned the servants to try to ascertain the number but I could not question all of them every day. One day I saw a large stack of envelopes and letters in his study. I was shocked at how many there were. I was skimming through them when he entered and flew into a rage. For the first time since we married, I felt frightened of my husband. He grew cold and distant and frequently lost his temper. He stopped visiting my bed chamber, and to stop me from visiting his, began to sleep in his private study. Antonio, his valet, was the only person permitted to enter. My husband has the only key and keeps the door locked. Antonio sleeps in the folio room, adjacent to the library. My husband is terrified that he will fulfill the mad prophecy. You will see the terror on his face, the terror in his eyes, the terror that has been sapping his strength and gnawing at his sanity all month. As for me, I am terrified that my child will be rendered fatherless before it is even born.”
The doctor was confident that this so-called curse could be cleared up by the close of evening. Sir Henry was an exemplary fellow in all respects – rational, noble and courageous. Lady Laura had most likely exaggerated the danger in her own mind. It was not uncommon for women in the latter stages of pregnancy to become full of imaginary fears. “Rest assured, dear lady, no one can induce a man to do away with himself if he is of sound mind.”
Lady Laura clenched and unclenched the linen handkerchief in her lap. “I am no longer certain my husband is of sound mind. I fear the anonymous letters have unhinged him.”
“I will speak to him tonight, as soon as I can steer him away from the other guests,” promised the doctor. “This is clearly the work of someone with an axe to grind, perhaps a disgruntled employee. Besides, according to the letters, your husband has nothing to fear once this night has passed. I can always give him a sedative to calm his nerves or a sleeping draught to help him sleep soundly through to the morning.”
Lady Laura looked as if she might die of gratitude. “Oh, doctor, would you? Would you, please? Oh, how easily you have solved everything! How marvelous you -”
“You described the third letter as cryptic – in what way?” interrupted the Countess. “Was it a riddle of some sort?”
Their hostess folded her hands back on her belly and gave pause for thought. “Not a riddle as such. More like ancient wisdom: Know something or other. Oh, I am explaining it badly. Who was that Greek philosopher who committed suicide?”
As soon as she said it she bit her tongue. The Countess moved quickly to divert distress. “How many letters would you say there have been?”
Their hostess was forced to concentrate. “I cannot say exactly. The first one came on the first day of the month and there has been one every day since, usually several on the same day, and that is only what I managed to glean for myself. My husband became quite secretive as the days passed. He was only trying to protect me, I know, but fear is a strange beast and it is the unknown that feeds that fear.”
“How were they delivered?” continued the Countess, “Did they come by post? Or were they delivered by hand?”
“None came by post. The first was delivered to the door by a gypsy girl with a clubfoot. She said a demon gave her a shilling to deliver it to Baskerville Castle and put it into the hands of the master. Others were handed to my husband by the French cook who found one in the kitchen, the scullery maid who found one stuck in the dish rack, the gardener who found one in the potting shed, the groom who discovered one in the stable, and so forth. Then there were local folk who would come to the door clutching an envelope: the butcher’s boy, the school mistress from Coombe Tracey, the vicar from Saint Swithin’s, even the squire of Drogo, Sir Olwen, brought a letter one evening that had been pushed under his door. And that is not taking into account strangers who arrived bearing an envelope! It was like a plague had come upon us!”
“Were all the envelopes identical?” pursued the Countess.
“Not at all – large and small, expensive and cheap, white and colored, manufactured and handmade.”
“Were they all addressed identically?”
“The all said: The Master of Baskerville. But some were typed, some neatly executed in pencil, some childishly scrawled in crayon, some smudged in charcoal, some with a pen and ink flourish, and some had the letters cut from newspaper.”
Letters cut from newspaper rang an ominous bell, but Dr Watson kept this fact to himself. The notion seemed preposterous, outlandish, and yet one name continued to sound a loud warning – Stapleton.
Ten years ago, Beryl Stapleton had been the anonymous authoress of a letter cut from newspaper, but the motive had been benevolent, a warning that Sir Henry’s life was in danger. This time it appeared to be the opposite. But what would she gain from Sir Henry’s death? He had been more than generous. He had provided her with comfortable lodgings and gainful employment. Could some unseen hand be directing her actions?
His thoughts took a chilling turn. Had Jack Stapleton’s body ever been retrieved from the mire? More to the point, had it even gone into the mire? Or was it merely something they all assumed at the time? The thought filled him with fresh fear. The thought he might be dealing with the same clever fiend frightened him more than he could bring himself to admit. His simple solution no longer seemed so simple after all. Lady Laura had only read the early letters and skimmed some others. What if the prophecies had turned into threats? What if the time frame had been extended? What if the tone had grown malevolent? He would need to speak to Sir Henry as soon as possible. He would need to speak to him in private. He would need to discover the name of the sender of the anonymous letters before this matter could be put safely to bed and the Baskerville curse dispelled once and for all.
Lady Laura levered herself out of her chair. “I must leave you for now. The other guests will be arriving any minute. They may already be gathering in the great hall. We are meeting there for pre-prandial drinks. Please make your way downstairs when you are ready. I feel immensely heartened, doctor, now that you are here. Your presence is a great comfort. I knew you would know what to do. I knew you would take charge. I knew you would solve it all in the same way you solved it ten years ago. I always suspected you of being the real brains with Mr Holmes taking all the credit. You are brilliant, just brilliant!”
While Dr Watson continued to bask under the golden rays of fulsome praise, the Countess pressed another question.
“Lady Laura, do you have any of the letters in your possession?”
Their hostess shook her head fervently and a bunch of hazel ringlets bounced from side to side. “My husband kept them all in his study. And since the study is kept locked, I cannot grant you access. But that hardly seems pertinent now.”
As soon as the door closed the Countess turned to the doctor who was busy heaping coals onto the fire to disguise the fact his cheeks were radiant enough to be able to read in the dark.
“A sleeping draught and all is solved. How clever of you, Dr Watson!”
“No need to take that facetious tone,” he retorted defensively. “You are taking the bleating of a vulnerable woman too seriously. I never claimed to be in Sherlock’s league.”
“Then you don’t believe the plague of envelopes will resolve itself by morning?”
“I concede it could not be the vengeful fantasies of a servant or workman with an axe to grind. It is too clever by half.”
“It smacks of genius, n’est-ce pas? To amass so many envelopes and to have them hand delivered without leaving a trail of crumbs to follow would require meticulous attention to detail and considerable forethought. Some person or several persons in collaboration have planned this well in advance of its execution.”
He nodded gravely, suppressing a cough. “The letters cut from newspaper suggest the handiwork of Beryl Stapleton but what motive could she possibly have? If only the prophecies had been directed at Lady Laura, well, they would have made more sense.”
“The ex-inamorata clearing a space on the marital bed?”
“Exactly! But why direct them at Sir Henry?”
“He is her bread and butter and possibly her jam and cream too.”
“He is also a man, thus less prone to hysterics.” He put a hand up, pre-empting her feminine protests. “I know, I know, but he always struck me as pragmatic and rational. Not the type to succumb to suggestions of doing away with himself. The whole idea seems laughable.”
“Yet neither Sir Henry nor his good wife appears amused.”
He was genuinely surprised to find they appeared to be reading from the same page; it dispensed with tedious explanation and tiresome justification. “What about her late husband, Jack Stapleton?”
She looked intrigued. “You think he might still be alive?”
“It is far-fetched but not impossible. Any anything that is not impossible should not be discounted. No one actually witnessed him drown in the mire. And with Sir Henry out of the way the son of the black sheep finally inherits.”
“Yes, I see, a man cannot be held accountable for the actions of his dog, especially if that man is a wealthy baronet. No case was ever brought against him.”
“Sherlock once suggested three possible ways Jack Stapleton-cum-Baskerville might claim his inheritance. It stands to reason he might still do so. He might establish his identity with British Authorities in some foreign country and then have the wealth transfered; adopt an elaborate disguise; or hire an accomplice and then share the spoils.”
“If that is the case, the birth of an heir would scuttle his plans and would account for the short duration of the prophecy, before the end of the month.”
“Which brings us back to the last day of September…Shall we join the other guests in the great hall? I believe it is time to see where this mystery might take us.”
Feeling optimistic, the doctor offered the Countess his arm, but before they could reach the great hall they were waylaid by a falsetto of accented syllables. It caught them at the spot where a flight of stairs from the bachelor’s apartments met the galleried landing.
“La comtesse! Quelle surprise! Enchante; encore; toujours!”
“Bonsoir,” she smiled as some thick wet lips smacked a kiss on her silk-gloved hand.
The Frenchman beaming from ear to oreille like a wet froggie hoping to turn into a prince had a gold tooth that glinted whenever his rubbery bouche stretched sideways.
“Ma Cherie, what joie de vivre your jolie presence brings to this English bog! What esprit de corps your charm bestows upon this dull Bastille! The English, they are so boring, so ennuyant, so lacking the etiquette, politesse, finesse. They do not comprehend the creatif Francais. I have been dying slowly in this fen plus froid. But tomorrow, tomorrow, la comtesse you will see my coup de theatre when I give to you the grand tour. You will witness the transformation of English merde to le parc francais!”
The Gallic ponce finished gushing and drew breath. The Countess drew breath too.
“Monsieur, allow me introduce to you Dr Watson. Dr Watson let me present to you the famous French landscaper, Monsieur Gaston de Garonne.”
The two men shook hands like prize-fighters about to bash each other’s brains out. Gaston then leaned closer and whispered something into the Countess’s ear.
“Pas du tout,” she smiled coyly, “mon ami, c’est tous.”
Dr Watson and the Countess paused at the top of the stairs while Monsieur de Garonne continued his buoyant descent. The Countess wanted to gain a discrete first impression of the other guests and the upper gallery provided a perfect bird’s eye view.
To one side of the chimneypiece stood a handsome man, tall and broad of stature, with a neat black beard and a tidy head of black hair. He was immaculately fitted out in white tie and tails and the bespoke suit sat well on his masculine frame. He called to mind a raven. Chatting to the raven was a guest wearing gold-rimmed spectacles which he kept pushing back onto his beak-like nose; also tall but decidedly thinner and scruffier; who moved restlessly from foot to foot; slightly back bent as he leaned forward to talk, scratching his head or tugging at his cravat. He pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his nose and out popped an acorn, a magnifying glass, a pencil, and a Swiss army knife. She likened him to a bower bird. She took the former to be Mr John Barrymore and the latter to be Dr James Mortimer.
Monsieur de Garonne attired like a haut ton peacock wearing a silk cravat and a beret a la that master of French couture, Monsieur Charles Worth, approached an elderly gentleman seated in the tapestried wing chair and struck up a conversation. The man who was seated had a shock of white hair and a waxy pink complexion which recalled a venerable snow goose. One leg was elevated and resting on an ottoman. This was most likely Mr Algernon Frankland, the litigious father of Lady Laura. On his lap was curled a West Highland Terrier.
Two ladies were seated on a settee. Twin table lamps cast them in a duality of golden light. One was short and round and plump, with a massive mono-bosom that started at her neck and finished at her waist. Her frizzled hair was liberally sprinkled with feathered bits and bobs. She was draped in a red paisley shawl that throbbed in the flickering firelight. It made her look like a cross between a robin red-breast and an aging Sarah Bernhardt caught in some unflattering limelight. She was helping herself to some jam tarts on a nearby tray table and chirping garrulously. The other, wearing a pale-grey gown, appeared dull in comparison. There was a streak of silver in her hair that probably made her look older than her years. She had all the hallmarks of a timorous dove about to take fright. The robin was most likely Mrs Eliza Barrymore and the dove was Mrs Meredith Mortimer.
The seventh member of the party was Lady Laura Baskerville. Her cobalt velvet gown glowed celestially as she flitted about like a bluebird, fluttering nervily from nest to nest to check on her chicks. She turned suddenly and froze mid-flight when a tall, slim, elegant figure draped in midnight blue taffeta swanned into the hall. Mrs Beryl Stapleton? The new arrival ignored the two women on the settee and made straight for the peacock and the old goose instead. The raven and the bower bird watched from under hooded lids as the dark swan swished across the room, moving with a dancer’s sylph-like grace.
The Countess decided it was high time to throw a cat among the cosy coterie of pigeons. Or should that be two cats? One old tom and one silken feline would be sure to stir up the coop.
“Do you think they know about the anonymous letters?” she whispered as they commenced their procession down the stately stairs.
“Yes,” replied Dr Watson. “The master of a great house can hardly lock himself away in his study without it being noticed. And for the last ten years these people have had only each other for company in this lonely corner of England. One cannot keep secrets in such a secluded setting.”
“By the way,” she said, “the philosopher who committed suicide was Socrates, but I believe Lady Laura was referring to the maxim: Know Thyself – attributable to the Oracle at Delphi.”
Introductions were conducted and the foreign name with all the vowels raised eyebrows every time. Time ticked along convivially as glasses were topped up with French champagne, but Lady Laura began to throw anxious glances at the longcase clock in the corner. Mallard, the butler, dressed in black livery with a dark green waistcoat, waddled in and out several times to discuss the delay of dinner. They were awaiting the arrival of Mr James Desmond. He was expected on the last train which had pulled into Coombe Tracey more than an hour ago. The carriage driver, Perkins, had returned alone to say that no elderly gent had stepped off the train. Lady Laura made the decision to go into dinner. Dr Mortimer was asked to fetch Sir Henry from his self-imposed prison and escort him to the formal dining room.
The dining room had a marble fireplace and walls covered with flame red damask that matched the window draperies. An immense chandelier was suspended from an ornately plastered ceiling. The ten guests took their places at a polished mahogany table. Sorrel soup was being ladled out of a silver tureen when Sir Henry shambled in looking gaunt, unshaved, and haggard. He had lost considerable weight and his crumpled clothes hung off his bones the way ill-fitting rags hang off a scarecrow. The thick dark brows were intact but the steady eye was now a listless gaze underscored by dark circles. The quiet assurance he once exuded was but a dim memory and he looked much older than his near-forty years. He appeared disoriented, like a man on his way to the gallows in a state of numb disbelief, and had to be directed to the chair at the head of the table by the butler. Dr Watson tried to hide his shock.
Sir Henry blinked incessantly. Lady Laura asked for the chandelier to be extinguished and for candles to be lit to spare her husband from discomfort. He recognized everyone at the table and acknowledged their presence, but his weak attempt at bonhomie seemed unnatural and forced, not because he was acting the hypocrite, but because he took no pleasure in the company of his closest friends. He should have been the rooster of this magnificent hen house. He had every reason to crow and strut – a splendid home, a beautiful wife, his first child on the way – and yet he gave the impression of a cock with his head on the chopping block.
Conversation was stilted and there were frequent gaps where the slurping of soup or the chewing of chestnut-stuffed pheasant was the only sound in the room. Everyone made an effort to sound genial, but since no one dared talk about the one thing that stared them in the face their words soon became as hollow as the scarecrow propped up at the end of the table. When Mallard dropped a glass everyone jumped. Lady Laura gave a gasp, the Westie under the table gave a mock-heroic growl and Eliza Barrymore almost choked on a sprout. It was as if a bullet had been fired from a gun. Nerves were highly strung and stretched to bursting.
They were midway through a delicious sherry trifle when Mallard reappeared. An unfortunate nasally intonation lent his voice an odd quacking sound. He announced that a stranger had arrived and was waiting in the hall to speak to the master of the house. Sir Henry failed to respond. Lady Laura instructed the butler to show the visitor into the dining room, thinking it might be Mr James Desmond, arriving late and hungry, and called for a bowl of soup to be sent straight in. But the man who entered was not a retired clergyman. He was wearing riding clothes and looked as if he had just taken part in a cross country hunt. It was the steward from Drogo. He had important news for Sir Henry that he did not wish to deliver in front of the others, especially the ladies.
Sir Henry appeared not to hear him and did not look up but continued to shuffle food around his plate. Dr Mortimer spoke for him. “There are no secrets among friends. Speak freely.”
The steward had no choice but to obey. “A dead body was found on the train track at Drogo station this evening. The dead man was carrying a letter in his bag. It was an invitation to come to Baskerville Castle. The letter had been addressed to Mr James Desmond and the signature at the bottom was that of Lady Baskerville. Sir Olwen bade me ride here as fast as I could to deliver the news.”
He waited for a response but no one spoke. They were all stunned by the news of the death of a man they had never met. This time Dr Watson took charge, clearing his throat with a short cough.
“You say the body was found on the track – did he fall?”
“There were no witnesses so I cannot say whether he fell or not but what else could it have been but an accident. He was an elderly chap so he may have slipped as the train was pulling away.”
“Since Mr Desmond was travelling to Coombe Tracey there was no reason for him to get off the train at Drogo station. Do you have any idea why he might have been on the platform?”
The steward looked confused by the question. The doctor elaborated.
“Was there some sort of unexpected delay on the line? A need to switch trains perhaps?”
“No, the train came and went as usual. The station master said all was as it should be –except for the body on the track. But the gent may have decided to stretch his legs and then forgetting himself, as old folks do, in his hurry, slipped, and tumbled to the track.”
The bowl of soup was brought in and the steward sat at the place that had been reserved for the man who would now never arrive. He ate heartily. As did Eliza Barrymore, who, unlike the others, had not lost her appetite, and managed to finish her sherry trifle and take a second helping larger than the first.
The Countess posed a question while the dessert wine was being dispensed. “You say the letter was found in his bag. What bag would that be?”
“One of them big old-fashioned carpet bags – it was left on the platform. That’s how the station master knew something wasn’t right. Sir Olwen has the bag at Drogo, and the body too. He will make arrangements to have them both returned to Cumbria, unless Sir Henry would prefer to make alternative arrangements. I am to let him know when I return.”
The steward looked hopefully at Sir Henry but he remained mute. Once again, Dr Mortimer spoke for him.
“Let your master know that Sir Henry would be most grateful if Sir Olwen would take charge of such matters in his capacity as local magistrate and family solicitor. Sir Henry has not been feeling himself lately and Lady Baskerville’s condition renders her indisposed.”
The Countess took a sip of Madeira and looked quizzically at the steward. “If Mr Desmond was going onto Coombe Tracey and merely stretching his legs why should he remove his travel bag from his carriage and take it onto the platform?”
“That I cannot say, madame,” replied the steward, wiping his chin with his napkin. “Thank you for the soup Lady Baskerville. If there are no more questions I will return to Drogo. It has been a long day and I have a long ride ahead of me before I can call it a night.”
“One last question,” said the Countess. “You mentioned that there were no witnesses. But was there anyone, apart from the station master, who might have seen something before or after the accident?” She was careful to use the word accident and not anything else.
“You would need to ask the station master,” replied the steward tersely. “Good evening.” He reached the door before hesitating and turning back. “Madame, there was someone,” he said, “on the platform waiting for the train – a spivvy gent, smoking a pipe, pacing up and down as if he were late for an appointment. The funny thing is he didn’t get on the train. The station master saw him striding away toward Dog Hole Gorge. The station master mentioned it in passing because he thought it odd but he didn’t connect it with the accident.”
Dr Watson’s voice reverberated eagerly across the table. “Would the station master be able to describe this man in greater detail if we pressed him?”
“He already did that,” returned the steward confidently. “Let me see if I can recall his exact words. The gent had a nuggetty beard and a nuggetty head of hair underneath one of them deer-stalker hats. He was wearing tweeds and had an Inverness cape fitted to his coat. He even mentioned the gent by name because the gent introduced himself and he remembered the name because his wife had read some books written by the very same gent. It was a proper English name as befits a writer. It was John Watson.”
At the conclusion of dinner Sir Henry returned to self-imposed exile and Dr Watson did his best to gain a private audience, but the baronet waved him aside, refusing to discuss the state of his health.
Lady Laura, looking anxious and unnerved, tendered her apologies and retired to her boudoir. However, she begged her guests not leave early on her account and beseeched the men to avail themselves of port and cigars in the smoking room, and the ladies to partake of hot cocoa in the oval drawing room where a card table had been positioned in a well-lit alcove.
Countess Volodymyrovna and Dr Watson lingered in the flame red dining room, pretending to admire the old family portraits by Kneller and Reynolds and the latest one executed in the pre-Raphaelite style depicting Sir Henry as a knight in armour slaying a gigantic black hound with the sword Excaliber.
The Countess winced at the baronet’s taste – John Singer Sargent would have been a much better choice. “Accident or murder?”
“The bag on the platform suggests he was lured off the train.”
“By someone dressed up as Holmes calling himself Watson.”
“Our man is cocky.”
“Which makes him doubly dangerous.”
“One step ahead of us already.”
“Did you notice Barrymore stealing glances at Lady Laura?”
“Like a pathetic booby with a schoolboy crush.”
“I swear her face softened whenever she looked his way.”
“I am sorry to say wealth has not brought her any happiness.”
“He seems a little hard of hearing.”
“An old affliction he bears well.”
“With a witless wife it may even be a blessing.”
“Death did not dull Eliza Barrymore’s appetite tonight.”
“I counted eight sprouts, two servings of trifle and don’t forget the jam tarts.”
“Do you think our hostess may be conducting an illicit liaison?”
“Not in her delicate condition.”
The Countess laughed as she whirled her way toward the door. “Oh, how little you medical men of science understand the female of the species!”
The oval drawing room was a feminine concoction with a crystal chandelier taking pride of place in a rondel in the ceiling and a series of watercolours depicting idyllic scenes of rural life gracing the blue silk walls. Eliza Barrymore had positioned herself on a blue silk settee, nearest the pot of hot cocoa and a bowl of candied jellies. Meredith Mortimer was seated at the other end. The two friends made a perfect pigeon pair – garrulous and taciturn, solid and ethereal, respectably dim and thoughtfully dull, robustly puritanical and timorously virtuous.
Beryl Stapleton was standing by the French window looking onto the terrace, fanning her face with a black feathered fan, not because the room was hot but because she must have felt suffocatingly bored; a rare orchid in a crystal palace full of common garden weeds. The sultry Costa Rican beauty was even more attractive up close than from a distance. Her dark hair and darker eyes shone with a seductive lustre and her curious lisp seemed to add to rather than detract from her exotic appeal. The Countess, who had not been seated near to the governess during dinner, made a move to engage her in conversation.
“Winter will soon be upon us soon, do you sometimes yearn for warmer climes?”
Beryl Stapleton regarded her warily over the feathery rim of her fan. “I have accustomed myself to the English weather. It holds no fears for me now.”
“I agree it does take some getting used to; so different from South America. I travelled to Mexico with my step-aunt once. We went to see the Mayan temples. The sun was glorious. That’s what I remember most vividly – that golden sun. Costa Rica is close to Mexico, isn’t it?”
Beryl fanned her face. She was the sort of woman who would have enjoyed the company of the opposite sex rather than her own. Understandably, women would have felt threatened by her dusky beauty. She would have had very few, if any, female friends. Men, on the other hand, would have found her easy to engage in conversation. She would have smiled seductively and they would have garbled on, encouraged by her silence and the mesmerizing lustre of her gaze.
“I believe so.”
“There are only two seasons? Summer and winter – is it summer or winter when you get all that rain?”
“Oh, that’s right, but it is still very hot and tropical, being so close to the equator. They are more like the wet season and the dry season. Isn’t that how people refer to the seasons?”
Beryl shrugged. “I do not know how people refer to the seasons.”
“It was a Spanish colony. Do you speak any Spanish?”
“One of the romance languages, isn’t it? They say that if you speak French and Italian then Spanish is easy to learn. The grammar is not so hard. Do you think that is true?”
“I would not know. I do not speak French or Italian.”
Countess Volodymyrovna decided to give up. “It has been lovely chatting to you,” she lied.
Mrs Barrymore was describing the horrors of the Australian sun to Mrs Mortimer. “Scarlet Pimpernel is the thing for freckles. A wife can so easily let herself go but it is her moral duty to keep herself looking attractive for her husband. The Good Lord declared marriage to be sacrosanct and it is beholden on the wife to keep the sacred fires burning.”
Meredith Mortimer nodded politely.
Mrs Barrymore continued in this vein until Gaston de Garonne materialised. The men had drifted from the smoking room to the billiard room but he preferred the company of women and suggested a game of ecarte. Eliza Barrymore reacted enthusiastically. Meredith Mortimer was too polite to voice an objection. Beryl Stapleton was happy to have her boredom relieved. Since the game required four people, Countess Volodymyrovna feigned fatigue and excused herself. She did not enjoy card games and intuited she would glean no useful information from the quartet while they concentrated on trumping one another. She went to bed.
After several hours had passed, and the electric lights had been extinguished, the Countess secured her peignoir and made her way to the chamber of Dr Watson. She was familiar with large country houses, having stayed in dozens of them with her aunt, and easily navigated the corridors guided by moonlight that filtered in through lancet windows. The doctor’s door was unlocked so she let herself in. He was sitting up in bed, reading a collection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe. He bookmarked The Murders on the Rue Morgue and cocked a brow.
“I take it that you are not here for the purposes of an illicit liaison?”
“No, but if anyone should have observed me entering your bedroom, I will permit them to draw that conclusion. Did you learn anything interesting from the men?”
“Several things, but I cannot be sure if the information is relevant or not.”
She sat on the corner of the four-poster and wrapped herself in a spare eiderdown to ward off the cold since the embers in the fire had all but died. “Go on then.”
He put down his book and thought for a moment. “Well, Sir Henry’s trusted valet, a man by the name of Antonio – I knew I had heard the name before – was manservant to Jack Stapleton. He comes from Costa Rica. When I tried to gain an audience with Sir Henry, he deliberately blocked my path until the door could be locked from the inside. He is more guard dog than valet.”
“He and Beryl would make a formidable pair if they ever put their minds to it.”
He nodded solemnly before moving on. “The conversation took an interesting turn when someone mentioned a mutilated pony by Cleft Tor. It was the third such mutilation in as many months. The Beast of Dartmoor, a ferocious wildcat, is said to be responsible. The talk soon turned to local legends. As well as Hugo’s hound from hell, there are numerous spectral hounds that roam the moor at night. A ghostly sighting is usually followed by a violent death. Then there are the usual pixies and phantoms haunting bogs and graves. Then there are the hairy hands that nab anyone crossing Sticklepath Bridge, though that is no longer a problem because the bridge, originally crossing Stickle Brook, has been submerged under twenty feet of water because Sir Henry dammed the brook and turned it into a ten acre lake. It has been quaintly christened: Holywell Pool. But the legend I liked the most was the one about the headless horseman who rides through Dog Hole Gorge prior to a thunderstorm.”
“I prefer the one about the hairy hands. Remind me to never go swimming in the lake. What else?”
“Hundreds of men work on the estate, including chain gangs of convicts from Princeton who are granted day leave. Doune Quarry is a busy place with quarrying going on six days a week, likewise for The Grinders, the gunpowder grinding works, which brings in a substantial profit for the estate. And that does not take into account the scores of men who have transformed the moor into a veritable Garden of Eden. They have come from all over Devon. Many brought their families with them. The residents of Grimpen were relocated to Coombe Tracey to accommodate them all and the hamlet has grown into a sizeable village. ”
“Gaston will be giving me a guided tour of his piece de resistance tomorrow. I might learn something useful from him. Pray, continue.”
“Jago the gypsy kicked a pregnant bitch to death yesterday morning. She bit his ear.”
The Countess looked horrified. “I hope he hangs!”
“Oh, no, I meant a dog.”
“That is still appalling. I would like to see him horse-whipped.”
“The gypsies mete out their own justice. They keep to themselves and only marry their own kind. Did you learn anything interesting tonight?”
“Yes, I learnt that Scarlet Pimpernel is good for lightening freckles.”
Dr Watson threw back the bedcover. Under his dressing gown he was still fully dressed. The only item of clothing he had removed had been his shoes.
“Is that the latest fashion in men’s nightwear?” she teased.
He ignored her quip as he shed his dressing gown and donned his boots. “Since this wretched cough is keeping me awake I might as well do something worthwhile. I’m going down to the great hall. I intend to shoot anything that moves between now and first light. Do not creep down the stairs in the dark unless you want to be mounted between the stag and the sanglier.”
“Are you propositioning me?”
If only! His dear wife had never worn a bed-gown like that. Not even on their honeymoon! “Not tonight, dear lady. Get some sleep. Tomorrow while you soak up le grand jardin, I will ride to Drogo to speak to the station master.” He retrieved a revolver from his travel bag and went to close the window. “Fog has completely cloaked the castle. You cannot see a thing beyond the vertical drop of stone. Tell me, did Sir Henry look like a man who has been drugged?”
“No, he looked like a man who has been cursed.”
“I thought you derided superstition?”
“There’s a punishment among the Australian aborigines. It goes like this: When a man has committed a crime the elder of the tribe points a bone at him. It means the man will soon die. The man becomes so paralysed with fear he stops eating, wastes away to nothing, becomes a shadow of his former self, a walking corpse, and dies. I saw it once with my own eyes. Sir Henry looks like a man who has had a bone pointed at him.”
Dr Watson was in the process of drawing the curtains when a terrible wailing sound came off the moor. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“What do you think that was?”
“I’m not sure but when I lived in Australia the native dogs sounded something like that. They howl rather than bark and the howl soon builds to a wailing chorus. They are a sub species of the grey wolf – Canus lupus dingo.”
“Apart from the unearthly wailing sound, what else did you notice?”
“That was not the howl of one hound,” she replied, “but the howl of many.”
Night passed uneventfully. Dr Watson was snoring softly when pearly light began pouring through the glass lantern but it wasn’t the pearlescence that woke him. He stirred and stretched sorely. Being crooked up in a stiff-backed wing chair did his weary bones no favours. A persistent knocking sound was coming from the vestibule leading to the study. He checked to make sure his revolver was still in his pocket and went to investigate.
Antonio was attempting to rouse his master. He had long spindly legs and a long birdlike neck that retracted back into his shoulders when he walked, lending him a hunched appearance while in motion. His feathery hair was flecked in various shades of brown, much like the feathers of a bittern. His skin was leathery and resembled tanned boots in need of a good polish after being left out too long in the midday sun. He was balancing a breakfast tray in one hand and knocking with the other. Dr Watson had a bad feeling in his creaky bones. He instructed the valet to leave the tray, go to the French window and attempt to gain entry there while he waited this side.
A few moments later a key turned in the lock, the study door opened, and the valet stood in the doorway. A look of dread puckered his sun-dried features.
“Sir Henry has disappeared! The key was still inside this lock!”
Dr Watson barged his way into the study. It was a not a large room. The main piece of furniture was the gothic desk. A gothic bookcase lined one wall. A gothic chimneypiece lined another. In front of it stood a green velvet chesterfield which appeared to be a make-shift bed. A pillow and tartan blanket had been thrown haphazardly onto the floor. There was nowhere for a man to hide. He rushed through the French doors onto the flag-paved terrace. The terrace opened straight onto the lawn which was still damp with dew, and there he found what he had been looking for – footsteps.
Sherlock had often lectured him on the topic of footsteps – the fact that when a man is running he appears to be walking on tiptoe. Sir Henry, too, was running; running fast; running away from the house. But was he running for his life? Or running toward Death?
The doctor spoke in rapid bursts. “Find the kennel keeper. Tell him we need to find Sir Henry at once. Tell him to unkennel the hounds. Take the tartan blanket that Sir Henry has been using in the study for the dogs to scent. Wait!” An uncontrollable cough forced him to check himself. “How many dogs are there and what breed are they?”
“Ten fox hounds, sir.”
“Perfect! Hurry, man, there is no time to lose!”
Antonio had already reached the French window when the doctor called out.
“Is there still a gate half way along the Yew Hedge that opens onto the moor?”
“Yes,” lisped the valet before disappearing.
The hedge had changed little at ground level except that the ominous Yew Alley of old was now a charming Yew Allee with classical statues and garden benches lining the path. Half way along was a new ogee gate. There was no dead body and Dr Watson breathed a sigh of relief. Fresh footprints indicated that Sir Henry had recently come this way, still running, but there were no giant paw prints in pursuit. He took another breath. The gate was ajar. He was about to go through when he heard a high-pitched voice.
“Wait for me!” It was the Countess dressed in walking costume of lightweight wool – ankle-length pleated skirt and matching short plisse cape over a high-necked chemisette. “Fedir informed me the baronet is missing. Is that true?”
He summarized as quickly as he could, and together they stepped onto the untamed moor, morning mist still clinging to the stunted oaks and ancient tors, just as a pack of fox hounds came bounding down the allee, baying madly, and thrust themselves through the gate, almost knocking them off their feet. The hounds were heading north – heading toward the great Grimpen Mire.
Antonio remained behind to inform the others of events while Dr Watson, the Countess, Dogger the kennel keeper, Perkins the groom and two stable lads chased after the baying pack. They had no chance of keeping up but forty doggy legs tearing through cotton grass, heath, asphodel, brambles, bronzy bracken and clumps of peat left an easy trail to follow. They didn’t have far to go. They came over a granite outcrop and there in the middle of a bright green bog was a human hand poking up. It looked comically grotesque, a bizarre parody of life and death…waving while drowning.
The fox hounds were going berserk, running round and round the mossy quake in crazy circles, destroying any footprints, human or otherwise, that may have been there.
Dr Watson put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. His cough had come back with a punishing vengeance. His bones ached. His muscles screamed. His chest felt tight. And he was red in the face. The man of action looked like a man about to have a seizure.
The stable boys, young and fit, raced back to the castle. They were told to return with a grappling hook, a rope and several strong men. Dogger managed to bring the dogs to heel. The Countess spoke first.
“Are we sure it is Sir Henry?”
“Yes,” replied Perkins. “You can tell by the gold wedding band. None of the men round these parts have such a ring. It will have the Baskerville coat-of-arms engraved on it.”
She lowered her voice and turned to the doctor who was just recovering his breath.
“Murder or suicide?”
“I have no idea, but the anonymous letters certainly suggest foul play.”
“But is it a crime to inform a man he will end his own life?”
“We cannot be sure of anything until we examine the body and see those letters. If they are simply prophecies the sender is in the clear. It is not a crime to make outrageous predictions. But if they are threats to his person or blackmail then it is a different matter.”
One of the dogs broke away from the pack and leapt at the doctor, knocking him to the ground. He landed with a squelch on a scummy cushion of sphagnum. Dogger called the errant hound to heel. It looked slightly different from the other fox hounds, with a longer snout and sharper fangs.
“Never turn yer back on a dog on the moor,” Dogger growled when the doctor found his feet and glared at the kennel keeper with violent indignation.
While the doctor availed himself of a warm bath and some breakfast, the Countess scoured the study for the anonymous letters. They agreed to meet in the morning room where the sun streamed through the old mullioned window which refracted prismatic rainbows like a giant kaleidoscope featuring heraldic coats-of-arms. It was ostensibly a lady’s room with a small writing desk, comfortable sofas, embroidered cushions and vivifying vases of fresh flowers.
“Well?” pressed Dr Watson eagerly. “Did you find the letters?”
The disappointed look on her face said it all. “Either someone beat us to them while we were on the moor or Sir Henry destroyed them before we arrived.”
“Mmm, there’s also the possibility he may have hidden them, perhaps in a secret compartment. We need to conduct a more thorough search. But right now I must see to Lady Baskerville. The news of her husband’s death has hit her hard. I will administer an aspirin in chamomile tea to calm her nerves until Dr Mortimer arrives to give her a full medical check. I also want to examine the body of Sir Henry for any physical marks. It has been washed and placed in the gun room. I have the only key.”
“So it was him after all?”
“Yes, I wondered too, but there is no doubt. You won’t see me at lunch. I plan to ride to Drogo to speak to the station master. I need to speak to Sir Olwen as soon as possible too, not only about this morning’s terrible tragedy, but about all that has happened this last month.”
“Since he is the Baskerville’s solicitor you could ask him about Sir Henry’s financial affairs. Suicide and the squandering of wealth through gambling or poor speculation often go hand in glove.”
“I will examine the body of James Desmond too and check the contents of his bag. One never knows what one may find.”
“Ask Sir Olwen to show you a copy of Sir Henry’s will. The two deaths may be related to inheritance. I know the house is entailed but who does it go to if there are no surviving male heirs – presuming of course that Stapleton is dead.”
Dr Watson turned his face to the heraldic window and clasped his arms low behind his back. His eyes peered through wonky prisms of rainbows, taking in the wild and windswept moor in the distance. His voice was circumspect, rendered heavy with abstraction. “A man could go to ground and live for years undetected in one of the Stone Age huts or one of the old tin mines, enticing a poor farmhand or one of the gypsies to bring him food and supplies; killing and mutilating the occasional Dartmoor pony to strike fear into the hearts of the locals and stop them venturing too close.”
“A cunning man might even don a simple disguise and join one of the work gangs,” she conjectured. “See if you can discover if there are any bequests. If it turns out the baronet is actually as rich as he seems even a simple bequest might be worth killing for. Fedir can drive you in the Peugeot. You cannot gallop across the moor with that hacking cough. I’m meeting Gaston in fifteen minutes in the conservatory so I’m off to get my cloak. I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Be on your guard,” he warned, suddenly concerned for her personal safety and feeling somewhat responsible. “I have a feeling this nasty business is not yet done.”
“Is that your sixth sense at play,” she teased to lighten the import and deflect from his gorgeous embarrassment, “or male intuition?”
Gaston de Garonne was feeding croissants to some lovebirds in a cage. The conservatory, as well as being a crystal palace full of tropical ferns, was also an aviary. Bird cages were suspended from beams, arrayed on tables and set on the tiled floor between pots of rare orchids.
“Ah, bonjour ma cherie!” He flashed a gold tooth as he smooched her hand.
Together they strolled out to the terrace on the south side of the castle which offered a glorious vista of Holywell Pool. The lake was shaped like a giant number eight and at the mid-point sat an island with a willow tree sheltering a wooden jetty with a row boat. A Chinese Bridge at both ends linked the island to the mainland. The gardens closest to the castle had been completed months ago, but beyond the ha-ha men were still toiling, laying miles of gravel paths, planting thousands of trees, putting the final ornamental touches to Gothicke folly, Roman temple and Greek rotunda.
They had been walking almost two hours, skirting the lake, when grey clouds began rolling in and the weather took a turn for the worse. Rain began to fall, gently at first, before a fierce blast of wind brought slanting showers. Fortunately, the wind whipped the clouds along and the blades of rain were short-lived, a mere vanguard to the storm that threatened to tear apart the night. They hurried back to the castle, taking the short cut across the island, and as they zig-zagged through the rose parterre the Countess looked up at the twin towers. An oriel window had been thrown open and a human shadow figured in the mullioned frame.
“Who occupies the two towers?” she asked.
“Ah, yes, the towers! They gave me the cauchemars until I decided to soften their giant feet with plantings of hydrangea, azalea and rhododendron. They are perfect plantings for this side where the sun does not come until late, and they thrive – voila! You approve, ma cherie?”
“Certainement, the plantings are parfait, but who occupies the towers?”
“The tower a droite is habited by Beryl Stapleton. It is not her bed chamber, which is located near of the nursery wing, but her private salon. She has the aspirations of the artiste and has need of a studio for making the drawing and the painting where the light comes clear. I went up the stairs many times and always the door it was locked. During five years I have not seen one thing she has created and never have I seen her with the sketch pad or the pencil in her hand.”
“And the tower to the left?”
“The tower a gauche is habited by Mr Frankland. He suffers from the gout and does not often come down the stairs. He takes his breakfast, his lunch and his dinner in his chamber. He enjoys very much the study of the stars and has a most marvellous telescope. He sleeps in the day and watches the heavens in the night. He is a man most interesting. I have enjoyed many conversations with him a propos the position of the trees for creating the windbreaks. One has a view extraordinaire from his window? It is from his window that you can see the top of the Yew Allee and the clipping of the name of Baskerville Castle 1899 into the tops of the yews. It was my idea most brilliant and it pleased Sir Henry most splendid.”
The same depressing raincloud that had been dogging them for the last twenty minutes decided to unleash a downpour. They made a dash across the parterre. As they neared the castle a tall and striking male figure rushed out of the front doors clutching a picnic basket. The stranger sprinted through the rain toward the Yew Allee.
“Who was that?” asked the Countess as soon as she caught her breath.
“That was the American engineer. He is called Mr Roderick Lysterfield. He came to offer his condolences to Lady Baskerville as soon as he heard the news of the death of Sir Henry.”
Elegant brows signalled her surprise. “The engineer was admitted to the boudoir of the grieving lady of the house?”
“Ah, mais non, non,” contradicted Gaston. “He is a gentilhomme most gallant. When he discovered Lady Baskerville was in her boudoir he left a message with the femme de chambre. He is a favourite of the French cook. How do you say? She mothers to him. She makes for him every day the croissants for his breakfast and the omelette with herbs. He eats in the kitchen like a lord and then he carries the lunch fit for a king in his basket to his place of travail.”
Dr Mortimer conducted an examination and pronounced the babe in the womb to be safe. He ordered Lady Baskerville to remain in bed for the duration of her confinement. The bedroom was lined with lovely chinoiserie wallpaper depicting pagodas, cherry blossoms and tiny birds, but it was clear that the bluebird of happiness had flown from this cosy nest. Lady Laura was propped up against a bank of starched white pillows wearing a pale blue bed gown. She looked at first glance like a porcelain doll propped up in a dainty lit-a-polonaise bed, but closer inspection revealed an unbecoming tracery of lines around her mouth and eyes. In the absence of powder and rouge, her freckles were visible but there were too many of them to give a semblance of girlish prettiness. A thin blue ribbon secured her long hazel hair away from her face which then fell limply around her slender shoulders.
The Countess, who had now changed into a fuschia day dress topped with a bolero jacket of velvet and satin hemmed with jet embroidery, offered to get some books from the library for her hostess to read, and used this ploy as an excuse to visit her in her bedroom. Her hostess was genuinely grateful and requested a book of poetry by Keats and some novels by the Bronte sisters.
The Countess did not outstay her initial warm welcome. Lady Laura appeared to grow progressively groggy after drinking the sedative Dr Mortimer dissolved in her chamomile tea. The cup of herbal tea gave the Countess an idea. She resolved to visit the kitchens on the pretense of requesting a cup of tea with lemon and honey for Dr Watson whose bark was growing worse by the hour. She had learnt nothing useful from Gaston discounting the history of garden design beginning with the Babylonians.
She was starting to suspect the baronet of sending the letters to himself in order to point the finger at some non-existent enemy to avoid the stigma that suicide brings. Rodger Baskerville, the black sheep, had been a hopeless gambler. Perhaps it ran in the family.
Death before dishonor…and bankruptcy!
The domestic wing of Baskerville Castle, as with all large country houses, was at least double the size of the main house. Female and male servants had their own particular domain, stairs and sitting rooms, never the twain to meet except in the servants’ hall at mealtimes.
The Countess chose to speak in French which not only curried favour with the French cook but avoided the problem of eavesdroppers since the kitchen was a hive of activity. Clotilde Clemensac was a spinster who had been with Sir Charles for two years starting from when he returned to Devon from South Africa, having made his fortune in gold and then diamonds. She moved to Lafter Hall to work for Mr Frankland after the sudden tragic death of her employer ten years ago. She then returned when Mr Frankland relocated to Baskerville Castle with his daughter and son-in-law. So much toing and froing! She spoke English fluently but enjoyed the opportunity to parlay in her native tongue. She remembered the Barrymores quite well though they had kept to themselves most of the time they worked for Sir Charles. Eliza Barrymore was now quite the lady, but she had too many airs and graces for her liking. John Barrymore had been the perfect butler – good manners born and bred. He deserved his good fortune. He was a handsome one, a true gentleman, yes, he deserved his good fortune. No, it was not his family that had been in service to the Baskervilles for one hundred years. It was Eliza’s mother’s family who were called Barrymore. She was born Eliza Selden; older than him by ten years and never what you might call pretty, always a lardycake, a butterball, a boule de suif, fond of pudding and mad for cocoa. They took her mother’s maiden name after they married because the name had a trustworthy history attached to it in these parts. Eliza went into service for the de Chivers family in Tavistock because there was not much call for staff hereabouts when she first started domestic work. She met him there. No, she couldn’t recall what his name was before he married Eliza. She couldn’t recall it ever being mentioned. The Selden name was rarely spoken now.
Mr Roderick Lysterfield…just the mention of his name brought on a matronly blush. The first time he took his shirt off whilst supervising the erection of the stone wall surrounding the kitchen garden a gaggle of serving girls gathered to admire his virility. No one appreciated her cooking the way he did. He praised her beef bourguignon and he had never tasted anything better than her tarte tatin. She blushed some more.
Dogger was always good with dogs. No one knew the moor better than Dogger. Blindfolded, he could find his way across the great Grimpen Mire. Fog held no fears for him. He paid no heed to ghost stories about headless horsemen. He could often be seen out on the moor, alone, late at night. If he met up with a hellhound he would soon tame it.
Yes, she knew about the anonymous letters. Everyone did. It was punishment for Hugo’s wickedness. Now the master of the house was dead and the mistress was about to have her first child. The babe, if it was a boy, would need to be taken away as soon as it was born or it too would be cursed. Everyone knew this. Everyone said so.
On that grim note the Countess picked up the cup of lemon tea and honey for Dr Watson and, since it was already tepid, took it with her to the library to search out the books for Lady Laura. She dropped the books off without disturbing her hostess, who was sleeping soundly, and continued to Dr Watson’s bedroom which was the next one along the passage. She placed the tea on his bedside table and drew the curtains. A storm was brewing. Clouds were piling up, blocking out the last dregs of daylight. She hoped the doctor would not catch his death out on the moor.
Lady Laura had been confined to her bed. Mr Frankland had elected to stay in his room. Monsieur de Garonne had gone across to Lafter Hall with some garden plans he had drawn up for the Barrymores. Beryl Stapleton was nowhere to be seen. And the doctor had not yet returned.
Mallard was serving the Countess a glass of sherry in the great hall when a piercing scream shattered the silence. It was the shrill cry of a woman in distress coming from one of the towers. They thought it might be Beryl Stapleton and raced up the main stairs, along the gallery, toward an archway that marked the commencement of a narrow flight of spiral stairs leading up to the studio. But when they took a corner they almost crashed into Nellie the nursery maid. She was standing like a statue, stupefied, staring at the foot of the stairs where the lifeless body of Beryl Stapleton was inelegantly sprawled.
“What the deuce is going on here?”
Countess Volodymyrovna whired round and almost threw herself into Doctor Watson’s cold, damp arms. There was a catch in her throat that was impossible to disguise.
“It’s Beryl Stapleton. She’s…she’s dead.”
“Dead?” He released the Countess and went to take a look for himself. The angle of the swan-like neck did not bode well.
“The towers were never electrified,” tut-tutted the butler. “The spiral steps are steep and far too dark. She must have been in a hurry, knowing she was late for dinner. She was always running late; never punctual for mealtimes.”
Nellie began to sob hysterically. “You should not say that! Not now she’s dead! You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead! I hadn’t seen her all day! I came to find her to tell her I was putting the twins to bed! They like her to read a fairy story! What will I tell them? First their father! And now Mrs Stapleton! I cannot bear this terrible curse!”
The butler placed a supportive arm around the sobbing girl and led her away to the kitchens where she would get plenty of sympathy from the women and a small brandy from him. Recovering her courage now that the doctor had returned, the Countess made a closer examination of the dead body.
“She could not have been hurrying to dinner. She is wearing the same dress she was wearing this morning when I passed her on the stairs on my way to meet you in the garden. She may have been lying here for hours. The body is icy cold. This archway is tucked around the corner. The staff could come and go all day, up and down the grand stairs, and not notice a body unless they specifically came this way as Nellie did.”
Antonio must have heard the tragic news. He came bounding around the corner like a man possessed and cried out in shock, “No! No! No!” Eventually, he sank to his knees at the side of the body and kissed the cold dusky forehead. There were tears in his rheumy old eyes as he scooped up the lifeless body and carried it down the stairs the way a prince might carry his princess, or a groom his bride.
It was dinner a deux in the library for the Countess and the doctor once he had changed out of his damp clothes. The library had a coffered ceiling lined with oak beams. Bookshelves lined the walls. A small round table had been set in an alcove. A couple of reading sconces provided ample light. Appetites had dulled since the discovery of Beryl Stapleton’s body, but parsnip soup, coq au vin and rhubarb crumble hit the spot. They exchanged news while they ate. He went first, frequently coughing to clear his throat and drinking more wine than was good for him.
The station master had nothing to add to the description the groom had given. The gent on the platform was a spivvy chap. He must have changed his mind about catching the train. Some folks did. They would wait on the platform for an age and then all of a sudden hurry away. He had been station master for ten years and had seen it happen more than once. He didn’t see the old man tumble off the platform. He normally watched the trains pull out of the station but someone told him a lady had fainted near the gate and he went to help out. But when he got to the gate the lady must have recovered and taken herself off home.
Sir Olwen did not have a copy of the will. A firm of solicitors in London drew up the will. Their premises burnt down six months ago. Numerous important documents plus several legal clerks died in the fire. Dr Mortimer, as executor, was the only person who now had a copy but whether a copy had gone to Somerset House was not for him to say. There was nothing odd about the injuries suffered by Mr James Desmond. They were consistent with a fall onto train tracks. There was nothing untoward in his bag. Death was clearly accidental and the body was being transported back to Cumbria for burial in the churchyard of the parish where Mr Desmond spent his final years.
Sir Olwen in his capacity as magistrate would hold an inquest for Sir Henry as soon as practicable, but foul play would be impossible to prove without the anonymous letters. Sir Olwen was aware of Sir Henry’s mania this last month. It was common knowledge but he presumed it would pass. He had been looking forward to Sir Henry joining the local hunt. Sir Olwen had been invited to dinner the previous night at Baskerville Castle but had been entertaining some fellows from the Cranborne Chase Hunt Club and had declined. Fedir was an excellent chauffeur and the Peugeot was a motoring dream.
“Your turn,” he said, admiring the less formal robe de diner of apricot brocaded silk with delicate fur trim, and was surprised by what she had gleaned from the French cook, especially the part about Mr and Mrs Barrymore adopting the wife’s maiden name after their marriage. It was highly unusual and extremely odd. Sometimes a man took his wife’s family name if she was an heiress, the last of her line, and her father wanted the illustrious moniker to be retained for historical purposes, aligned to a great house and ancient lineage. But that was not the case here. It merited further investigation. He was not interested in Roderick’s virility or Dogger’s midnight roaming.
The Countess toyed with the stem of her wine glass. “We need to send someone to Tavistock. There’s something about John Barrymore that seems suspicious. Why take his wife’s maiden name? Why not use his real name? He seems to be a man with something to hide. Fedir would be the ideal choice and if he took the Peugeot he could be back by nightfall but foreigners are sometimes not trusted when they ask a lot of questions.”
“I could go,” offered the doctor, “but I am reticent to leave Baskerville Castle. Lady Laura’s condition is delicate and I don’t like the idea of leaving her on her own. We still have no idea what or who we are dealing with. Since she is carrying the Baskerville heir her life may also be in danger.”
“That leaves no choice. I will go to Tavistock.”
“I don’t like the idea of you travelling all that way. Not on your own.”
“I will have Fedir with me,” she reminded.
“He won’t be with you every moment.”
“It is incumbent upon us to take some risks otherwise we will simply go round in circles. We have been here two days and there have been three deaths. If things continue at this rate there will be no suspects left by the end of the week except the two of us.”
“Last man standing,” he joked, lighting up a cigarette and offering one to her, “at least we will have our anonymous letter writer and possibly our killer too.”
“Very droll, Dr Watson,” she said as she plucked a hand-rolled cigarette from the silver case and allowed him to light it for her. “I shall leave after breakfast.”
While he thought how he might talk her out of it, he blew a ring of smoke into the air that hovered over the table like a blue sprite. Suddenly his eyes lit up. “Jensen!”
“Jensen Saint Giles! I just remembered a chum from my London club who recently closed his legal practice in Chelsea so that he could move closer to his elderly parents. He has opened a new practice in Tavistock. He is a tactful and intelligent fellow who will be able to locate the family that employed John Whatever-his-name and Eliza Selden, and follow up any interesting leads concerning the servants. What did you say the family’s name was – de Cherville?”
“I will telegraph him tomorrow morning from Coombe Tracey and tell him I am undertaking an investigation on behalf of an old friend in Dartmoor. I won’t mention the murders or reveal I am doing any sleuthing.”
Now there was a word – sleuthing! She thought detective-ing was in her blood but right now she wasn’t sure they even had a case to solve. “Are you sure they are murders? What if they are simply accidents and suicide? Are we reading too much into this drama? Turning it into melodrama to compensate for something lacking in our own lives?”
“How do you mean?”
“We have no evidence that any crime has been committed.”
“There are the letters,” he suggested quickly.
“What if Sir Henry sent them to himself?”
He looked stunned. “He wasn’t that sort of man!”
“You hadn’t seen him for ten years. People change.”
“No! He was one of the most rational men I ever met. He was pragmatic, practical, and sensible!”
“You saw him at dinner. Did he look sensible?”
“That’s my point. Someone deliberately set out to rattle him.”
Someone? Or something?”
“What do you mean?”
“This house – Baskerville Castle – it’s everywhere.”
“Everywhere? It’s immovable, fixed, built on foundation stones from the days of William the Conqueror.”
“If this mystery is about inheritance then it is about this house.”
“Oh, I see, you mean about it being entailed.”
“I also meant in spirit. People come into this house and they change, they act out of character, they become someone else. The house alters them.”
“You make it sound like a sentient being.”
Her eyes drifted over the heavy beams, the oak shelves, the darksome shadows, the dusty tomes, the flickering firelight. “Admit it, this house is designed to spook. It is built on superstition. Everywhere I walk I feel it watching me. The portraits follow me, the walls have ears, the boards creak and groan as if feeling my weight. It is not the people who are cursed. It is this house, or perhaps this place. Yesterday, walking with Gaston in the garden, the very earth seemed alive. The ground breathes and shudders and belches. I could have sworn it was trying deliberately to trip me up and swallow me whole. After ten years, this house and this place sent Sir Henry batty. He wasn’t born here. He wasn’t used to it. I’m sure it would send most people batty, including you, Dr Watson. You mark my words – a hundred years from now the moor will claim back what has been tamed. The garden will be a wild, barren, withered patch of weed and bog with this house standing like a triumphant ruin, rising like a fantastic tor out of the evil heart of it.”
He didn’t say anything for a few moments then coughed to clear his dry-as-dust throat. “What did you mean about turning drama into melodrama and something lacking in our lives?”
She took a sip of wine, inhaled a puff of tobacco, and continued circumspectly. “Old people fall. There are rail accidents every day. Women trip over the flounce of their skirts and fall downstairs every week. Rich men commit suicide. Are we trying too hard, reading too much into things, because we are who we are – best friend and illegitimate offspring of the greatest detective who ever lived?”
This time he felt not only stunned but shocked; shocked because he had no glib rebuttal. Her observation had rendered him speechless. Truth had a habit of doing that to a man. “When you put it like that you make us sound rather pathetic.”
“I hate being pathetic. There is nothing worse. Except being boring. I hate that even more. Are we making fools of ourselves, Dr Watson?”
He cringed inwardly. He had tried all his life not to look like a fool. He had studied hard. Chosen a profession not peopled by fools, tried to live up to his father, tried not to disappoint him. And now – was he turning into an old fool, chasing after shadows, tilting at windmills, and all because a beautiful, young, rich, foreign widow had come into his life and rattled his cage? Was he merely trying to impress her? Or trying to impress his old friend? He didn’t reply.
She filled the void with further conjecture. “Are we making fools of ourselves, Dr Watson, or being played for fools?”
He found his voice at last and tried to sound like a rational man of science but the words rang hollow in his ears. “We won’t have an answer to that question until we receive the information we seek from Tavistock. If it turns out that all is above board we will pack up and return to London straight after the funeral of Sir Henry.”
“We will cross that bridge when we get to it.” He stood up and walked to the fire. The embers were dying. He threw his spent cigarette onto the glowing coals. “If only we had those letters.”
She finished her wine and tossed her butt into the dregs of wine at the bottom of the empty crystal glass. “The study is still locked. I checked the door on my way to dinner. Either Antonio has the key or it is now with Lady Laura.”
“I’ll check with her when I look in on her after breakfast.”
“There are too many locked rooms; too many secrets.”
“I wonder what Beryl Stapleton was doing at the top of the tower.”
“I can answer that question for you, at least. She fancied herself as an artist. She had a painting studio up there.”
“Oh,” he murmured, disappointed by another reasonable explanation, proving the point she had made earlier about reading too much into things.
“Gaston said he went up there more than a dozen times and always found the door locked.”
“That’s not unusual.”
“He said that in five years he had never seen anything she had ever painted, and he had never once seen her with a sketch pad or a pencil in her hand.”
“Perhaps she was modest about her work; not all artists are show-offs eager for an exhibition of their latest canvas.”
“We are talking about the Costa Rican queen, are we not?”
He conceded the point and winced. “I would dearly like to see inside that studio. I bet Antonio has the key in his possession.”
“No,” she said. “I do – at least I think I do.”
“What? How? You?”
She pushed to her feet and extracted a brass key from her beaded evening purse. “I helped myself to a key in her pocket when I checked the temperature of the body. I’m guessing it opens the door at the top of the tower. Shall we put it to the test while the house is sleeping?”
The storm that had been threatening all day finally broke. Flashes of lightning turned the gloomy double cube of the great hall a livid white. Scumbled portraits shone luminous and ghastly in their gilded frames. Stag’s heads and boar’s heads appeared to swell in size; glass eyes blinked as if alive. It was like being trapped inside Mary Shelley’s imagination. Here was the house of Dr Frankenstein waiting for a zap of electricity to bring dead bodies to life.
Thunder cracked the heavens and shook the walls. Great glass sheets crackled under the boom. Electric lights flickered on and off, on and off, then fizzled. They grabbed some candlesticks, lit them using hot coals, and made their way quickly up the grand sweep of stairs, along the gallery to the archway where they paused to check if anyone might be following.
Nothing stirred. The sound and fury was outside. Inside, all was as silent as a tomb – the dead had not been zapped to life. They mounted the corkscrew stairs and made their way up to the top. The key fit in the lock and the door swung back noiselessly.
“Well, well, well,” said the doctor. “It appears she was an artist after all.”
Photographs of nudes covered the stark white walls, female flesh laid bare, tantalizing and pubescent. Between the salacious sepia prints were pin-boards of butterflies under glass, hundreds of them. He spotted the Lepidoptera at once.
“Stapleton’s collection,” he whispered, moving closer with his candlestick. “There’s even a rare Cyclopides here. I know for a fact there hasn’t been a Cyclopides spotted on the moor since 1860.”
“And I cannot spot any artist’s paraphernalia amongst these things,” she returned, checking through oak wardrobes bulging full of gorgeous gowns – far too expensive for a mere governess. “These gowns are all black or midnight blue or dark purple – as if she were still in mourning. And no camera either? It begs the question – who took the photographs?”
“Shh, lower your voice,” he warned. “Anything above a whisper will carry down those stairs like a drumroll. Who took the photographs is irrelevant. More than likely they were part of Stapleton’s esoteric collection and his widow brought them with her from Merripit House.”
She looked unconvinced as she searched the wardrobes for secret compartments which might house writing implements and envelopes. “This chamber has all the hallmarks of a boudoir rather than a studio. There is no easel, no paints and no paint brushes, just five wardrobes full of expensive dresses. But look at this white velvet chaise longue by the oriel window, and the way this cheval glass is angled just so. It suggests an amorous nest for lovebirds.”
He kept moving around the room, studying the licentious images of young girls in various suggestive poses. “Let us not read too much into things,” he cautioned. “It could just be a dressing room. She was South American. They do things differently over there. Not everyone is fond of chintz and embroidered flowers.”
“There’s something else about this room. I cannot quite put my finger on it. It seems all wrong for a trysting place. The colour is wrong. And the photographs are arranged in clinical lines. Where are the frills and fringing? The silken cushions? The French parfums? The feathery fans? The lacy petticoats?”
Masculine brows arched. “Your knowledge of trysting places appears extensive.”
She ignored the quip and began to study the lines of photographs. Some of the girls looked quite young, no more than six or seven. “There is something repugnant about these sleeping beauty images.”
“Stapleton was a repugnant fellow, a man of vile scruples and no morals. And the reason this room does not resemble a trysting place is because it is not a trysting place at all.” He paused, savouring his little moment of triumph. “Beryl Stapleton was hopelessly in love with Jack Stapleton. Perhaps infatuated is a better term. No matter how badly he treated her she remained by his side. Some women are attracted to brutes of that sort. This room is not a trysting place because it is a shrine. A shrine to Jack Stapleton!”
She thought about hopeless women and brutish men while she moved to the oriel window to watch the storm sweep across the sky. There was something powerful and thrilling about storms that made her heart race and her nerve endings spark. Brutish men had that same effect on hopeless women. Perhaps it was innate for womankind to be attracted to such men, even to worship them, despite the danger to themselves. There was an undeniable sexual energy about men like that, it was the thrill of fear that set hearts racing, a paradoxical excitement that thrilled and terrified at the same time, arousing lust and female desire. The Neolithic people who lived in those huts on the moor worshipped gods of thunder and lightning exactly because they were dangerous. She threw open the oriel window and felt the power of the storm, but of course, like all civilized souls, she loved storms providing she was safe and warm inside, not out…
What was that! Someone was on the moor! She could see a figure whenever the lightning flashed. A man, or perhaps a boy, was running across the great Grimpen Mire toward the area on the map she remembered as the old tin mine.
“Come quick! Look! On the moor! Someone running!”
“Where? I cannot see anyone. You are imagining it.” His eyes continued to sieve the darkness until the next livid flash. “Oh, yes, now I see him! What the deuce is a boy doing out on the moor on a filthy night like this?”
They heard footsteps and their blood ran cold. Someone was tramping up the stairs. There was nowhere to hide and no escape. They hardly knew what they were doing as they leapt onto the chaise longue and went into an amorous clinch. He was kissing the side of her neck when they heard an angry lisping voice.
“What are you doing in here?”
Dr Watson felt so flustered he forgot himself. He forgot that he was an honoured guest and that the man barking at him was a lowly servant. The Countess did not appear to suffer from the same lapse of sangfroid and responded haughtily.
“We are not required to explain ourselves. What are you doing up here?”
Antonio shrugged. “I came to make sure the window was closed.”
He secured the oriel latch. Rain had formed a little puddle under the window. He knelt down to mop it up with his neckerchief. They decided to leave him to it.
“Do you still have the key?” whispered the doctor when they reached the base of the corkscrew stairs. “Or did you leave it in the door?”
She patted her beaded evening purse and smiled archly. “I still have it.”
“Good, we may need to visit that room again.”
They were about to go their separate ways to bed when she grabbed his arm.
“Are you tired?”
He thought all that talk about trysting places had gone to her head. Hang on! Perhaps she was going to suggest they go gallivanting after that mad boy on the moor!
“What do you have in mind?” he said cautiously.
“When we were coming down the stairs I noticed via the arrow loops that a candle was burning in the opposite tower. Algernon Frankland must be awake. According to Gaston he is an amateur astronomer. He has a powerful telescope and there’s no fog tonight.”
She had already made up her mind by the sounds of it. And after what had happened to Beryl Stapleton, he wasn’t about to let her go up to the top of the next tower on her own. He heaved a breath and mounted the stairs – seven stories of stairs! Though to be fair, each level was condensed because the ceilings were lower and they didn’t need to count the ground floor.
Algernon Frankland was wearing a blue dressing gown and some tartan slippers. The room was sparsely furnished with a single bed, an armchair, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and several tables littered with mathematical instruments and maps of the heavens. Jock was curled up at the foot of the bed. He cocked an eye, gave a mock-heroic growl then went back to dreaming doggy dreams.
“Come in, come in,” squawked the old man. “I saw you going up to Beryl’s little studio. The arrow loops provide a glimpse of those coming and going. You cannot see very clearly but you can spot a lighted taper. I wondered if you might pop in and pay me a visit. I’m sorry I cannot offer you any refreshment. I have just finished the last drop of grand cru and the maid won’t venture this way till first light. Take a seat, doctor. Rest your weary bones in that armchair. You look fagged and that cough is turning phlegmatic by the sounds of things. Wrap yourself in that woolen blanket. There’s no heating up here. Heat plays havoc with my gout. Besides, the window is open all night.”
He limped across the chamber and lowered himself onto a stool by the oriel window and craned his neck toward the Countess. “Would you like to take a look through my telescope, dear lady? It’s a clear sky now that the storm has blown itself out. I suppose you want to see who that chap is who is criss-crossing the moor. Help yourself. Take a look. Be my guest.”
The heavens were a starry blur of golden pinpricks set against a black backdrop but after a bit of tweaking she managed to get a clear view of the tiny figure darting toward the old tin mine. It was definitely a boy. And at his side ran a pack of dogs that loped just like dingoes.
“Thank you, Mr Frankland. That is a marvellous telescope. What are you looking at tonight?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Moon or stars?” she clarified.
“Ah, yes, tonight it is Sirius – the brightest star in the night sky with a visual magnitude twice as bright as Canopus.”
“Astronomy is such a fascinating subject. I’m thinking of purchasing a telescope myself. The constellations are endlessly interesting. Every grouping has its own story: Pleiades, Orion, and so forth. Can you show me Sirius?”
Dr Watson fell asleep in the armchair and snored in unison with Jock while Algernon Frankland warmed to his favourite topic.
“Certainly, dear lady. Constellation Canis Major. Let me pinpoint the heavenly location for you. The ancient Egyptians based their calendar on Sirius, you know. Its rising marked the annual flooding of the Nile. The ancient Greeks associated its twinkling with being star-struck. The Dog Days of summer get their name from Sirius too. The Romans celebrated Sirius by sacrificing a dog. It ensured a good harvest. And since you have lived in Australia you may find this fact interesting: The flagship of the First Fleet that sailed to Australia with its bounty of convicts was named HMS Sirius. Here we are! Behold the Dog Star!”
While she admired the Dog Star she told Mr Frankland about Beryl Stapleton’s accident.
“Ah,” he said. “That explains that scream. I thought perhaps the maid saw the same ghost that I saw.”
“You saw a ghost?”
“Glimpsed it through the arrow loops.”
“Ah, good question. Morning, afternoon and evening have no meaning. I am only interested in day and night. Jock’s bark woke me and I think it was day. I fell back to sleep.”
Countess Volodymyrovna dreamed of stars, storms, and hounds from hell gorging on death. The first thing she remembered upon waking was Algernon Frankland’s ghost on the stairs. Either he really was an old goose or he’d had too much grand cru.
Xenia was preparing her mistress a cup of hot chai sweetened with stewed plums. It was a morning ritual born on the Steppe. Her mistress would drink it while soaking in the warm bath scented with rose petals and herbs.
“What is the gossip in the kitchens today?” the Countess put to her maid.
“The two children are crying all the nych. They go with Nellie this morning. They go to Salis-berry to the house of Mr Frankland’s spinning sistra.”
“Spinster sister,” she corrected. “And it’s night not nych.”
“Tuk,” said Xenia.
“Speak English. It is good for you to practice whenever you can. What are the names of the children?”
“The names are called Edmund and Eglantine. Lady Basketville is worried at them.”
“Lady Baskerville is worried about them.”
“Tuk. She is worrying all the night not nych. I am worrying too. This house is cursing everyone. Fedir say there is much bad happenings. The dogs they keep me awake all the night not nych.”
“The devil dogs that make bark in that bad place out there.” She pointed to the window and made the sign of the cross in the Orthodox fashion, crossing herself three times.
The Countess tracked Nellie down to the stable yard. Perkins was brushing down one of the chestnut mares and the stable lads were shoveling horse dung. Dogger, with a bucket of water in each hand, was heading toward the kennels behind the carriage house. Fedir was spit-polishing the Peugeot with a chamois cloth. The glossy paintwork gleamed in the crisp morning light. Nellie, wearing a warm travelling cloak, was fussing over the twins who were being helped into the covered wagonette for the long ride to Salisbury. The children’s eyes were red and puffy. Nellie’s swollen eyes indicated she had been crying all night too. The offer of a linen handkerchief edged in lace seemed to assuage her grief.
“I came to bid you a safe journey,” said the Countess.” Mrs Stapleton’s accident is such a terrible business and coming so soon after the tragic death of Sir Henry it must be difficult for the children to cope with. They are so fortunate to have someone like you to care for them, Nellie.”
“I do my best,” Nellie sniffed, mopping her eyes.
“You said yesterday that you had been looking for Mrs Stapleton because you hadn’t seen her all day,” she prompted gently, trying not to set off a flood of tears. “Did Mrs Stapleton leave you with the children often?”
“Oh, yes, Mrs Stapleton came and went as she pleased. I did all the supervising of lessons for reading and writing and counting. And how those children did squabble over whose turn it was, and how they would whine and turn their noses up at their food at mealtimes too! Why, anyone would think they were a little prince and princess! But they were born common like everyone else round these parts and just struck it lucky when their mother died on the birthing bed, being so young and no ring on her finger, and the baronet taking pity and giving the pair of them to his good wife because she had just lost another babe! ”
“You are such a hard-working and sensible girl, Nellie. I’m sure you will make an excellent governess and a good mother when your time comes. I wonder what Mrs Stapleton did with all that time on her hands.”
Nellie blew her nose. “She just swanned around all day. If I ever needed her I would always find her up in that tower.”
“She must have been an excellent artist. Did she instruct the children in drawing?”
“Oh, no! Sometimes she sang songs to them in some foreign tongue and last thing at night she read them a bedtime story but it was me who taught them their ABC. If the mother tongue was good enough for Jesus it is good enough for those children.”
“Jesus spoke English?”
“Oh, yes, otherwise how could he have written the bible?”
“I never thought of it like that. You are very clever, Nellie.”
“Thank you, Countess Voldo – I can never get my tongue around foreign names.”
“Volodymyrovna,” the Countess supplied. “Yes, it has too many consonants and not enough vowels or perhaps the other way around. One day I may change it to something easier.”
“You could just marry someone,” Nellie suggested. “Mrs Stapleton had a foreign name until she married Mr Stapleton. Her name used to be the same as Sir Henry’s valet.”
“Her name was Antonio?”
“Garcia,” corrected Nellie. “And he used to be called Anthony until Sir Henry made him valet.” She frowned as she gathered her thoughts. “Or else it was Antonio first and then he changed it to Anthony and then he changed it back again to Antonio. The vicar’s wife, bless her kind heart, said folks should stick with the name the good Lord gave them.”
“Antonio and Mrs Stapleton were brother and sister?”
Nellie gave her nose one last wipe and held out the handkerchief. “Oh, no! Thank you for the hanky. He was her father.”
“Are you sure about that, Nellie? Please keep it. Consider it a gift.”
“Oh, thank you! Yes, I heard her call him papa one time when she thought no one was listening. Are you sure about the hanky? It looks like a foreign one. I don’t want anyone to say I stole it.”
“It is Breton linen and Flemish lace. No one will accuse you of stealing it, Nellie.”
“Well, since it is a British hanky, I shall keep it. Thank you kindly. I better go. The children are getting skittish already and we have a long road ahead of us.”
“Before you go, Nellie, I wonder if you might remember the last time you saw Mrs Stapleton – I mean before that last time at the foot of the stairs.”
Nellie’s young brows knitted themselves over and under, pearl and plain, before settling on the pearl. “I saw her the night before last when she came to read to the children, dressed to the nines in midnight blue. She always wore dark stuff and a bad omen it was considering how things were with the master. But mourning always suited her.”
“Did she say anything?”
“Yes, but I paid it no heed.”
“What did she say that you paid no heed?”
“She said she saw a ghost.”
“Did she say where?”
“Did she sound frightened?”
“No, that’s why I paid it no heed. She sounded all wrong for seeing ghosts.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, she was sort of purring like Tabby.”
“The old mouser in the kitchen which gets the mouse and then the cream.”
The Countess wondered if there were two ghosts or if the ghost seen by Mr Frankland was the same ghost that Beryl Stapleton saw, but before she had a chance to question Nellie further the twins began to squeal. Nellie scrambled to separate them before their tantrum turned to tears. The Countess watched as the carriage rolled out of the stable yard then rushed to the nursery which adjoined the apartments of the female servants in the north wing.
Beryl Stapleton’s bedroom was small but colourful. There was a dazzling patchwork quilt on the bed in shades of bright pink and daffodil yellow and sky blue. The little curtain had all the colours of the rainbow in it. The window gave onto the great Grimpen Mire. Not a very pleasant view compared to the view from the tower. Beryl did not have many possessions and the search did not take long. Most likely she only used the room for sleeping and her morning toilette. There were some cheap hair brushes and some rather ordinary day dresses but the majority of her garments and all her expensive evening gowns were stored in the tower.
Nellie’s room was smaller but extremely tidy since the nursemaid had recently cleared out her meagre possessions. Beryl and Nellie were not members of the gentler sex who felt obliged to keep up a correspondence with family and friends hence there was no writing paraphernalia. Nellie was an orphan who had been fortunate enough to have been given a rudimentary education by her previous employer, the late wife of the vicar at Saint Swithin’s, while Beryl had no relations in England.
She searched the schoolroom next and struck gold. Here she found crayons, pencils, chalk, charcoal, pens, ink bottles, paper, scissors, and envelopes. The children had been diligently practising their letters and Beryl Stapleton could easily have made use of these things after the children had gone to bed.
On her way down the back stairs the Countess decided to stop by the kitchens. She would offer her condolences to Antonio and perhaps catch him at a vulnerable moment. At this hour of the morning the household servants would be in the servants’ hall having their breakfast. They would have completed several hours work already. Antonio Garcia, however, was not among those scoffing lashings of steamy porridge, cold mutton chops, boiled eggs, and crusty bread with butter and jam.
She hurried to the top of the tower where she found the door closed but not locked, the key still in her possession. She checked the room but did not linger. Perhaps it was merely the chilliness of the air but the room gave her goosebumps. She thought back to the time Antonio first entered and caught them on the chaise. With her eyes closed she did not see his reaction. Was he shocked by the photographs? She felt that Dr Watson was wrong about it being a shrine. It did not exude that sort of feel – reverent, nostalgic, sentimental. She still couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, but she knew what it wasn’t. Carefully, she locked the door and on her way back down the spiral stairs realized there were lots of places where someone could conceal themselves. At every level there were storerooms crammed full of old picture frames or surplus chinaware; a latrine and a bathroom; a linen cupboard; a little sewing room; and numerous niches displaying suits of medieval armour. It would have been easy to hide and wait for opportunity to present itself. Pushing someone down the stairs would have been frightfully easy.
She eventually tracked Antonio down to the study and cursed herself for not checking there in the first instance. He was sweeping out the hearth with a brush and pan.
“Good morning,” she greeted pleasantly before kicking herself. It wasn’t a good morning for someone mourning the loss of a child. “Please accept my condolences,” she added sincerely – oh bugger there was no delicate way around it and she was tired of pussy-footing. “I could see you loved her very dearly. The way a father loves a daughter.”
If he was startled he hid it well. He sighed heavily and ceased his sweeping, though he continued to stare at the soot as if in a trance.
“Yes I loved her, though she was always willful and stubborn, even as a little girl, and so beautiful. Men fell in love with her too easily. And she fell in love with them back. But she loved the wrong sort. When she fell in love with Jack Baskerville I told her it would not end well. He was cruel and jealous and the worst sort of gambler – one who always lost – but he had a cocky swagger and a smile that sparkled like fool’s gold. She met him on one of them Mississippi paddle-steamers. She was a dancer. I was second captain. It was easy work, floating up and down river. He had some money left to him from his mother’s estate but it didn’t take long for him to fritter it away. He drifted down to Mexico, one step ahead of his creditors. She followed. I went too. We eventually ended up back home in Costa Rica. When his losses got too big to ignore he changed his name to Jack Vandeleur and decided to chance his luck in England. She could not bear to be without him. I could not bear to be without her. She was all the family I had. In England Jack changed his name to Stapleton and his luck seemed to change too. He opened a school in Yorkshire and they got married when she told him she was with child. But there was a sickness in the school. It closed down. She lost the babe. Then we came to this god-awful place because Jack got an idea about how to claim the fortune he believed was his birthright. She was excited at first. She wanted to be a proper lady. But when she found out he meant to murder someone she got the wind up. She was not a bad girl. But it was too late. Jack would not release her from the marriage and he could be violent if his wishes went unmet. In the end it did not end well – just as I always said.”
“Do you think she tripped down the stairs?”
“Beryl was a dancer like her mother. She never once tripped over her own feet. It was not in her nature to be clumsy.”
“Do you think she was pushed?”
The next question was crucial and there was no tactful way to phrase it. “By whom?”
“I do not know. I do not know,” he repeated with solemnity.
She was about to ask him if his daughter had been conducting an affair with the baronet when the butler interrupted them. Bluntly, he instructed Antonio to clear his things out of the folio room and go back to sleeping with the other male servants.
Alone in the study, she grabbed the chance to make another search. Unfortunately, no secret compartment revealed itself, either in the desk, bookcase or any part of the floor or wall. She even checked the padding in the chesterfield. Disappointed, she turned to go. She reached the door then looked back at the coal scuttle, retraced her steps and tipped the contents back into the grate. As she sifted through the black powder with bare fingers a torn scrap of paper, edges singed, poked out from the little midden. She worked a little more frantically and there was another.
“Can I help you, m’lady?”
Ouch! She banged her head on the Gothic mantel and tried not to groan as she addressed the pretty parlourmaid poised in the doorway.
“I dropped my diamond ring and it bounced into the fireplace,” she lied, managing to sound convincing despite the fact her eyes were stinging and she was up to her elbows in soot.
I know who you are.
I know who you are not.
“They don’t make any sense,” Dr Watson pronounced unhappily, after studying the two scraps she had rescued from the dregs of the fire. “By the way, what if I had been performing my morning ablutions naked when you burst in after such a peremptory knock?”
“You forget I am a widow. I was married for three years so I am hardly likely to be shocked by the sight of a half-naked man sponging himself.”
“One day you must tell me all about your late husband but in future I suggest you knock and then wait before throwing open the door if we are to remain friends.” He began to cough and took a sip of the lemon tea with honey she had deposited on his bedside table.
“Is the tea helping?”
“Yes, oh, yes, thank you for the tea.” He glanced at the bracket clock as he replaced his empty glass. “I didn’t realize how late it was. I must hurry if I am to go to Coombe Tracey to send that telegram. Perhaps you should leave now.”
The Countess had already bathed a second time, changed her morning dress for a costume tailleur of grey wool with scalloped edges, and breakfasted; the fact he was just getting out of bed and looked grey around the gills did not bode well.
“I can go to Coombe Tracey in your place. You need to stay in bed. You can write down what you want me to say in the telegram and I can sign off using your name.”
He began to protest but she cut him off.
“I need to buy some black satin for a funeral dress and some black lace to use as a veil. I thought I had packed for all eventualities, alas, I will not be so remiss in future.”
She handed him some writing paper and a pen from the desk by the window. While he dried his hands and penned some instructions she recounted what she had found in the school room. He seemed unimpressed so she moved on to what Mr Frankland had said about seeing a ghost, but he dismissed it as the ranting of a lonely old man who drank too much red wine. When she told him what Nellie had said, he dismissed it as the foolishness of an impressionable and jealous girl. When she mentioned Antonio it was another matter.
“I should have realized the lisp meant they were related. His confirmation of your belief that Beryl Stapleton’s fall was no accident means we could have three murders on our hands.”
“When I asked him if he knew who could have pushed her down the stairs I got the impression he was hedging. I think he knows more than he is letting on. I will try and coax the name out of him.”
“First things first, you need to go to Coombe Tracey to telegraph to Jensen Saint Giles. We need to find out what Barrymore is hiding. I remember Sherlock always saying: Follow every thread and one will lead to the truth.”
She glanced out of the window as she returned the pen to its place on the desk. The south side of the house offered the best panorama of Holywell Pool. It had started to rain and droplets were dimpling the silvery water.
“Did you hear any dogs barking in the night?”
He shook his head. “I took an aspirin with some whiskey before meeting you in the library for dinner and consequently slept like the dead as soon as I sank into Frankland’s armchair. I only woke at first light when the maid brought up the old man’s breakfast. That’s when I transferred myself to this bed, and I must say it was lovely to sleep in something other than a chair. Why do you ask? Did you hear dogs barking in the night?”
“No, but I dreamt of dogs barking in the night. I’m wondering if I dreamt it because I heard it in my sleep.”
The Countess did not travel in the Peugeot to Coombe Tracey. Rain had set in and the automobile had no roof. She opted to take the brougham and one of the chestnut mares. Fedir acted as coachman, supplanting Perkins who did not bother to hide his displeasure. Since she had rushed her breakfast she decided to stop at the Thistlethwaite Inn before going to the telegraph office. Mrs Mortimer was there along with Mrs Barrymore. The two ladies were enjoying a Devonshire tea and invited her to join them.
Eliza Barrymore was gushing about the garden plans Gaston de Garonne had presented the night he came to dinner. She was very keen on the Elizabethan knot garden and the costs had been nutted out over ten courses that lasted well into the evening, which then entailed the Frenchman spending the night in the guest room to avoid riding back in the thunderstorm. Neither woman had yet heard the news of Beryl Stapleton’s death. When the Countess informed them of the tragic event Mrs Mortimer looked stricken. Her hand trembled as she replaced her tea cup. Mrs Barrymore continued to feed her face, seemingly unaffected.
After her scone and tea, the Countess bid the ladies farewell and hurried to the telegraph office. She asked the man at the office to bring the reply to Baskerville Castle as soon as it came through and left a handsome tip to encourage him in this endeavour. Next, she paid a visit to the haberdasher. Fortunately, Xenia was an excellent seamstress and knew her measurements by heart. She would be able to cut and stitch a funeral dress in next to no time, though a couple of extra maids would come in handy. She made a mental note to speak to the housekeeper. On her way back to the carriage she stopped to buy a small gift for her new friend in the hope of cheering him up and speeding his recovery.
The dreary rain had finally ceased but the sky continued to look weepy. Russet tracts of moorland appeared leeched and colourless. The air looked grey. They were making good progress in the brougham and had just passed through the hamlet of Grimpen when the horse began to limp. Fedir jerked on the reins and advised the Countess not to remain in the carriage in case the animal bolted while he examined the horseshoe for a stone. She climbed down and walked a short distance to what she thought was a scatter of tors where one of the boulders might make a good seat, but it turned out to be an old graveyard.
Grey rocks poked out of the wet sod between clumps of withered cotton grass, not in neat rows but higgledy-piggledy, like the discarded broken fangs of Hugo’s gigantic hound. Most of the headstones, hoary with lichen and moss, had no markings, but every now and then a few letters could be seen scratched into the gangrenous stone: Cayzer, Benbow, Yeth, Marlowe, Noah… She meandered between the broken graves, checking the inscriptions, and concluded that the names were ancient, bestowed before the tradition of surnames took root. No date of birth or death appeared on any of the gravestones.
When she got to the end of the little cemetery where one of the gravestones had toppled over, she decided to take the weight off her legs. Fog had started to creep in and she hugged her winter manteau closer to ward off the cold that came with it, her thoughts drifting to the father she had never met and the fact he didn’t even have a grave for her to visit, though rumours had started circulating of his resurrection. She didn’t know what to believe any more. One day she would make a pilgrimage to Reichenbach Falls and perhaps Dr Watson would come with her. She was growing very fond of the doctor and did not want to think about parting ways once they returned to London.
Eventually, she roused herself from her reverie and stood up to return to the carriage but the fog had thickened and she could no longer see the road. She began to follow a path and had gone a short distance when she spotted a figure was moving noiselessly toward her; it seemed ghostlike, like a phantom floating on the fog. The figure was exceedingly tall and reed thin. The left hand gripped something jagged that glinted as it caught the eerie metallic light. The right hand clutched something that looked like a wet sack. As the phantom closed the distance she could see that the jagged thing was a steel trap and that the wet sack was not a sack at all but a limp dead fox, neck broken, one paw dangling by a thread, dripping blood where the creature had tried to gnaw it off in a desperate bid to escape capture. The phantom had a bandage around his head and over one ear and in an instant she knew who he was.
“You lost?” he growled.
Her throat thickened and it strained her vocal chords. “No, er, well, not really.” She looked back hopefully over her shoulder, checking for a familiar landmark or grave when she saw another figure in the fog. And then another. And then a fourth, much smaller than the first three, possibly a boy, hanging back, half-hidden behind a gravestone.
“This be our land,” continued the gypsy, circling slowly the way a hungry predator circles helpless prey, “and you be trespassing.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding both contrite and surprised in an effort to appease him. “I didn’t realize this was your land. I’ll be on my way. My coachman is seeing to the horse. The horse had a stone in her shoe. The carriage is on the Grimpen road – if you will just point me in the right direction.”
The swarthy face looked to left and right then smiled chillingly. “What direction would that be lads?”
The men chuckled, though there was nothing merry in the menacing rumble of grunts and snorts. One man was clutching a brace of dead rabbits. The other was carting a hessian sack tied at the top with a bit of twine. The sack twitched frantically from side to side. Whatever was inside was still alive.
“We might find some lost treasure before we escort the young lady back to the Grimpen road,” suggested the first gypsy.
Nodding in rabid agreement, the other two gypsies licked their lips.
The trio was within arm’s reach and she could see their blackened teeth and the hairs bristling from their warts, smell their collective putrid breath and the horrid stench of their bodies, when she heard a familiar foreign refrain like a fog horn in the distance.
“Countess Volodymyrovna! Countess Volodymyrovna!”
The refrain got closer and closer until Fedir appeared. He took one look at the three gypsies and bunched his fists. The trio put down their little treasures and stalked towards him just as a black beast came out of nowhere and reared up in fright, almost throwing the rider. The horse whinnied and stamped the ground and strained at the bit as the rider fought to steady it; his storm coat flapping angrily like the wings of a giant bird of prey.
“Call your gypsy hounds back,” ordered the horseman while the sleek black steed continued to wheel round and round, sensing danger. “Or you will answer to me, Jago. Now!”
Jago stood his ground for several anxious minutes, scowling fiercely, weighing up his chances, then gave the nod, and reluctantly the gypsies backed off, retrieved their butchered bundles and vanished into the murk that seemed to swallow them whole. The rider turned to the Countess.
“Are you all right, m’lady?”
Terrified at how close she had come to being robbed and possibly even violated, she nodded her head, unable to find the words she needed.
“I take it that is your carriage on the road?”
Again she nodded.
“And this brave fellow is your coachman?” he clarified, inclining his head toward Fedir.
Once more she nodded.
“Tell your man to light the coach lamps and follow me. I will provide you with an escort to Baskerville Castle. I take it that is where you are heading since the crest on the carriage tells me it belongs to the estate of Sir Henry?”
He posed questions to which he already had the answers proving that his mind was as quick as lightning. His sense of direction proved reliable too. He manoeuvred through the thick blanket of fog without once hesitating or wavering and seemed to know the twists and turns in the road better than most men would know the path from their front gate to their own front door, most likely because he had broadened and constructed that very same road. He had them at the gates of the castle before they knew it, and bid them farewell, warning them not to stray from the road in future.
“Sir,” she called, finally finding her voice, though she knew the answer to the question she was about to pose, “your name?”
“Roderick Lysterfield,” he confirmed as he spurred his horse and galloped away.
The Countess threw herself on her bed. She needed to compose her madly beating heart before meeting Dr Watson. She would not mention the encounter with the gypsies. It would only cause him unnecessary distress. She would not mention being rescued by Roderick Lysterfield either. Oh! The way he had swooped in like that noblest of American birds – the golden eagle! And that American twang! It lassoed her and roped her in; it recalled rugged prairies and deep canyons. The hearts and minds of the weaker sex were not safe in his commanding presence. Fortunately, she possessed willpower and a sense of purpose that would not be swayed by matters of the heart. She could acknowledge his manly attributes but remain dispassionate. But just to be on the safe side of merciless teasing she would not mention him to her friend.
Only after the electric lights were switched on did she rise and dress for dinner, managing her own toilette since Xenia was busy with the funeral dress, choosing another simple robe de diner of crepe de Chine trimmed with river pearls. Women would never be taken seriously, she mused, or be the equal of men while this carnival of clothes continued: morning dress, day dress; afternoon dress, tea gown; robe de diner, evening gown, robe de bal…
Dr Watson was waiting in the library. He was seated in a leather wing chair angled toward a crackling fire, reading yesterday’s copy of The Times and smoking a cigarette. The small table set for dinner in the alcove told her there would be only the two of them again this evening.
She dropped a gift into his lap. “I’m afraid they’re not from Oxford Street but the tobacconist in Coombe Tracey assured me this brand is an excellent substitute. Fedir rolled a few for you this afternoon while I was resting. Let me put them in your cigarette case. How’s your bronchitis?”
“It’s not bronchitis,” he said, handing her the silver holder. He had been wondering how he was going to acquire more cigarettes now that he was down to his last. “It’s just a cough and it’s astonishing what a day in bed will do for a cough. How did it go in Coombe Tracey?”
“I sent the telegram as arranged with your name attached. The telegraphic operator will personally deliver the reply as soon as it comes through. I just hope your chum is reliable.”
“You mentioned that it was urgent?”
She nodded before digressing. “I met Mrs Barrymore and Mrs Mortimer at The Thistlethwaite Inn. They had not yet heard the news of Beryl Stapleton’s death. I described it as a tragic accident.”
“Better that way,” he agreed, pocketing the silver case now full of nicely rolled cigarettes. “We should keep our concerns to ourselves until we have hard evidence. Those letters we were relying on look to have gone up in smoke and the cryptic clues on the burnt scraps of paper were hardly worth all your effort.”
The butler waddled in with their dinner on a tray.
“Is Monsieur de Garonne dining elsewhere tonight?” the Countess enquired as the butler transported a tray with two steaming bowls straight to the table.
“Monsieur has not yet returned from Lafter Hall. He has sent no word. The cook presumes that Monsieur is dining there again this evening. Tonight we have bouillabaisse to start and tarte tatin to finish. ”
He pursed his lips and departed sniffily.
“I don’t blame Gaston,” said the Countess. “Creative men tend to have a sensitive soul and this noble abode has become more like a baronial morgue. Besides, the French cook here might be excellent but Eliza Barrymore served ten courses last night.”
“Any excuse for a banquet where she is concerned,” observed the doctor caustically, thinking that a better translation of sensitive would be effete. “The sensitive Gaston is probably pursuing greener pastures now that the work here has almost dried up. I suspect that the whole of Dartmoor will end up a botanical coup de theatre before he has finished waving his creatif wand. By the way, the bodies have been transferred to one of the smaller cellars. It is cooler down there which means there will be less decomposition. I have the key.” He patted his top pocket. “We received an invitation to dine at High Tor Farm the day after tomorrow. James Mortimer delivered it in person when he looked in on Lady Laura.”
“How is she bearing up?”
“Reasonably well, considering what she has been through this last month. But it is still touch-and-go regarding the child she is carrying, especially with her unfortunate medical history. It would be tragic to lose another babe at this late stage. That is another reason to tread carefully with our enquiries.”
“Is there any word about the date of the inquest?”
“Ah, yes, the good squire is not a man to allow the grass to grow under his feet and not one for dragging the reputations of his neighbours through the mud. He made a flying visit this afternoon to pay his respects to Lady Laura, personally inspect the bodies in the gun room before transfer to the cellar, and deliver his findings after consulting Dr Mortimer and myself on the injuries sustained by the two deceased. The fact we concurred hastened his findings. In the absence of threatening letters, Sir Olwen declared the demise of Sir Henry to be death by misadventure, in other words, a tragic accident, the result of drowning while walking on the moor in the early hours of a ‘misty-moisty’ morning. He decided that nothing would be gained by calling it suicide, an illegal act that would forever taint the baronet’s good name. And that nothing positive would come from recording for legal posterity vague medical notions such as mania, paranoia or melancholy. I paraphrase his terminology. The funeral will take place four days hence.”
“And Beryl Stapleton?”
“Similar findings were reached in the blink of the squire’s eye – a tragic accident: death caused by tumbling down the stairs due to haste and a lack of electric lighting. Her funeral will follow the day after Sir Henry’s.”
“A sad irony that the first mass held in the baronet’s new chapel will commemorate the death of the baronet.”
“Sad indeed,” murmured Dr Watson, wondering if perhaps the Countess had hit the nail on the head with her surmise that no crime had been committed and that they were just reading too much into things because of something lacking in their own lives. He felt out of his depth and out of sorts. The miracle pills that everyone lauded and which he had been popping to stem the aches and pains caused by sleeping in armchairs seemed to cloud his thinking rather than enhance it.
They went to bed with nothing decided and no clear direction in which to head. Neither held out much hope of anything coming from Barrymore’s dubious past. More than likely it was exactly as it appeared – the shedding of one monicker and the adopting of another for convenience sake, the way a snake sheds its skin and grows a new one as nature intended.
Dr Watson, sensing a thumping headache, popped an aspirin into his bedside whiskey despite his best intentions, and slept like the dead. He did not hear the dogs in the night. He was spared the frightening howls, the ravenous growls, the savage, gruesome, blood-thirsty gurgling of the hounds of hell as they ravaged the souls of the dead.
Varvara smiled at the secret dark:
To my alter ego… from your most devoted critic and fiercest admirer.
Living in splendid isolation in a baronial mausoleum, it was little wonder Sir Charles had developed a paranoid personality, believing in curses, hellhounds, and Fate. And no wonder at all that Sir Henry eventually followed in the fatal footsteps of his uncle, entertaining morbid thoughts and succumbing to self-induced mania, locking himself in his study like a man walling himself alive into his own tomb in a futile attempt to escape his fears, unable to tell fact from fantasy, losing his grip on reality, until that terrible moment when he threw himself into the bog and finally found peace of mind in death.
If Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna opined that Baskerville Castle was nothing more than a beautiful morgue while they ate their breakfast, what followed hammered the nail into the Devon coffin once and for all, and took them along a dangerous new path through mists and shades in pursuit of an invisible foe more deadly than either could have envisaged.
Good news travelled fast on the Baskerville estate but bad news travelled faster. And shocking news travelled at the speed of light. The butler interrupted their breakfast to inform them that a body had been found by one of the convicts on day leave from Princeton. He had been labouring by Cleft Tor with a work-gang and had stumbled upon the French monsieur – dead.
Dr Watson and the Countess paused only to grab coats, hats, and change their shoes. Grey clouds were riffling the sky but they were thankfully too high for rain. It was half a mile to Cleft Tor and they sprinted most of the way before vital evidence was destroyed by ignorant gangers. As they came panting over the final granite ridge and saw the body for the first time they could not hide their horror. The Countess gasped and put her hand over her mouth to stop from vomiting. The doctor caught back his breath and felt the contents of his stomach perform a retching somersault. Devilled kidneys and scrambled eggs would forever be struck off the breakfast menu.
The body had been sickeningly mutilated. The throat had been ripped out. The face had been gnawed off. The arms had been wrenched from their sockets and the legs torn to pieces. The clothes covering the torso had been shredded in a frenzied attack that defied the laws of man and nature. The features of the French gardener were barely recognizable but it was indeed Gaston de Garonne. In the hideous gaping cavern of what remained of his mouth and gums, congealed in blood and gore, was lodged a gleaming gold tooth; a ghastly reminder that this was once a human being and not a monstrous joke, a reminder of the evil that men do.
If this was the handiwork of Stapleton, he had been elevated in the pantheon of fiends from Torturer’s Apprentice to Master Executioner, from Devil’s Minion to Gatekeeper of Hell. But surely this death could not be about inheritance and birthright. It was too gruesome for that.
The chained convicts lining the ridge soaked up the horror; their eyes bulging with disbelief and fear; murmuring one after another: The Beast of Dartmoor.
And Dr Watson wondered if perhaps there was some truth to the legend. Perhaps this was about things that cannot be explained by normal laws. Perhaps this abomination transcended earthly truths. Perhaps there were places where the supernatural reined because it could. Not for any other reason but that it had always existed and always would. Some people sensed that the world was a living entity and that in the darkest corner of its heart the heart of darkness beat.
As the work gangs were led away by the prison guards, the prisoners all shared the same thought. Tonight when the cell doors slammed shut and the keys turned in the locks and they crawled into their prison beds they would give thanks for being delivered from evil, for being kept safe and sound behind walls of brick and stone, away from unnatural acts and supernatural deaths.
“There must be a lunatic loose upon the moors,” surmised the Countess.
“Or it is the handiwork of the Beast of Dartmoor,” offered the doctor.
They both looked earnestly at each other and the looks on their faces said it all. If they believed that they would already be on their way back to London. This was not about lunatics or beasts – imaginary or otherwise.
“Why Gaston?” she said.
“Where is the connection to Stapleton?” he added.
“Where is the link to inheritance?”
“What is the sense of such mutilation?”
“There’s no point standing here speculating. We need to examine the body for clues.”
“Surely, you jest, dear lady.”
But no, she was already negotiating the slippery granite slope, heading towards the mutilated corpse splayed out on a sheet of bedrock like a cadaver laid out on a slab in a London morgue.
“Come back here!” he protested. “You cannot be serious!”
“You can either stay there bleating like a lost mouton or come down and help.”
She gave him no choice. He couldn’t allow her to go down there alone, and besides, for her all her bravado and braggadocio she had no idea what she was doing. If he was out of his depth, she was up to her neck in quicksand.
“How long do you think he has been dead?” she asked.
“It is hard to say.”
“Lift the head.”
“Lift the head,” she repeated.
Obligingly, he tugged on a blood-splotched clump of hair that was still attached to the battered scalp.
“The rock under the head is dry.”
He caught on quickly. “That means the body was here before it started to rain.”
Gingerly, she lifted the tattered and bloody remains of his left leg. “Yes, the rock we descended is still glistening with damp. Yet under the head and leg all is dry. The body was here before yesterday.”
“We must speak to Barrymore as soon as possible and discover when Gaston left Lafter Hall. It was presumed by all and sundry that he spent the night of the storm, all of the next day, and the next night with the Barrymores but it seems that is not the case.”
She pushed to her feet and scanned the sharp angles of rock, the softly sprouting grasses; the patches of moss and the coppery fronds of bracken. “He could not have died here,” she concluded, just like that.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Take a look around. Where are the remnants of his garments? Where are the trails of blood? Where are the entrails? Where are the bits of torn flesh? Even after that severe storm there would have to be something left from such a frenzied and ferocious killing.”
“I see what you mean, and that means the body was killed elsewhere and moved here. But that makes it even more perplexing. Why move the body at all? And why move it here?”
She clambered to the top of the granite ridge where it leveled out, and gazed across the withered landscape. “In answer to your first question: The only reason for moving the body would be to disguise where it was actually killed. As for the second, I’m not yet sure.”
“Lafter Hall!” he said emphatically. “It was moved from Lafter Hall to divert suspicion!”
Unconvinced, she shook her head and frowned. “Even senseless things have to have a sense unto themselves.”
“Hmph, now there’s a statement that makes no sense unto itself.”
“I did phrase that rather badly,” she conceded graciously. “But if Gaston had been killed at Lafter Hall it would make sense to drop the body in a ditch or down a well or a hundred other places but not drag it all this way. Lafter Hall is much too far from here. Gaston was killed much closer.”
“What makes you think it was dragged?”
He forced her to back-peddle and slow down. “Good point. I just plucked that word out of my head. But you’re right. The how is important. Was the body placed in a large sack and dragged along the ground? Was it carted in a wheel-barrow over hill and dale? Was it wrapped in a blanket and carried on the shoulders of some brute? How will tell us who.”
“That only leaves the where and why,” he mocked.
“Just as the how will tell us who, the where will tell us why.”
Dr Watson ignored her convoluted logic and stared at the mutilated body. “This was not done by human hands, and no, I am not suggesting the supernatural.” He paused and took stock. “This was done by wild animals, and not some phantom feral moggy. Medical experience tells me it is the work of dogs.” He paused again, allowing her to digest the neatness of his deduction and to latch onto the elegance of his reasoning. “You said you heard dogs in the night. You said the first night we arrived that you thought the dogs you heard might be dingoes. My knowledge of dingoes is limited but I believe them to be a dangerous breed, not easily tamed, who hunt in packs similar to wolves.”
“Dingoes don’t prey on humans. They hunt small mammals and large birds.”
“Perhaps they weren’t out hunting.”
“Dingoes never eat dead flesh.”
Quickly, he scaled the top of the ridge and took her by the shoulders. His voice was resolute and unflinching. “What makes you think he was dead?”
His reasoning hit her hard. The blood drained out of her as her legs buckled and she was grateful he had her by the shoulders. “Oh, that is horrible! A horrible, horrible, end! A horrible thing to do to a man who never wished anyone any harm! It makes me shudder! It makes me feel sick! I hate this business!”
He fought the urge to press closer and offer comfort; to kiss her pale cheek and smell her wonderful chestnut hair. But a group of men was headed their way, Perkins and Dogger among them, probably to collect the grisly remains and take them back to the castle for yet another funeral. Besides, this moment was too important to squander on sweet nothings that would come to sweet nothing. “Who, from these parts, has lived in Australia, apart from you? Who could have brought dingoes into this country?”
“That brings us back to Lafter Hall.”
Her brain began whirring much too fast. “He must have the dingoes kenneled at Lafter Hall! That is the hard evidence we need!”
“Oh, think, woman! We both spotted that boy running across the moor during the storm. He had some dogs with him that did not have the gait of fox hounds. My guess is that the dingoes are kept at the old tin mine, the same place that Stapleton kept his gigantic hound.”
“We need to check the old tin mine!”
He caught her arm as she turned to race off across the moor. “First, we need to go to Lafter Hall. We need to speak to Barrymore. We need to ascertain when Gaston left the Hall.”
Lady Laura had already been informed of the death of the French gardener and had suffered terrible cramps in her stomach that sent everyone into a panic. Fortunately, the cramps turned out to be nothing more than phantom contractions, but Dr Mortimer had been summoned to give her a reassuring examination. Dr Watson decided to post a sentry outside her bedroom door. This business was turning nasty. Two footmen, brave and sober fellows, were chosen. Fedir was put in charge of their round-the-clock shifts, much to the chagrin of the butler.
After a quick bite of lunch and a change of clothes, they set off for Lafter Hall in the Peugeot with the doctor driving.
Lafter Hall was the quintessential Jacobean pile – red brick, high gables, oodles of leaded windows, jutting bays, and jumbles of chimneystacks. Framing the front entrance was a climbing rose, blowsy blooms all but spent, but in the summer it would have provided a glorious welcome.
The housekeeper informed them that the mistress was not at home and the master was in the stable. One of the mares was soon to foal and he was checking progress. They assured the housekeeper theirs was not a formal visit or a social call and they did not wish to disturb the household. They headed toward the stable.
Nowhere was there a more touching farmyard scene than the one they encountered as they entered the stable. A newborn foal was just finding its feet for the first time and John Barrymore was beaming proudly, looking as though he might have sired that foal himself. By his side was an English setter with large liquid eyes and a lovely, creamy, mottled coat.
“Hello, there,” he greeted, still beaming proudly.
They did not shake hands. His hands were slimy and his clothes were splattered with blood and gore from the after-birth. They exchanged a few words about the foal then launched into Gaston’s death without preamble to gauge his reaction. He appeared genuinely shocked but remained in control of his emotions. While he washed his hands in a bucket of water he ordered one of the stable boys to inform the cook to prepare tea and buttered crumpets, and to bring them to the summerhouse.
“I’m in no fit state to entertain inside the Hall and Mrs Barrymore is in Tavistock until tomorrow. She is staying with an old friend and buying some new hats and gloves for the winter that she cannot seem to find in the stores in Coombe Tracey. You don’t mind if we have afternoon tea in the summerhouse?” he said by way of apology.
The summerhouse suited them perfectly. Their conversation would be more like an interrogation and they preferred that he not have a sympathetic audience, though the short stroll across the lawn gave Barrymore time to dream up a litany of lies as long as his arm. The octagonal summerhouse was draped with mauve wisteria that had shed its flowers and was currently shaking off its leaves. The English setter sat at her master’s side and licked her paw.
“What’s the matter, Bessie?” he said. “Have you picked up another hay seed? Give it here.”
The dog lifted her paw and he poked around between the fringing, feeling for something.
“Ah, here it is!” he said, extracting something the size of a pin. “And here comes our treat. A little treat for you too, Bessie. You’ve been a darling girl.”
“This is not a social call, Mr Barrymore,” interrupted the doctor, enunciating each syllable to make sure it was clearly heard. “What time did Gaston de Garonne leave Lafter Hall and what day was it? I would prefer you to be as precise as possible.”
Barrymore appeared unperturbed by the impertinent tone, or perhaps he did not notice it.
“Countess, will you do the honours with the teapot. Let me see, it was the night of the thunderstorm. Dinner finished around ten o’clock. My wife went straight up to her bed with indigestion. She likes to lie down following a large meal, despite her acids being in flux. Gaston and I continued to discuss the cost of the knot garden over a brandy. He had been invited to stay the night because of the storm, and my wife had the guest room made up for him expecting that he would take up the offer, but at eleven o’clock – I remember counting the chimes because I thought it might be midnight and was surprised that there were only eleven – he suddenly stood up and said he remembered he had a rendezvous.”
John Barrymore paused in his monologue to feed some buttery bits to his dog and to study their incredulous faces. “I was as bemused as you are now.”
“Who do you think he could have been meeting?” quizzed the doctor skeptically.
“At that late hour and in that wild weather it could only have been the devil himself.”
Still affected by the grisly death of the gardener, the doctor was not in the mood for more supernatural piffle about headless horsemen and hairy hands. “Do you own any dingoes?”
That rattled the proud gentleman farmer right off his bucolic stool.
“I could lie to you but since this business is a life and death matter involving people I care about, and I take it you have good reason to put the question so bluntly, I will tell you the truth. Yes, I brought two dingo pups, male and female, out with me from Australia. The dingo is an interesting animal, nocturnal and easily agitated by the presence of humans but it is also a born hunter. Dingoes hunt in packs like wolves and usually kill by biting the throat, but unlike wolves they can be tamed. Some farmers back in Australia claim that dingoes maim for the thrill of it and I did once see a mob of sheep with their hind legs torn to pieces, but only two dead sheep in the paddock. I know of no other dog that does that but I think there was a strategy to their biting madness. I was hoping to tame them and breed them and use them for hunting but I no longer have them. One morning, several years ago, I found the gate to their kennel open and the pair gone. The bitch was pregnant. I have not seen them since.”
“You say the gate was open,” pressed the Countess. “Was the latch faulty?”
“No, it had been deliberately unlatched.”
“You are familiar with the distinctive wailing howl of dingoes,” she continued, “have you heard anything similar since that time, perhaps on the moor?”
He looked her directly in the eye. “In case you have not noticed, dear lady, I am almost deaf.”
While the Countess blushed with shame, he gave his darling Bessie a gentle pat and enquired as to the exact circumstances of Gaston’s death. The ferocity seemed to shock him and it was clear he understood the similarity of the frenzied killing to the attack on the sheep he had just described, but it was the fact the mutilated body had been found half a mile from the castle that seemed to disturb him the most.
“Whoever he went to meet must have killed him,” he muttered, “and that person used the dogs to finish him off. But who would do such a thing? What sort of fiend do we have living among us?”
“Which way did Monsieur de Garonne go when he left Lafter Hall?” pursued the doctor.
“It was too dark to see, and the rain was coming down thick and fast, but if he was found by Cleft Tor then he must have been meeting someone by Cleft Tor.”
“The thing is,” said the Countess, “we don’t believe he was killed at Cleft Tor. We think he was killed elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere,” repeated the doctor a little more volubly, irritated by the fact they were still going round in circles. “Do you have any idea where else elsewhere might be?”
“The moor is a big place – a world in itself, a law unto itself.”
“He is as guilty as sin!” condemned the doctor as soon as they were in the Peugeot and trundling back to the castle.
“Nonsense! He is a saint. You saw the way he pulled that thorn out of the dog’s paw. Your skeptical nature blinds you to the simple soul of a man like John Barrymore.”
“It was a hay seed, and you didn’t seriously believe that amateurish Francis of Assisi performance staged for our benefit. I expected choirs of angels to start singing in the shrubbery.”
“Always trust a man who loves dogs.”
“Loves dogs! He spirited two dingo pups away from their natural habitat and subjected them to a grueling sea voyage for the purposes of selfish breeding in order to trump his neighbours at next season’s tally-ho! Sir Olwen has probably imported two Russian borzois and Dogger is probably cross-breeding Irish Wolfhounds with Dalmations so that the next master of Baskerville can ‘spot’ his hunting pack despite the moor being mantled in drizzling mist!”
“Now you’re being utterly ridiculous. Wait! What did you just say?”
“Mantled in drizzling mist – I was waxing lyrical for the purposes of…”
“No, no, not that bit. The bit about Dogger. You are brilliant, Dr Watson! Dogger must have stolen those dingoes. Forget Barrymore. Dogger is the only man who could successfully tame and breed dingoes without having his throat ripped out. When we saw that figure running across the moor during the thunderstorm we assumed it was a boy. But Dogger is not much bigger than a twelve year old. Oh, why didn’t I see it before? I am so stupid sometimes!”
He was tempted to agree with her assessment of herself when something caught his eye. They had been so busy arguing they had failed to see a man on a dog cart travelling at a brisk pace across the uplands almost parallel to the road. He was weaving between the bogs and boulders with a deftness that defied belief. The dog was an English mastiff.
“Do you see that?” said the doctor. “Look how fast that dog cart is moving.”
She looked past his shoulder and her blood ran cold when she realized who it was and what the doctor was thinking. “Are you thinking that a dog cart might be a good way of transporting a dead weight across the moor at night?”
“That is exactly what I am thinking. Do you have any idea who that man is?”
“I think it might be that ruthless gypsy you mentioned. You can see the bandage around his head and over his ear.”
“I think he might be the how and who.”
“Now all we need is the where and why. And I think I have the answer. John Barrymore’s stable.”
“No! You are way off track.”
“Listen to reason. Gaston has a few brandies too many. He walks into the stable, perhaps looking for his horse, or to get out of the storm, or perhaps he hears something while relieving himself. It’s dark. He doesn’t know the stable is where the dingoes are kept. They are born killers, starving and vicious, perhaps waiting to be fed, perhaps protecting their young; they attack and tear him to pieces. The raging storm drowns out the frenzied noise. Mrs Barrymore sleeps through the whole thing. Mr Barrymore has to cover up the deed. He spreads hay over the incriminating blood and gore. He pays Dogger to move the dingoes to the tin mine. He pays Jago to move the dead body to Cleft Tor using the dog cart. He rumples the bed in the guestroom to make it look as if Gaston has slept the night to fool his wife and the servants. He makes up that story about Gaston going to meet someone to put us off the scent because his wife is not here to confirm or deny it. It makes sense. Admit it. It makes perfect sense!”
Her head throbbed violently with all the perfect sense it made. “All right! I admit it! It makes sense. It neatly ties up all the facts. It explains Gaston’s violent death without conflicting with the strange goings on at Baskerville Castle. I saw Gaston’s body and immediately jumped to the conclusion that his death was aligned to the deaths of James Desmond, Sir Henry and Beryl Stapleton, probably because I didn’t want to face the horrid fact it might be tied to his preference for the love that dare not speak its name, but I’m relieved it’s not related to the way he was. I’m actually glad that the death that looks like murder is an accident; as for the deaths that look like accidents, well, are they murder or not? I think I’m getting a headache. Do you have one of those new pills that everyone is popping?”
“Aspirin – I can give you one when we get back.”
“Sherlock Holmes would have solved this case by now,” sighed the Countess when she and the doctor had finished dinner and were enjoying a cigarette on the terrace prior to calling it a night.
“We cannot be sure we even have a case to solve.”
“This sleuthing business is not as easy as it appears. I thought it would come naturally to me. I thought it would be a simple matter of finding clues, eliminating suspects and voila!”
“Our suspects are eliminating themselves.”
“At least with Lady Laura under guard there can be no more surprises at breakfast.”
“My stomach cannot handle any more surprises at breakfast.”
“Promise me you will wait for news from Tavistock before accusing John Barrymore of covering up the death of Gaston de Garonne.”
“Very well,” he promised before changing the subject. “Tell me about your husband.”
She took a long puff of her cigarette and used the moment to gather her thoughts. “His name was Jack Frost. That wasn’t his real name, of course. He chose it because it was easy to remember. He said that if a man changes his name he needs to have something he can still remember when he is drunk. His real name was Darcy Droitwych. His forebear, a forger, had been transported to Australia among the First Fleet. My husband struck it lucky - he found a huge gold nugget and became a millionaire overnight. My step-aunt had just died, bitten by a tiger snake during a picnic at Hanging Rock, and for the first time in my life I was all alone in a strange land and feeling immensely sorry for myself when he swept into my life and swept me off my feet. He was madly flamboyant and twenty years my senior. We had a fabulous life for three years. Melbourne was a thriving colony and had the sort of optimistic vibrancy that all new cities have. We shared our time between a mansion south of the Yarra and a country house east of the Yarra. One day he fell off his horse and became a cripple. He was always larger than life and not the sort of man who could live confined to a wheelchair. He shot himself on his forty-third birthday. At twenty- three years of age I was a widow and once again all alone in the world.”
It was a balmy autumn night, windless and still. A harvest moon was sailing in and out of rivers of cloud. The beautiful garden of Gaston de Garonne was limned in threads of gold. It was all so terribly sad and wretchedly romantic. Gently, the doctor caught her arm as she turned to go back into the library, her eyes blurred with tears. Emboldened by the fact her late husband had not been such a young buck after all, he was about to kiss her when a chorus of wailing howls caused them both to flinch as if struck.
“It’s just the dingoes in the old tin mine,” he said softly.
“Yes, I know, but they sound so…”
Lady Laura requested to speak to her two guests in her bedroom straight after they had finished their breakfast. She had been thinking about the plague of letters and the spate of deaths. She could think of nothing else. “I know you will think me quite mad but I cannot rest easy until I am sure that Jack Stapleton is dead. And the only way to confirm that is to drain the bog where he drowned ten years ago. I charge you with discovering which bog to drain and I do not care if you choose to drain the entire Grimpen Mire in the process. Please instruct the American engineer to cease all other work and to oversee the drainage of the mire at once. Until the bones of Stapleton are found I cannot find peace.”
She began to weep piteously and they left her to it, knowing that it would take deeds not words to console her tortured soul. As luck would have it, she had charged them with a task they secretly wished to perform. Dr Watson had initially suspected Jack Stapleton of being behind this baffling business and now he would finally have a chance to confirm his suspicions and to solve the Baskerville curse. The Countess immediately offered to seek out the American engineer and personally inform him of Lady Baskerville’s wishes so that the importance of the task would not be lost on him. In the meantime, the doctor would explore the area where he believed Stapleton disappeared ten years ago so that work could commence without delay. The cook would pack him a picnic lunch so that he could check the old tin mine afterwards. They were due for dinner later that night at High Tor Farm but that was many hours away.
Roderick Lysterfield was supervising the retrieval of the horse and cart that had gone into the bog on the evening of the last day of September. The body of the man had been retrieved that same night and Roderick had seen to it that the widow had been paid decent compensation, but the horse and cart could not be retrieved without a team of oxen.
The engineer was standing shirtless, sheened with sweat, by the side of the bog, supervising the men guiding the rope tethered to ten oxen; his muscles bunching and bulging each time he gave a jerk on the rope to steady it. When the Countess’s presence was brought to his attention he moved quickly to locate his shirt so as not to offend her sensibilities.
“Good morning, Countess Volodymyrovna,” he delivered in throaty syllables as the blood rushed to her face.
“You know who I am?” Her voice came out sounding kittenish and she kicked herself. She was no demure maiden, but a widow, albeit a young one, foreign, worldly and well-travelled.
“I make it my business to know whatever is important.”
There were at least a hundred different coquettish responses to that line but she shook off the demure mantle of vanity before she made a complete ass of herself. She had not sought him out for the purpose of engaging in shameless flirting, nor did she wish to encourage him to think so. She adopted a peremptory tone while informing him of Lady Baskerville’s wishes. He understood the urgency and agreed to get straight to work. She was following the path back to the castle when he caught up to her.
“Come to dinner tonight,” he said, catching her by surprise. “And bring your doctor friend,” he added quickly when she started shaking her head. “Merripit House. Six o’clock.”
“I, er, we, have a prior engagement at, at, High Tor Farm this evening.” Good grief she was stammering like a breathless virgin.
“Tomorrow night, then; I never take no for an answer twice.”
He picked some pink heath and pressed it into her hand; and as she walked back alone she gave thanks he couldn’t see how smitten she was with the little offering.
Dr Watson thought it would be a simple matter of locating the bog where Stapleton’s boot had been found but every bog soon started to look like the next one and the one after that, and after ten years of exposure to the elements the lay of the land as he remembered it looked vastly different. After fruitlessly scouring the path between Baskerville Castle and Merripit House he decided to concede defeat. It was late afternoon and he had not yet started out for the old tin mine; he felt the burden of bitter disappointment dragging on him all the way back to the castle.
High Tor Farm was a sturdy marriage of stone and cob that had stood the test of time. It had a large porch, sash windows and a grey slate roof punctuated by dormer windows. It was symmetrical, balanced and pleasing to the eye – a gift from Sir Henry when the residents of Grimpen hamlet were re-located to accommodate his vast workforce. But the thing that made it a real gem was the garden. On one side of the house was a delightful sunken garden protected from the wind by high walls; behind it was tucked a tidy kitchen garden also walled. On the other side of the house was a small apple and pear orchard. To the rear could be found a sheltered cobble-stoned court yard and beyond that a beautiful wildflower meadow and some paddocks for sheep and horses. The drive to the house was shaded by horse chestnuts that framed the approach from gate to porch.
Mrs Meredith Mortimer did all the gardening herself – apart from the heavy work – and could name every flower in her garden. The name of each flower was inscribed in beautiful calligraphy along with the date each bloom had been picked and pressed into her little book of pressings. She had filled ten volumes.
Dr James Mortimer had converted the cellars under the house into a museum of Neolithic skulls. He enjoyed nothing more than digging up bones and was currently excavating the barrow at Long Down. His collection was so vast he had dispensed with shelving and had started arranging his skulls the way he had observed in the catacombs in Montparnasse when he did the Grand Tour with Sir Henry. Whoever had arranged those skulls had been both a scientist and an aesthete, he declared, yes, a genius of the first order.
He had given up his medical practice when the huge workforce began arriving from all over Devon to transform the Baskerville estate and Sir Henry had asked him to administer solely to the men and their families. It was an arrangement that suited him very well. Sir Henry was a generous employer and it gave him more time to catalogue his collection. One day he would write a book. It would be his magnum opus.
They sat down to a homely dinner of pea and ham soup, shepherd’s pie, and bread and butter pudding. Their dog, Molly, a golden cocker spaniel, sat under the table and waited for tidbits to drop. Molly had been purchased by the doctor from Ross and Mangles, the dog dealers in London, when he went to deliver his lecture to The Royal Society. It was a fortieth birthday gift for his wife to replace the spaniel they had lost ten years earlier during that terrible business with the gigantic hound. Dr and Mrs Mortimer both suspected their spaniel of being dognapped and fed to the hound, though neither ever spoke of it, and it had taken many years before they could bring themselves to get another dog. Molly was the apple of their eye.
Dr Watson broached the topic of Sir Henry’s will. Dr Mortimer steered the conversation back to supra orbital crests and maxillary curves. The Countess pressed the point.
“I cannot rightly say who will inherit,” huffed Dr Mortimer, “since the child is not yet born and may not be a boy even when it is born, and most likely even if it is a boy cannot be next in line since it was not born before the baronet actually died. In other words, someone who does not exist cannot trump someone who is already living. The house is entailed. The title goes with the house. The money goes with the title. It is a considerable fortune but who it goes to is not for me to say. It is all very vexing. When Sir Charles died in 1889 there had been only two claimants: Henry Baskerville and Reverend James Desmond. Neither had produced male heirs. Both are now dead. It was a nuisance the baronet dying like that,” said Dr Mortimer, not unkindly, expressing his frustration. “Lady Baskerville may be thrown out of her own home, along with the unborn child. It is a terrible business, a terrible business. I may be the executor of the will but I am merely a medical man and an amateur archaeologist, not a legal expert on feudal inheritance and royal prerogative. Sir Olwen at Drogo would be able to explain the ins and outs of English law better than I. It is all very vexing.”
They were half way through dessert when there came a loud and insistent knocking at the door. Since it was not the time for callers, they all paused mid-pudding to see who it might be.
A young man with a thatch of red hair was ushered in by the housekeeper. It was the groom from Lafter Hall. Something terrible had happened and the doctor was to come at once. He did not know what that something terrible was that had happened but he had been instructed by the master to deliver the message to the doctor.
Both Dr Watson and Dr Mortimer stood up simultaneously.
“Which doctor?” they addressed to the groom at the same time.
Flummoxed, the man looked from one doctor to the other and shrugged. “The master did not say. I was told to deliver the message as stated and to return with the doctor.”
“We might as well both go,” said Dr Watson.
“Very well,” agreed Dr Mortimer.
The Countess immediately put down her spoon and leapt to her feet. “If this something terrible cannot be put into words I wish to know what it is.”
The two doctors tried to talk her out of it, but she would not be swayed, and while they were providing all the reasons in the world for her not to go, she had already donned her coat and hat and was striding out the door.
Dr Mortimer took the gig. Dr Watson and the Countess took the Peugeot. It was a cloudless night with no chance of rain. Peering down from the astrological vault was the Dog Star content in his heavenly kennel. The moor seemed at peace and all seemed right with the world. But they knew it wasn’t.
A gibbous moon was straddling the gables of Lafter Hall as they came down the long drive. Lights could be seen burning in several of the windows, including a high window set in the apex of one of the tall gables. John Barrymore, looking anxious, met them at the door. He did not stand on ceremony but immediately hurried them up the stairs and along a low-beamed corridor to an oddly shaped door set in a cruck frame. He pushed open the door and bade them enter without explaining himself. The room turned out to be a spacious and elegant bathroom with a fireplace, dressing-table, chaise longue and a claw-foot bath taking pride of place in the centre. The fire in the grate had burnt itself out and on the mantle two stubby candles were flickering in pools of their own wax. As soon as they stepped inside they could see what that terrible something was.
Eliza Barrymore was floating in the bath – dead.
“You may wish to examine the body,” said Barrymore, devoid of emotion. “I will be waiting down stairs in the parlour. I will have some strong brandy standing by.”
The Countess rushed straight to the naked body while the two men hung back, perhaps embarrassed that a young woman was present or perhaps thankful that she was.
Eliza Barrymore was not a particularly attractive woman in life and in death looked even less so. To describe her as a lardy-cake would be a compliment. She was fat. Her complexion, though pale, could never be described as porcelain. It was more like putty, though at the moment it looked like dirty clay. Dozens of moles and freckles dotted the pudgy arms dangling either side of the bath and the hands were badly calloused. Red spider veins marred the jowly face and the enormous sagging mono-bosom. And though the legs were submerged, the thick purple veins that clotted them were clearly visible. Frizzled, up-pinned hair, poking above the waterline, resembled a scraggly bird’s nest. Her eyes were closed. Oddly, she looked at peace. Hers had not been a violent end.
Beside the bath, on a round table, were an empty glass and two empty vials of pills.
While the Countess checked the temperature of the dead body, the bath water, and looked for any contusions, the two men examined the glass and the vials.
“Scopolamine and aspirin,” said Dr Mortimer. “I prescribed both of these myself – a harmless sedative and a harmless headache powder but fatal if taken in a combined dose all at once.” He gave a sorry sigh as he replaced the vials. “For all her energetic garrulousness, Eliza Barrymore was an insecure woman who suffered poor health. She compensated for her insecurities by prattling incessantly and over-eating, and was subsequently tormented by indigestion that encouraged her hypochondria.”
Dr Watson smelled the empty glass. “I think you can add brandy to the fatal dose. Was she fond of a tipple?”
“No,” said Dr Mortimer. “She rarely touched alcohol. She was crazy for cocoa and consumed it at every possible opportunity.”
“Perhaps she wanted to mask the unpalatable mix of powders. She must have filled the glass with brandy before coming upstairs. There’s no brandy bottle anywhere to be seen.”
“Or perhaps the maid brought it up for her. It would be an easy thing to check.”
“The temperature of the water is icy,” interrupted the Countess. “The body is stone cold. Her toes look like bleached prunes. She has been here for a considerable time. There are no marks on the body indicating she was strangled or beaten or forced into the bath against her will.”
The two men looked at each other and nodded sagely. “Suicide,” they said.
“Not so fast,” contradicted the Countess, thinking that she may have been fooled by the Francis of Assisi act yesterday but today Barrymore was behaving more like a cold-hearted sinner than a warm-hearted saint. “I seem to recall Barrymore looking rather longingly at Lady Baskerville that first night at dinner, and her looking rather longingly back. It seems a fortunate coincidence that he is now a widower and she a widow.”
“You cannot be serious!” spluttered Dr Mortimer, before glancing at the closed door and lowering his voice. “That is a monstrous slander that I hope you will not repeat outside this room! I am shocked to hear you suggest such a thing! Eliza Barrymore may not have been a great beauty, she may not have been endowed with brains, she may have been nothing more than a servant who came into a modest bequest and managed to lift herself above her station, but she was as honest as the day was long. And John Barrymore was an attentive and devoted husband. He saw her shortcomings and chose to overlook them. He never once belittled or berated her in my presence or the presence of anyone else!”
The Countess accepted the ticking off for the moment and examined the items on the dressing-table. There were a dozen different perfumes and every type of maquillage money could buy. Insecure indeed – but with good reason perhaps! “Did he ever kiss her hand? Did he ever stroke her cheek? Did he ever smile at her? Did he ever pay her a compliment in your presence or the presence of anyone else?”
“This is Devon, Countess Volodymyrovna, not the Russian steppe. We do not go in for Tolstoyan displays of affection and dramatic outbursts of Chekhovian emotion.”
“Only Dostoyevskyan violence,” she responded tartly, “and the steppe is in Ukraine. Let us proceed downstairs to the parlour.”
Barrymore was waiting for them. Bessie was at his feet, her long nose resting across one boot, offering comfort to her master. Her limpid eyes took the measure of the interlopers.
“Help yourselves to a brandy, gentlemen,” Barrymore offered, indicating two tumblers and a cut glass decanter on the sideboard. “And some hot cocoa and ginger biscuits for the Countess,” he said, gesturing toward a butler’s tray. “I dare say you want to question me about my wife’s suicide. Take a seat, make yourselves comfortable and ask what you must.”
“You used the word suicide,” began the Countess. “How do you know it was suicide?”
“It could not be anything else,” he replied guilelessly. “You saw the body. You saw the empty vials. You saw the empty glass. It is the way a woman would choose.”
“Why would your wife choose to do such a thing?” pursued the Countess.
Bessie picked up on the prickly intonation and sat up. Soothingly, he stroked the dog and thought for a moment. “My wife was not a happy woman. I believe she never really recovered from the death of her younger brother – chased to death by a gigantic hound. She was a poor sleeper and suffered from nightmares. She often thought she heard dogs in the night and imagined they were coming after her. She was even frightened of gentle Bessie here. She once said it would have been better for her brother to have been hanged for his crimes than to die of fright. I thought she might be alluding to her own nightly terrors. She felt guilty too because it had been her idea to give Sir Henry’s old clothes to her brother to help him escape. She thought she might find peace in Australia but it turned out to be a hostile land that she could not love, despite the fact we prospered in our boarding-house business with lodgings in Maldon, Castlemaine and Bendigo. When she became homesick we sold up and returned to Devon and bought Lafter Hall and I thought that she might finally be content. But she never felt accepted by the gentry hereabouts and she believed the servants looked down their noses at her. Apart from Mrs Mortimer she had no other lady friends. She had been born into service and had no idea of ladylike pursuits. She found consolation in food but it brought her no joy. My wife was not a happy woman.”
The logs in the fire crackled and the grandfather clock ticked, and they were the only sounds in the room for several minutes. Dr Mortimer offered to speak to the servants to verify details and to escape the heavy silence. Dr Watson tried to verify some details of his own after his colleague exited the parlour.
“No doubt Dr Mortimer will issue a death certificate confirming death by suicide, but before we leave you to mourn in private, can you just clarify some minor details for us. For example, when the Countess and I paid a call here yesterday afternoon you said your wife was in Tavistock. What time did your wife return to Lafter Hall?”
“She returned early this evening. I cannot say exactly when. I was out hunting on the moor. I was trying out a new hammerless gun that I purchased from Purdey and Sons in South Audley Street the last time I went up to London. I had walked further than I intended and had a longer trek home than I would have liked. I was alone except for my darling Bessie. It was the housekeeper who informed me that my wife had returned and was taking a bath. I chose not to disturb my wife in her bath and went out to the stable to check on the new foal. When my wife did not come down to dinner the housekeeper went personally to check and discovered the body. That’s the first I saw of my wife since she left home the morning of the day before. I knew Dr and Mrs Mortimer would be having their own dinner and I did not wish to disturb them. I waited until nine o’clock before dispatching the groom.”
“Your thoughtfulness in the face of personal tragedy is admirable, Mr Barrymore,” praised the Countess, sounding almost sincere. “You mentioned yesterday that your wife was visiting an old friend in Tavistock. What friend was that?”
“It was someone she befriended whilst in service. I cannot recall the woman’s name. I don’t believe I was ever introduced or if I was I paid the name no heed. My wife tended to talk a lot about matters that did not interest me and I tended to turn a deaf ear.”
“You also said your wife was doing some shopping for hats and gloves,” continued the Countess. “Did she come home with many purchases?”
“I cannot say. We kept separate bedrooms. She would have taken the parcels up to her own room. It hardly matters now what she bought. I will probably give the purchases to the housekeeper.”
“Your housekeeper is a loyal servant?” observed the Countess – it was half question, half statement, sardonically underscored.
John Barrymore flushed red, pushed up abruptly from his chair and moved to the fireplace, where he rested one hand on the elaborately carved mantle to steady his rising anger. “I may be hard of hearing but I hear what you are getting at Countess Volodymyrovna. And I take umbrage. Yes, umbrage. My housekeeper is a loyal servant but I did not murder my wife and my housekeeper is not an accomplice to any so-called crime. You may twist the facts any way you wish but my wife took her own life and that is all there is to the matter. I wish you to leave so that I may see to the body in the bath and show respect to the dead!”
“There is absolutely no evidence to suggest foul play and you were extremely insensitive back there,” admonished Dr Watson as he and the Countess were bumping along the moonlit road back to the castle, “and that parting gesture was unseemly and in bad taste. It did not excuse your badgering and it is completely inappropriate for a young lady of good breeding to shake the hand of a widower while offering insincere condolences.”
“I have never seen a man so unmoved by his wife’s death!”
“This isn’t the Ukrainian Steppe,” he reminded sternly. “We English prefer to adopt a stiff-upper lip when in mourning.”
She wondered if he might be alluding to his own period of mourning and decided to change tack before he accused her of being hard-hearted as well unseemly, insensitive and insincere. A woman could not win – either she was hysterical or heartless; simpering or unseemly; boring or badgering. “What about what you said yesterday about him being as guilty as sin?”
“Guilty of covering up a shocking accident – yes! Not guilty of killing his wife because he is secretly attracted to Lady Laura Baskerville! If every married man who coveted his neighbour’s wife bumped off his own spouse there would not be enough cells in Princeton to hold them all! And what chance does he have? He is as low born as his wife though he may play master of Lafter Hall rather better than she played mistress. You are confusing issues, relying on emotion and avoiding facts! You are thinking like a woman instead of, of, a detective!”
That sort of insult immediately got her back up. She did not like being told she was thinking like a woman even though she was a woman and could not help her biology. She pressed her lips together and did not speak for the duration of the trip.
He did not speak either. He was busy thinking how they were no longer reading from the same page; they were not even reading from the same book, and not standing in the same library either. They left the automobile by the front entrance of the castle for Fedir to put away into the carriage house and traversed the great hall still not speaking to one another. But the long silence had given them both some valuable breathing space.
“I may be thinking like a woman, but since I am a woman I don’t think I should apologise for it,” she said apologetically, “anyhow, it struck me as odd how Barrymore never referred to his wife by name. He never once called her Eliza. I don’t know why I feel that is odd, perhaps it is an English trait, but I just thought I should mention it. Goodnight, Dr Watson.”
He was about to light up a cigarette since he hadn’t had one all evening, and linger in the hall before going up to bed, but whirled on his heel and caught up to her on the stairs. They were reading from the same page once more.
“I noticed it too, not at first, but sometime later during the drive back, and it didn’t seem to stem from a stiff-upper lip or respect for the dead or even grief. I got the impression he was distancing himself from her, but not because he had murdered her. He would have been more careful to act the part of the grieving husband if he had. His choice of phrase stemmed from habit. He didn’t even know he was saying it – or not saying it.”
“There’s something else that struck me as odd. I got the impression his wife was in service but he was not. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the servants turn their noses up at him too? And her hands were badly calloused but when I shook his hand, which I did deliberately to check, I noticed that it was as smooth as silk. Anyway, his hand called to mind something the French cook said – a gentleman born and bred. I thought at the time she was trotting out a common English phrase that sounded right but wasn’t, because she was not English by birth and didn’t know any better, but now I think she knew what she was saying.”
“I got the same impression about him not being in service. His ability to play lord of the manor seems to come naturally. And even ten years ago, he struck me as being word-perfect in an unforced way, as if he’d had a decent education? I thought then that he was acting the part of the butler, not because he had been trained as a butler, but because he knew exactly how butlers behaved – as if he was playing a role.”
“It is most curious. He plays the part convincingly yet betrays himself because he tries too hard to be convincing. What can it mean?”
“I have no idea but when that telegram arrives from Tavistock we may have our answer.”
They had reached the parting of the ways at the top of the stairs.
“Oh, there was another unusual thing tonight,” she said before taking the passage leading to the east wing. “When I knelt down by the side of the bath to check the temperature of the water I noticed a pen with a fine gold nib under the dressing-table. It struck me as out of place because there was no ink and no paper amongst her perfumes and maquillage. The room was a pampering room, not a study. It is probably insignificant but I just thought I should mention it. Goodnight.”
He was skirting the gallery when her voice breached the vast canyon of stone and glass. It sounded breathless and husky as if she had been running.
“One last thing! I almost forgot. We received an invitation from Mr Roderick Lilyfield to dine at Merripit House tomorrow evening at six o’clock.”
He got all the way to the door of his room before he realized she got the name wrong.
Five bogs had already been drained by the time the Countess and the doctor met in the eau de nil breakfast room. It wasn’t until midmorning that everyone felt a frisson of excitement. Dr Watson hurried to the scene to supervise the exhumation of some bones but they turned out to be not what he expected. They were canine bones, in fact, the bones of a gigantic hound. Dogger was called to the scene and confirmed that he had thrown the poor dead beast into the mire since it was too big to bury and it was not in his nature to leave a dog to rot on the ground to be pecked by crows and such like. The bones were collected and placed in an old apple box and taken for burial to a place outside the castle walls called Wizend Wood – a grotesque forest of stunted and deformed oaks that struggled to survive in the harsh terrain.
The doctor returned to yesterday’s copy of The Times in the library but by midday something glinted in another of the bogs. Word soon spread and reached his ears; he hastened to the scene. The find turned out to be a pair of old fashioned spurs. A short time later someone spotted a sixteenth century belt buckle. And an hour later a cavalier sword poked through the murk. There was a jumble of bones attached to the last find which everyone assumed was Hugo, killed in 1647. The bones were placed in a grander box made of mahogany and removed to the chapel for burial in the floor of the family crypt at the foot of the grand sarcophagus meant for Sir Henry. The historical accoutrements were to be put on show in the folio room in a glass display case designed for rare and precious manuscripts. Antonio was given the high honour of polishing the pieces and arranging them for display.
Dr Watson was certain they would never find Stapleton’s bones because the bones never went into the mire in the first instance, when late in the afternoon, just before the men were about to call it a day, in a bog not too far away from where the doctor first searched, they discovered more bones. And this time they were once again human. The bones was carefully removed, placed in a woven basket, cleaned, and re-assembled by Dr Watson in the study on a bed sheet that covered the large gothic desk of Sir Henry. It turned out to be the skeleton of a man who had once suffered a broken collarbone.
Antonio was consulted and recalled that whilst Jack Stapleton was a schoolmaster in East Yorkshire he had broken his collarbone demonstrating a rugby tackle. Lady Laura was also consulted and blushingly confirmed that while Jack Stapleton was seducing her with the promise of marriage if she would pen the note to lure Sir Charles to the Yew Alley he had mentioned sustaining an injury to his collarbone during a rigorous game of rugby.
Since Antonio Garcia and Lady Laura Baskerville had no reason to lie and could not possibly be in cahoots to deceive, their stories were accepted.
So, by the evening of their sixth day Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna had the bones of Hugo Baskerville, the bones of a gigantic hound and the bones of Jack Stapleton. But what they didn’t have was a solution. The skeleton of Jack Stapleton forced them to drop the notion that he was behind the Baskerville curse. In fact, if not for the anonymous letters of which they had no extant copies, there would be no curse to speak of. They were back where they started before they even left Paddington.
Except for the dead bodies.
Five dead bodies to be precise…The deaths of James Desmond, Sir Henry Baskerville, Beryl Stapleton, Gaston de Garonne and Eliza Barrymore seemed unrelated and meaningless in that they did not add any understanding to the anonymous letters that disturbed Lady Laura and frightened the baronet to death.
Merripit House was the vernacular Devon cottage – undressed stone painted white under a roof of thatch with a big brick chimney hanging off one side and a rickety barn hanging off the other. Dartmoor was dotted with houses like Merripit. They had names like Heath Cotage and Dingley Dell. They had been built to keep out the wind and rain and three hundred years later were still doing their job.
Roderick Lysterfield was digging in his vegetable patch as Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna came up the path. Daylight was draining away but his energy seemed boundless as he planted his spade in the Devon clod and wiped his forehead with a checkered neckerchief before giving them a cheery wave.
He had some rabbit stew on the go in the oven and some apples on a tray ready to bake. The woman who came once a week from Grimpen hamlet to do his laundry and tidy up had prepared some custard. He would warm it up later to pour over the baked apples. He did not have a housekeeper or manservant. He was a man of simple tastes and needs. He had breakfast at the castle every morning and the French cook provided him with lunch which he took with him to wherever he was working that day. He spoke a little French rather badly and appreciated the chance to improve himself. He had dinner most evenings with one family or another because he considered it important to get to know the men who worked for him. The work they did was hard and dangerous and it was vital to understand capabilities and limitations, and to promote the most reliable foremen.
The Countess thought this spoke volumes about his popularity and intelligence. The doctor thought it proved what an ingratiating freeloader he was.
There were no vegetables to accompany the rabbit stew because he didn’t like to go empty-handed when invited to dinner. But the French cook had provided him with a crusty baguette so that they could mop up the tasty juices. The Countess praised the simple fayre. The doctor thought the rabbit was chewy and under-cooked. The Countess decided the garden herbs added to the piquant flavor. The doctor thought too much salt had been added to compensate for the blandness. The Countess described the cottage as delightful. The doctor thought it was poky and twee. The Countess dismissed the lack of electricity as a blessing in disguise and declared candlelight to be romantic. The doctor thought it was backward and far too sombre. The Countess described the inglenook fire as quaintly rustic. The doctor thought it was smoky and suffocating. The Countess admired the little jug of pink heath on the kitchen table. The doctor thought it smacked of affectation.
Half way through dinner Dr Watson realized the Countess and the engineer had met twice before, not once as he had supposed. He wondered where that first meeting had taken place and why she had not mentioned it.
“I didn’t realize you two had met more than once,” he managed casually as the dinner plates were being cleared by their affable host.
She appeared embarrassed at being caught out and he could have sworn her cheeks flushed to match the pink heath. “Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you.”
The engineer appeared to come to her rescue. “We met by chance on the Grimpen road the other day. The Countess’ carriage was stopped by the side and her coachman was checking the horse to see if it had a stone lodged in its shoe. I happened to be passing and asked if everything was all right. Since the moor was cloaked in fog I offered to provide an escort to the gates of the castle. It was the briefest of meetings,” he said, smiling from one to the other of his guests as he topped up their glasses with some Spanish wine that the French cook had given him.
The Countess smiled back, but the doctor got the distinct impression the smile was one of undying gratitude and relief.
“That was the day you went to Coombe Tracey?” he continued conversationally, wondering if the Spanish wine was the same vintage used to drown the hapless bunny who probably died of relief when it finally passed out.
She nodded, still smiling, toying with her wine glass to avoid his gaze.
“The day after the death of Sir Henry and Beryl Stapleton?” he pursued in a laconic monotone – deciding that the cheap plonk was indeed the same sour vinegar used to marinate the chewy lapin du jour.
She nodded again, shifting uncomfortably in her uncomfortable wooden chair.
The engineer served baked apples to his guests in mismatched bowls. “The death of the baronet is a shocking thing. I understand you have been trying to get to the bottom of it, Dr Watson.”
“A tragic suicide,” dismissed the doctor curtly. “There is nothing to get to the bottom of.”
“But there is unease among the servants and workmen,” persisted the other, “regarding those letters.”
“You know about the letters?”
“Everyone does. What do you make of them?”
“I can make nothing of them because I have not seen any with my own eyes.”
The Countess began to say something when the doctor shoved the jug of custard at her and shot her a warning look.
“You have not seen any?” said their host incredulously. “I was led to believe there existed scores of them.”
“That may be so but the baronet burnt them all. None remain. Not even a tiny scrap.”
“Perhaps that is for the best for all concerned,” said their host with a relieved smile, passing the jug from the Countess to the doctor. “Still, if there is anything I can do to help you clear up this mysterious business, do not hesitate to ask.”
“That is very decent of you,” replied Dr Watson in a patently false tone, drowning his over-cooked apple in lumpy custard in order to kill the taste and facilitate the crunchier bits in their journey down his gullet to his stomach which was still coping with the indigestible combination of devilled kidneys, dead bunny, and senseless brutality.
“I must admit my offer is not entirely altruistic.”
“Is that so?” said the doctor encouragingly, giving the man enough rope to hang himself.
“Yes, you see, my career is just starting to take off in this country. This is my first big commission and I am very keen for it to go well. My next commission is likely to come from recommendation. Word of mouth is important in my field. Patronage is paramount. An inexplicable death, or even a tragic suicide, or even a strange curse, in fact, especially a strange curse, no matter how fanciful, could destroy my future prospects and ruin my reputation. Once a man’s reputation is tainted by such things there is no coming back from it.”
“I think that is hardly the case here,” supplied the doctor somewhat blithely.
“I daresay you are right, Dr Watson. All those years of working with Sherlock Holmes on baffling crimes, mysterious cases, and occult investigations must have honed your instincts regarding such things. Still, if there is anything I can do to help. ”
“No help is required since there is no investigation. The baronet was suffering from a medical condition stemming from insomnia.”
“And the other death?”
“And the French gardener?”
“A hazard of walking alone on the moor late at night.”
“You do not think it was the Dartmoor Beast?”
“Of course not, but superstition is rife in these parts and the men won’t work certain tracts of the moor for any amount of money.”
“Are there any tracts of the moor that you avoid, Mr Lysterfield?”
“You are not a superstitious man?”
“No, sir, I am American.”
“So you carry no talismans or good luck charms?”
“None at all.”
“You are not wary of black cats or Friday the thirteenth?”
“You have not witnessed any headless horsemen, hairy hands or gigantic phosphorescent hounds while working on the moor?”
Roderick laughed richly. “Superstition is the opium of the uneducated!”
“I quite agree but an unscrupulous man might use it to pervert the thinking of others.”
“In what way?”
“To make them believe whatever he wants them to believe.”
“To frighten them away from Dog Hole Gorge, Cleft Tor, or the old tin mine.”
“For what purpose?”
“For the purpose of doing evil.”
“Now you are talking human evil as opposed to supernatural evil.”
“In my experience, there is only human evil.”
“I agree with you there, doctor. One time, back in America, when I was working as a lumberjack, I noticed that none of the trees near a particular part of the creek were being felled. When I mentioned it to the boss I was told the place was haunted. A young Indian woman called White Cloud had drowned attempting to escape her pursuers, and ever since that time pulled any man who entered the water to his death. Many men swore they had seen her ghostly white hands rising up. It turned out later, that one of the lumberjacks had raped and killed a young Indian woman and dumped her body in the river, weighing her down with rocks, and that he had noticed some shiny gold nuggets in the water. It was he who had invented the ghost story to frighten everyone away until the workmen moved on and he could return and pan for the gold.”
The Countess could see Dr Watson cooking up a ludicrous fairy tale to trump the American ghost story but she was fed up with him rabbiting on about superstition and trying to bait their charming host. Perhaps the good doctor thought if he badgered the man into confessing he was superstitious he could also bamboozle him into confessing to killing Sir Henry, Beryl Stapleton and Gaston de Garonne – solving all his problems at once! Why not James Desmond too! And why stop there! Why not add Eliza Barrymore to the list! Any minute now he would leap to his feet, ruddy with triumph, and accuse Roderick Lysterfield of murdering half of Devon and command her to go at once to Coombe Tracey to telegraph for Inspector Lestrade!
“Speaking of ghosts,” she intervened before the doctor had a chance to dream up a ridiculous refrain, “even Mr Frankland who is an eminently educated man believed he saw a ghost on the tower stairs – so we are all of us susceptible. Thank you for an excellent dinner and a pleasant evening. We must be off as it is a long walk home with only the moonlight to guide us and we do not want to meet any headless hounds or gigantic phosphorescent hands along the way. Especially as I have not brought my rabbit’s foot with me. Good night to you, Mr Lysterfield.”
“You castigate me for badgering! What do you call your questioning technique?”
“I was drawing him out,” defended the doctor.
“It sounded to me as if you were baiting him.”
“Well, at least I wasn’t behaving like a simpering milkmaid by waving at him as we arrived.”
“I was returning his friendly gesture.”
“It was unseemly.”
“In Devon perhaps; not in America.”
“This is Devon.”
“Then it is high time to introduce modern behavior to this rural backwater.”
“Indecorous behavior is indecorous behaviour wherever you are.”
“Perhaps you are just jealous of a man like Roderick Lysterfield.”
“Ha, the man is a jumped-up lumberjuck!”
“Don’t you mean jack?”
“Juck; Jack; he is too good to be true!”
“If that means you admit he is special, I agree.”
Scudding clouds filtered the moonlight and the path was rough going. They walked without speaking until they reached the top of the hill where one side of the walkway fell away darkly into Doune Quarry and a biting wind whistled up the steep sides of the cutting. It played havoc with her frilled petticoat despite the Canadian mink manteau overlayering it.
“Let us examine the facts,” said Dr Watson as the wind whipped them along and he fought the urge to look back over his shoulder while fingering the loaded revolver in his pocket. “Roderick Lysterfield was absent during that first night at dinner at Baskerville Castle.”
“Meaning he could have pushed James Desmond off the platform at Drogo.”
“You mean he galloped all the way to Drogo dressed as Sherlock Holmes, paced up and down the platform until the train arrived, then lured the old man out of his carriage pretending to be the reincarnation of the famous detective, helping him with his carpet bag, and pushed him onto the tracks as the train was pulling away in order to gain what advantage?”
“I haven’t thought that last bit through yet.”
“What about the horse and cart and driver who went in the mire that he so desperately needed to rescue? I presume that wasn’t important enough to bother with after all?”
“That’s a thought. Have you checked?”
“Checked whether he was actually there or not during the rescue.”
“Of course I haven’t checked. He was not a suspect. And as you keep reminding me we don’t even have a case – suicide, accident, accident, suicide.”
“You missed the first death – James Desmond. We agreed it was murder.”
“Perhaps we were just keen for it to be murder and read too much into it.”
“Because of something lacking in our own lives?”
“Yes, much as it pains me to admit it. Perhaps we are just bumblers, you and I. You were his best friend and I was his daughter, and yet we are not as good as him and never will be.”
They stayed silent until they reached a fork in the path at the top of a gradient and paused to catch their breaths. One path led to Baskerville Castle. The other led to the old tin mine. A grey ghost owl swooped out of the darkness and hovered ominously overhead before disappearing into the slipstream.
“He could have planted those envelopes,” he said, scanning a dark cluster of trees.
“Oh, so we are back to him. And you are being facetious again. It is unseemly.”
“Roderick Lysterfield has a basket that he takes to the castle every day. He carries his lunch away in it. He could sneak the envelopes in and plant them in different places to be discovered after he has gone. It would be a perfect cover.”
“What about all the other envelopes that were delivered by strangers?”
“Planted months ago – as you said earlier, great forethought had gone into the planning.”
“And the envelopes delivered by local people?”
“Same thing – he drops them off when no one is looking. He is free to go about as he pleases, no questions asked. He is friendly and ingratiating. It is a sad fact of life that good-looking people are not generally suspected of behaving badly.”
“So you admit he is good-looking?”
“Yes – in a swaggering, cowboy, pantomime way.”
They walked past the little forest of wizened oaks that looked like tortured dwarfs frozen in the moonlight. There was a rustling sound in the long grass, and this time his fingers tightened around the revolver as he looked back.
“What are you doing?” she demanded hotly.
“You’re checking to make sure we’re not being followed by a gigantic hound! Admit it!”
“I heard something.”
“Perhaps it’s Mr Lysterfield stalking -,” she stopped dead. “Look! Over there! In the wood!”
He thought she was teasing and chose not to look.
“Look!” she repeated, and this time her voice vibrated with fear. “There was only one grave when we came this way earlier and now there are two!”
She was right! In the place called Wizend Wood there were now two graves marked by wooden crosses. He blinked to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “There must be a logical explanation.”
“Let’s find out.”
“No!” He caught her brusquely by the arm. “It’s late. Let’s get back to the castle. We can check tomorrow.” He pulled her along the path until they fell into step. The electric lights of the castle were visible now; glowing yellow like demon’s eyes; compounding the feeling that had dogged him all the way – that someone or something was watching them.
“It has to be him,” said Dr Watson, picking up the thread as they started down the long drive and he began to breathe easier.
“Because you don’t like him and you wish it to be him?”
“I will ignore that comment. In each case he had ample opportunity.”
“So let us examine the facts. Roderick Lysterfield successfully does away with Mr Desmond and then induces the baronet to kill himself. Perhaps he is a hypnotist who is able to convey the power of suggestion via correspondence. Do we need a motive? Or is he a mentally deranged maniac hypnotist who meticulously plans crimes that make no sense for the sake of it? Are we looking at facts, Dr Watson, or are we twisting the facts to suit ourselves?”
He ignored her taunt. “Lysterfield must have an accomplice.”
“Let us then, for argument sake, settle on Lady Baskerville as the accomplice?” suggested the Countess sardonically. “Lady Baskerville, while married to the baronet and carrying the baronet’s child, pretends to gaze longingly at Barrymore during dinner, but all the while she is secretly in love with the American engineer.”
“Love! Yes! That would give us a motive!”
“Bravo! Perhaps you can try out some of your questioning technique on Lady Laura when we return to the castle.”
“That is not at all amusing. He could have pushed Beryl Stapleton down the stairs. I questioned the butler the next day. I asked him if anyone had paid a visit to the castle during my absence at Drogo. He told me no one had been to the castle – only the American engineer. And it was the way he said it. The engineer could come and go without being suspected of coming and going. Seen and yet not seen.”
“I saw Roderick Lysterfield myself that day sprinting away from the castle as I was returning from my promenade around the lake with Gaston. As for pushing Mrs Stapleton down the stairs, well, it could have been Nellie because she was jealous, Antonio because he was exasperated with a daughter who was disobedient, or even Algernon Frankland because his latent desires were thwarted. Such an act would not require strength or brute force.”
His mind was running ahead of itself and he almost tripped up. “I need to speak to the housekeeper at Lafter Hall to discover if Lysterfield paid a visit the day Eliza Barrymore died.”
“Oh, really now, Dr Watson, you are not suggesting he galloped to Lafter Hall while Barrymore was out shooting rabbits with his new gun, and drowned Eliza Barrymore in her bath.”
“He had ample opportunity.”
“So did half of Devon. But you said yourself it was suicide. Dr Mortimer concurred. In fact, you admonished me for daring to think otherwise and Dr Mortimer was adamant it could have been nothing else. I beg you not to share your wild hypotheses with anyone else before you have thought them through more carefully. You will merely make an idiot of yourself and embarrass me in the process.”
With hearts pounding, they stumbled across the threshold of the castle and though neither would admit it, neither could shake off the uneasy sensation of being followed all the way.
Dr Watson was greatly relieved to see the footman still posted outside Lady Baskerville’s bedroom door. Fedir had been diligent in his duties. If anything happened to Lady Baskerville he would never forgive himself. It was one thing to be a fool and a bumbler in his own eyes, but to fail in his duty of care would be unforgivable.
The Countess saw the light in Lady Baskerville’s room and though she had made that sardonic remark about Lady Baskerville and Roderick Lysterfield being lovers in jest as soon as she said it she wondered if there could be any truth to it.
Lady Baskerville did not mind being disturbed though the hour was late. Day and night had no meaning to someone confined to their bed.
Dr Watson joined the Countess and together they recounted pleasantries about the evening spent at Merripit House. It was the lady herself who informed them of Jack Stapleton’s final resting place and settled the mystery of the second grave. She had made the decision to inter his remains as swiftly as possible and had chosen the same spot as for his gigantic hound in Wizend Wood. The master mason would carve an epitaph on a small headstone as soon as he finished the effigy of Sir Henry for the family tomb. The funeral for Sir Henry was to take place tomorrow. It would be a private service held in the new chapel with the vicar from Saint Swithin’s presiding.
Since they had just spent the evening with the American engineer the Countess did not think her question would appear impertinent. “Will Roderick Lysterfield be attending?”
“Oh, no,” said Lady Laura, sounding surprised. “I have never met the man. I understand he is industrious, intelligent and charming, but he is not family.”
“You have never met him?” The Countess sounded equally surprised.
“I know that sounds very ungracious of me, but the last few years have been particularly difficult health-wise. I miscarried twice and was encouraged by my husband and Dr Mortimer to lead a quiet life. I therefore did not concern myself with the transformation of the gardens beyond the castle walls. I left the details to my husband. He met many times with Mr Lysterfield and praised his skill and ingenuity, but I had usually taken myself off to bed by the time they met to discuss progress. It did not matter to me if Holywell Pool was ten acres or twenty. It did not matter if Stickle Brook was dammed or not dammed. It did not matter if the lake had one bridge or two. I mean no disrespect but if the American engineer is invited to the funeral half the workforce will expect to be invited too. There will be just family, meaning myself and my father, the Mortimers, who are like family, Mr Barrymore, who is facing a difficult time and may welcome the support of his neighbours, plus Sir Olwen from Drogo, oh, and my two dear friends from London,” she added almost as an afterthought, rallying a smile.
Tomorrow would prove to be an emotional and trying day, a drain on her nerves, and a test of her ability to rally more than a feeble smile. “Goodnight, dear lady,” said Dr Watson. “It is late and we have kept you up. I hope we have not tired you too much.”
She held out her hand in a gesture of touching gratitude. “Dear Dr Watson, I invited you to Devon to celebrate what I believed would be a happy occasion, but that plague of letters ruined everything before you even arrived. And you have had no peace since. I am the most selfish hostess in all of England, yet I do not know what I would have done without your reassuring presence. Feel free to return to London. Do not stay in this dreary place any longer than you must. Take your lovely new friend with you,” she smiled fondly at the Countess, “and go as soon as you can. It will soon be winter and we will be snowed in. I have good Dr Mortimer to oversee the delivery of my child, and good Mrs Mortimer too, who has had training as a midwife. She has promised to come to live at Baskerville for the last few weeks of my confinement. I will be well cared for. After the funeral I will feel better. This may come as a great shock to you, and I do not seek to offend you, or speak ill of the dead, or tarnish myself in your eyes, but after this last terrible month, which has taken its pound of flesh from me, it is a relief that my husband is at peace. When my child comes and the workmen leave I will be at peace too. You must not worry for me. Tomorrow all will be well.”
“Do not admonish yourself for I do not think less of you for speaking freely and unburdening yourself. But your praise is undeserved. You are too kind. I have solved nothing and when I go away from this place I will go with a heavy heart.” Gently, he kissed the pale hand.
The Countess took her cue from her companion and also bid their hostess a gentle good night. Once in the passage, she followed the doctor down the corridor, and spoke in a lowered tone so as not to be overheard by the footman. “We should grab the earliest opportunity to speak to Sir Olwen about royal prerogatives and wills. I still feel this matter is related to inheritance. And although Lady Laura thinks all will soon be well I cannot help but recall what Dr Mortimer said about her being made homeless. You should quiz Sir Olwen as soon as possible. He may not stay to lunch after the funeral and I feel he will talk more freely with you than with me since you are cut from the same cloth.”
“I do not hunt,” he pointed out acerbically.
“I meant you are a man.”
Where once he would have responded to the suffragette-ish taunt, all he could manage was an acquiescent nod. He no longer thought this so-called matter was related to anything but run-of-the-mill misfortune. Most likely it had its beginnings in ordinary workplace grievances, probably involving the majority of the work force who could not keep pace with the demands of the American engineer. That would account for the number and variety of anonymous letters. The number of accidents and deaths on the estate was probably astronomical and that’s why Sir Henry had to employ his own doctor. What was a horse and cart doing after dark near Doune Quarry anyway! The tracks were treacherous enough in broad daylight! It was an accident waiting to happen!
She continued to dog his steps down the hall. “Did you believe Lady Laura when she said she had never met Roderick Lysterfield?”
“Yes, she has most likely never met ninety per cent of the workmen on the estate.”
“You are probably right. A love affair is highly unlikely anyway. She is far too insipid for a man who is so strapping.”
He rounded on her sharply. “That is a most unkind thing to say!”
“Yes, it is,” she admitted frankly, “but we must be free to speak our minds. I would not repeat that unkind comment to another living soul but we must be nothing less than frank with each other if we are to work together at solving cases. Did you always agree with Sherlock?”
“Of course not.”
“Did you always hold the same opinion of people?”
“Were you able to speak freely?”
“So it must be that way for us too.”
“So be it, you are blind to the engineer because you are enamoured of him!”
“And you are blind because you are jealous!”
“You think he cannot be guilty because he is exceedingly handsome!”
“And you condemn him because he is!”
He drew breath. “Being frank gets us nowhere.”
“Very well, let us examine the facts.”
They both drew breath but she was faster.
“It is a documented fact that most criminals are exceedingly ugly. I paid a visit to Reading Gaol once with some evangelical missionaries distributing bibles and the inmates were all fearfully ugly – bulbous noses, bulging foreheads, twisted mouths, crooked teeth, eyes askew, misshapen features, deformed bodies.” She gave a little shudder.
“That is because the exceedingly handsome ones are never caught.”
“So you continue to condemn him for his handsomeness?”
Sighing heavily, he was forced to consign another theory to the dustbin of failure. “Lady Laura’s voice betrayed no feelings toward the engineer whatsoever, which means that although the engineer had ample opportunity to plant the letters and carry out the crimes I reluctantly concede he had absolutely no reason for doing so.”
“Mmm, but did you notice how her voice softened when she mentioned Barrymore?”
The doctor’s bedroom was not in the bachelor’s wing but next door to Lady Baskerville’s in the south wing, a stately guestroom fit for royalty with rich green damask walls and sumptuous green velvet hangings with matching green bullion fringing. The mantle was black marble and the furniture was strong and masculine. It gave onto the lake and offered the best views of the garden. Everything about it illustrated the high esteem in which his hostess held him. But he felt like a fraud. He was not in Sherlock’s league and should have set his hostess straight on that matter right from their first meeting. Instead, he gave her reason to hope he could solve the latest curse of the Baskervilles.
“Yes,” he affirmed, unable to stifle a yawn, as he reached his bedroom door and placed his hand on the ornate brass knob. It had been a dog of a day from start to finish and he was bone tired. “Lady Laura seems to be harbouring some warm feelings for her neighbour but let us not read too much into it. We can observe what happens tomorrow but I am not expecting an eleventh hour confession from anyone. I think it might be for the best if we leave the day after the funeral.”
“Oh, why couldn’t my first case be a straightforward murder, some intriguing clues, and a handful of stupid suspects?”
Sir Olwen Goodwood was a round-shouldered, thick-necked, heavy-set man with wiry grey hair and huge eyebrows that overshot a pair of owlish eyes. From a distance he resembled the grey ghost owl from the night before. Even his skin appeared to have a greyish tinge, though it may have been the way the murky morning light filtered in through the glass lantern. His wife had died in childbirth and he had never remarried. Lady Prudence had been a distant cousin of the Baskervilles and he had always known he would one day marry her. The day of his wedding had been the happiest day of his life. He never recovered from her death and coped by throwing himself into sporty pursuits. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was out shooting grouse or fishing in his stream. He never travelled abroad and could be heard to say that his small patch of Dartmoor was all a man needed. His two favourite springer spaniels were with his favourite horse in the stable yard awaiting their master.
The Countess made the downward processional slowly, a rustle of black satin ushering every step, giving Dr Watson and the squire the chance to finish their conversation. As she was traversing the great hall Roderick Lysterfield entered via the servant’s corridor. He greeted her cordially and together they joined the doctor and the squire by the fireplace where Mr Lysterfield explained that he wished to inform Lady Baskerville that he had given the estate workers the day off in honour of Sir Henry’s funeral, and he wanted to know whether the labourers at Doune Quarry and those at The Grinders should also be granted the day off. He would be happy to convey her message to the men in charge if she gave her approval. Sir Olwen supported the engineer’s proposal, praising the man’s thoughtfulness, just as a shimmer of black silk appeared at the top of the stairs. Lady Laura’s face was covered by a black lace veil, and a large jet brooch glistened in the declivity of her ample bosom. She had reached the last step when her legs appeared to buckle and she caught hold of the newel post, crying out as she fell into a swoon.
Roderick Lysterfield rushed forward and scooped her up before she hit the ground. Dr Watson followed hot on his heels, directing him to the lady’s bedchamber before racing off to get his medical bag and some smelling salts.
What followed was a short-lived burst of pandemonium. Mr Barrymore arrived at the same time and took in all that was happening at a glance. He rushed toward the stairs but Sir Olwen caught him by the arm to stop him going any further.
“You cannot go up there,” he screeched. “The lady is in good hands.”
Barrymore glared up at the golden-haired god mounting the stairs with the damsel his arms, and upon his handsome face was jealousy writ large.
The Countess decided to intervene and spoke without equivocation. “Mr Barrymore, please go and tell Mr Frankland that his daughter has just fainted and that the funeral will be delayed twenty minutes. He is in his room at the top of the tower a gauche. Inform him that we will be having a nip of brandy in the great hall prior to going to the chapel.”
Barrymore shook off the hand restraining him and took the stairs by twos, hesitated at the top of the landing, then whirled west and disappeared around the corner.
Sir Olwen breathed a sigh of relief and rang for the butler. By the time the brandy arrived, so did the vicar. He offered to go upstairs at once to see what he could do but was persuaded by Sir Olwen to first take a brandy.
The Mortimers arrived next. They were upset to hear what had happened but not surprised. Lady Laura’s health was fragile, teetering on the brink of emotional exhaustion. It was for the best that she be spared the funeral lest it bring on brain fever. Bed rest was what she needed. Her friends would not condemn her.
Dr Mortimer shared a nip of brandy with the men then went to check how things were going with Lady Laura. At the top of the landing he met Mr Lysterfield coming out of the bedroom. The engineer explained that Lady Baskerville had been sedated by Dr Watson. Dr Mortimer thanked the engineer for his quick thinking and encouraged him to take a brandy while he conferred with his colleague and checked on the patient.
The butler, in the meantime, had had the foresight to deliver a tray with tea things. Mrs Mortimer was doing the honours with the teapot when Mr Barrymore and Mr Lysterfield came from separate directions and almost collided at the top of the stairs. They acknowledged each other with a curt nod and descended side by side but the fact they did not speak spoke volumes. Sir Olwen noted the tacit hostility and moved quickly to hand the pair a nip of brandy. They both downed their measure in one gulp. Roderick Lysterfield then excused himself. Lady Laura had given approval for the labourers to have the day off and he wanted to inform the bosses as soon as possible. Barrymore was helping himself to a second measure of brandy when the Countess, cup of tea in hand, joined him.
“How did Mr Frankland take the news of his daughter’s fainting spell?”
Barrymore seemed momentarily distracted. He finished measuring his brandy. “I didn’t speak to Mr Frankland. I went up to the tower on the left as you directed but the door was locked. So I thought you must have meant the tower to the left as seen from the outside so I went up to the other tower. The room was empty but I could tell from the telescope that it was the right room. Mr Frankland must already have gone to the chapel and Jock must have gone with him.”
Antonio was filling the fire basket. The Countess directed him to go to the chapel to inform Mr Frankland the funeral would be delayed twenty minutes.
Seven black figures gathered like a murder of crows around the open casket surrounded by hundreds of beeswax tapers. As was the way with corpses, fear and worry had melted out of the face, but so had all the life that was in it. All that was left was a pallid deathmask, like one of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. The vicar read from Ecclesiasticus. Sir Olwen was invited to deliver a eulogy and scritched on about how much Sir Henry had done for the greater good of Dartmoor. He had given employment to hundreds of men, improved roads and water supply, and provided electricity, not only to his own estate but to the towns and villages which might have been left in the dark if not for his philanthropy.
Mrs Mortimer gagged on inconsolable grief each time Sir Henry’s noble name was mentioned. Dr Mortimer placed a supportive arm around her shoulder to stop her buckling under the weight of enormous despair.
Mr Barrymore remained stoic, his brief burst of emotion whipped into line, his broad back unbowed from the merciless self-flagellation.
The Countess thought Dr Watson shed a tear or two but he may merely have been clearing his throat and blowing his nose.
No one noticed that Mr Frankland was not among the mourners. The Countess only noticed his absence when they were singing the final Benedectine hymn.
“He is probably offering comfort to his daughter,” whispered the doctor when she mentioned it. “It is for the best. I have never attended a more dispiriting funeral. It played out like a dreary dirge. Servants will remove the coffin as soon as we depart the chapel and the body will be consigned to the family crypt like a forgotten footnote of history.”
Lunch was served in the old Tudor dining room where the linenfold panelling was stained dark to match the Tudor furniture. The Countess chose a seat next to Sir Olwen and tried not to get distracted by the long nose hairs that wiggled whenever he breathed through his nostrils. He did not have friends and acquaintances in the normal sense; he had Members, Guns and Rods.
“Was the late Sir Charles a member of the local hunt?” she probed casually.
Sir Olwen shook his head vigorously as he tore into some roast pork. “Oh no, I hardly ever saw the man. The roads were not as good back then. It was much more difficult to get from Drogo to Baskerville back in those days. It would have taken the better part of a day. Crossing the great Grimpen Mire was not a feat to be undertaken lightly and it is still quite dangerous despite the engineering works of that American chap. Quakes can pop up unexpectedly where none existed the week before. The mire can never be mapped out and drained. It is an exercise in futility. Besides, Sir Charles was a bit of a recluse after he returned from South Africa.”
“Was he always fond of his own company?” she pursued.
“Oh no, he was quite a lively fellow in his younger days. The Baskervilles kept a fine stable and he was an excellent horseman. He had a good head for politics too and was quite ambitious. My father always said that Charlie Baskerville would eventually become our local Member of Parliament. But something happened when he inherited this place, or just before he inherited. He was about eighteen or nineteen and I was about three years younger. I went on holiday around that time; went to stay in Scotland with my godmother at Cruddock Castle and did some shooting with Lord Cruddock and the Earl of Lomond. I shot my first stag that year. It was a memorable time. I shall never forget it.” He appeared to go all wistful and nostalgic and blew his nose to stop from blubbering.
“What happened with Sir Charles?” she prompted after he recovered from dreaming about dead stags.
“You were saying something happened when he inherited Baskerville Hall.”
“Oh, yes, it was some time ago now and I was much younger then. I am nearly seventy, you know – though I can still ride for the better part of a day and out-shoot the younger bucks.”
“About Sir Charles?”
“Ah, yes, Sir Charles.” Beetling brows took on a life of their own as he mopped up the gravy on his plate with a tranche of bread. “Something happened before he inherited; definitely just before. I remember when I returned from Scotland I heard it said that he went on the Grand Tour quite suddenly with his Latin tutor because of something that had happened. Something had been hushed up rather quickly. Young people weren’t kept in the know back in those days. Families handled their private affairs with discretion. Scandals were treated with sensitivity.”
“I was speaking generally. I was not being particular. It was some time ago and times were different back then. Elders kept their own counsel and servants knew better than to gossip.”
“Of course,” she concurred. “But you say he later became a recluse so something must have brought about his change of character.”
He drained his glass of red wine and waited for the butler to refill his glass. “Well, it was hardly surprising after what followed.”
“What followed?” she echoed, adopting an interested pitch.
“His parents died less than a year later. They were going over to meet up with him in Paris when their ferry sank during a force ten gale. The gale brought down a lot of trees when it hit the coast. My father had to replant acres of forest. Funny, how a man can recall some details but not others. Anyway, Sir Charles never returned to Devon. He went to South Africa instead and made a fortune managing a gold mine or diamond mine or p’raps both. He eventually returned in 1887, two years before he died, still unmarried. Everyone did their best to introduce him to eligible young fillies but he declined every invitation that came his way. To his credit, he did good works improving roads and the rail line and such, but not on the scale of his heir, Sir Henry. Now there is a name that will long be remembered in the annals of Dartmoor.”
They all drank a toast to the memory of Sir Henry after which the squire screeched on about the many achievements of the late baronet. It soon became impossible to steer him back to what it was that had been hushed up rather quickly. Most likely it was an unsuitable liaison. Such scandals were common with willful young men set to inherit a fortune. She would speak to the French cook; servants always gossiped. Nothing had changed in the kitchens since the days of Solomon.
Dr Watson spent the time chatting to Dr Mortimer and was invited to join the amateur archaeologist at Long Down where he was engaged in the usual skull-duggery at one of the Neolithic sites.
“I’m afraid I will have to decline,” said Dr Watson. “Countess Volodymyrovna and I plan to return to London first thing tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you won’t stay another day?” intervened the vicar disapprovingly. “There will be a funeral for Beryl Stapleton tomorrow morning. Lady Baskerville has given permission for it to be held in the chapel, and a second funeral for Monsieur de Garonne in the evening to save me coming back a third day. It appears most uncharitable to leave on the morning of a double funeral.”
Uncharitable or not, Sir Olwen emphatically declared that he was not accustomed to attending the funerals of servants and gardeners.
The Mortimers also begged off. They would not be able to attend either funeral as one of their daughters was travelling from Bristol to Plymouth and would be visiting for the day.
Mr Barrymore did not go so far as to admonish his counterparts but he expressed that he would be attending both funerals since Lady Baskerville would be counting on her closest friends for a show of support. He further mentioned that servants deserved to be treated with common decency in life and dignity in death. He then issued an invitation to his friends to attend the funeral of his wife at Saint Swithin’s five days hence, and finished by reminding them that though his wife had been a mere servant at the beginning of her life, she died a lady, not with regards to noble title but with regards to respectability.
After the mourners departed, Dr Watson and the Countess took a bottle of Madeira and two glasses into the library and settled themselves into armchairs either side of the fireplace.
“I don’t know about you,” began the doctor remorsefully, “but I feel we have been suitably chastised.”
“I didn’t know where to look when the vicar talked about being uncharitable.”
“If you have no objection I think we should stay for an extra day or two.”
“No objection at all. We owe it to Beryl Stapleton and Gaston de Garonne to attend their funerals; as Barrymore so succinctly put it – to provide dignity in death.”
“He is a very articulate fellow.”
She nodded as she measured some Madeira into their glasses and handed one to him. “I got the distinct impression he was addressing his equals not his betters.”
“I got the distinct impression he was hoping to steal some time with Lady Laura and not merely show charity to those of lower rank, though I think you are right about him considering himself an equal. He did not appear to put himself in the same class as his wife. His tone of voice was defensive toward her humble beginnings but he seemed to neatly separate himself from that same humble start in life.”
“Which reminds me, we still haven’t heard from your friend in Tavistock. I am beginning to fear he is not up to the job.”
“Jensen is a diligent chap. He likes to be thorough. That’s another reason not to run out early. And there’s something else that is worrying me – when Lady Laura came out of her swoon she looked – how can I explain it? – possessed.”
“Do you mean demonically possessed?”
“I know it sounds unscientific but I cannot describe how strange she looked. Her face was transfixed and totally white, as if all the blood had drained out of it. Her eyes were wide open and full of wild terror. The pupils were darting violently about the room.”
“What did Mr Lysterfield make of it?”
“I don’t think he witnessed it. He deposited her on the bed and stayed with her until I got the smelling salts but she was still in a swoon. It was after she came out of her swoon that she reacted like a baby bird trapped in a cage full of rats. He took his leave as soon as I arrived. I admit I was wrong about him. He is a first class fellow.”
“She sounds like a woman on the verge of nervous breakdown.”
“I fear it is already too late to save her; I fear for the unborn child. She was shaking uncontrollably and making incoherent babbling noises. Fortunately, there was some scopolamine on her bedside table. I had to sedate her. Dr Mortimer arrived a few moments later but I couldn’t explain to him how demented she looked. I cannot explain it to myself. Perhaps you were right and it is this house that drives people insane. They are driven to the edge of madness and then they do mad things – send crazy letters to themselves, commit suicide, push servants down stairs, take lewd photographs, breed dogs to kill.”
She poured them both another Madeira to help settle their nerves and turned on some table lamps to dispel the gloom of low hanging beams and the weighty wisdom of hundreds of unread books.
“Tell me what Sir Olwen said about royal prerogatives. I trust you had enough time to drill him before I joined you this morning?”
He took a gulp from his glass and felt the liquor warm his gullet. “Yes, he was a font of information and he managed to explain it all in layman’s terms despite the fact he is a retired barrister. It goes something like this: A person is ennobled by royal prerogative, basically at the whim of the reigning monarch. A parchment bearing the Great Seal creates the peerage. This is called a patent. The patent describes how the title may descend after the death of the original peer. This is called the remainder. The remainder usually comes with a limitation. Most often this means it is limited to male heirs, legally begotten, meaning not illegitimate. The Baskerville baronetcy is of the type I just described.”
“What happens if there are no male heirs legally begotten?”
“The title becomes extinct.”
“And the money and the house can be willed in accordance with the last baronet’s wishes?”
“So if Lady Baskerville has a daughter, the daughter can inherit her father’s estate, because there is no title and hence no entailment to male heirs?”
“Lady Baskerville could inherit her husband’s estate in her own right?”
“So who has Sir Henry bequeathed his house and his wealth to if there are no male heirs? Did he think of that? Or did he just presume he would eventually sire a little baronet?”
“Only one person can answer that question. We need to speak to Dr Mortimer about the will again. He was very vague last time and not at all forthcoming. I would like to read the actual will for myself and he has the only copy.”
“I’m surprised Sir Olwen doesn’t have a copy since he handles all the Baskerville’s legal affairs. I know there was that fire in London but I would have thought he’d have kept a copy.”
“I think Lady Laura overstated his involvement. Sir Olwen told me that Sir Henry handled most of his own legal affairs, including tenancies and investments. Sir Olwen retired six years ago and was called upon to witness signatures and that sort of thing but he didn’t have anything to do with the running of the estate or any monies. Sir Henry used solicitors in London for important things. Minor legal business and general correspondence was handled by clerks at Sir Olwen’s old practice in Exeter.”
They both fell back into their chairs and closed their eyes. The doctor was beginning to doze off when they were alerted to a clinking noise coming from the French window. It was Antonio tapping on the diamond-paned glass.
“What the deuce is he doing?” said the doctor testily. “I have never seen a servant behave in such a dubious manner. I think he is taking liberties since the death of the baronet. I will speak to Mallard before Lady Laura is besieged by household problems that she cannot be expected to deal with on top of everything else.”
“He appears to be beckoning us.”
“What? To join him on the terrace?”
“He looks somewhat anxious.”
“He looks somewhat bonkers!”
“I’ll check to see what he wants. Stay here and throw another log on the fire. I think we might be in for more rain.”
“Perhaps you can invite him to warm his hands by the fire and join us for a glass of Madeira,” he piped sardonically.
As soon as she stepped outside the west wind whipped off the lace veil draped loosely around her neck and carried it across the slate-paved terrace. Antonio chased after it and finally caught up to it when it entangled itself around a stone cherub whose dainty arm was raised jauntily in the air. He brought it back and addressed her rapidly, breathlessly, and in his haste lisped out most of the words.
“Do you recall you asked me to tell Mr Frankland that the funeral would be delayed twenty minutes?”
She nodded curtly.
“I went straight to the chapel but he was not there. I thought he might be walking in the garden and tried to track him down. But he was nowhere to be seen. I went back to the chapel. It was still empty. I checked with some of the servants but they had not seen him all morning. Lady Baskerville’s maid said he was not with his daughter either. I then had to stop my search because I had to finish my jobs. Later, I went up to his room at the top of the tower. It was empty but the oriel window was open so I looked out to see if I could spot him in the garden and that’s when I understood why he couldn’t be found. Follow me,” he said earnestly, striding across the terrace.
“There’s no need,” she called after him. “The funeral is over. It no longer matters. The baronet has been interred.”
“Oh, yes, it does matter.” Forcefully, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her along. “You need to see why he missed it.”
“Really! You are taking liberties! And if you don’t unhand me I shall be forced to speak to the butler regarding your behaviour!”
Antonio continued to pull her along when Dr Watson threw open the French window.
“What the deuce is going on here!” he demanded fiercely.
Antonio’s hand dropped away but he stood his ground. “There’s something you need to see. You should both come. Follow me.”
He marched off at high speed, skirting the south side of the castle and did not look back until he reached the west entrance. The urgency of his tone compelled them to follow. Either the man was a lunatic or he had something important to show them, and the quicker they followed the quicker they would learn whether it was the former or the latter.
The indomitable twin towers cast no shadow on the earth but had their faces full to the westering light. The grey stone was softened by the roseate glow of the dying sun, and there at the base of the tower a gauche, hidden in the garden bed between plantings of rhododendron, azalea and hydrangea, was the body of Algernon Frankland.
Vindicated, Antonio stood back triumphant, while Dr Watson and the Countess trampled newly planted azaleas and dwarf rhododendrons in their frantic haste. There was something at the side of the body and the doctor almost stood on it. It was Jock.
The West Highland Terrier began to whimper and the Countess tried to pick it up but it growled menacingly and snapped. She leapt back in fright and the little dog disappeared under a bush. It moved awkwardly as if dragging its back leg. She watched it limp off in the direction of the stable yard and consoled herself with the thought that one of the stable lads or grooms would take care of it in the meantime. She made a mental note to check on the dog later.
Dr Watson reckoned the old man had been dead for some time. His body was stiff with cold. He checked underneath the corpse and noted that the mulch was dry.
“He must have fallen very early this morning. It rained during breakfast but the ground underneath him is dry whereas all around here is still damp.”
“He is wearing his dressing gown. He had not yet dressed for the funeral. That confirms it must have been quite early when he fell. He must have been lying here for hours.”
Ruefully, the doctor glanced up at the open window set high in the tower. “I should have been more vigilant, more awake to the possibility of another tragic accident. His life might have been saved had he been found earlier.”
“Do not castigate yourself. And what makes you think it was an accident?”
“What else could it have been?”
Antonio’s lisping voice punctuated their exchange. “This was no accident, same as Beryl’s death was no accident.”
They both forgot the wiry old retainer was still there and turned simultaneously to face him.
“What makes you say that?” posed the Countess.
“The little dog,” he delivered epigrammatically.
“What about the little dog?” queried Dr Watson.
Antonio rubbed his stubbled chin. “Old Frankland could have fallen out that window if you choose to stretch the facts but the little dog could not.”
The doctor looked unconvinced. “Mr Frankland might have had the dog in his arms when he lost his balance and fell. They might have fallen at the same time.”
Antonio looked up the window, inviting them to do likewise. “The window juts out but the opening is small as is the way with oriel windows. Oriels are built for show. They are not like bay windows built for giving views and bringing light into a big room. The old man would have to be leaning far to fall out that little window. And if he was leaning out far he would be foolish to be holding onto his little dog. And Mr Frankland may have talked like an old fool but he was not as daft as he seemed.”
The doctor and the Countess were impressed with the Costa Rican’s reasoning. It was perhaps not so surprising that Sir Henry had appointed him as his valet. Years of working on paddle-steamers on the Mississippi had probably given him a keen eye for detail, and years of living with Jack Stapleton at his school in East Yorkshire had most likely honed his brain. The intelligent way he had arranged the historical artifacts retrieved from the mire should have alerted them to the fact he was also not as daft as he seemed either. But after years of working with Sherlock Holmes the doctor was naturally wary of people who tried to steer him in a certain direction.
“There is a stool by the window where Mr Frankland had set up his telescope,” said the doctor. “He could have been standing on the stool and looking out at something that caught his eye when he lost his balance and fell. And the dog may have leapt out after the master; not realising there was a seven storey drop.”
Antonio didn’t quite scoff at the explanation but his thin lip curled to one side, giving the appearance of a sinister grin. “It were a cow what jumped over the moon, not a little dog!”
“So what do you think happened?” pressed the Countess.
Antonio didn’t take long to think. “The old man was pushed, same as Beryl was pushed.”
“And the dog?” quizzed the doctor.
“The little dog was thrown out the window.”
The wizened old retainer sounded certain but it begged the question how he could be so certain if he was not privy to the event.
“What time did you first spot Mr Frankland lying here in the garden bed?” asked the doctor.
“Soon after you went to have your lunch. I saw you coming out of the chapel and saw that Mr Frankland was not with you. So I picked up my search for him. I had had to drop it earlier because I had to finish filling up the fire baskets in the great hall and the library, and then I had to light the fire in the dining room so the room would be warm when you all came for your lunch. I went to check Mr Frankland’s room and saw the window open and looked out to see if I could spot him in the garden, and that’s when I saw some stuff caught on the window latch.”
“A bit of blue cord from his dressing gown.”
“So when you saw the bit of blue cord you checked further?”
“Yes, I peered right out the window; right over the side and downwards to the garden bed.”
“So that was about one o’clock?” clarified the doctor.
“Closer to half past one,” corrected the retainer, “because the funeral had been delayed half an hour.”
“And you immediately assumed he had been pushed?”
“Yes, because I had to lean out far to spot the body, and the stone sill of the oriel is built wide and I didn’t fear at any time that I might topple over and fall. You can try it for yourself,” he invited with another crooked grin.
The doctor was starting to suspect he was being led by the nose, which in turn made him feel hot under the collar, and the sinister smile did nothing to allay his suspicions. “Am I correct in assuming you alerted no one else to this tragedy and waited all this time to inform the Countess and myself, though you spotted the body at one-thirty and it is now almost five-thirty – four hours later?”
“Yes, you would be correct to assume that.”
The Countess noted the censorious tone and decided to intervene before Dr Watson put the retainer offside and they learned nothing further. She intuited Antonio had more to say. And she still hadn’t quizzed him about the studio. She had to keep him on-side for the time being. “Why did you not alert us earlier?” she stated calmly.
“I knew you were taking lunch with the other visitors and I did not wish to disturb you.”
“Good God, man!” shouted the doctor. “Did you not consider the tragic death of Mr Frankland to be serious enough to disturb a mere lunch!”
“I did consider it carefully, sir. And I came to the conclusion it would not benefit Mr Frankland to have lots of feet trampling the ground around him and surmising wildly as to his death.”
“What if he had still been alive but lying here unconscious!”
“He was not. I checked the body for a pulse as you did and found none. The body was already stiffening up. I tried to catch the little dog as you did, Countess, but he did bite me.” He showed where some teeth marks had broken the flesh of his hand. “I let him be as he seemed to want to curl up by his master and gather his strength – what was left of it. He was whimpering with pain. I think his back leg might be broken. But he wouldn’t let me touch him so the kindest thing I could do was to let him be. I considered alerting Mallard but he would have made a mess of it. I thought the best thing was for you to see the body untouched. I checked for footprints as I saw you do, Dr Watson, when you went in search of Sir Henry. There were none. Now there are three sets of prints. Mine, yours and yours.” He looked from the doctor to the Countess as he said it and drew breath before continuing. “The body had landed face down as you see it now. So it appears like he did fall face first but the little dog did not land near the body.” Come over here. He led them to a spot a short distance to the left where an azalea had been completely crushed. “I think the little dog landed here. This plant is flattened and there are some paw prints around its main stem.” He pointed them out. “But they are not clear because the little dog was not walking on all fours as it should have been had it run down the stairs after the master. It was struggling to stand up and then dragged itself along the ground. You can see the way the loose mulch has made a shallow channel. The little dog then nestled in here.” He pointed to a rounded spot by the side of the body. “And that’s where he stayed until he ran away. That’s why I can say the little dog was thrown from the window. He did not land near the body but much further away. Unless he has wings and can fly, he was thrown. I checked on the body of Mr Frankland all day to make sure no one disturbed it. For four hours it has been as it is now. No one has touched it.”
No one said anything for several minutes but their brains whirred.
“You have done well,” praised the Countess, breaking the silence. “And I think Dr Watson will agree with me when I say that your summation of this tragedy has been precise and accurate. Sherlock Holmes could not have done better. Please join me in the library for a glass of Madeira while Dr Watson organizes to have the body of Mr Frankland moved into the gun room for further examination.”
By daring to issue such an unseemly invitation the Countess hoped to achieve several things. First, she would incense Dr Watson’s sense of decorum and eliminate his presence. He would occupy himself with the corpse and vent his fury in private and not interrupt them for a good length of time. She probably wouldn’t see him until dinner. That would give her at least two hours to gain Antonio’s trust then casually suggest they check the oriel window, whereby she could carefully steer the conversation around to the twin tower. There were several unanswered questions attached to the studio and she meant to get to the bottom of them.
Her thoughts turned fleetingly to Jock, but Westies were a tenacious breed, cute as buttons but hardy; no doubt as soon as word spread that Mr Frankland was dead the injured dog would be showered with attention. The kitchen staff would make a huge fuss of it and the frightened little thing would probably get to sleep in Tabby’s basket by the coal range.
Dr Watson hailed a couple of gardeners who were sweeping some errant autumn leaves off the immaculate green velvet sward that swept down to the Yew Allee. They downed their besom brooms and ambled up to the front entrance.
“These men can carry the body to the gun room,” he said decisively before adding sternly, “by the way do not, under any circumstances, inform Lady Baskerville of the death of her father. Her health is teetering on the edge and any more bad news may push her over the brink. Is that quite clear?”
The Countess and Antonio acknowledged his directive as they walked away together.
Ten years of service with the Baskerville’s had shaped Antonio’s notion of propriety. He remained stiff and formal, refusing to sit down in a chair, until after his second Madeira. He was then persuaded to take the weight off his spindly legs and settle on the brass fender. Like most people who had recently lost a loved one he opened up about his dear departed.
“Beryl was a graceful dancer like her mother. She was born to it. It came natural to her. But her mother was even more graceful and beautiful. You look at me now and you wonder how I could have had a beautiful wife. But I was handsome once. I was tall and strong and proud. But misery has bent my bones and screwed up my features. The frost and ice, the bitter wind, the winter snow, they have all played their part. They have worn me down and worn me out. Now I am nothing but a rag and bone man in a cold place far from home.”
“Did Beryl hate the cold too?”
“The young don’t feel the cold like the old folk do.”
“Beryl sometimes sang to the children?”
“Yes, she had a lovely voice, clear and operatic. She could sing in French and Italian as well as English. She worked hard at different accents. She was ashamed of her roots. But the more she lost her first accent, the more the lisp that runs in our family took hold. Jack Stapleton teased her mercilessly. She hated him for that. During our years in Mississippi she developed a bit of a southern drawl. Singing showboat tunes day and night would do that. But after we came to this country she lost the drawl and the lisp came back. She wanted to sound like a proper English lady, but she never quite got the hang of it. Some accents are harder to manage. You have to be born to them. Take that American engineer – he is not a born Yankee – though his twang sounds good to those who know no better.”
She decided to humour him, though she had met Russians who sounded French, Germans who sounded Russian, South Africans who sounded Dutch, Americans who sounded Irish, Irish who sounded English, and Australians who sounded like nothing on earth! The American engineer’s accent was perfect as far as she was concerned. And like her, he had travelled extensively. He was bound to have a mélange of accents. Steam trains and clipper ships had opened up the world. In the future there would be only one accent. It was time to move on.
“I would like to take a look at the oriel window in Mr Frankland’s room,” she said, placing her empty glass on a library table centred with a rare Sevres vase. “Would you be so kind as to show me where you saw the bit of blue cord on the window latch?”
He ushered a few steps behind her, remembering his place once again, and did not speak until they reached the top of the tower.
“Here they are,” he said, pointing to the iron latch before standing back to let her squeeze into the oriel bay without knocking over the telescope. “I did not remove the bits of cord. I thought that you or Dr Watson might want to see them.”
“Mmm, yes, they are wound around the metal catch. I see what you mean about the width of the sill too. It would not be easy to fall by accident unless you were leaning out with the greater part of your body.”
She performed a little experiment by climbing on the stool. “The stool is sturdy. It is more like a window bench. It would not topple over without some help.”
“Be careful!” he warned as she stood on tip-toe to look at the garden bed below, leaning out farther than was wise.
She pulled back suddenly and lost her footing. He caught her by the arms as she fell backwards and together they knocked over the telescope balancing on the tripod stand. It clattered to the floor with a loud bang that reverberated down the spiral stairs. While he reassembled it she thought how difficult it would have been to push an old man out of the window without disturbing the instrument standing in the way. It was another puzzle that needed solving.
She glanced back at the window before the door closed. Jock would have needed to jump from the stool to the sill, no mean feat for a dog with short legs, and from the sill he would have seen the drop to the ground. She doubted any dog would jump from such a height of its own accord, not even to follow its master out the window.
She waited until they reached the gallery before announcing she wanted to see the view from the neighbouring oriel window, to check the trajectory of the fall, and asked him to accompany her. He told her the door was locked and he had no idea where the key might be. She told him she spotted a brass key behind the suit of armour in the niche and thought it might be the key to the door. He swallowed every word.
“Did you come up here often?” she asked as they paused at the top of the corkscrew stairs and she pretended to retrieve the key from its hiding place instead of her own pocket.
“Never,” he replied, panting heavily. “The first time I came up to Beryl’s studio was the night she died and I saw the candlelight flickering and thought maybe I had been dreaming she died, or maybe her ghost had returned to haunt the tower. I was surprised and angry to see you and Dr Watson up here.”
“Were you surprised by the photographs too?”
“No,” he said. “They belonged to Jack Stapleton. I had seen them before in Yorkshire. He was an amateur photographer and had his own darkroom. Beryl held ballet classes on weekends at the school and he would drug the girls who came to learn to dance and take their pictures. When they woke up, Beryl would tell them they had fainted. He didn’t molest them. But I know it sickened her. But he was not a man to be denied. She fell in love with him so hard and fast it coloured her view of his character for a long time. By the time she came to her senses it was too late. I have made my bed, she would say to me, and now I must lie in it.”
The Countess unlocked the door and went straight to the oriel window and opened the latch to look out. The white velvet chaise longue was not positioned directly under the window and there was no stool to stand on so she could not see the garden bed directly below. But she could see that the two gardeners had returned to their sweeping and guessed that the body had been removed to the gun room. This was the first time she noted the top of the Yew hedge and the words clipped into the canopy: Baskerville Castle 1899.
“Your daughter had a lot of exquisite evening gowns,” commented the Countess, feigning curiosity, casually opening one after another of the wardrobes and running her fingers through yards and yards of silk, satin and taffeta, adopting the air of one who appreciates fine fabrics.
“I know what you are meaning by that,” he said coldly. “They are far too good for a governess and you would be right. She was the mistress of the baronet. He gave her these gowns. He liked her to dress up lovely. He would have married her instead of Laura Lyons but English custom would not stand for it. He loved her from the first. He loved her to the last. He made me his valet so that I could take messages to her and she could pass them back to him about when to meet. I knew what they used this room for. That’s why I never came up here. It weren’t my business. It made her happy to be with him. She should have been mistress of this big house!”
“That is a strange admission for a father. Did you not disapprove?”
He gave a scornful laugh, full of contempt. “I loved my daughter. She loved the baronet. He loved her. I am not so righteous as to judge them. I am not without sin. It was a sin they could not marry.”
“Do you resent Lady Laura?”
His mouth twisted into a malignant and mirthless smile. “Yes, I resent her but I do not blame her. It was not her doing that the baronet could not marry my daughter.”
“Did Lady Laura know about her husband’s infidelity?”
“Yes, she knew. Not at first but later she knew.”
“How can you be sure?”
“She hated Beryl. You could see it in her eyes. But she never loved the baronet the way Beryl did. So in the end it didn’t matter to her if her husband was unfaithful. She wanted a child but she did not want a husband. She may even have been glad he did not demand his conjugal rights more often.”
“Thank you, Antonio, you have been very honest. I have been trying to understand the secrets of this house and you have helped me. I am still no closer to solving any puzzles. I still have no answers. But I think I am one step to closer to the truth.”
He moved about efficiently, closing the wardrobes and the window latch, perhaps to disguise the fact his rheumy old eyes were pricked with tears. “If you have no objection, I would like to stay here a bit longer. Mallard will be looking for me to bring more wood in before it gets dark, so I won’t be long. I will put the key back behind the suit of armour.”
“I will tell Mallard that I sent you on an errand and that you are still engaged doing my bidding, that way you won’t be in trouble for slacking on your usual duties. Stay as long as you like.”
Dr Watson’s reaction to the news that Beryl and the baronet were lovers was to be expected. Though he considered himself to be a mature man of the world, he was a bit of a puritan at heart. He couldn’t imagine marriage without love and fidelity. And his opinion of the baronet had taken a battering since returning to Devon. He had admired the baronet from their first meeting and placed him on a pedestal. But his paragon of virtue was starting to reveal feet of clay.
Perhaps it was her Ukrainian upbringing and the fact she had been given up by her mother and never knew her father, but the Countess did not find such things shocking. She was vexed by it not from a moral standpoint but because she couldn’t see how knowing it might fit in with all that had happened at Baskerville Castle. Lady Laura did not love her husband so she was unlikely to be jealous of his mistress and may even have been thankful that he did not visit her bedchamber more than necessary to conceive a child. She wanted a child so she was unlikely to induce her husband to commit suicide. And Beryl was hardly likely to kill the baronet. Nor was Antonio. Their lives were made infinitely easier by their association with him. No one had a motive. The deaths-cum-accidents seemed meaningless and random.
They sank into comfortable armchairs by the fire and smoked an after-dinner cigarette. After knowing each other for only one week the silence between them seemed perfectly blissful. They looked like a mutually contented married couple – except that married couples rarely were.
Dr Watson’s news was easier to digest. It went down well with a glass of port and some hot cocoa. While examining the body of Mr Frankland he discovered a contusion to the back of the skull caused by a blunt instrument. Since the body had landed face first, Mr Frankland must have been hit on the back of the head before falling.
“Ah, that made sense,” she said, grateful that something did. “It would have been extremely difficult to push him out the window without knocking over the telescope. He would surely have put up a bit of a struggle and therefore knocked it over. But if he had been hit on the head first he might already have been unconscious. Someone could then just drag him to the stool and tip him out, voila! They could even move the telescope out of the way and then replace it. I thought it couldn’t be done by a woman. But if he had been hit on the head first, a woman might have had the strength to bundle him out the window.”
“What do you make of Antonio?” he solicited, changing the subject.
“I think he is surprisingly honest. My husband used to say that people who have suffered a lot tend not to put a gloss on things. They talk straight – were his words.”
“Hrrmph,” he responded consumptively, “if anyone pushed old Frankland out that window it was the lisping valet.”
“On what do you base that theory?”
“He is an accomplished liar. He couldn’t talk straight if he tried. He worked us the same way those two spruikers hovering over the mummy worked the gawping crowd at Lady Felicity Fanshawe’s”
“What motive would he have?”
He had already thought it through and had an answer at the ready. “Resentment – Frankland is the father of the woman who is married to the baronet. Antonio is the father of the woman who isn’t. He might say it doesn’t bother him but resentment is an emotion that can stew away and then bubble over. The two men meet in the tower and are exchanging words and before you know it Frankland has boasted that his daughter is carrying the heir or something like that and Antonio has snapped. He is hot-blooded. Hot-blooded types tend to act impulsively.”
“Is that a scientific assessment?”
“Well, how else can you explain his amazing powers of observation?”
“If powers of observation make you guilty then my father should have been locked up every time he set foot out the door.”
“Then we are back to square one with no suspects and no motive but yet another death.”
“Another death or another accident?” she challenged. “You thought it was an accident when you first saw the body.”
“I was hasty in my assessment,” he admitted with a grimace. “The knock to the back of the head and the fact that the dog was thrown out the window destroys that theory. It is murder.”
“In that case the obvious suspect is Barrymore. He went up to find Frankland. He had ample time to bang him on the head and push him out the window.”
She considered the question thoughtfully and took the time to finish her cigarette. “He wants to marry Lady Laura but he knows Frankland will oppose the match on the grounds that he is not good enough for the widow of a baronet!”
“Very good!” he exclaimed. “Yes, it makes sense! Finally something makes sense. He could have killed his wife to clear the path, and got rid of the baronet for the same reason.”
“An accident with the dingoes in the stable. Do you think it might be time to summon Inspector Lestrade from Scotland Yard?”
She shook her head. “Tomorrow is the funeral of Beryl and Gaston. Let us not disturb the dignity in death they deserve. If we haven’t heard from your friend in Tavistock by the day after tomorrow we will summon Lestrade and tell him all we know.”
He nodded quickly and rattled off his thoughts unpunctuated. “The Mortimers aren’t coming to either funeral tomorrow, but my guess is that Barrymore will arrive early to try to gain an audience with Lady Laura, we can observe him carefully and see if he incriminates himself, and after the first funeral I can go to Coombe Tracey to telegraph my chum and find out what the delay might be; I will return in plenty of time for Gaston’s funeral in the evening; you can keep an eye on Barrymore and make sure he doesn’t go into Lady Laura’s room, I don’t want her unnerved, but take care not to reveal that we suspect him – he might be dangerous.”
She was already shaking her head before he had even finished. He wondered if she had heard a single word.
“I need to buy more black satin,” she announced importantly. “And I need a black top-hat with a crepe de Chine bow. This wretched veil was a nuisance all day. I had to wrestle it into place all through the service. And it has messed my hair. We have two more funerals tomorrow and then another two after that – Eliza Barrymore and Mr Frankland. This house party has turned into one long funeral! I will go to Coombe Tracey in your place and telegraph your friend and sign your name. You watch Barrymore. The vicar will be here so don’t get distracted. And you can rely on Fedir not to let Barrymore anywhere near Lady Laura. Enlist Antonio’s help if you need it. The way he kept track of everyone’s movements in and out of the chapel shows what a truly observant fellow he is. He could be invaluable in keeping an eye on Barrymore.”
It was reassuring to know she had listened, but not reassuring that it was for the purpose of contradiction. But experience had taught him there was no point arguing with a woman about fripperies when it came to personal vanity. “Make sure you take Fedir with you to Coombe Tracey. Take Xenia as well. There’s safety in numbers. As for Antonio – I don’t think we should trust him.”
Limpid pools of watery light filtered through the stained glass windows of the chapel on that cold autumn morning. Antonio did not weep. Long ago his tears had turned to stones.
The funeral was brief but not lacking in dignity. Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna did a reading. None of the mourners lingered in the old dining room though it was a warm and pleasant spot. Antonio hovered by the door as tea and coffee were dispensed and he looked like a man who had something he wanted to get off his chest but Mallard ordered him back to his chores. No sooner was the meal concluded than everyone went their separate ways. The funeral for Gaston de Garonne was not until six o’clock in the evening.
The vicar decided to use the afternoon to visit his wayward flock in the hamlet of Grimpen. Barrymore brought his darling Bessie and his new Purdey with him and intended to explore pockets of the great Grimpen Mire. Dr Watson positioned himself in a wing chair in the great hall with his book where he could keep an eye on anyone trying to gain an audience with Lady Laura. The Countess exchanged her dolorous gown for something more vivacious, ordered the landau with the two chestnut mares and went off with her servants to Coombe Tracey.
There was no sign of a telegram but a letter had arrived yesterday from Tavistock. The sender was one Mr Saint Giles and it was addressed to Dr John Watson.
The Countess aimed a thin and abbreviated smile at the post-master before launching into a polite but frosty dressing down. “I believe I paid extra to have this missive delivered to Baskerville Castle as soon as it arrived.”
“No, madame,” contradicted the post-master, “you paid extra for a telegram to be delivered to Baskerville Castle as soon as it arrived.”
She was tempted to argue the point, but since a queue had formed in the post office she heeded the adage about waging battles and winning wars and swallowed her considerable pride, emptying into his palm her shillings and pence. “In future, should any telegram or letter arrive addressed to Dr John Watson please deliver them immediately to Baskerville Castle. Good day to you, sir.”
After completing her other purchases, she hurried to the landau and as soon as the wheels were tearing up Devon dust she was tearing open the letter from Tavistock and her eyes were flying over the damning prose. Jensen was indeed a diligent and thorough fellow who considered no detail too trivial to document. This letter would tighten the noose around Barrymore’s neck. And a confession would hang him for a double murderer.
While she was reflecting as to the best course of action – whether to confront Barrymore before or after Gaston’s funeral, whether to unmask him during or after dinner, whether to confront him with the facts first up or whether to try to trick him into an admission of guilt by alluding to his secret past, whether to first summon Inspector Lestrade or whether to risk him flying the coop by revealing what they knew – she glanced out of the carriage window. They were just passing the old cemetery. On one of the hoary grey headstones was sitting a young gypsy girl and on her lap was a little white dog.
The Countess banged on the roof of the landau with her umbrella.
Alarmed, the girl spotted the landau and pushed to her feet, almost dropping the dog. The dog whimpered and the Countess could see that its back leg was bound with a dirty red checkered rag. The girl was about ten or twelve years of age with matted black tresses that hung halfway down her back in wind-whipped tangles. She was wearing knee-length boy’s breeches under a grimy grey pinafore with a torn hem and over her thin shoulders was a ragged shawl, knotted at the front.
“Wait!” the Countess cried when the girl began moving awkwardly in the opposite direction, dragging one leg which she presumed was because of the weight of the injured dog before noticing that one boot was bigger than the other. The gypsy girl had a clubfoot. It slowed her down and gave the Countess a chance to catch up. When she was within earshot she decided to try some Ukrainian since it was a Slavic tongue not dissimilar to Romany, and probably something the older gypsies still used among themselves. It worked. The girl looked back over her shoulder.
“Who are you?”
“Never mind – I just want to ask you something.”
“You will take my dog!”
“No, no,” the Countess assured. “I will not take your dog.”
“Jago wants my dog,” she hissed. “But I won’t give it up! It’s mine! I found it! It’s finders- keepers!”
“I won’t take your dog,” she repeated to no avail.
Having gypsy blood coursing through ones veins meant being naturally mistrustful of outsiders. Carefully, the girl put the dog on the ground and covered it with her shawl.
“Come closer and I will claw your pretty eyes out and scratch your pretty face!” she threatened baring a row of teeth like a she-wolf protecting her young.
The Countess persisted. “I know that little dog. His name is Jock. He has a broken leg. His owner is dead and he is in need of a good home. You can keep him if you would like to look after him. And I can see you care for him. I just want to speak to you about a letter.”
The gypsy girl took a moment to digest the big speech. She was not retarded but no one had ever spoken so many words to her in one go. She was used to words that came short and sharp. Collect some kindling! Chop the cabbage! Feed the pigs! In her world praise came with a double meaning. The only time anyone said anything nice to her was usually just before a beating. Who stirred this lovely cabbage soup? Bang! A slap to the side of the head! It’s burnt on the bottom and stuck to the pot you useless little cripple! Who put this big log of wood on the fire? Slap! It’s still green! It will smoke all night you stupid tzigana! She tried to fathom the double meaning in the words she just heard but there were too many of them swimming inside her head. The dog gave a whimper and she glanced down to make sure it wasn’t trying to stand on its broken leg.
The Countess decided a generous gesture was called for but she had given all her spare change to the post-master. Suddenly inspiration struck! In an instant she pulled off her Indian paisley shawl and held it out. “Here, take this,” she said, “You can have it. It’s yours. I don’t want to take your dog. You can keep him too. Jock can have your old shawl to keep him warm and you can have this new one.”
Mesmerised by the jewelled colours of the Raj, the girl’s small black eyes widened until they were the size of saucers. “His name is Snowy!” she snapped. “If you mean what you say put the shawl down on Benbow’s grave and go back over there by that stump.” She spat out the instructions just as the last words of the big speech finally sank in. “What letter?”
The Countess placed the shawl on the grave marked Benbow and backed off to show she meant no harm. “The letter you delivered to the master of Baskerville Castle last month.”
“What of it?”
“Who gave it to you?”
The gypsy girl grabbed the paisley shawl as if it was a live snake about to bite her and secured it tightly around her waist. “You can’t have the shilling back! It’s mine! I hid it under one of the gravestones so Jago cannot steal it from me!”
“I don’t want the shilling. I just want to know who gave you the letter.”
She gave a wild laugh. “A demon!”
“What sort of demon?”
“You won’t believe me. No one does.”
“I’ll believe you if you tell me.”
She hesitated and scratched her head. “The headless horseman!”
“You saw him?”
She looked back over her left shoulder, as if checking to make sure the phantom horseman wasn’t about to make a sudden appearance, and nodded quickly.
“He spoke to you?”
She nodded again.
“What did he say?”
“Deliver this to the Master of Baskerville and there is a shilling for your trouble.”
“What sort of voice did he have?”
The girl looked confused.
The Countess elaborated. “Was his voice deep and low like a man’s voice or high-pitched like a woman?”
“Like a man-devil.”
“Did the voice sound like it came from these parts or from some country far away where they talk different?” What she meant was did it have an accent or a lisp?
“From these parts.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“Dog Hole Gorge.”
“Were you alone?”
Another nod of the head.
“What were you doing there?”
“Gathering vetches for the pot.”
The Countess decided to challenge the gypsy’s veracity. “The headless horseman only comes when there is a thunderstorm.”
“It did thunder! I hid under Dog Hole Tor and the demon came out of the storm on his demon horse!”
“What was he wearing?”
“Countess Volodymyrovna! Countess Volodymyrovna!”
The moment the Countess turned her head toward the call of her manservant, the gypsy girl grabbed the dog and disappeared over the nearest granite spur. Annoyed at having the conversation cut short, she was about to reprimand Fedir when she spotted Jago on his dog cart heading their way and hurried back to the safety of the landau.
So much for keeping a watchful eye out for Barrymore! Dr Watson was snoring in the wing chair with his book on his lap. The Countess put her hand on his knee and gave him a gentle shake.
“Here, read this,” she said, thrusting the letter into his hand as soon as he stirred. “It’s from your chum in Tavistock. There was no telegram because he sent a letter instead. It runs to several pages. I’m going upstairs to change back into my black satin. We can discuss the contents in your bedroom in twenty minutes. Ring for tea and sandwiches.” She delivered the last bit as she crossed the hall and mounted the stairs.
If he was still drowsy when she thrust the letter at him, he was wide awake by the time he finished perusing the contents. He had been secretly worrying that Jensen Saint Giles might fail to deliver but his friend had excelled himself. At five-thirty he ushered the Countess into his stately chamber where a pot of Souchong and some thinly quartered cucumber sandwiches awaited.
“It is damning stuff, n’est-ce pas?” she said, popping a sandwich into her mouth and gratefully accepting the cup of tea he passed into her hand. “I am parched. I had an encounter in the old cemetery but that is another story. The matter relating to Barrymore is more pressing. I have been giving it some thought. I think we should confront him straight after the funeral of Gaston. What say you?”
He had been giving it some thought too. “I think we should confront him before the funeral.”
She checked the bracket clock on the black marble mantel and shook her head. “There will not be enough time.”
“What if he chooses to rush away straight after the funeral?”
She finished gobbling down another dainty sandwich. “We can hint that Lady Laura will be joining us after dinner in the library.”
“Will he fall for such an obvious falsehood?”
“To a man who is besotted nothing is obvious. And he does not suspect we know anything about his past. He will go eagerly into the library like a fly into the parlour of a spider. Antonio can be posted in the great hall should he try to make a run for it. And Fedir can be posted to the stable to watch his horse and his darling Bessie should he choose to flee from another door.”
“Very well,” he assented. “Now what is this other encounter? What old cemetery?”
She gulped down the rest of her tea and grabbed another sandwich to go. “There is no time. I must get to the library and choose a reading for Gaston. Something about gardens. That should be easy considering the English consider the whole of England to be one big garden. And if you are going to do another reading, don’t choose The Fall of the House of Usher.”
The chapel was not gurged in gold. Most of yesterday’s candles were nothing but stumps guttering in pools of their own clumpy wax, flickering faintly before dying.
The Countess read Keats – To Autumn – first in English and then in French.
The doctor, mindful not to offend, also chose Keats. He read – When I Have Fears.
The remains of Gaston de Garrone would be cremated and the ashes placed in an urn that would stand in the centre of the rose garden that fanned out from the south-east corner of the castle. Every morning the sun would warm the cold stone and those who were taking lunch in the old dining room with the triple aspect would catch a glimmer of reflected light and perhaps spare a thought for the French gardener. In summer the roses would burst into bloom around him and fill the air with their heavenly scent. In years to come, ladies would stroll past and say “I wonder whose ashes are buried here?” “Who was this Frenchman buried so far from home?” “Who was Gaston de Garonne?”
But Nature would not forget him. Nature would honour him. Nature did not judge or condemn. It bloomed for saint and sinner alike. The rose did not ask “Is this a good man?” “Is he worthy of my scent?” “Should I send out new buds for him come spring?” A chorus of ladybirds, bumblebees and butterflies would quietly sing his praises. Gaston did not need God’s moral nod to enter heaven. He did not need Saint Peter’s approval to pass through the pearly gates. He had made a little paradise here on earth. And the answer would come from the perfumed air: “He was a gardener.”
Dinner was a sombre affair. They were a disparate quartet, sick to death of funerals and anxious to be elsewhere. The vicar wanted to be tucked into a warm bed in the comfortable guestroom set aside for him. Mr Barrymore desperately wanted to see Lady Laura. And Dr Watson and the Countess wanted to confront the man whose dark secret they now knew. The Countess initiated some artful manoeuvring as only a woman can.
“You must be exhausted, vicar,” she sighed sympathetically. “Three funerals in two days. I don’t know how you manage so many readings and so many hymns. It must be difficult choosing what is appropriate and so very, very taxing on the brain.”
He agreed that it was tiring but added that he enjoyed selecting readings and hymns and was heartened that she thought them appropriate.
She feigned a yawn, hoping it might be infectious. “I find funerals so emotionally draining. They take their pound of flesh from each of us but more so from you, vicar, since you must preside over them and offer endless comfort to the bereaved.”
He mumbled something about flocks and shepherds while she feigned another yawn. Dr Watson picked up her cue.
“I think I will be having an early night,” he said, heaving a sigh. “I feel wrung out. The death of Sir Henry has taken its toll on me; and the terrible accident with Mrs Stapleton coming so soon after it, and the unnatural death of the French gardener to top it off. It has been taxing, to say the least. I must say, vicar, it was good of you to step in at the last moment to consecrate the new chapel on top of all your other duties. How was your day in Grimpen hamlet?”
A cloud fell over the vicar’s shiny round face which was perpetually perspiring and, coupled with his bald pate, reminded everyone of a rosy red apple dotted with dew. “Oh, I cannot complain while doing the good Lord’s calling but there are so many men and women there worn out with work, so many old and frail, so many children sick, I didn’t know where to start and I didn’t think I would ever finish. And some parishioners are easier to administer to than others. The unfortunate inhabitants of Grimpen are not open to the Word of God and so their prayers go unheeded.”
“Indeed,” affirmed the Countess. “Do you have another busy day tomorrow, vicar?”
“Yes,” he replied, polishing his shiny pate, “Sunday is my busiest day.”
“So you must start back for Coombe Tracey bright and early?”
The apple nodded wearily.
“Saint Swithin’s is fortunate to have a minister who leads by example,” added the doctor.
The apple drooped on the bough. “I think I will have an early night too. If you will excuse me, a guestroom in the west wing beckons. Bon nuit.”
Barrymore, who had been paying scant attention to the conversation, looked up quickly. “I was hoping to speak to you after dinner about the funeral arrangements for my wife, vicar.”
The vicar frowned like a man who had just found a worm in his apple. “We can discuss the arrangements tomorrow after mass. I haven’t seen you at church for some time Mr Barrymore. It will be good to see your face among the congregation.”
Barrymore coloured slightly from the veiled reprimand but his swarthy complexion and the dark beard hid it well. The worried pallor of old had long gone, banished by an antipodean sun – no freckles for him – and he was hardy handsomer for it. The thick and shaggy beard from his butlering days had been neatly trimmed and now served to outline a strong jaw that hinted at strength of character. Up close, a few silver hairs showed through the rich dark strands, but from a distance no one would have guessed that this was a man who had weathered fifty years.
It was time for more feminine manoeuvring. The Countess put on her prettiest conceit.
“Shall we retire to the library for port and cigars, gentlemen? I believe Lady Laura may soon be joining us for some hot cocoa.”
Barrymore used the backs of his knees to push back his chair so forcefully it landed with a loud thud on the bare oak boards. Quickly, he picked it up, remembering himself, and offered his arm to the lady. Dr Watson patted the letter concealed in his top pocket as the Countess swept past holding onto the fish was well and truly hooked. Walking a few paces behind, he also patted the revolver concealed in his other pocket.
“God must have given men two hands so that they could balance a cigar in one and a crystal tumbler in the other,” commented the Countess flippantly as the two men positioned themselves either side of the fireplace in an attempt to look relaxed. Alas! Barrymore, as twitchy as a cat on hot bricks, kept throwing desperate glances at the door. The doctor, mindful that things could turn dangerous in the blink of an eye, swallowed his port in one gulp to give himself a free hand should the need arise.
“It is most unusual for a man to change his name after marriage,” the Countess broached so non-chalantly she could have been talking blandly about the weather.
Barrymore swallowed some port the wrong way and coughed violently. “It is not a crime to change ones name. I think it might be more common than you imagine.”
“Sans doubt,” replied the Countess in French, recalling how he had no trouble comprehending the word ‘gauche’ the morning of Sir Henry’s funeral – that being the morning she sent him to the tower to find Mr Frankland. “But it is unusual for a man to change his name to his wife’s mother’s maiden name – n’est-ce pas?”
Barrymore’s eyes flicked to the door. Perhaps he was checking to make sure his love’s desire was not about to walk in on the conversation, or perhaps he was hoping she would, and the conversation could be diverted. He adopted a cavalier tone, slightly patriarchal, the sort men favour when putting an uppity woman in her place. “Your tone of voice suggests something sinister and underhand, Countess Volodymyrovna. I presume you are alluding to me. But there is no hidden motive and no great mystery to it. My wife’s mother’s family had been in service to the Baskervilles for over one hundred years but the connection was severed when the Barrymores had no sons, only daughters, and the Hall was closed up due to the young Sir Charles choosing to live in South Africa. When we heard Sir Charles had returned to Baskerville Hall and my wife expressed a desire to return to her Dartmoor roots I thought it would be much easier to gain employment with Sir Charles if we first restored the old family connection.”
“Eliza Selden was from these parts?” probed the Countess, lulling him into a sense of false security.
He nodded. “Her father was coachman and her mother was a housemaid as was her mother before her and so on, always in service here at Baskerville until it was closed up.”
“Where did they go after it was closed?”
“Mr Selden found employment as an ostler at the coaching inn at Coombe Tracey and Mrs Selden went into service for the vicar at Saint Swithin’s.”
“Was your family always in service too?”
“We are all of us in service one way or another by choice of our vocation.”
“Was butlering always your chosen vocation?” she rephrased.
“I did have aspirations to better myself when I was younger, but a tragedy in the family curtailed my hopes and butlering was a good alternative.”
“What tragedy was that?”
“My first wife died.”
“That is indeed a tragedy, Mr Barrymore, and your second wife too. Very tragic. What did you say was your previous name?”
He answered quickly, as if anticipating the question. “I didn’t say because you did not ask. It was John de Chivers.”
“Your family was not from these parts?”
“No, they hail from Tavistock.”
“What was the name of your first wife?” interposed the doctor in an interested monotone, fingering the revolver in his pocket.
“It was Clara.”
“Clara de Chivers,” murmured the Countess. “I believe I have heard the name before but I cannot think where or in relation to what,” she lied.
A few beads of sweat broke out on Barrymore’s brow. The doctor offered to top up his port to ease his Gordian misery and to stop him doing something reckless.
Antonio made an appearance at the door leading to the great hall, looking agitated, as if he had something to say, but the doctor dismissed him with an abrupt wave of his hand and a glowering look.
“I was grief-stricken when my wife passed away,” said the doctor, passing Barrymore a fresh port. “It is always tragic to lose a loved one. And when you are a doctor and can do nothing to ease suffering it is even more tragic. Did your wife suffer from an illness?”
Barrymore tossed his half-spent cigar on the fire and ran his index finger around the inside edge of his cravat. “No, she did not suffer from an illness. She died by her own hand.”
“Suicide,” observed the Countess mildly. “An unfortunate coincidence – the same as your second wife.”
The healthy colour drained from the ex-butler’s face. He was starting to look as pale as a corpse. “Yes,” he croaked, tipping his port down his throat and replacing his glass on the table to disguise the fact his hand was shaking.
“A double tragedy,” said the doctor, fingering the trigger of his loaded revolver.
Barrymore fell into the nearest wing chair and let his head fall into his hands. They gave him a few moments to gather himself but watched closely for any sudden violent move. When he lifted his head he looked from one to the other of his interrogators despairingly. His wretched face looked like a wrung out jaundiced rag in the yellow firelight. His carboniferous eyes, moist from unshed tears, glistened like wet coals. And his strong baritone voice sounded like a death song.
“You can stop this charade. I will come clean since I believe you know my story, or at least part of it. My first wife, Clara, took her own life by drinking poison parsley tea after our child, a boy, died for no discernable reason in his cot at sixty-two days of age. Poison parsley is better known as hemlock. There was an inquest. Did she wrap the babe too tightly? Did she not wrap it tightly enough? Was there enough air in the room? Was it too hot? Too draughty? Was the window closed? Was it open? Was the coal fire smoking? Was the flue clear of soot? Death was eventually deemed to be by cause unknown. I later read up on so-called cot deaths and discovered them to be a common cause of infant mortality. The mother is always blamed. Most of the women end up in a penitentiary or a lunatic asylum. Some are killed by their unforgiving husbands. I did not hold her to blame. But she blamed herself. She could not bear to live. I was charged with her murder.”
The doctor refilled Barrymore’s glass when his voice grew barely audible.
“Thank you,” he said hoarsely before continuing the story. “Shortly before my marriage to Clara, my parents died in a train crash. I inherited the family home and enough money to provide an income for two or three years. In other words, I could afford to support my family whilst studying law. I was articled to a practice in Tavistock. Half way through the trial, my employer who was an excellent barrister, warned me that the case against me looked grim. There had been a spate of wife murders using poison that year and this prejudiced the jury before the trial even started. You may recall the case of Dr Dryden in Richmond Hill using scopolamine and Mr Cruikshank in Covent Garden using arsenic.”
He took a sip of port to lubricate his voicebox. “As it so happened, my brother-in-law had been to dinner that fateful evening. He vowed that Clara had been in good spirits. He also claimed he had seen me digging out the hemlock from our garden prior to coming in for the evening meal. Both those things were true. He also claimed that Clara was fond of parsley tea and often had a cup on her bedside table to freshen her breath first thing in the morning, and that she knew the difference between parsley and poison parsley and would never mistake the two. That also was true. That is what convinces me she chose deliberately to end her own life. The jury chose to believe the opposite.”
Agitated, he began to pace the hearth. “My denial fell on deaf ears. My explanation was scornfully dismissed. I said Clara must have gone to bed and then realizing she had forgotten her parsley tea came downstairs to make herself a cup and decided then and there to end it all instead. I felt her good spirits that night had been feigned for her brother’s sake. I had dug out the hemlock because the neighbour’s cat had given birth to malformed kittens and the hemlock was suspected to be the cause. I was questioned as to why I didn’t notice my wife going out into the garden in the dark to get the hemlock when there was a glass of freshly picked parsley on the kitchen windowsill. But that evening I was reading some law notes late into the night and fell asleep in the study. The door was closed. I neither heard her come down the stairs nor saw her. I wish to God I had. By God! I wish I had!”
His face flushed darkly before resuming a pallid hue. “The jury retired to make their verdict. I fully expected to hang. When, at the last moment, the most fortuitous thing happened. Our housemaid, who I had dismissed after my wife died, returned to Tavistock and swore she saw my wife go out into the garden at about midnight and take some hemlock back into the kitchen. Her bedroom window overlooked the garden and she said she could not sleep that night because it was muggy in the attic. She swore on the bible she never once heard me raise my voice against my wife or blame her for the death of our child. She was asked why she did not come forward earlier. Her answer sealed my release. She had gone to Devon to seek work closer to her family. She was illiterate and could not read the newspaper. She did not know of the trial until she overheard someone speaking of it. I was acquitted. But a rumour soon started that she was lying and that I had paid her to return to Tavistock and perjure herself. My career was finished. My life was ruined. My money had gone to pay legal expenses. I was labelled a wife murderer and shunned by all decent society. My brother-in-law paid some thugs to give me a beating that rendered me partially deaf and almost killed me. My housemaid nursed me without recompense. A year later we were married. I changed my name to Barrymore and with my wife came to Baskerville Hall to work for Sir Charles. The loneliness and isolation suited us perfectly.”
“Your housemaid was Eliza Selden?” said the Countess.
“And did she perjure herself for you?” she posed bluntly.
He did not appear shocked or affronted. “After the trial I asked myself that selfsame question. I went to the servant’s bedroom in the attic. From the dormer window it was impossible to see the kitchen door or the place where I discarded the stalks of hemlock. She could not have seen my wife go out to the garden to get the poison parsley.”
“Did you confront her with this fact?” demanded the doctor.
“The truth would have hanged me. A lie set me free. I chose not to mention it.”
“You married her out of gratitude,” guessed the Countess.
“And to save my neck,” he illuminated brutally.
“I believe she lied because she loved you,” said the other.
He nodded sadly and reached into the inside top pocket of his frock coat.
Dr Watson immediately pulled out his gun and aimed it point blank at Barrymore’s chest.
“No need for that, Dr Watson,” said Barrymore calmly. “I am going to show you this letter that my second wife left for me to read when she drowned herself in her bath. I found it on her dressing table. I chose to conceal it because I did not want it known my wife was illiterate or that our marriage was a loveless one. It may help to convince you that I did not kill either of my wives, though I admit that things would have gone differently had you known about the murder trial when you came that night to confirm the suicide of my second wife. Here it is.”
He handed the Countess a large sheet of parchment on which was scrawled some illegible handwriting smudged with ink blots. If a drunken spider had been dipped in ink and set to crawl across the page it might have done a better job.
Derist Jon, I luv yuou with all mey hart butt I canot go on. I no yuou hav traid to luv me bak butt yor hart was with unother and now is for sum on els. I wish yuou wel and go to my God tho I hrave lyed and sinnd. Thunk yuou for wot yuou did for mey little bruthr tho he wos a bad un. Frogiv me. Eliza.
If they needed proof of Eliza’s illiteracy they had it here. And those few words, though poorly phrased and misspelled, also confirmed his story. The unattractive housemaid who was madly in love with her handsome employer perjured herself to save him from the hangman, and by doing so ended up with a gold band on her finger.
Barrymore had escaped the hangman but had locked himself into a loveless marriage from which there was no escape. He had kept a secret but paid a terrible price for his silence.
The doctor and the Countess looked blankly at each other while Barrymore stared mesmerically at the flames. It was the ex-butler who eventually broke the silence with an eloquent soliloquy.
“I presume Lady Laura will not be making an appearance for some hot cocoa. I presume you used her as a ruse to lure me into the library. That tells me you know that I love her deeply though my love is unrequited and hopeless. I presume you wanted a confession. Though I also presume I did not give you the confession you expected. I confessed a secret that still shames me after twenty-five years and pains me more than I can say. If you suspect that the deaths of my two wives have anything to do with the deaths here at Baskerville Castle you are mistaken. If you choose to summon the police and have me arrested for the death of my second wife you will be wasting precious time and delaying finding the real culprit committing real murders and possibly putting Lady Laura’s life in greater danger. My fate is currently in your hands. What will you do?”
The Countess spoke first. “You may return to Lafter Hall. I do not believe you will try to flee. I do not believe the deaths of your wives are linked to what is happening here. I feel that this matter has something to do with inheritance though I cannot say how or why. Dr Watson may contradict me. That is his prerogative.” She turned to her fellow sleuth for a response.
He hardly knew what to say. He felt sorry for the sad and broken man who not half an hour ago he was ready to see hanged for a double murder, and who he had hoped to pin at least five, if not six, more murders on. It seemed ludicrous now that Barrymore could kill anyone. Either the pathetic wretch now slumped in the wing chair was a consummate liar and brilliant conman, or he was telling the truth. He tried to think what Sherlock would say. He would say: does it fit the facts?
Yes, Barrymore’s words and actions fit the facts. He and the Countess had thought all along that Barrymore was well educated, that he was above his wife in station, that their marriage was mismatched, and that he harboured a dark secret. The suicide note left by Eliza Barrymore rang true. It fit the facts. It was not fabricated for their benefit and pulled out of a pocket like a fluffy white rabbit from a magic hat. He admitted to loving Lady Laura. His admission fit the facts. His behavior throughout ran according to the facts. Everything Jensen Saint Giles had unearthed in Tavistock fit the facts.
“I do not intend to detain you,” said Dr Watson. “You are free to return to Lafter Hall and free to go about your business.”
Barrymore stood up to leave and reached the door. “May I come tomorrow after church and visit Lady Laura?”
Dr Watson thought about the request. “No,” he said, erring on the side of caution. “If her life is in danger then it is best that she not have any visitors at all. I think you can appreciate that we will make no exceptions. Not even for you. Good evening to you, Mr Barrymore.”
The ex-butler turned to go then turned back a second time. “Will you be attending the funeral of my wife? I will be providing afternoon tea at Lafter Hall following the service at Saint Swithin’s.”
Without hesitation, the doctor and the Countess nodded simultaneously. It was then that Dr Watson remembered they had posted Antonio in the great hall and Fedir in the stable. He offered to walk out with Barrymore on the pretext of needing a cigarette and a breath of fresh air.
As the two men crossed the great hall, Dr Watson told Antonio he could now go to bed.
The Costa Rican asked if he could speak quickly to the Countess about a matter that concerned him but the doctor told him the Countess had gone to bed.
The evening was windless and still. The sky was clear of clouds. Dr Watson pulled out his silver talisman and offered a cigarette to Barrymore who declined. He lighted one for himself and inhaled deeply.
“Do you think death can be infectious, Dr Watson?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean to say, is it possible that there is a causal link between one death and another simply through the idea of death?”
“As a man of medicine and a student of science I would say that nothing can be discounted until it is proven to be false, but I cannot see how the notion of death can transmit itself from one person to the next and cause death. It would have to be a communicable disease of some sort and not merely an idea.”
“Mmm,” Barrymore pondered thoughtfully. “I just wondered why my wife chose this time to end her life. I wondered if the deaths of Sir Henry, Mrs Stapleton and Monsieur de Garonne may have infected her brain. The same with my dear Clara – I wondered if the death of our child infected her brain and caused her to take her own life.”
“Ah, yes, I see,” said Dr Watson, blowing a plume of warm smoke into the frosty air. “But perhaps we need to make a distinction between infection in the scientific sense and infection that is emotional. One death can certainly cause another in the emotional sense. Despair, guilt, heartache – are emotions that could certainly be linked to prior deaths, but I don’t know that I would call them infectious.”
They reached the stable yard where Fedir emerged stealthily from the shadow of a doorway. Dr Watson told him he could now go to bed and then bid the other a safe goodnight and turned to go back inside. It was at this point that he realized he had no key and that the heavy front door had slammed after him. He caught up to the manservant skirting the north wing.
“Do you have a key?” he enunciated with exaggeration as Englishmen do when speaking to foreigners.
“Not need key,” replied Fedir. “Doors all have bolt. Mallard, he bolt all doors before he go to bed. Front door it stay open because Mallard know visitor still not go. He wait for when we come in. Key only to use for doors inside house. Not need key for doors go outside.”
Dr Watson thought about this snippet of information. Once a French window was unbolted – say from the study or library or conservatory – so that someone could step into the garden, it stayed open all day and did not get bolted until Mallard bolted it at the end of the evening after everyone had gone to bed. The butler could not go about bolting French windows all day and he would not be so presumptuous as to bolt them in case he locked his master, mistress, or one their guests out of the house.
Dr Watson did not know how this snippet might be useful, or if it was useful at all. Perhaps it was just another loose thread dangling in front of his eyes to distract him from something genuinely significant.
“Who knows that Mallard only bolts the doors at the end of the day?”
They walked a little further without speaking; hugging the shadows.
It was Fedir who spoke first. “Something not good happen tonight.”
Dr Watson thought the manservant was asking a question and taking liberties and was about to discharge a sharp reprimand when he realized it was a statement of fact. “Something not good happen? What sort of not good thing?”
“Not know yet. Men all talk quiet when see me come. Tonight they not see me in stable. They talk of wild dogs and secret place.”
“What wild dogs?”
“What secret place?”
“Bad place out there.” He pointed into the darkness, toward the great Grimpen Mire.
“How many men?”
“Lot of men. Men from stable and men who work garden. Perkins, he go early. Dogger, he go last of all just before you come with Mr Barry.”
He didn’t bother correcting the manservant. He was too busy thinking about what bad thing might be happening out on the moor in the middle of the night. His mind boggled, and if he had any doubt that the unknown was more terrifying than the known that doubt was immediately trampled by his vivid imagination.
They arrived at the front door where the manservant tugged on his arm and his voice dropped to a furtive whisper.
“Mallard, he go bad place after we go bed.”
The doctor’s heart leapt into his throat and throbbed hotly at the thought that someone from inside the castle was involved with some nefarious deed outside the castle taking place on the moor under cover of darkness this very night. Barrymore was riding back alone to Lafter Hall, four miles to the south. Had he and the Countess put the man’s life in danger by detaining him in the library? He couldn’t bear the idea of another corpse torn to pieces by wild dogs. “How do you know Mallard will go to bad place?”
“I hear men talk. I hide in stable. They say Mallard, he come later, after we go bed, he bring sack.”
“Sack? What sack?”
Fedir shrugged his shoulders just as the heavy door opened and Mallard appeared from behind it, framed in gold by the vast array of electric lights illuminating the great hall.
“Come in, Dr Watson. I saw through my bedroom window when Mr Barrymore galloped out. I have been waiting for you to finish your cigarette and make the circuit. I will lock up and go to bed myself. Ah,” he sounded surprised and annoyed, “you have the Countess’s man with you.”
Dr Watson concluded Mallard could not have overheard any part of their conversation because he was taken aback by the appearance of Fedir. He waited until they reached the top of the stairs then jerked Fedir by the sleeve into a niche, putting his finger to his lips to indicate not to say a word. As soon as the electric lights were extinguished he indicated with his head for Fedir to follow him. They raced swiftly up the corkscrew stairs to Mr Frankland’s room. The door, thankfully, was unlocked. They crept toward the oriel window, pushed it open a fraction and waited in the dark.
A few minutes later, they spotted a dark figure cutting through the moonlight across the grassy sward toward the Yew Allee. The figure moved with a queer waddling gait and the faster it moved the queerer it looked. In its hand was a large sack that did not flap in the wind, but bobbed from side to side, suggesting that it was not an empty sack but a full one.
The doctor scratched his head – why would a butler be taking a sack onto the moor in the middle of the night? And what was in the sack?
Dr Watson didn’t sleep a wink all night. With the terrible howls coming off the moor shortly after he crawled into bed, that caused his blood to run cold, he lay awake for hours, worried sick about Barrymore. Did the man get home safely or would his body be found torn to pieces? He was worried sick about what might be going on in secret out on the moor too. And he was worried sick about how he was going to tell Lady Laura that her father was dead. The Countess found him in the eau de nil breakfast room, propped on his elbows, staring dismally at his cold toast.
“Where is the vicar?” she asked brightly. “I thought he would be up early.”
His sombre voice matched his sombre mood. “The vicar breakfasted at the crack of dawn and set off early for Saint Swithin’s.”
“What’s the matter? You sound like death; you look like it too.”
He straightened his shoulders and tried to muster some courage. “I must inform Lady Laura that her father is dead. I fear the news may bring on irreversible brain fever.”
The Countess helped herself to some crispy bacon and scrambled eggs from the sideboard. “You must simply bite the bullet. She will not thank you for withholding the news. She is entitled to know her father is dead.”
He knew she was right and heaved a sigh. The sooner he got it out of the way the sooner he would be able to deal with the consequence. He picked up his cold toast and took a bite but he might as well have been eating yesterday’s newspaper. He wanted to tell her about Mallard but it was too risky to broach the subject in the breakfast room with servants coming and going. He tried a safer topic.
“It is just as well we did not summon Lestrade prematurely. We would have ended up with egg on our faces.”
“Mmm,” she muttered between mouthfuls. “The evening did not go according to plan. We are back to square one. Barrymore was surprisingly honest and I went to bed feeling quite sorry for him. I’m glad we will be attending the funeral of his wife for his sake. Did you notice how he always called his first wife by her name, Clara, but not so Eliza, who he referred to as my second wife?”
He nodded as he tried to digest his toast.
“What’s wrong with your appetite?” she quizzed. “Is that nasty cough back again?”
“No, I just feel sick at the thought of imparting more bad news to our hostess.”
“Would you like me to accompany you?”
He looked up quickly. “Oh, yes, I would be eternally grateful.”
“We can go to her room straight after breakfast,” she said bracingly. “By the way, it was wise of you not to let Barrymore visit her. We cannot take any chances. Feeling sorry for someone and trusting them are two separate things. Would you like me to pour you some tea?”
“Yes, thank you, it might help the crumbs go down.”
She passed him a cup of piping hot Darjeeling and he felt instantly better.
“Do you have any plans for the day?” he asked a little more spiritedly, noting that she was wearing an outdoorsy Chasseur style costume in havanna brown.
She had lots of plans. “I plan to take the Peugeot to High Tor Farm. Don’t worry I will take Fedir with me. Xenia is busy on my new funeral gown. I purchased some black velvet and velvet is always harder to cut and stitch. The Mortimers remain a little bit of a mystery. I think I would like to follow their thread and see where it leads. Mrs Mortimer might even give me a guided tour of the underground ossuary and perhaps even show me Sir Henry’s Last Will and Testament if I ask nicely. Mr Mortimer will not be home. Perhaps, if you have no plans for this afternoon, you could drop in on him at Long Down.”
“Yes, I think I will. It will take my mind off last night.”
“Are you still mulling it over? I have consigned it to history. We need to get a move on. We have been here more than one week and we are no closer to solving anything. While you finish your tea I can fetch some new books for Lady Laura from the library. That will give me an excuse to be in the room with you. No Poe or Goethe. I think some Jane Austin is called for.”
Lady Laura took the news remarkably well. She did not react hysterically. She did not react at all. She just stared fixedly at the wallpaper with the pagodas and cherry blossoms and tiny blue birds without blinking. She even remembered to thank the Countess for the new books. They tip-toed out and left her to rest.
“She has been rendered emotionally numb by all the bad news that preceded this last piece of bad news,” declared the doctor, relieved that the ordeal he had been dreading was over. “It is a type of shell-shock. I saw a lot of similar cases when I served in Afghanistan.”
“Yes, her face looked frozen. I thought rigor mortis might have set in from too much time spent in bed.”
They reached the galleried landing ready to go their separate ways.
“Can you give me a lift to Long Down in the Peugeot?” said Dr Watson. “I will just get my coat and hat and cane. You can show me the old cemetery you mentioned and explain to me about your odd encounter. I will cadge a lift home with Dr Mortimer.”
“Oh, sorry, no, I just remembered I wanted to speak to the cook about what Sir Olwen said the other day regarding Sir Charles’s little scandal. That could take a good hour and you need to set off right away. You can take the shortcut that bypasses Merripit House. It will do you good to get some exercise. Your lungs will thank you for it. See you later this evening,” she called cheerfully over her shoulder.
“Very well,” he muttered, “I guess the news I have to impart will have to keep.”
She whirled back. “What news?”
“It will keep till this evening. Make sure you’re back before dark.”
She had no intention of speaking to the cook for an hour. Her questioning would be brief and to the point. The scandal probably had nothing to do with current events but she felt obliged to follow every lead. And she had no intention of giving Dr Watson a lift to Long Down because she had every intention at stopping at the little cemetery and leaving some shiny new shillings on Benbow’s grave for the gypsy girl. She hadn’t finished questioning the girl and she wanted to get to the bottom of the headless postman. She felt confident that she was close to cracking the case, and it pleased her to think she might solve the mystery before her sleuthing companion – bless his bumbling heart.
Clotilde was up to her elbows in flour making scones for Mr Frankland’s funeral. The service was to be held tomorrow at Saint Ethelberga’s in Fernworthy with afternoon tea to follow at the rectory adjacent to the church. The funeral had been slotted into a week day so as not to clash with Mrs Barrymore’s funeral at Saint Swithin’s.
Fernworthy was a small village not much bigger than Grimpen hamlet. The church of Saint Ethelberga had been endowed over the centuries by the squires of Lafter Hall, the ancestral pile of the Frankland family who came over with William the Conqueror. It was Norman in style with a perpendicular tower and a beautiful lych gate. Mr Frankland would be buried in the adjoining churchyard and had stipulated that his grave be marked with an astrolabe that he himself had designed. It was stored in one of the closets off the tower stairs.
Clotilde was planning to bake one hundred scones. Mr Frankland was a man who had amassed quite a lot of friends and an equal number of enemies. They would all wish to pay their respects.
The Countess sat down in a rocking chair by the range where Tabby purred peacefully in her basket. She opened with some conversational questions about the funeral before moving onto the topic she preferred and began to parlay in French.
“Sir Charles had a long history in these parts the same as Mr Frankland, did he not?”
“Yes,” replied the cook, kneading the dough.
“He was master of Baskerville from a young age – about twenty or thereabouts?”
“Yes, I believe so but he never lived here long. The house stood empty for years and years. There was no proper staff kept on, just a couple of retainers who were too frail to go into service anywhere else, an old caretaker and the old laundress.”
“Sir Olwen mentioned something about a scandal just before young Sir Charles went off on the Grand Tour with his Latin tutor and then on to South Africa to make his fortune.”
“That was before my time,” said Clotilde. “I was with him only for the last two years of his life. You would need to ask the mother of Perkins and Dogger. She is eighty years old and like all old people she remembers things better the further back in time you go. She lives in a cottage behind the pigeonnier. She was the laundress and her cottage used to be the wash-house in the days of Sir Charles’ parents. Follow the brook behind the pigeonnier where the brambles grow wild and cross the little wooden bridge. I do not know her name but everyone calls her Queenie. If you go, bear in mind, her appearance will frighten you but, well, enough said, you will see for yourself.”
The Countess thanked Clotilde and headed straight for the pigeonnier, picturing a hook-nosed, hunch-backed hag, but half way across the cobbled yard she spotted Fedir polishing the Peugeot and changed her mind. She had a more important thread to follow. She instructed him to have the automobile at the front entrance in ten minutes and went upstairs to fetch her fur cape, fur hat and fur muff. Queenie would have to wait.
The old cemetery was devoid of human life. Fedir waited in the Peugeot while she placed some coins wrapped in a linen handkerchief on Benbow’s grave. There was every possibility Jago or one of his cronies would find the little treasure instead of the intended recipient but she would just have to take that chance. She looked around to make sure she was not being watched then clambered back into the automobile and directed him to drive her to High Tor Farm.
During the cold light of day the Yew Allee was not nearly as menacing as it was in the moonlight, even so Dr Watson hurried his steps to the ogee gate, fighting the urge to look back over his shoulder. He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he stepped onto open moorland. His heart was beating fast and he felt out of puff and took a moment to light a cigarette and inhale deeply, allowing the warm smoke to expand his airways and slow his pulse.
After a few more healthy inhalations, he set off along the narrow path that wound past Wizend Wood with the two graves now marked with small headstones – one for Jack Stapleton and one for his gigantic hound. He had no doubt that in years to come this twisted wood would become a place of ghostly hauntings and spectral happenings. New legends would be added to those of the headless horseman and the hairy hands, and a hundred years from now, people walking late at night would swear they saw a phantom with a butterfly net and a ferocious beast with green-glowing jaws.
The next fork in the path took him in an easterly direction, away from Doune Quarry and Merripit House. In the distance he could see Roderick Lysterfield digging in his vegetable patch and gave a friendly wave that was cheerfully returned. Long Down was a broad valley that ran between the Grimpen Mire to the north of the castle and the fertile farms to the south. It was littered with fantastic rock formations that had equally fantastic names such as Bowerman’s Nose and Brat Tor.
In the mists of time Long Down had been inhabited by people who lived in stone huts. Dartmoor was their hunting ground, and they killed and ate the animals that now featured proudly on coats-of-arms – wolves, bears, stags, unicorns and wild boar. They did not have churches but stone circles, such as the ones at Grey Wethers and Scorill, proof that they believed in a power greater than themselves and placed importance on the passage of the moon and stars.
Not far from one of the tors was a wide but shallow excavation that was essentially a large grave. Dr Mortimer’s head could be seen bobbing up and down like the early bird after the worm, as he hopped from one spot to another to measure, unearth, and extract a new treasure to add to his collection.
Dr Watson called out but the other was so wrapped up in his work he failed to hear, consequently, when he jumped down into the open grave Dr Mortimer leapt back in fright and dropped the object in his hands.
“Oh, Dr Watson you did give me a fright!” he said, taking out a red neckerchief and smearing perspiration across his dusty brow. “I thought you would not be joining me.”
“My plans changed. I hope you do not mind.”
“Certainly not! Delighted to have your company!” He picked up the object he had dropped. “Take a look at this specimen. What age do you make it?”
Dr Watson examined the fragile cranium. “A child, certainly, not more than ten years.”
Dr Mortimer nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes, I thought the same, about eight or ten years of age. Now, look at the skull carefully. What do you notice?”
Dr Watson thought back to the most recent skull he had examined, that of Mr Frankland with its huge gash at the back. “This skull is remarkably unmarked. There are no cracks, no splinters and no gashes to indicate a violent death.”
“Yes, yes,” he gurgled excitedly. “All the other skulls are exactly the same. Their skeletons likewise indicate no violent breaks from a battle-axe or nicks from a knife-wielding marauder. These children were all laid out neatly in this grave at the same time yet there is no indication of violence. What does that tell you?”
“How many skeletons are there?”
“Ten so far but I haven’t finished excavating. I think there might be more.”
“All of them children?”
“If they were not tossed in haphazardly and their bones show no signs of violence then I would say it was ritual sacrifice or perhaps death from disease. I think the latter is more likely. Plague perhaps. That would account for the large number of dead. Shouldn’t the skulls be kept with the skeletons?”
“Oh, no,” he explained. “I am only interested in the skulls.”
“What will you do with the other bones?”
“I will bag them up and store them in the hay loft with all the others. I have no use for them but I cannot leave them exposed to the elements. They would become fodder for wild animals, or worse, become souvenirs to the curious and the superstitious, amateur bone collectors who have no idea what they are doing, who will then converge en mass on my little world and turn it upside down. It is unthinkable what unscientific havoc they would wreak.”
Dr Watson strolled around the boneyard, gazing dispassionately at the rows of little skeletons, and wondered if a thousand years from now some bone collector would unearth and examine the skeletons in the crypt at Baskerville Castle or the rose garden or the oak wood. What would they make of Beryl’s broken neck, Gaston’s grisly remains and a gigantic hound buried outside the castle walls? Their skeletons would become fodder for the curious and superstitious and fanatical. Yes, that’s what Dr Mortimer had become. He was loath to think badly of his friend but the medical man he had long respected had turned into a souvenir-hunting fanatic. He was so caught up in his own little world nothing else existed. But who was he to judge? Perhaps that’s how one survived in this windswept wilderness. Perhaps shutting oneself off from all the nefarious deeds and strange goings-on was the only way to stop from slipping into madness.
Although he had intended to stay all day and help out with the dig, he invented an excuse and set off across the Grimpen Mire toward the old tin mine.
Molly sprinted out of the garden gate and barked ferociously at the horseless carriage trundling up the long drive, alerting her mistress to the fact an intruder was about to darken their doorstep. Mrs Mortimer, busy in her walled garden, pruning the hydrangeas, appeared a few moments later. She seemed a bit embarrassed as she removed her garden gloves and downed her secateurs and invited her visitor inside.
They chatted about the funerals just gone and the funerals yet to come when the Countess noticed six silver frames on a pie crust table. The Countess guessed the six young women in the photographs were the six daughters who had married and moved away.
“Beautiful photographs,” she complimented. “The chiaroscuro is excellent; a difficult feat to master when dealing with human faces. Too much light and one can look like a Carravaggio cartoon. Too little light and one can look like a sepia ghost.”
“My husband often uses a camera for his archaeological work and has become quite the expert at capturing the light at just the right angle. He has a dark room in the cellar.”
“Oh,” trilled the Countess enthusiastically, “I have always wanted to see a dark room. Do you think you could give me a quick tour? We won’t disturb anything.”
Before Mrs Mortimer could say no the Countess was half way to the door.
“The cellar can only be accessed from an outside door at the far end of the house,” said Mrs Mortimer. “There used to be a trapdoor in the scullery but it was closed off years ago so that the servants would not interrupt my husband at his work or disturb his precious collection.”
A key hung on a nail above the door at the foot of a short flight of stone steps. Mrs Mortimer explained she never visited her husband’s domain, she found his passion morbid. Molly chose not to follow them down the stairs and parked herself on the flagstones.
The unlit cellar did not have the smell of a dank, dark, musty hermit’s cave or the strangely perfumed air of an alchemist’s lair. It smelled chloroformed and etherized, more like a hospital than a tomb. Her guide found the switch for the electric light and a thousand grinning skulls greeted them. Museum was a misnomer. This was Golgotha-on-the-moor.
The Countess had visited the catacombs in Paris and Rome and did not find them gruesome. There was no denying they were morbid spectacles but the curators had somehow managed to turn the leftovers of life into a celebration of death; they were not merely underground ossuaries but burial chambers aesthetically arranged where the dead did not sacrifice their dignity to the living. But here, the skulls were simply stacked in the name of scientific advancement. Their names were long forgotten. They were now called: A67, B34, C152.
The cellar was as large as the house, if not larger. Corridors ran off at various right angles. Numerous doors, all closed, were set into the thick stone walls. Mrs Mortimer tried several of the doors before she found the door to the dark room. The Countess feigned interest in the photographic paraphernalia. When Mrs Mortimer explained that she was claustrophobic and feeling nauseas, the Countess thought she would be forced to abandon her tour. But her guide cupped a hand over her mouth, thrust the key into the Countess’s hand and fled, mumbling for her to lock the cellar door on her way out.
As soon as she was alone, the Countess checked the other rooms. Most of them were store rooms crammed full of science and medical equipment, test tubes, Bunsen burners, hurricane lamps, tools for digging, brushes, slide rules and glass jars with things floating in formaldehyde. One of the last rooms she checked turned out to be a doctor’s surgery. There were the usual diplomas and certificates on the white-painted wall. A bare light bulb was suspended from the centre of the barrel-vaulted ceiling over an examination table which stood in the middle of the room. Over the table was draped a white sheet. Along one wall was a wooden bench with a Belfast sink and under the bench was a line of buckets. A white towel hung from a hook and on a shelf just above it were some bottles of chloroform and some vials of scopolamine. On another shelf was a neat line of surgical instruments – scissors, scalpels, forceps, and so on. In the corner was an old-fashioned camera on a tripod stand draped in a black cloth. The sort no one used anymore now that Kodak had invented the portable box camera. She was about to close the door when she stopped dead and looked back. A camera on a tripod stand!
Shock, dismay and anger swirled through her as she hurried from the cellar, past rows and rows of grinning skulls that appeared to mock her naivety. Her hand shook as she locked the door and replaced the key on the hook. Clumsily she lurched up the stairs, gasping for air and as she surfaced into blinding daylight she came face to face with Mrs Mortimer, looking pale and frightened and not a little strange.
“You saw the room?”
The Countess, breathing hard, did not bother with a polite tone or a pleasant smile. “If you mean the room with the camera – I saw it.”
“Let’s go into my hobby room. We can talk without being overheard.”
The hobby room turned out to be small square pavilion set into a corner of the walled garden. It was sturdily constructed of red brick with a roof of wooden shingles. A large round window was set on each of its three sides and a door on the fourth. There was an easel by one window on which rested a pretty watercolour scene of an apple tree half finished, nearby was a stool and a small stand with some artist’s paints and brushes. Propped beneath another window was a writing desk and a bookshelf filled with Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Donne, et al. Taking pride of place in the centre of the pavilion was a round table where flowers artfully arranged between layers of tissue paper were drying out, waiting to be pressed into yet another book of pressings. Paraffin lamps provided heat and light, though at this time of the morning light flooded in from all sides. The pavilion was a haven from the outside world, a cosy and creative nest, a world within a world tucked into a corner of the private domain of a woman who did not lack imagination after all.
“Please take a seat,” invited Mrs Mortimer as she quietly closed the door. “I will not prevaricate. Droite de seigneur did not die out with Hugo, though Sir Henry took care to be much more discreet than his predecessor.”
The Countess thought back to the pretty parlourmaid who had interrupted her in the private study when she was sifting through the soot. “He took the housemaids into his study?” she guessed. “While Antonio stood guard to make sure they were not interrupted.”
Mrs Mortimer shook her head emphatically. “No, never, he was very particular about cultivating an image of moral virtue in the eyes of his neighbours as well as the servants. You heard his eulogy. Noble! Philanthropic! I nearly vomited!”
“What about Mrs Stapleton? The servants would have known about his relationship with her?”
“Certainly! A baronet with a mistress is de rigeur. Servants would gossip if their master had no mistress rather than the other way around. He and Beryl Stapleton had a love nest at the top of the tower a droite. Everyone knew of it, even Lady Laura, though she turned a blind eye as long as her husband did not flaunt his foreign whore. You have probably seen the boudoir for yourself.”
The Countess nodded in the affirmative.
“Boudoir! A bon mot for a brothel in one’s own home! I venture to say it is full of garish red velvet and phallic bibelots!”
“It is surprisingly bloodless and sexless,” replied the Countess truthfully. “More like a large wardrobe with a bench. Even the sordid photographs lining the walls could hardly be called erotic.”
Mrs Mortimer went white and had to steady herself. She folded herself onto a stool to stop from collapsing. “Photographs?”
“Mementoes mori belonging to Jack Stapleton, another fine example of Baskerville virtue, from his time in Yorkshire. Girls who came to have dancing lessons with Mrs Stapleton were drugged and photographed naked. It was the memory of them that made me look twice at the camera in your husband’s surgery. It is a surgery, is it not?”
“Yes,” the other admitted with an anguished grimace. “Sir Henry chose girls from the poorest families of Grimpen hamlet – the daughters of impoverished widows or those whose fathers had been injured and could no longer work. He preferred them young.”
“Virgins,” she said with disgust.
“And those who had not yet started their menses – for obvious reasons. Though some of them had the misfortune to fall pregnant – hence the surgery and the buckets.”
“The twins, Edmund and Eglantine, were fathered by Sir Henry?” guessed the Countess.
“Yes, the mother was too far gone for an abortion. I oversaw the delivery. She managed the first one but the second was breach. She labored for nineteen hours. We got the second one out after she died. The good and noble Sir Henry took the babes in when he heard they were orphaned. I wanted to slap every person who ever said how kind-hearted he was.”
“What about the other girls? There must have been scores?”
“Oh, yes, I have lost count, but if you check the cemetery you will see numerous headstones with the names of girls, most of them dead at ten or twelve years of age.”
The Countess’s brows drew down in a puzzled frown. “I did not notice any graves with girls’ names in the little cemetery – Benbow, Yeth, Cayzer –”
“Oh, no, that is the old graveyard for dogs. It is set in a no man’s land between Foulmire Farm and the Baskerville estate. I don’t think Dogger is such a good kennel keeper as he makes out. A lot of the dogs he rears seem to have very short lives. I suspect he is a cruel brute who mistreats them, a bit like that horrid gypsy fellow who kicked his dog to death. Capital punishment should be introduced for men who abuse defenceless animals. I meant the cemetery on the other side of Grimpen hamlet. There used to be a Saxon church on the high ground but it burnt down, struck by lightning or some such thing. That was just before Sir Charles’s inherited the estate. His father forbade the church being rebuilt, probably because of his Norman roots. It is just a ruin now.”
The Countess toyed with a little blue glass vial on the desk that was catching the sunlight, but she had to bite the bullet if she was to forge ahead. She drew breath and braced herself for floods of tears and a hostile reaction.
“Your husband aided and abetted Sir Henry in his lechery.”
“Don’t you mean rape?”
“Er, yes, I suppose I do,” she muttered, taken aback by Mrs Mortimer’s unabashed candour.
“The girls would come here for some medical reason, a free health check and a free box of aspirin for their mothers, and while they were here, my husband would administer a bit of scopolamine to make them drowsy and forgetful. Sir Henry would then arrive and violate them in the room where the camera stands. I don’t know what he did with the photographs but I imagine there would be hundreds and hundreds of them. I have never seen those belonging to Jack Stapleton but I presume they are naked poses of prepubescent girls. Am I right?”
“The photographs belonging to Jack Stapleton probably inspired Sir Henry. Once a Baskerville, always a Baskerville. Why do you think we married our daughters off at a young age and sent them away from this godless place? Everything here is obscene and vile and malignant and makes me sick to the stomach and the fact my husband was party to it makes me want to -”
Mrs Mortimer didn’t finish the sentence. She stopped suddenly when Molly began to growl low in her throat, but the Countess got the impression she was going to say: commit murder!
A moment later there was a knock on the door. It was one of the field hands. He was about to cut back the oak that overhung the dining room and he wanted to know how many branches to take off. Mrs Mortimer made an apology and said she would return in a few minutes. Molly followed her out.
The Countess was left with her own thoughts and what a maelstrom of thoughts they were. This was an unexpected turnaround. It placed Dr Mortimer in the thick of all the secrets and lies and deceit, not to mention the deaths of so many girls. How far would he go to cover his tracks? How far would he go to avoid exposure? Would he kill his own benefactor? Would he kill those who discovered what really went on in the cellar? She closed her eyes to block out the rush of horrible images – the grinning skulls, the line of buckets, the bottle of chloroform…her eyes flew open and she stared at the blue vial reflecting the sunlight like a sapphire in a jeweler’s window…
What was hyoscine?
On the desk was a sheet of paper. Mrs Mortimer was composing a poem. There were lots of crossings out, but the handwriting was a lovely copperplate style. She was no Keats.
The worlde is my garden
Solitary, sweet and square…
Suddenly she noticed that the pavilion was a mecca of different media: crayons, pastels, pen and ink, charcoal, paints, and so on. The door creaked open and Mrs Mortimer returned with Molly. The Countess immediately stood up to leave.
“Thank you for being so honest,” she said, and meaning it.
Mrs Mortimer sighed forlornly. “I have bottled it up for so long. I think it was a relief to have another person discover for themselves what went on. I’m glad you suggested going down to the cellar. Will you stay to lunch?”
“No, thank you, I have some errands to complete. Does your husband suspect that you know what was happening in the cellar?”
She shook her head and her lips began to quiver. “I don’t believe so. He thinks I am shallow and so wrapped up in my own little world that I cannot see anything else. He thinks I have grown as dull as dishwater and past my womanly prime and he never comes to my bedchamber the way a husband should, but I am frightened of saying anything in case I blurt too much out. Sometimes I feel I am going to explode with what I am holding inside.”
The Countess took Mrs Mortimer’s trembling hands. “Take heart,” she reassured, “Sir Henry is dead. This terrible business will soon be over.”
“Do you think my husband sent the notes to Sir Henry that…that…killed him?”
“I cannot say for certain who sent the notes.”
“Do you think my husband will go to prison?”
“That is not for me to say.”
Fortunately, Fedir had had the foresight to bring more gasoline for the automobile because the Countess wanted to make a longer detour to the other side of Grimpen hamlet to inspect yet another cemetery. Fedir never questioned his mistress but secretly he thought her interest in gravestones unnatural and against the laws of God.
There were thirteen headstones with the names of girls who had died within the last five years – the time span after which the villagers of Grimpen hamlet had been relocated to Coombe Tracey and the worker’s from all over Devon had moved in. The Countess recorded the names and ages of the girls and the dates of their deaths in a small notepad.
Adjacent to the cemetery was the ruined Saxon church. Ecclesiastical ruins, such as those at Rievaulx or Fountains Abbey were stunningly beautiful and fiercely romantic with their glassless mullioned windows framing the sky, but Saxon churches were never grand to begin with so this burnt out wreck was now nothing more than a scatter of blackened stones. The lightning strike had reduced the ancient house of worship to rubble. No wonder it was never rebuilt.
Next stop – the dog cemetery – and who was there but the gypsy girl sitting on Benbow’s grave counting her luck over and over and over.
“Hello,” the Countess said softly.
Startled, the girl did not hear the lady’s cape sweeping the dry grass. Dark eyes flashed fire and her mouth formed a belligerent scowl as she slipped the little treasure inside a secret pocket of her grimy grey pinafore. “You cannot have it back! Finders keepers!”
“I don’t want it back. It’s yours to keep. I left it on Benbow’s grave for you to find. May I sit beside you and speak to you about something?”
The gypsy shrugged her boney shoulders. The Countess took that as a yes and moved with caution, opening with what she thought would be a safe topic.
“How is Jock, er, Snowy doing?”
The gypsy cursed and spat on the ground. “I hate Jago! Jago took Snowy! He says I am too stupid to look after a dog with a broken leg! One day I will kill Jago and steal Snowy back and my shawl too and run away!”
“Perhaps you could buy Snowy back with the money you just found,” suggested the Countess prudently.
The gypsy girl twisted a strand of matted hair round and round her index finger while she contemplated this fresh alternative. The Countess gave her a few moments to cogitate before broaching a new topic.
“Last time I was here we spoke about the headless horseman and I asked you what he looked like. Do you remember?”
The gypsy nodded and scratched her head.
“Can you tell me what he looked like?”
“Like the devil.”
“He was all black like a devil and his devil horse was black too.”
“Did you see his face?”
The gypsy gave a scornful laugh. “Ha! How could I see his face if he were headless?”
“But if he had no face, how could he speak to you?”
The youthful brow puckered and her mouth twisted this way and that. “He had no face but his voice came through his hat and scarf!”
“If he had no head how could he have a hat?”
“You are trying to trick me the way Jago does!”
“No, no, I’m not trying to trick you. I’m just trying to understand what he looked like. I’m trying to build a picture in my head.”
The gypsy aimed a skeptical sideways glance. “The hat sat on his neck.”
“I see,” murmured the Countess. “Tell me if I have got the picture right. He had a black hat and a black scarf and a black coat and black boots and he was riding a black horse. Is that right?”
The girl nodded and scratched her neck.
“The scarf was wound around his neck and the hat sat low and he spoke though his scarf and hat. Is that right?”
Again she nodded.
“Did his voice sound clear or muffled?” she tested.
“Did you notice anything else about him or any special markings on his horse?”
“I kept my eyes closed most of the time. I was scared he was going to scoop me up and take me down to hell. I was hiding from the storm when he came. I heard hooves like thunder and crawled out from under Dog Hole Tor and looked up and almost wet myself. He threw down the shilling first and then he threw the letter. I snatched them both and crawled back under the rock because there was a crash of thunder and it started to rain.”
“What did he say to you?”
“He said: Deliver this letter to the Master of Baskerville and there is a shilling for your trouble.”
“Can you read?” asked the Countess.
The gypsy leapt off the grave and landed with an awkward thud on her clubfoot and gave a little groan. “There’s fog coming. I better go. You should go too. It’s dangerous to be out in the fog.”
Dr Watson decided to take the weight off his weary legs for a few minutes. He sat down on a cushion of weeds and leaned back against a large rock, his back out of the wind, and feeling suddenly hungry, remembered the cold bacon sandwich and the apple he had purloined from the breakfast room. He had been walking for several hours now and the muscles in his legs felt stiff and sore. He ate hungrily then had a quick nip from his brandy flask and closed his eyes for a moment, but because he had not slept the previous night he soon nodded off.
In the midst of a comatose dream about sacks with wings and flying dogs his limp body slummocked sideways and he woke with a start, and like all dreamers who wake suddenly, for a few moments he did not know where he was. This was compounded by the fact that before he fell asleep the sky had been a cold hard blue with a fresh breeze blowing the cloudlets away, but was now like a woolly grey blanket. His clothes felt damp and he realized that mist had been falling for some time.
Drowsy, damp and dazed, he pushed unsteadily to his feet and squinted against the eerie grey light that cast a queer pall over the day while his eyes tracked miles and miles of bleak moor scattered with sinister tors like fantastic beasts from some nightmare world stranger than any dream. There was a Celtic cross in the distance and he decided to make for it before the fog thickened, recalling how quickly it had closed in the night Jack Stapleton unleashed his gigantic hound to run Sir Henry down.
By the time he reached the Celtic marker he was panting heavily and his chest felt tight. Tendrils of fog were creeping across the ground, curling around the tors and coiling themselves around the carved stone cross like ghostly white serpents. He wanted to light a cigarette to open his constricted airways and help him draw breath but he didn’t have the time, visibility was shrinking with every short, sharp, anxious inhalation. He pushed on valiantly, battling cramp, thirst, and a thumping headache.
A Peugeot was not like a pair of cantering horses you could whip into a frenzied gallop. It bumped along, following the broad white road that was becoming mantled in mist. The twin lamps projected just enough golden pools of light to stop from ending up in a ditch but even that was not enough when a dog cart appeared without warning from one of the narrow tracks that criss-crossed the moor, forcing Fedir to swerve abruptly to avoid collision.
He fought with the steering and managed to keep the four wheels on the road. The dog cart fared less well. The huge English mastiff reared up in fright and unbalanced the cart, which then jerked the poor beast backwards. Both dog and cart rolled back into a muddy ditch.
Jago leapt from the cart as it was wrenched out from under him but his passenger, the clubfoot gypsy girl perched on the backboard, was not so lucky. She tipped forward and landed in the ditch with a bone-crunching thud. Three shiny shillings fell out of her pocket and bounced into a patch of sphagnum. Frantically, she scrambled to pick them up before Jago spotted them.
The beast, still harnessed to the cart, began whining something fearful, writhing and thrashing about, trying desperately to lift its flailing head out of the mud before giving up and flopping back, its slavering jaws foaming white, its huge pink tongue lolling to one side as it panted with exhaustion. The girl took one look at the helpless animal and began bawling loudly. Jago glared at his injured dog, his broken cart, and the hysterical girl, before unleashing a tirade of abuse at the two occupants of the metallic monster.
“Look what ye done! Look what ye done!” he bellowed. “You stupid prick! You stupid bitch!” he stormed, incandescent with anger, waving his fist threateningly before turning his attention back to the dog lying in the muddy ditch. “Get up! Get up ye stupid beast!” He gave it a vicious kick. The dog yowled in agony. The girl bawled louder, gagging and hiccupping as she sucked back huge mouthfuls of cold air, her skinny diaphragm spasming with each sobful breath.
The Countess leapt from the Peugeot. “Stop it! Stop torturing the poor dog!” she screamed.
Jago lifted his arm as if to strike but Fedir launched himself forward and caught hold of the gypsy’s ragged sleeve. He swore savagely in Ukrainian before swapping to English. “The dog, he has broken back. He cannot get up.”
Fit to murder, his swarthy complexion turning a violent shade of purple, Jago stared speechlessly at the chauffeur who had just spoken a language like the one the old kymry used, and while the two men continued eyeballing each other the Countess pulled out the gun she had concealed in her fur muff and fired three bullets into the wretched dog. It gave a tortured howl then whined pitifully one last time before sinking back into the mud.
Jago spun round, gelid eyeballs gleaming fiercely. “Ye killed my dog!” he raged like a madman. “Ye killed my dog! Ye must pay! Ye must pay for the killing!”
Shocked and terrified, the gypsy girl, still sitting in the ditch, still wracked with hiccups, stopped her bawling and hid her face behind her hands.
The Countess opened her beaded purse, though her hand was shaking, and thrust a handful of notes at the hateful gypsy.
“Hmmph!” he grunted ungratefully, though it was probably more money than he had ever seen in his life, or could ever hope to see again.
The fog had thickened and darkness was ushering early. It looked more like twilight than mid-afternoon. The gypsy glared furiously one last time at the dead dog and the broken cart then spat on the ground and stalked off across the moor in the direction he had been moving initially when he tried to cut across the road and cut them off instead. The gypsy girl, caked in mud, picked herself up and limped off after him as fast as she could go, dragging her clubfoot through clumps of peat and moss. There was only one thing for it.
“Wait!” called the Countess before they were swallowed up by the brume. “We will give you a lift back to your home!”
The girl looked back hopefully over her shoulder but Jago continued to the top of the rise before spinning back on his heel.
“In the horseless carriage?” he growled.
“Yes,” replied the Countess.
“Are you a Baskerville?” he barked.
“No,” replied the Countess.
The seat was designed for three so the gypsy girl was forced to perch on Jago’s knee but the smile on her face suggested she was more than happy with that arrangement. It was Jago who seemed to cling to the girl more tightly than she to him. After a few minutes he relaxed his shoulders and his craggy features almost cracked under the strain of a tight-lipped smile. The bandage had been removed from his head and the Countess could see he had a nasty chunk of cartilage taken out of his ear. They did not speak for the duration of the journey except for when Jago grunted directions.
Fedir followed the road for another half mile before veering onto a pot-holed track that snaked across windswept upland pitted with bogs fringed with spiky sedge. Moorland ponies, wild goats and woolly sheep with black faces grazed on meagre clumps of cotton grass that sprouted between granite outcrops. A couple of badly weathered fence posts and a warning sign to ramblers not to trespass was all that marked the entrance gate to Foulmire Farm. Here, gypsy wagons that resembled shepherds huts on wheels, dotted the harsh landscape. Ribbons of smoke spiraling from tiny chimneys indicated they were all inhabited and that the occupants were huddled inside. Dogs on chains sprang out from underneath the wagons, barked a desultory warning then crawled back to their dirt beds.
In a shallow valley a ramshackle longhouse constructed from fieldstone clung precariously to the side of the hill. Further along were a couple of dilapidated barns and a roofless cow shed that looked as if it might blow over any minute. A blazing campfire, flames shooting skyward, indicated that this hollow was the heart of the gypsy camp. Crouched around it was a handful of men, possibly waiting for Jago and the clubfoot girl to return. They all stood up simultaneously and stared in awestruck wonder at the horseless carriage that appeared at the top of the escarpment like a silver chariot.
“We cannot go any more far,” said Fedir, engaging the brake. “The road it has much rocks. The wheels they break.”
Jago acknowledged with a grunt the roughness of the terrain and lowered the girl to the ground before clambering down. Beaming proudly and triumphantly, like a soldier prince returned victorious from battle, he patted the spoils of war in his pocket, before bidding the chauffeur and the Countess a safe journey home. He did not go so far, however, as to thank them, though he could replace his dog and cart with a hundred dogs and a thousand carts. Oh, what a tale he would tell tonight! How the men would spit and glower and hang onto every word, and how the women would sigh and reward him with a kiss and a bigger serve of rabbit stew.
“Before you go,” said the Countess, “why did you ask if I was a Baskerville?”
“There is bad blood between gypsies and the bastards of Baskerville.”
With that he scooped the muddy girl up and carried her in his arms down the rocky path. Dogs on chains yelped and barked, including a little white dog tethered to the wheel of a wagon. Women and children emerged from their hovels to gawp at the sight. Jago felt like a king.
Fedir had a good sense of direction and navigated his way back to the Grimpen road despite the thick fog swamping the moor. They were making good progress when they almost ran over a tramp trudging along, dragging his weary carapace after him.
“Stop!” shouted the Countess, recognizing the tramp’s walking stick.
Dr Watson thought he might be hallucinating. But it was indeed the Peugeot, and though it was not quite a silver chariot with wings, it came magically close. He clambered up with an effort and collapsed onto the padded leather seat. He wanted desperately to light a cigarette but he hardly had the strength and he did not want the Countess to see his hand trembling with fatigue.
“Please don’t speak,” he croaked when she started to press him feverishly as to how, where and why. “I don’t have the energy to reply or the capacity to listen. After a hot bath and a hot meal I will be able to engage in respectable conversation. Until then, madame, I beg you to take a vow of silence.”
“What were you doing tramping along the Grimpen road? Why didn’t you cadge a lift home with Dr Mortimer as you planned? And what is hyoscine?”
The Countess put those three questions to Dr Watson as soon as they finished a hearty cassoulet and some sticky date pudding and were seated either side of the fireplace in the library. They had opted for an early dinner. It was not yet six o’clock.
“Hyoscine?” he repeated, lighting up a cigarette. “Why on earth do you want to know about hyoscine?”
“I saw it on Mrs Mortimer’s desk in her hobby room and I wondered what it might be?”
“Oh, I see, it’s an anaphrodisiac.”
“No,” he corrected, savouring that first, much anticipated, addictive inhalation, “an anaphrodisiac – the opposite of an aphrodisiac.”
She allowed the distinction to sink in. “I presume her husband prescribed it.”
“I would presume so,” he responded tersely. “He is a physician. But we are not here to pry into people’s private lives. What married couples do in their own bedroom is their own business. We are here at Baskerville Castle,” he reminded testily, “to look into the strange and tragic death of Sir Henry. Note carefully, I used the word death and not murder.”
“Do you mind if I have a smoke too?” She didn’t wait for a reply but helped herself to a cigarette from his silver talisman. “What if it was murder and you added thirteen more murders to it and Dr Mortimer was complicit in the dispatch and concealment of each death?”
His jaw dropped. “You cannot be serious!”
“Perfectly serious – let me tell you about my day.”
Without further preamble, pausing only to inhale and exhale tobacco, she described the gypsy girl with the clubfoot, the dog cemetery, the headless horseman, Dr Mortimer’s underground surgery, the camera on the tripod stand, Mrs Mortimer’s pavilion, the Grimpen cemetery, the graves of the thirteen girls, the unfortunate encounter with the dog cart and Jago the gypsy.
Dr Watson was shocked at first but in the end he was not surprised. He had seen enough of the human nature to never need be surprised by any of it. As he tramped over the moors, weak and weary, foot-sore and half-starved, he had grown more and more disappointed in the friend and colleague he had long admired and respected. It was now clear that both Dr Mortimer and Mrs Mortimer had chosen to live not in the real world, but in parallel worlds of their own making. One inhabited the distant past as if it were more real than the present, the other inhabited a creative cocoon that focused the imagination inward to avoid looking outward.
He took one last drag of his cigarette and tossed the butt into the fire. “What do you think happened to all the photographs taken in the surgery?”
“I think Sir Henry burnt them in the fireplace in this private study, just before or just after he burnt all the letters. Once he had made the decision to kill himself he would not have wanted to leave behind any sordid images that might have tarnished his good reputation. Without Dr Mortimer’s confession there will be no proof any wrongdoing occurred.”
“He is coming here shortly to check on Lady Laura. We can question him about the surgery and the photographs when he is done. Are you sure about what you saw?”
She nodded as she flicked her spent cigarette into the flames. “The fact Mrs Mortimer was sickened by it all rather confirms it.”
He nodded and changed tack. “How did the gypsy girl describe the headless horseman?”
“As a devil dressed in black with a black horse.”
“Roderick Lysterfield rides a black horse.”
“Oh, for goodness sake! We are not going back there again! There must be a hundred black horses in this part of the country. I saw one in the gypsy camp. By the way, I saw Jock too. The gypsy girl must have found him out on the moor. She re-christened him Snowy. Jago has now taken possession of the little dog.”
He changed tack yet again. “You realize a baronet having his way with girls on his own estate could never be charged with rape.”
“Plus the fact the baronet is now dead, yes, I understand, but abortion is illegal.”
“Dr Mortimer may have been doing the girls a service. Most doctors who perform abortions feel they are doing the best thing for the woman under the circumstances.”
“These were prepubescent girls,” she reminded.
“My point exactly.”
“Did you learn anything from Dr Mortimer while you were at Long Down?”
“Not really. He is obsessed with skulls. He simply bags up the other bones and throws them into the hayloft. I grew disenchanted with the whole idea of archaeology and left him to it and set off for the old tin mine. I believe that is where the terrible howling is coming from at night. What’s more, last night after I walked with Barrymore to the stable, I then walked back with your manservant who informed me that something strange was happening on the moor and that Mallard was involved. I was loath to believe it so I went up to the tower with Fedir and peered out the window and sure enough Mallard was sneaking out under cover of darkness with a sack in his hand. I hope he is not purloining the silver from under our very noses. I intended to explore the old tin mine in the clear light of day but I became hopelessly lost when fog set in.”
“Oh, you poor darling!” she cooed. “You tramped about all day after a night of no sleep and hardly any breakfast. I apologise for not giving you that lift after all.”
“Oh, yes,” he remembered, “did you glean anything useful from the French cook?”
“Not really. If you recall, she was in service at Baskerville Hall, as it was then known, for two years, starting from when Sir Charles returned from South Africa until the time he died. However, she referred me to the mother of Perkins and Dogger. The old woman, known as Queenie, used to be the laundress in the days of Sir Charles’s parents. She’s eighty years old now but has quite a good memory. I might try to have a word with her tomorrow before Mr Frankland’s funeral though I don’t hold out any hope she will add anything useful to what we already know. I think it is Dr Mortimer who will be able to supply the facts we need to tie up all the loose ends of this so-called curse.”
“I must admit, I never suspected him to be involved in any way. Do you think he could be behind the anonymous letters?”
“Mrs Mortimer asked me that very question. She thought he might be the sender.”
“Hmm, if his own wife suspects him, that is fairly damning.”
“He certainly had opportunity and now motive. He comes and goes on a regular basis and knows the layout of the castle like the back of his hand. No one would question his presence. He might have wanted to kill Sir Henry to put an end to being an accomplice to rape and abortion and eventually the death of so many poor girls.”
“Or his conscience finally got the better of him.”
“You always think the best of people.”
“Damned by faint praise,” he chuckled mirthlessly.
“No, no,” she countered. “You really do think the best of others; you accept them for what they are and are never critical of their shortcomings. Unlike me, I am a cynic and always see the worst. I see the flaws beneath the polished veneer of respectability before I see anything else. If cynicism were a religion I would be the high priestess.”
“What are my flaws?”
“You are a kind-hearted soul who tries too hard to be rational, probably because you spent too much time in the company of the great Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, from all accounts, he had little or no emotion and it caused you to deny your emotions even existed. You probably had a father who was of similar vein. He valued logic and clear thinking and deplored arguments based on emotion or intuition. From an early age you probably tried hard to please him, yet always fell short of the mark.”
He gave a hearty laugh to disguise the fact she had hit the nail bang on the head. “My father was a bit of a martinet. Not a bully, mind you, but very demanding, with exacting standards, who did not suffer fools gladly.”
“You tried hard to emulate him, to live up to his exacting expectations of you, yet you turned out the opposite. I bet he was a doctor too. Was he?”
“Yes – a very good one. He was a surgeon but he developed a type of palsy and had to give the surgery away because his hands shook. He died young.”
“A frustrated martinet – the worst sort. Yet you followed in his footsteps.”
“I did become a doctor, if that’s what you mean.”
“And then along came Sherlock. What an interesting friendship that must have been. He probably filled the void left by your father.”
“It was an interesting friendship. There was never a dull moment.”
“I meant interesting in the other sense – as in paradoxical.”
“Perhaps all good friendships are thus.”
“Yes, yes, we recognize something in a fellow human being that we like because of what we lack. It is a form of complimentary completion.”
“Marriages can be that way too, at least, the good ones, I mean, the ones that last, no, I mean the ones that are happiest. Yes, the happy ones.”
“They are few and far between.”
“I got the impression your union was a happy one?”
“Oh, for the first twelve months while the honeymoon lasted it was a happy union, and then it was the case that it was not an unhappy one.”
“What about your flaws? Are you going to admit to any?”
“Of course not! Though I am not a stranger to any of them and they never worry me. I grew up so cossetted and cherished and adored nothing can dent my armour of self-esteem, plus I inherited a double dose of vanity from my biological parents so I am insufferably oblivious to other people’s opinions of my shortcomings, which can be a double-edged sword – a blessing and a curse.”
Mallard entered with some coffee for the doctor and some hot cocoa for the Countess.
“Has Dr Mortimer arrived yet?” asked Dr Watson.
“Yes,” replied the butler. “He went straight upstairs to see Lady Baskerville. That was about ten minutes ago.”
“Please ask him to join us in the library when he has finished his medical examination,” said the Countess. “And bring some stilton and biscuits along with an extra cup and a fresh pot of coffee.”
“Very well, madame.”
The butler hesitated a moment as if he had something to say.
“What is it, Mallard?” said the Countess.
“Well,” he paused and swallowed hard, “it is Antonio.”
“What about Antonio?”
“He has been behaving oddly.”
“Yes, madame, oddly, and I don’t know who to speak to since Lady Baskerville is having her confinement and does not wish to be unduly disturbed.”
“Please explain what you mean by oddly,” intervened Dr Watson.
“Well, sir, he has been shirking his duties, skulking about. The chambermaid found him hiding in the nursery when she went to air the children’s bedrooms and one of the parlourmaids found him crouching in the corner of Mr Frankland’s room when she felt a cold draught in the gallery and checked to make sure the oriel window had been secured.”
“Leave it with me, I will have a stern word,” said Dr Watson irritably. “Grief can sometimes unhinge people and cause them to behave in a manner that is abnormal. Is that all?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Mallard. “Thank you, sir.”
Dr Watson waited until the butler retreated. “I would appreciate it if you would allow me handle Antonio’s ticking-off, and the same goes for the interrogation of Dr Mortimer,” he continued crisply.
“You think I will be too liberal in the first instance and too heavy-handed in the second?”
“That is a distinct possibility. More to the point, Dr Mortimer is a colleague whom I have known many years. I would appreciate it if you would merely listen unless you feel I have missed something vital.”
“Very well,” she agreed. “I will greet him and then you can take charge.”
A short time later Mallard returned balancing a large tray; Dr Mortimer entered carrying his medical bag.
“How is Lady Laura faring?” began the Countess adopting a caring tone designed to put the doctor at ease as she gestured for the butler to place the tray on an ottoman and leave them to serve themselves.
“She is faring remarkably well. She begged to be able to attend the funeral of her father in Fernworthy tomorrow afternoon and I finally relented and gave permission.”
“Do you think that is wise?” questioned the Countess, dispensing the coffee.
“In my medical opinion, a day of fresh air and a chance to stretch her limbs will be beneficial, and I was mindful of the fact that relations between father and daughter had been strained for many years and that it was important for the community to see for themselves that father and daughter had reconciled. What do you think Dr Watson?”
Dr Watson was helping himself to a generous chunk of stilton. “Yes, I agree, it cannot hurt to break her confinement. It is only for the afternoon. The journey is not an arduous one and she needn’t stay for afternoon tea at the rectory if she feels exhausted. She can travel in the landau. And the perceptions of a tight-knit community should never be underestimated. But I am concerned for her safety. We cannot ignore the fact there have lately been several unexplained accidents ending in death.”
“Surely you don’t believe her life is in danger?” said Dr Mortimer. “I have seen the footmen posted at her door but I thought that was for reasons of her fragile mental state.”
“Frankly, I don’t know what to believe any more,” returned Dr Watson gravely. “Things are not as they seem and people I trusted have turned out to be less than honest.” He paused and inhaled before taking the plunge. “Countess Volodymyrovna paid a visit to High Tor Farm this morning and in the course of her visit was given a tour of your dark room. When your wife began to feel claustrophobic and nauseas the Countess continued the tour of your museum on her own and stumbled upon your surgery.”
Dr Mortimer turned deathly pale; he had been standing by the fire but folded himself quickly into the nearest chair as if his legs were about to give way. “I see,” he muttered.
Dr Watson gave his friend time to compose himself before continuing. “The Countess also visited the cemetery of Grimpen where she found the names of thirteen girls, aged between ten and twelve, all of whom died within the last five years.”
Dr Mortimer’s head fell into his hands. He did not speak but gave a small moan as if in pain.
If Dr Watson harboured any doubt about the innocence of his colleague, that doubt had now fled. “Sir Henry, a man I held in high regard, a man I admired from the first shake of the hand, a man who was your generous benefactor and good neighbour, a philanthropist and a visionary, turned out to be nothing but a hypocrite and a liar. Am I correct in my condemnation?”
Dr Mortimer looked up, though his back remained hunched. “Yes,” he croaked dismally. “I got the measure of the man during the Grand Tour. He revealed his predilection fairly early. But I told myself that was the way of the world. That was how the truly wealthy behaved. They had a special entitlement that the rest of us didn’t. I told myself he was merely sowing his wild oats, that the girls needed the money, that their morality was not ours, and that it was a foreign land. I told myself it would be different once we returned to England and he settled into marriage with the right woman.”
“So,” prompted Dr Watson when his colleague paused to draw breath, “was it different when you returned to England and he married the right woman?”
“No,” he admitted ruefully. “It wasn’t any different. I had turned a blind eye and it was too late to mount the moral high ground. I believed I could cure him but that belief proved fanciful. It soon became clear to me that Sir Henry was a manipulative and clever fellow. He fooled everyone. Even me! Especially me! He gifted me the isolated farmhouse with the vast cellar which he said would be perfect for my collection and I believed him! It didn’t take long before I realized he had other uses in mind. One way or another he used everyone. He married the divorcee of good stock to provide the heir, installed his mistress in his own house as governess to tend to his illegitimate offspring, and had the vulnerable and impoverished girls of Grimpen hamlet at his beck and call. He would instruct me as to when he wanted to have a session in the cellar and which girl to summon to the surgery. He took his own photographs and developed them in the dark room he had built for the purpose. I never saw them. I never asked to see them. I don’t know what he did with them. When the first girl fell pregnant he convinced me to perform an abortion. It was for the sake of the girl, he said. I complied. Thirteen died. Thirteen! I was not medically negligent but the girls were young and often in poor health to begin with. Sometimes the chloroform killed them. It was hard to get the dose right. My wife was a mid-wife. Sometimes when the girls were too far gone for an abortion my wife helped them deliver. We never spoke about how or why so many young girls from Grimpen hamlet happened to fall pregnant. We married our daughters off as quickly as possible and sent them away. Our relationship changed. We grew apart. We threw ourselves into our respective hobbies. When Sir Henry died it was as if a huge burden had been lifted from our shoulders. I thought his terrible secret would go to the grave with him but secrets are not like that, are they? They have a way of surfacing just like dead bodies thrown into a bog. They stay submerged, preserved, and then one day they bubble up.”
“You prescribed hyoscine for your wife,” pressed Dr Watson before sympathy had a chance to hold sway.
“Yes, she suffered from constant headaches. I told her the hyoscine was to compliment the aspirin she was taking. It was a lie. I was sickened by what I was forced to turn a blind eye to. I was disgusted with myself. I prescribed hyoscine for my wife to spare us both from further conjugal relations. We have separate bedrooms and though we still care deeply for each other that part of our married life is finished.”
“Did you send the anonymous letters to Sir Henry threatening to expose him?” interposed the Countess who had remained a listener up to this point.
Dr Mortimer looked stunned and frightened at the allegation. “No! Of course not! I despised what he did, I hated what he was, but to expose him would entail exposing myself! I would end up in prison. I could bear the shame for myself but I would not wish for my wife and daughters to have to bear that shame. Besides, I don’t have the imagination for that sort of thing. And to pull it off, well, that would take quite a lot of confidence.”
“Mmm, yes, in that case, do you think your wife could have sent them?”
He gasped. “No! Never! She is certainly more imaginative than I, but her creativity is directed at genteel pursuits. I cannot even begin to imagine her planning – no, no, it is out of the question!”
“Could Sir Henry have sent the letters to himself?”
Dr Mortimer looked astonished. “That is a far-fetched hypothesis. To what end?”
“To avoid the stigma that suicide brings,” she suggested. “He was very particular about cultivating an image of moral virtue and might not have wished to blacken his good name by choosing such an ignoble and illegal end.”
He thought for a moment. “But why suicide at all?”
“Remorse,” said Dr Watson, cutting himself another wedge of stilton.
Dr Mortimer shook his head firmly and his glasses slipped; he pushed them back. “He was not a remorseful man. I never witnessed one act of contrition or regret on his part for the suffering he inflicted on those poor girls and it is to my eternal shame that I turned a blind eye. I shall carry the guilt to my grave.”
“Yet he had a conscience,” reminded Dr Watson. “He was a generous benefactor.”
Dr Mortimer appeared to regain his equanimity and his appetite through confession. He drained the cold dregs of coffee at the bottom of his cup and nodded when the Countess offered him a fresh cup from the pot. He cut himself some stilton and swallowed it before speaking. “Age brings with it a different view of the world. I have lately come to the conclusion that a poor man who shares a slice of bread is a thousand times more generous than a rich man who commissions a row of almshouses or a new steeple for the church. Sir Henry was a generous benefactor, but it was the sort of benevolence he could well afford. The poor man will never be remembered for his slice of bread. The rich man will be praised for eternity yet his generosity is nothing more than an act of self-aggrandisement dressed up as charity.”
“Never a truer word said,” agreed Dr Watson. “Yet something was troubling the baronet enough for him to take his own life. Could he have had a terminal illness?”
“No, he had recently had his annual medical examination. He had the heart of a racehorse and was as fit as an ox.”
“Could his paranoid behavior have been feigned?” suggested the Countess.
“Oh, no,” said Dr Mortimer. “He was genuinely terrified of someone or something. The change came over the course of the month. You could chart the mental decline in his demeanour from that first letter. He went from being his usual confident self to looking mildly bothered then distracted then worried then jittery and finally terrified until that very last meal when he looked like a condemned man. I thought to myself – this is how it must have been at the Last Supper.”
“Did Sir Charles display similar behaviour?” pursued the Countess. “I remember it being mentioned by someone that he was terrified of walking alone in the garden late at night.”
“It is true he was fearful of going out alone after dark, but he was elderly and lived alone but for a handful of servants and was mindful of the legend of Hugo’s hound. In other words, his fear had some basis.”
“The baronet’s terror stemmed from the anonymous letters he began to receive at the beginning of September,” reminded the Countess. “Therefore his fear also had some basis.”
“Which brings us full circle,” said Dr Watson. “Until we discover who sent the anonymous letters we will never know what the baronet was terrified of or why he took his own life.”
Dr Mortimer picked up his medical bag. “On that note I will bid you good evening. I have not yet had my dinner and my wife will be getting worried.” He reached the door then turned back. “If you decide to summon the police I will go quietly as I hope to spare my wife as much shame as possible. I am relieved everything is finally out in the open and I want you to know I did my best for those girls.”
Dr Watson and the Countess looked at one another and once again they were on song.
“I don’t think there is any point in summoning the police,” said Dr Watson. “My father occasionally performed abortions in our kitchen. When a woman is married to a brute, already has six children and nothing to feed them, well, it is better than the alternative, he used to say.”
When the library door closed Dr Watson and the Countess despaired that they were no closer to solving anything than when they first arrived at Baskerville Castle nine days ago. The mystery that brought them together remained as elusive as the moonlight and mist beyond the window.
“What are we missing?” said the doctor, scratching his head.
“We need to go back to the beginning,” said his elegant counterpart.
“Do you mean when I received that desperate note from Lady Laura?”
“Earlier than that.”
“When I received the invitation to come to Baskerville Castle?”
“Earlier than that.”
“When Hugo died on Michaelmas night 1647?”
“Not quite that far.”
“The night Sir Charles died in 1889?”
“When Dr Mortimer showed up at Baker Street ten years ago?”
“When Sir Henry arrived in London on Michaelmas Day?”
“Michaelmas Day? Is that the link?”
“No! That has nothing to do with it. But it was when he arrived to claim his inheritance that the people we are dealing with now all came together for the first time.”
“What does that indicate?”
“I don’t know yet. I need to sleep on it. Let’s go to bed.”
She tucked her arm through his as they mounted the stairs and he felt a tiny fillip of pleasure; a frisson of hope. The gesture felt natural, comfortable, wonderful, and his weary bones felt momentarily invigorated. There was a small bounce in his step.
When they came to the parting of the ways she retracted her arm rather abruptly and slapped the side of her head.
“I just realized what it was that bothered me about Beryl Stapleton’s boudoir,” she said. “The chaise longue was white velvet. The walls were sterile and clinical. Beryl Stapleton was an exotic flower. She preferred vibrant colours, the sort she had in her bedroom in the nursery wing. Sir Henry chose the furnishings. He wanted the boudoir to resemble a doctor’s surgery!”
Dr Watson’s appetite had returned with a vengeance and while he was piling devilled kidneys, rashers of bacon, poached eggs and mushrooms onto his breakfast plate the Countess was dashing off her plans for the day. He felt exhausted just listening.
“My head was buzzing all night. Early this morning I dispatched Fedir to Coombe Tracey. He will send a telegram to the shipping company, the port authority and any other relevant agency that is able to supply details dating back to when Sir Henry arrived from Canada. I instructed him not to return until he has every last bit of information pertaining to that journey. He will stay at The Thistlethwaite Inn for as long as it takes. Don’t worry. He has taken the gig. We will still be able to avail ourselves of the Peugeot for the funeral this afternoon. You can drive.”
“I could have spared him the trouble,” mumbled the doctor, buoyed by the prospect of acting as chauffeur. “It was Michaelmas Day. That means it was the 29th of September. The year was 1889. Sir Henry arrived at Southampton dock and Dr Mortimer met him at Waterloo Station.”
“It’s good you remembered the exact date, but I want to know where the ship made port along the way and the names of the passengers who were travelling on that ship with him.”
“Ah, yes, names and all that, but do you seriously believe that some passenger would come out of the woodwork after ten years and send the baronet a series of anonymous letters so disturbing as to cause him to take his own life?”
“When you put it like that it does sound silly, and I really don’t know what I hope to discover, but what did you say that Sherlock said about following every thread?”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered between mouthfuls. “But there is a difference between following a thread and going on a wild goose chase.”
“As soon as I finish my cup of tea I am off on another goose chase. I am going to see Queenie.”
“Ah, yes, the scandal that sent Sir Charles packing. Let me guess – the name was Arabella or Cinderella and she was a comely wench but not quite plum enough for a baronet in the making. It is a story that has been played out for centuries in fairy tales. What will it tell you? That the course of true love never did run smooth. That the aristocracy prefer to marry their own kind. That life is unfair.”
“So what are your plans for the morning?”
“I plan to peruse The Times in the great hall, take a stroll around the garden to soak up autumn’s glory, and then come in for an early lunch at midday.”
She pushed to her feet. “I shall leave you to it, then. I have a final fitting for my new black velvet dress – Xenia has excelled herself – and then it’s off to the wash-house.”
The narrow path, overgrown with blackberries, followed a fast-flowing brook that once provided water for washing the clothes of the Baskervilles but now emptied into Holywell Pool. The Countess tried not to snag her dress as she swept past the brambles encircling the pigeonnier and the straggly thornlets clinging to the rails of the rickety old bridge that spanned the brook. Dogs began barking and wailing, startling a flock of pigeons, warning of her approach, and she immediately knew where Dogger housed his dingoes.
The Countess rapped on the door and recalled Clotilde’s warning to brace herself but her breath snagged at the sight. Queenie was less than human, a withered, wrinkled, blotched, circus freak, hairless except for some sparse stubble sprouting from a puckered scalp like a badly ploughed wheat field after the scythe has been through it. Unable to hide her shock, unable to find her voice, she held out the gifts she had brought – a linen handkerchief and a thick slice of teacake – with mute pity.
“Oh, very kind of you dearie, close the door – we don’t want to scare the birdies – and put the kettle to the fire, this offering will loosen my tongue.” She gave a soft chortle as she broke off a corner of cake and poked it into her lipless mouth. “Ah, yes, that French madame knows how to bake. She sent you to Queenie because Queenie has been here longer than any folk. Don’t be frightened, dearie. I am no witch but methinks you might be. You have come to lift the curse of the Baskervilles and you want Queenie’s help. Take that stool and sit you down and ask away.”
The Countess tried to pull herself together but grotesque ugliness has a distracting effect on the brain. “How long, er, how long have you been in service here?”
“Since the day I came into the world, dearie. This room you see around you has been my all. I was born here on this floor the night my mother gasped her last. I started helping my granny as soon as I could poke kindling under the great cauldron you see behind you to keep the water bubbling. When I got bigger I filled the buckets and carried ‘em in and lined ‘em up along that wall there. When I were big enough to stand on the stool you are sitting upon I started stirring the clothes in the big cauldron with a chene stick. I still have it. You can see it there in the corner by my straw pallet. It’s crooked with age like me now. That’s when it happened.” She paused and broke off another piece of cake. “Pour the tea, dearie. The teapot and the two cups are here. I have had them standing ready since yesterday. The jug for the milk is on the placard above the sink. There’s no sugar. Sugar is for the folks in the big house.”
The Countess poured the hot water into the teapot and waited for it to brew. “You were saying something happened?” she prompted. “What happened?”
“I fell in the boiling cauldron, dearie.”
It took a moment to register. There was no howling self-pity, no intention to shock, no dramatic turn of phrase. “How, er, how old were you?”
“I were seven. My granny pulled me out. The pain was so bad I passed out and she thought I had died but she had the wherewithal to dips me in the cold river and that saved my life. I lost some fingers and my ears and a couple of my toes stuck together. I’ve got bird feet now. My hair fell out and never grew back. I had lovely red hair. The scars never went away. Everyone took pity but none could bear to look at me. I had to stop going to school. Even the dogs took fright. I stayed here with my granny and kept up the laundering and turning the mangle until there was no more call for it. Pour the milk, dearie.”
“You never married?”
“Oh, no, dearie, what man would have me in his bed?”
“But you have two sons.”
She laughed out loud and spat some cake out then licked the end of a stumpy finger and picked up the wet crumbs with it. “Dan and Ned, my two boys are what they call change of life babies. I was forty years old when they were born and a virgin the night they were conceived. I was out on the moor collecting firewood when it started to storm. I expected to meet the headless horseman but I met a gypsy horse thief instead. He was blind drunk and had lost his way. He had his way with me on the heath with thunder and lightning splitting the heavens and it were glorious. The boys came early. I was only eight months gone. They was always small and sickly. One is wicked and the other is wickeder. I imagine they are just like their father. I never saw him again and I never knew his name.” She gulped some tea and gazed down at the kitchen table as if mesmerized by the gnarls and knots in the wood.
“Was Sir Charles here at that time?”
“Oh, no, he had been gone ten years by then and his parents had long drowned. It were a lonely place back then. There was only me here in the wash-house because no one else would have me in service, and old Samuel Selden who was the caretaker. Plus my two boys. They were always running wild out on the moor. They only came home to eat and sleep. And sometimes not even that.”
“Sir Charles never married either, perhaps it had something to do with the scandal just before he went away on the Grand Tour,” she posed tactfully. “Do you know anything about what caused the scandal?”
“Oh, yes. I remember it clear as day. It was the year my granny up and died and I had to do all the work myself. The young baronet had just celebrated his twentieth year. A grand birthday party it was with folk from all over Devon coming to stay. There was so much bed linen my poor hands turned red raw. He was handsome and headstrong and in love with a gypsy girl. Yanina, her name was. I saw her once and my breath caught at how beautiful she was.”
There was no hurrying Queenie so the Countess sipped her tea while the old lady gazed wistfully at the gnarly wood. “Sir Charles’ parents didn’t approve?”
Queenie gave a scornful laugh and spat out a few more crumbs then picked them up one by one until the table was spotless. “The old baronet was furious. He gathered his men and armed them. They were hell bent on going to the gypsy camp to lynch the girl and shoot any man who stood in their way but the younger one took off first. He rode to the camp and scooped his gypsy onto his horse and galloped to the little church the other side of Grimpen hamlet. But it weren’t long before the old baronet caught up to them. He torched the church with the parish records and the vicar in it. Some said that Yanina was locked inside too. Others said she got away on her lover’s horse and that it was he who told her to flee for her life across the great Grimpen Mire. She was never seen again.”
“Perhaps she went back to her own people?”
“Oh, no, she could never return to the gypsy camp because her father would have slit her throat for marrying outside their clan. It was a point of honour with them.”
“What about Sir Charles?”
“The young Charles came back to Baskerville Hall with his tail between his legs after his father threatened to shoot every last gypsy living hereabouts, including the women and children. Shortly afterwards he left to visit the great palaces of the world. For thirty-eight years Baskerville Hall stood empty and cursed.”
“Was the old baronet ever brought to justice?”
“A baronet was the justice. He could do as he pleased. He said the death of the vicar was an act of God and no one dared say different. But the good Lord had His vengeance when He sent down a storm to smite his ship in the English Channel. Pour some more tea in my cup, dearie.”
The Countess complied and decided to follow a fresh thread. “Have you ever seen the headless horseman out on the moor?”
“In eighty years, just the once, dearie. I saw him on the last night of last month.”
Quickly, the Countess thought back to the last night of last month, the night of the dinner party. “There was no thunderstorm that night.”
“That’s right, dearie. There was no thunder and no lightning. I was looking out for my gypsy as I have done every night for forty years, sitting on my bench under the eave, and there he was galloping across the Grimpen bog on a black steed. I looked up at the sky and thought maybe a storm was brewing. But the clouds were too high. It rained later but it was a soft rain.”
“What direction was he riding?”
“He was riding north and then he turned sudden-like and headed east.”
“Not toward Dog Hole Gorge?”
“No, dearie, east.”
“Are you sure?”
“As sure as you are sitting there and I am sitting here. That’s how I knew it was the headless horseman. He had the devil’s canny knowing. Had he kept north he would have gone straight into the feather beds.”
The Countess thought about this snippet of information as she pushed to her feet and tried to recall where Xenia had tidied away Stanford’s Ordnance Map. “Thank you for speaking to me, Queenie. I’m sorry about what happened to you.”
“I’m sorry too, dearie. There hasn’t been a day since that I have not been sorry. Some wise folk say that time heals but take my word for it, the pain never goes. It curls up inside and does not budge.”
“Would you like me to send you some aspirin?”
“I didn’t mean that sort of pain, dearie, but since you have offered I will not say no to some of them little pills for my creaky bones and crippled hands. Send some sugar too. Methinks the sugar will work a treat better than any new-fangled pill.”
“Do you think you would recognize Yanina if you ever saw her again?”
“My eyesight is faded but my mind’s eye is sharp. Let me see, Yanina would be coming up sixty-seven years now but age would not wither her. You are spring and summer, dearie, but autumn will follow and then winter. She was the sun and moon and stars. They never lose their shine.”
The Countess was re-crossing the rickety wooden bridge when the dingoes began their howling and wailing and she looked back over her shoulder to make sure they weren’t about to give chase. The wash-house was not built on the same side of the brook as Baskerville Castle. It was built on the moorland side. From the wooden bench set under the thatched eave a person would have an uninterrupted view of the great Grimpen Mire as far as the eye could see. The old lady’s eyesight was probably poor but it would be clear even to a half-blind fool which direction a horseman was heading.
Saint Ethelberga’s had not witnessed such a gathering since that memorable summer day of 1069 when Ethelberga the Fair, kneeling piously at the altar, had sliced off her comely nose to spite her comely face to avoid being given in marriage to Foulk the Bold.
The front pew had been reserved for Lady Baskerville, eight months with child, and her noble entourage, including the foreign Countess who shimmered in a dress that some claimed had been sewn together from mallow leaves dyed black and others swore had been made from the felt that fell from the horns of stags once they had finished growing just prior to the rutting season. The tight-fitting bodice had a sprinkling of pearls, and if anyone had whispered that the dress was rent from the midnight sky and sprinkled with stars and the lady was a sorceress they would have believed that too. What’s more, the black silk tophat made her seem supernaturally tall.
A heavenly choir sang and it was an uplifting funeral, full of joy, celebrating the characterful life of Mr Algernon Frankland. Immediately following the funeral service Lady Laura departed via the vestry door and returned to Baskerville Castle but everyone else went out to the churchyard where the astrolabe was on show for all to see. Straight after the coffin was interred, the mourners beelined their way to the scones and tea. Sir Olwen, however, joined Dr Watson and his companion who were lingering to admire the astonishing detail in the design of the astrolabe.
“An eccentric monument to an eccentric man,” screeched the squire before turning to the Countess, “and you dear lady are an enchantress in this dress. I cannot recall ever complimenting a lady at a funeral but you look like a dream…She walks in beauty like the night…A poem in fact.”
Sir Olwen kissed her hand before turning to the doctor. “During a previous meeting,” said the squire, his scritchy tone tending to the formal and serious, “which I believe was also a funeral, you were asking about royal prerogative and such, well, I had a look into it to refresh myself of the different sorts of baronies in England. There are baronies by writ which does not concern us, baronies by patent, which the Baskerville baronetcy falls into as I had supposed, and baronies by tenure. The third type is quite rare so I looked into it a bit further. It is the case that where a man holds a castle and feudal estate for a period of time he then is able to petition a claim for title. The most famous case was Fitzalan of Arundel Castle in 1433 who successfully petitioned to become Earl of Arundel. However, just recently, 1861 in fact, the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords decided that baronies by tenure were no longer legal. I don’t know if this bears any relevance to what you were asking, but I thought it was an interesting point. Shall we decamp to the rectory?”
“Yes, by all means,” said the doctor, fighting the urge to light a cigarette.
In the meantime, the Countess had strolled ahead of the men and was observing the names on the newer graves and the dates of death. There was no common thread.
“You are standing beside the most famous grave in the churchyard,” screeched the squire, catching up to her.
She whirled round and read the name carved into the verdigris’d headstone frilled with ivy. She thought he might be referring to Ethelberga but the name was Vervaine.
“You can barely make out the date. It is a bit neglected.” The squire tore away some tenacious tendrils of ivy and there it was: 1631-1647.
“The maiden kidnapped by Hugo Baskerville?” she guessed at once.
“Yes, the daughter of a yeoman farmer, Olwyn of Dounhollow, a forebear of mine. His farm became the Drogo estate centuries ago except for Doune Quarry and the Scarvil Tin Mine which went to the Baskervilles in a card game. It made them immensely wealthy. The card sharp was Hugo’s bastard son and cheating was suspected, but might is right.”
The Countess had just completed her bedtime toilette and was about to tuck herself into her chintzy bower when Xenia appeared to let her know Fedir had returned from Coombe Tracey with reams of telegrams. An hour later, the Countess discovered a curious pearl buried among all the dross and went to sleep with a satisfied smile on her face and dreamed of velvet mermaids swimming through the starry climes and stormy seas.
“Well,” she beamed at her breakfast companion after revealing her pearl. “It is a thread worth pursuing, n’est-ce pas?”
Dr Watson wiped his chin with his napkin, tried not to burp, and teacup in hand, leaned back in his chair. “Pursuing where – to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean?”
“You cannot dismiss it out of hand,” she argued, feeling momentarily deflated. “Sir Henry shares a cabin with a man who falls overboard on the first night of the voyage and whose body is never recovered – it is far too interesting.”
“It happens more often than you know,” he returned prosaically.
“I am not disagreeing with that but what I find fascinating is that Sir Henry never mentioned that a man he shared his cabin with drowned at sea.”
“Why should he mention it? He might have preferred to forget it. He might hardly have known the fellow. Young men travelling alone are often paired up in cabins to save space. And once he arrived in London his boot was purloined, he received a threatening letter and he had just inherited a substantial fortune, a baronetcy, and an estate with a curse hanging over it. Something that happened on the first night his ship sailed from Canada would be pushed quick smart to the back of his mind as his life changed irrevocably.”
The Countess decided not to argue further and went to her bedroom to think in silence and make her plans. Half an hour later she summoned her two servants.
“How would you like to have a little holiday at the seaside?”
Fedir and Xenia looked at each other and then at their mistress; their heads nodded.
“Good,” she said. “You will take the gig to Coombe Tracey and stable it at the inn. You will send this telegram and check for any letters or messages which may have arrived. You will then take the train to Plymouth, check into the best hotel and introduce yourselves to the chief constable. He will be expecting you and eager to help because the telegram you send will be signed by Dr John Watson and Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Work swiftly. Time is of the essence. Find out all you can. The task is this: Who was Sebastian Weyland?”
As soon as her servants departed, the Countess located the ordnance map and spread it out on her bed. If the headless horseman was travelling north to Dog Hole Gorge and then turned east he would have ended up in Drogo – the very night James Desmond died. If he knew where to turn to avoid the quakes there must have been some sort of marker. She checked the map and there were no stone crosses or tors. That fact suggested the possibility he put in place his own marker. The marker might give a clue as to the man. She changed into her walking clothes and slipped out via the servants’ stairs to avoid being seen by her partner in detecting.
Dr Watson tried to track Antonio down to deliver that ticking-off but the wily manservant was nowhere to be seen. He had filled the wood baskets at the crack of dawn and then disappeared. Servants were dispatched to find him but returned to say they had seen neither hide nor hair of him. The doctor decided to position himself in the great hall where he had the best chance of catching the rogue. Most of the corridors and stairways that bisected the castle crossed the great hall or the upper gallery at some stage and eventually so would Antonio. As the doctor settled into a heraldic bench in a niche, revolver at the ready, he felt as if he was back on safari in Rhodesia where he had crouched behind a log at a waterhole and waited for the animals to arrive at dusk.
Fortunately, he didn’t need to wait that long. A faint scraping sound reached his ears from the direction of the study. He traced the sound to the folio room and poked his head around the corner just as the door was about to close. Moving fast, he wedged his foot in the gap.
“Come out, you slippery devil! I have my revolver and if you choose to disobey I will not hesitate to use it.”
The door scraped back and Antonio shuffled out looking scared out of his wits. He was shaking like an autumn leaf about to be swept from the bough by an unforgiving wind. The doctor regretted his threat and was about to soften his tone when he noted the manservant’s beady eyes darting about the same way that Lady Laura’s had that day she swooned on the stairs – wild and demented as if some monster was about to jump out of the woodwork.
“What is it, man?” he demanded. “What are you frightened of?”
Antonio swallowed dry and licked his lips. “Come in and lock the door,” he lisped in a quavering undertone, “and lower you voice.”
When the two men were locked inside the little folio room Antonio leaned bonelessly against the shelves and began his story. “The night Beryl died she said she saw the headless horseman out on the moor. She was not one for ghost stories so I knew she meant it. She also said that the headless horseman would be our ticket out of Devon.”
“What did you make of that statement?”
“She smiled and flicked her hair with her hand the way she did when she was scheming something. I think she meant to blackmail whoever it was she saw.”
“That means it was someone she recognized. Who do you think it was?”
“I have wracked my brains, but I am sure of one thing, it was the same person who killed her.”
“I think we can safely conclude that it is the same person who also killed Mr Frankland.”
“Yes,” agreed Antonio.
“And you have been going about in fear and hiding away because you think this murderer might do the same to you,” guessed the doctor.
“You must suspect someone?”
“Everyone! Mallard, Jago, Dogger, Perkins, Mr Barrymore, Dr Mortimer, the squire, and I did suspect you for a time too, Dr Watson.”
Dr Watson rolled his eyes. “Did Beryl say anything at all to give you a clue? A word or phrase? A comment no matter how veiled? A description no matter how vague? Think, man!”
Antonio’s head fell into his hands and he shook his head miserably. “All I remember is: he was moving like the devil with the sun on his back.”
“The sun on his back?”
“That’s what she said.”
“That means he was riding east before sunset.”
Antonio looked up. “Shh, keep your voice down. Is that important?”
“I think it might be. Drogo Station is east. If he is our murderer he started with Mr Desmond and has grown accustomed to killing and will not stop until he has what he wants.”
The doctor sank into a library chair and didn’t say anything for some time. The names ran through his head over and over: Mallard, Jago, Dogger, Perkins, Barrymore, Mortimer and Sir Olwen. One name stood out by omission – Lysterfield. He was absent the night of the dinner party. He had absented himself by way of that note Dogger handed to Lady Laura. He could have ridden to and from Drogo while men were distracted with the rescue. If the sun was setting then the rider must have been galloping to Drogo just as they were arriving at Baskerville Castle. That eliminated the squire. Beryl must have been dressing for dinner and looked out of her oriel window. Damn! The tower faced west. If she saw someone riding east she must have seen them from the nursery window in the north wing. Yes, that fit better with the timing for the ride. That same night or some time the next day she must have let slip what she saw and sealed her fate.
“Why did you not include Roderick Lysterfield in your list of suspects?”
Antonio looked surprised. “He is not family.”
“Neither are any of the others.”
“Servants are like family, they have ties to their masters. And the gypsies have a blood feud with the Baskervilles that is connected to family honour. Mr Lysterfield has no connection, none at all.”
“I see, do you know why Mallard goes out onto to the moor late at night?”
Antonio dropped his gaze and shifted uncomfortably. “I prefer not to say.”
“Out with it, this is a deadly game where there can be no secrets, anything held back now could lead to another death, and the next one could be yours!”
There! That put the wind up him!
Of course! The barking and yelping and howling noises! “In the old tin mine?”
“Who runs it – Dogger?”
“No, but he breeds the fiercest dogs.”
“When is it held?”
“Midnight but there’s no set night. It is held in the open air so it depends on the weather; sometimes it’s too late to cancel as it was the previous time. Jago decides. The word goes around and men turn up. Sometimes women and children come too. Mallard takes the bets and pays out the winnings.”
“When is the next one?”
The doctor leapt to his feet and began pacing the little room. “You will take me there tonight. I want to see what happens and who turns up.”
“No!” cried Antonio, forgetting himself. “It’s too dangerous! We could end up like Le Francais!”
“Keep your voice down. Do you mean the French gardener?”
Antonio clamped his hand over his mouth.
“Did he go to the dog fight the night he died?”
The swarthy complexion turned white. That was the only answer the doctor needed. Barrymore was telling the truth. Gaston de Garonne did have a secret rendezvous out on the moor. That made the doctor even more determined to go to the dog fight. He could pass himself off as an old friend of Antonio’s from Yorkshire. The accent he could easily master but what he needed was a good disguise – he had not spent time with Sherlock for nothing – but where to get his hands on the right stuff?
“Do the children have a dress-up box with costumes in it that I could utilize for a disguise?”
Antonio’s lips formed a crooked grin. “That I cannot say but there are costumes for theatricals stored in one of the closets in the tower. Beryl was mad for stage plays and the baronet indulged her passion. She was planning one for Christmas. The baronet was going to play Macbeth and she was going to play his lady wife.”
Using the pigeonnier as a guide, the Countess negotiated the treacherous terrain with great care and eventually made her way to the place where feather beds abounded and where the headless horseman must have veered. She searched for nearly an hour before a stunted oak caught her eye. Tied to one of its tortured limbs was a red and white check neckerchief, the sort workmen wear to mop their sweat. She shoved it inside her pocket and began walking briskly back to the castle. She was halfway home when clouds began to bank up and the sky began to darken. She hoped to make it back before rain set in when a saviour appeared in the form of a golden eagle.
“Give me your hand. I’ll return you to the castle before the rainstorm. I presume that is where you are hurrying?”
“Yes,” she croaked as he scooped her up onto his lap and galloped away.
Her heart was thumping fast and it had nothing to do with the speed at which he was travelling. He was a superb horseman and that short ride was one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life. When they reached the front doors of the castle and she realized the journey had come to an end she almost wept.
“Are you any closer to solving the mystery of the anonymous letters?” he asked as he lifted her down and she could feel the sinewy strength in his arm.
“Good!” he laughed. “That means you won’t be rushing back to London. Come to dinner tomorrow – dinner a deux. I promise not to serve rabbit stew!”
“It is Mrs Barrymore’s funeral tomorrow afternoon.”
“It won’t go all night, surely?”
“There will be afternoon tea at Lafter Hall to follow and since there will hardly be anyone present my absence will be noticed. I cannot slip away early.”
“The next night, then, and don’t tell me you have another funeral. Merripit House. Six o’clock. A bientot, Countess Volodymyrovna!”
A pock-marked moon was stippling the moorland grass with brush-strokes of silver and purple by the time Dr Watson and Antonio reached the old tin mine. Tin mining had become unprofitable more than a century ago and all that was left of the Scarvil Mine was a grid of stones choked with weeds that had once marked the foundations of the chimney stack, the engine house and the water wheel. The disused mine sat in a broad scoop in the moor, out of the wind and low enough to be hidden from nosy ramblers.
Huddled around charcoal burners, rubbing calloused hands, were groups of men rugged up against the cold night; women; shawled and slovenly; wandered about selling currant buns, beer, whiskey or whatever took their fancy. Mallard was standing beside a brazier, taking bets. Business was brisk.
“Haven’t seen you out here for a while,” he called out to Antonio. “I thought you didn’t have the balls for it?”
Antonio scowled, shrugged his shoulders, and walked on.
Jago was holding court, provoking the dogs on chains which snarled and growled in anticipation of the sport to come.
“Who’s the newcomer?” he directed at Antonio.
“An old friend from Yorkshire,” Antonio called back without stopping.
Jago said something and the men around him all laughed uproariously.
Dr Watson steered Antonio away from the fiery braziers into the shadows. “Is my disguise all right?” he whispered fretfully, tugging at the tartan cloak that kept slipping off his shoulders.
Antonio eyed the black beard, the black curly locks, the leather breeches and the leather bootees. “Your own mother wouldn’t recognize you,” he returned dryly. “It’s lucky for you Beryl wasn’t doing Othello – that was her favourite!”
The doctor ignored the quip. “Why such heavy chains around the dog’s necks?”
“Jago says it builds strength and makes the dogs stronger fighters.”
“Idiot! What’s in the twitching sacks?”
“Live bait: rats, rabbits, kittens. The dogs smell the fear and the terror of the helpless creatures and it drives them wild, they go mad. It spurs them with blood lust and the urge to kill. If they survive their fights they get them as a treat.”
The doctor gave a shudder. “The Animal Cruelty Act came into effect in 1835 yet this barbaric sport persists.”
“Can I interest you in something sweet, luvvie, one shilling?”
A slatternly woman with frowzy red hair and garishly rouged cheeks was addressing him. He shook his head, unable to trust his Yorkshire brogue from sounding squeamish.
“I’ve got a couple of nice warm currant buns,” she laughed, cupping some large breasts. “And a nice hot pastie down here,” she added, cupping her crotch.”
“Piss off!” lisped Antonio. “My Yorkshire friend is not interested in catching the pox from a Devon harlot.”
The woman shrugged and moved along, trying her luck with the next gent who looked like he might be able to spare a shilling.
“My God!” spluttered the doctor; panic rising. “It’s Barrymore!”
“Don’t worry,” reassured Antonio, “he’ll never recognize you. Just grunt if he says something. This is no gentleman’s club. You won’t be booted out for bad manners.”
But the doctor needn’t have worked up a sweat. The first act was about to start and Barrymore went to place a bet. Dog lover indeed! Indignation rose up the doctor’s throat and the hypocrytic bile almost choked him.
Shallow pits had been dug out of the earth. The sides of the pits were lined with sheets of tin that glinted in the bruising moonlight. It prevented the mad beasts from leaping out or the terrified bait from scaling the walls. Men were jostling for the best vantage spot. It reminded the doctor of the unrolling party at Lady Felicity Fanshawe’s but with less preening and primping.
The first act was simply a warm up to get men’s blood running hot. In the largest of the pits were three Jack Russells. A man tipped sack full of live rats into the pit and the trio of little dogs hunted the frantic vermin down one by one, scurrying back and forth, piling them up until there were none left to chase. The tiny dogs were surprisingly efficient killers. The dog with the biggest pile of dead rats was declared the winner. Men cheered and raced off to collect their winnings or drown their sorrows.
Events moved quickly. The next spectacle started in another pit. Two vicious pit bulls were unleashed and egged on to fight to the death. The dogs were well-versed in the art of killing. They did not bother circling, snarling or growling. They immediately lunged and tore at each other’s face, legs or hind quarters. The one who managed to sink some fangs into his opponent’s throat first came out on top; the losing dog, bleeding from his wounds, unable to stand, was now useless. He was dragged away and tortured with knives and burning sticks until he succumbed.
Dr Watson had witnessed the brutality of warfare but he was sickened by what he saw. It was hard to stomach the cruelty inflicted on the dogs but hardest of all to stomach was the enjoyment such senseless cruelty provided the on-lookers. Barrymore went to collect his winnings accompanied by a man the doctor recalled as the trusty groom with the thatch of red hair. It took all the willpower he possessed not to punch the hypocrite and his underling in the face! And the only thing that prevented him was the fact he would blow his disguise.
Another gladiatorial match was about to begin in an adjoining pit. The doctor forced himself to follow the feral crowd. In the pit were two dingoes, hackles raised, fangs barred, prowling the perimeter. They were not lunging at each other’s throats but waiting for something. Dogger was grinning proudly, enjoying his moment of glory. Men were baying for blood, cajoling the wild dogs. Jago arrived carrying a twitching sack. He held it aloft, working the crowd into a frenzy of rabid anticipation. Survival instincts on high alert, the dingoes stopped prowling and tried to leap out of the pit. They scratched at the tin walls with their claws and howled hellishly. Jago emptied the sack into the pit and out tumbled a small white dog. The doctor uttered a horrified cry that was thankfully drowned out by the bloated crowd.
Terriers are not a timid breed. They are bred for hunting stoats, ferrets, hares and vermin. Jock snarled and growled and snapped ferociously as his two wily attackers circled and took turns to bite his legs and back, but the broken leg hampered his movements and he was neither as fast nor as agile as he could have been. The more the hunting instinct of the two dingoes kicked in the more furiously they lunged and bit, but they were in no hurry to kill their prey and the drooling crowd loved it. Jock dragged his bleeding haunches across the bloody ground, refusing to lie down and die. He was crawling on his two front legs, spinning back awkwardly to fend off the gnashing jaws, when one of the dingoes picked him up by the scruff of the neck and tossed him in the air like a rag doll. He landed with a sickening crunch. There was no pitiful moan of pain, no whine, no whimper. He lay motionless but still breathing, his barrel chest rising and falling with each desperate inhalation, while the two lithe hunters stood over him, panting and slavering, and the crown went wild, stamping their feet and screaming ecstatically.
“Death! Death! Death!”
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Dr Watson had stomached enough. This was beyond sport, beyond spectacle, beyond what any civilised man could stand. Heart pounding, blood boiling, he made a move to leap into the pit, when Antonio manacled his arm in a vice-like grip.
“No! You will end up like the Frenchie,” he lisped into his ear, restraining him with considerable force before shoving him away, fist in his back, just as Dogger gave the word and the dingoes finished off the terrier, tearing him to pieces, and the barbaric cheering of so-called civilized men drowned out of two thousand years of enlightenment, reasoning and Darwinian evolution.
“You mean,” said the doctor when they were a safe distance from his repulsive countrymen, his voice ragged with disbelief, “Monsieur de Garonne jumped into the pit?”
Antonio nodded. “He tried to rescue the bait dog just as I thought you might. He managed to scoop it up but he slipped in a pool of blood. As soon as he went down the dingoes ripped into him. It was Jago’s decision to move the body to Cleft Tor. He couldn’t risk it being found here. A mutilated pony and the legend of the Dartmoor Beast stop anyone asking too many questions or calling in the police if any such accident does happen or if any ramblers stumble across blood and guts and gore. The dead animals are thrown down the disused mine shafts. They’re mostly flooded now and the carcasses soon rot. Jago doesn’t want to lose this patch. It’s perfect for staging dog fights.”
“The Gallic milquetoast was a better and braver man than I,” mumbled the doctor.
“What?” said Antonio.
“Nothing,” replied the other, stroking his fake beard and pulling himself together with an effort. “Does Barrymore come here often?”
“This is the first time I’ve seen him, but I stopped coming a few months ago.”
“Do the dog fights run all year?”
“They will finish up at All Hallow’s Eve and not start again until after Lent.”
“Did Sir Henry know about the dog fighting?”
“I once asked Beryl that same question and she said something in Italian – quidproquo. I think it meant mind your own business. So I concluded that he did know but turned a blind eye for reasons best known to himself.”
“Let’s go. I’ve seen enough. By the way, quid pro quo is Latin.”
The doctor turned to go when he caught sight of a handsome man moving through the crowd like a blond god, slapping men on the back, congratulating them on their winnings, commiserating with others. He shared a joke with Mallard and gave a hearty laugh then exchanged a few words with Jago and shook his hand. He appeared to be on good terms with everyone. The doctor didn’t know why that should annoy him so much but it did. Just when he was beginning to like Roderick Lysterfield his stomach somersaulted back the other way. He felt disgusted with any man who could remain immune to such brutality and depravity.
Several things happened in rapid succession the next morning. The Countess received a telegram from Plymouth. It was delivered by the post-master’s son who had come on his mother’s bicycle all the way from Coombe Tracey. It told her Fedir and Xenia had tracked down the sister of Sebastian Weyland. They were returning this evening and bringing the lady with them. Miss Victoria Weyland earned a living as a portraitist and she had painted a miniature of her brother just before he went away to Canada fifteen years ago. Fedir thought the Countess ought to see it.
Next, Lady Laura requested to speak to Dr Watson. She was mindful that the funeral for Eliza Barrymore would be poorly attended and gave permission for Antonio and Clotilde to go as representatives of the servants and asked the doctor to arrange transport. Mallard was also mentioned but he was in bed with a high fever and a violent headache and since he was at a loss to explain how he got a dog bite on his hand during the night he was instructed by Dr Watson to remain in his room until rabies could be discounted.
Dr Watson, unable to get Mr Lilies-in-the-field out of his mind and wanting to get to know him better, suggested that the engineer be allowed to take the butler’s place. He explained to his hostess the high esteem the workforce held him in and pointed out how his presence would surely be welcomed by Mr Barrymore. Lady Laura appeared to shrink back into her pillows at the mention of the name but the doctor was unsure if it was the name Lysterfield or Barrymore that caused the shrinking.
Mr Lysterfield was finishing his herb omelette in the kitchen when Dr Watson broke the news. He seemed honoured to be included in proceedings and hastened home to change into suitable clothes. The Countess was delighted when she heard the news and agreed it was high time Dr Watson drop his stupid suspicion.
Eliza Barrymore’s funeral was so poorly attended the vicar dispensed with a church service and suggested the mourners go straight to the churchyard. A few words were spoken at the graveside and a hymn read. No one wept. Later, the mourners travelled to Lafter Hall for afternoon tea where eight scones would have sufficed. Mr Barrymore, the Mortimers, Dr Watson, Countess Volodymyrovna, Roderick Lysterfield, Antonio and Clotilde were the only guests. They sat stiffly in the parlour, juggling cups of tea and cake plates, until Barrymore asked if anyone was interested in seeing his new foal and everyone leapt at the chance to escape the stifling confines.
The Mortimers used that as a cue to depart. Antonio and Clotilde paid a quick visit to the stable then also bid goodbye and returned to Baskerville Castle. The Countess and Lysterfield likewise looked briefly at the foal then strolled towards the summerhouse. Blood still boiling from the night before, Dr Watson decided to take the bit between his teeth and confront Barrymore.
“A bit of a hypocrite, aren’t you?”
Barrymore stopped patting his darling Bessie and expelled a long breath. “If you mean about the funeral for my wife -”
“That’s not what I was referring to. I saw you at the dog fight.”
“Oh, you were there too. I didn’t see you.”
“You were probably distracted by the blood sport on offer. How can you profess to love dogs and then watch something like that! Your hypocrisy is reprehensible!”
“Hang on a moment!”
“Your morality is an affront to all decent and civilized men!”
“Calm down you old fool!”
Barrymore was the taller and stronger of the two but Dr Watson fisted Barrymore’s shirtfront without hesitation. “Who are you calling an old fool? You are older than I!”
“Unhand me!” demanded Barrymore.
“Not until I have satisfaction! Men like you deserve to be taken down a peg or two!”
“Men like me! Let go my shirt!”
“Not until I deliver the lesson you deserve!” He took a swing but Barrymore ducked.
“You were at the dog fight too! That makes you a hypocrite as well! Stop swinging or I will be forced to defend myself!”
“Ha! I went to the dog fight to see for myself what really happens out on the moor!” He swung again but the other dodged. “Hold still you swine!”
“Not until you cease taking pot shots! I went for the same reason as you! After the Countess talked about dogs howling out on the moor, coupled with my wife’s nightmares, the dingoes going missing, and the violent death of the French gardener, I suspected dog fighting might be taking place and questioned my groom. Eventually he confessed and agreed to take me though he feared for his own safety. Listen to reason! That was my first visit! I was as appalled as you!”
Reason took a moment to register. Reluctantly the doctor released his grip and folded himself onto a wooden milking stool, shoulders hunched; his voice a sad mix of despair and disgust. “Sir Henry turned a blind eye to it all.”
“I was loath to think badly of him too but he must have heard the terrible howls and known that Dogger bred dingoes and that Mallard went out at midnight. And Lysterfield, who has surveyed every inch of the moor, must have seen the pits and reported them to the baronet.”
“Lysterfield? Yes, the smarmy rogue was there too.”
“I saw him take a cut of the winnings.”
The doctor straightened up. “From Mallard?”
“Yes. I’ve chanced upon them together a couple of times in the last twelve months – once out on the moor while out hunting, once in the stables at Baskerville, and once inside that Yew Alley. They parted ways as soon as they spotted me, and it was nothing I could put my finger on but the meetings seemed underhand.”
Dr Watson leapt to his feet; the man of action was back. “How well do you trust your groom?”
“With my life. Why?”
“Twice I saw Lysterfield digging in his vegetable patch and I don’t think he was planting turnips. I think he was burying something. I need a trustworthy fellow to dig over that patch while Lysterfield is distracted. If I invite him to dinner at the castle your man can ride out to Merripit House and confirm whether I’m right or not. In fact, you can come to dinner too. I think things might come to a head tonight. We might need an extra man. But give us an hour or two by challenging Lysterfield to a game of snooker or something. Make sure you tell your groom to report to you at the castle whether he finds anything or not and make sure you impress upon him that there is no time to lose.”
“Is Lady Laura’s life in danger?”
“It’s possible. Bring your revolver just in case.”
A short time later, as the doctor and the Countess were rumbling back to the castle in the Peugeot, he told her about the dog fighting and the incredible bravery of Gaston de Garonne, omitting only one detail – Jock. It was too heart-breaking. He also told her they needed to stop chasing their own tails and settle on the likeliest suspects – Mallard and Lysterfield. He then told her they would have but a short time in which to speak to Miss Victoria Weyland before Barrymore and Lysterfield joined them for dinner.
She told him that Dr Mortimer passed on some confidential information just before he left. Namely, that he had checked the Last Will and Testament of Sir Henry, and that Lady Laura Baskerville stood to inherit everything in the event there were no male heirs legally begotten.
Miss Victoria Weyland was waiting for them in the great hall. She was about thirty years of age and possessed an uncanny resemblance to the late baronet, from the small dark eyes and thick dark brows to the pugnacious resignation of a gentlewoman who earned a respectable but meagre living. She had already been offered refreshments so they got straight down to business. She showed them the miniature of her brother, Sebastian Weyland, along with several sketches executed in pencil, pastel and crayon. When they in turn showed her the pre-Raphaelite painting of Sir Henry in the dining room, she almost fainted. There was no denying the likeness.
“But what can it mean?” she said, flushed and flustered, fanning her face with her hand.
“It can mean only one thing,” replied the Countess. “The real Henry Baskerville drowned at sea and your brother took his place. We cannot know if the drowning was deliberate or accidental. But what is certain is that your brother passed himself off as Sir Henry. They boarded the ship together and shared a cabin so it is likely they chatted about the Baskerville inheritance. It is also likely none of the crew knew who was who. Your brother must have decided to impersonate the baronet. Once the ship docked at Southampton not even the famous Sherlock Holmes knew he was being deceived.”
Miss Victoria Weyland shook her head despairingly. “All these years he was rich and we lived in poverty. Mother took in ironing, my sister took in typing and I earned a pittance with my artwork. Mother always said she spoilt him rotten when he was young and she reaped what she sowed. He squandered what savings we had and just before he left for Canada, he got the vicar’s daughter pregnant. That’s why he left. Is there somewhere I can lie down? I feel faint.”
The housekeeper showed the unhappy woman up to the bedroom set aside for her while the doctor and the Countess returned to the great hall. Waiting for them was Barrymore’s red-haired groom. He had two mud-smeared boxes out on the porch. Inside one of the boxes was an assortment of envelopes, paper and writing implements. The other contained a deerstalker hat, an old pipe, a black scarf, black hat and black gloves. Dr Watson told the groom to guard the boxes with his life. He then explained to the Countess where the boxes had been found.
“Goujat!” She extracted a red and white neckerchief from her pocket. “I think this belongs to Lysterfield too.”
“Yes,” confirmed the doctor testily. “We saw him wiping the sweat off his brow with it whilst digging in his garden that night we went to dinner at Merripit House. There was another one hanging on a hook in the hallway where he hung our coats. What is this one doing in the pocket of your funeral gown?”
“I was going to show it to Clotilde to see if she might recognize it. The headless horseman used it to navigate the quakes on his way to Drogo. It was his marker. Lysterfield must have spotted it sticking out of my pocket. No wonder he invited me to dinner a deux. I think I was going to be his next victim.”
The doctor was angry that she had put her life in danger without him even knowing what she was up to but there was no time to berate her. “We know Lysterfield is our man but we will need more than a couple of muddy boxes to convince a jury. Barrymore and Lysterfield will be here within the hour. Where is that information Fedir obtained from the shipping company?”
They raced up to her bedroom and checked through dozens of papers, and there, among the list of crew members, was the name Mallard Grenville – 1st steward.
“Mallard!” exclaimed the Countess. “I scanned the surnames but not the first names! What an imbecile! I should have been more diligent! You can kick me later! This confirms that Mallard and Lysterfield are in this together.” She perched herself on the end of her bed and recapped. “Mallard is 1st steward and somehow discovers the real baronet is dead and that the man you knew as the baronet is an imposter – I know who you are; I know who you are not – but how could he and his accomplice profit from the death of the baronet? Why scare him to death? Why not just bleed him dry?”
“We must find a stronger link.”
“I think Lysterfield is the imaginative one. He is the one who would have hatched the scheme with the anonymous letters. Beryl Stapleton recognized him as the headless horseman. He must have pushed her down the stairs. Oh, no! I just realized I killed Mr Frankland!”
The doctor was pacing the hearth but stopped abruptly. “What are you talking about?”
“The night we went to dinner at Merripit House I revealed that Frankland saw a ghost on the stairs. Lysterfield must have realized it meant he’d been spotted in the act. He killed Frankland the very next day to silence him.”
“That makes him guilty of three murders. But you cannot blame yourself. We are dealing with a rogue who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.”
“But what does he want? We still don’t know why he and Mallard would kill off the golden goose?”
“Cicero’s cui bono – who benefits? That’s what we need to know.”
There was a sharp rap on the door and they both jumped. It was Fedir. Lady Laura had sent him to find Dr Watson. The summons sounded urgent.
Lady Laura was as pale as her bed sheet, as if someone had bled her dry using leeches. She extended a trembling hand and the doctor took it.
“Dear Doctor Watson. My spirit has left me. I think my time is nigh. Should I die but the child survive I want you to know that it is Sir Henry’s. I was never unfaithful.”
Dr Watson patted her hand and spoke soothingly. “Do not distress yourself, dear lady. There is no need for this confession. No one doubts your fidelity.”
She smiled wanly. “Dear friend, you are too kind. I am unworthy of your high esteem.”
The Countess stood at the foot of the lit-a-la-polonaise bed wearing a sympathetic mask devoid of empathy. Time was of the essence if they were to solve this mystery. They were poised on the brink of breakthrough and had no time to tip toe around eggshells. It was time to crack some eggs. She spoke quickly to avoid being silenced.
“We have reason to believe the man you married and knew as Sir Henry Baskerville was not the real baronet. He was an imposter. His real name was Sebastian Weyland. He was travelling with the baronet from Canada when the baronet fell overboard. Miss Victoria Weyland, his sister, arrived from Plymouth this evening and confirmed as much. We believe a crew member, Mallard Grenville, your butler, learned of the baronet’s deception and threatened to expose him. It explains why the baronet chose to end his own life.”
Lady Laura did not fail to grasp the repercussions of this information. Her hand flew to her throat and her eyes stared fixedly at the wallpaper in stunned disbelief. “That means that the child I am carrying is not a Baskerville! Can, can, this be true, Dr Watson?”
The doctor glared at the Countess as his head did battle with his heart. In the end his head won out. If the Countess really was the off-spring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler she could not have acted otherwise. She would have been born honest to the point of bluntness. He, also, could not act otherwise. They had come too far to go back now. “Yes, it is true.”
Lady Laura laughed, but it was a horrible, jaded, convulsive laugh, full of self-mocking irony. “I will confess something I never expected to reveal to another human being. I am a bigamist.” She allowed that to sink in while she trawled for courage. “My first husband, Robert Lyons, whom I believed had divorced me, and who received a generous settlement from Sir Henry for doing so, did not sign the divorce papers. He used someone else to fake his signature therefore making the decree nisi null and void. He did this in order to ruin my life at the time of his choosing and to force me back to him or send me to prison or -”
The Countess interrupted. “When did you first discover this?”
“The day of Sir Henry’s funeral, when I came down the stairs I saw my first husband in the hall and almost died of fright. I passed out from shock. When he stopped his demands for money about five years ago I presumed he had died. But he was very much alive and sitting at the side of my bed. He told me what I just revealed to you. He admitted he had induced Sir Henry to kill himself and that after a short interval we would be remarried – though it would merely be a sham marriage ceremony as we were not legally unmarried. I was terrified out of my wits. He is a two-faced devil who married me in order to inherit Lafter Hall but when my father disinherited me, well, I saw the other side. He is a sadistic fiend and the things he forced me to do when we lived together are unspeakable. But I knew there was no escape. It was either do his bidding or go to prison or, or, forfeit my life.”
“Robert Lyons is Roderick Lysterfield!” exclaimed the Countess. “Of course! The initials RL are the same! It’s easier to remember!”
The doctor was already nodding. “That’s why he asked about the letters. He must have been relieved there was no thread leading back to him.”
“And that’s why it had to be suicide,” added the Countess, looking at Lady Laura and finding the English lady not so insipid after all. “He did not want anyone to know that Sir Henry was not who he said he was. Otherwise your child would not have inherited and he would have had no claim to the estate once he supposedly re-married you.”
Lady Laura’s voice trembled. “He said he would claim barony by tenure.”
“There is no barony by tenure,” asserted the Countess. “It was abolished in 1861.”
“Either he did not know that,” said the doctor, “or he planned to kill off the heir and inherit through you, Lady Baskerville. You stand to inherit the estate if there are no legally begotten male heirs. That is the cui bono – the final link.”
“He will kill me too,” she said frankly. “He does not love me but sees me as a means to an easy fortune. That’s probably why he never signed the divorce papers. He was already scheming to get his hands on the Baskerville estate. Five years ago he came here as the engineer, careful for us never to meet face to face, and waited for his chance.”
Overwhelmed with emotion, she began to sob. The doctor and the Countess, who had both been pacing the bed on separate sides, stopped to pass her a handkerchief.
“Lysterfield will be arriving shortly,” said the doctor, glancing anxiously at the carriage clock on the mantel. “We cannot let him slip through our fingers or he could go to ground and surface again years from now.”
“We need to unkennel the hounds in readiness,” said the Countess, thinking quickly. “Pass me his neckerchief,” she said to Lady Laura. “This can be used to track him down should he make a run for it. There’s no time to lose. Let’s go!”
Events took on a life of their own. They found Fedir guarding the corridor, Antonio in the upper gallery and Barrymore mounting the stairs.
They addressed Barrymore first.
“Where is Lysterfield?” pressed the doctor urgently.
“Well, it’s rather odd,” replied Barrymore, sounding vexed. “He seemed very keen on the idea of dinner. We left our horses in the stable and walked around to the front while we had a cigarette, but when we reached the porch he suddenly remembered he had called the foremen to a meeting at Merripit House and hurried away on foot.”
“The boxes!” exclaimed the Countess. “He spotted the boxes!”
The doctor cursed himself; the word bumbler featured audibly. “Light is fading fast and once darkness falls, well, there must be dozens of people he could call on who would willingly hide him or help him to flee.”
“Just now I was in the tower,” lisped Antonio. “I saw him sprint toward the gates and then turn south. And you have less time that you think. Fog is closing in.”
“South?” queried the doctor. “That’s not the way to Merripit House.”
The Countess jumped in. “He assumed we’d have men waiting for him at Merripit, which is probably why he didn’t go back to the stable to collect his horse. He cannot go north because it is too dangerous to cross the Grimpen Mire after dark. And he cannot go east because he will be on the Drogo estate. He is heading for Fernworthy or Princeton.”
The doctor liked her logic. He turned to Antonio. “Mallard is Lysterfield’s accomplice. He has been confined to his bedroom for medical reasons. The door is bolted. Make sure he doesn’t escape. Take a weapon – the fire poker will do – and don’t be afraid to use it. Hurry!” He turned next to Barrymore. “Guard Lady Laura with your life! Shoot Lysterfield on sight!” He turned next to the Countess. “Give me that neckerchief. I’m going to find Dogger. We need to unkennel – Where are you going?”
“Holywell Pool. Lysterfield will be skirting the lake. I want to make sure he doesn’t doubleback.”
“Do you have your gun?”
“Take Fedir with you as well!” he called but she was already out of range.
The fox hounds came barreling around the south-west corner as the Countess was crossing the rose parterre. She could see Lysterfield in the distance, moving swiftly through the drifting fog. But the dogs weren’t running down their quarry; they were running straight for her!
Dogger and Perkins arrived, along with the two stable lads, and coming up the rear was Dr Watson, wheezing heavily. Dogger called the hounds to heel. But there was nothing he could do to get them to track Lysterfield. The scent stopped with the Countess who was blushing furiously, recalling how she had kissed the neckerchief, splashed it with her favourite scent and slept with it under pillow.
“Look!” cried one of the stable lads. “Over yonder!”
Loping across the manicured park were four sandy haired dogs.
“Bloody hell!” cursed Dogger. “My mad bitch of a mother has let loose me dingoes!”
The fox hounds were going berserk; they mistook the dingoes for foxes, wolves, or some other novel prey. Instinct trumped instruction. They took off after the wild dogs. Dogger took off after the fox hounds. Perkins took off after his brother. And the stable lads took off after the groom. In less than a minute they were all swallowed up by the fog.
Pursuit was futile. Dr Watson and the Countess returned to the castle. Antonio met them in the hall.
“What is it?” asked the doctor tensely. “Don’t tell me Mallard gave you the slip?”
Antonio shook his head gravely. “I heard a strange gurgling noise and unbolted Mallard’s door. He was hanging from a beam. Before he died he used a nail to slice open a vein and drew the symbol for the pound in blood on his wall – twice.”
“No accounting for madness and greed,” sighed the doctor, shaking his head at the cupidity of men. “Stay here in the hall and keep a lookout for Lysterfield. He’s on the run and he may doubleback.”
When Antonio was out of earshot the doctor turned to the Countess.
“You realize that Lady Laura cannot inherit the estate since her husband was not the rightful heir to begin with. A man who does not own something cannot bequeath it to his wife.”
“Ironic that Jack Stapleton was the rightful heir after all. His portrait should have told us that; especially compared to the portrait of Sir Henry which stood out like a sore thumb. But something tells me Lady Laura will be well provided for at Lafter Hall.”
They were halfway up the stairs when Dogger and Perkins burst through the front door, breathless from running.
Dr Watson feared the worst. “What’s happened? Out with it!”
“Lysterfield is dead,” the twins blurted out simultaneously.
“Drowned,” said Dogger.
“In the lake,” added Perkins.
The look that passed between the brothers made the Countess’s blood curdle.
“There’s something else – what is it?”
Dogger licked his lips. “Well, Lysterfield was in the row boat when it tipped and he went in the drink, and then the fog…”
“Yes?” she prompted.
Perkins finished the story. “And then the fog, like fingers of milky whey on the water, crept up all around him and, and, and pulled him down.”
“We both saw it,” swore Dogger.
The library clock chimed eleven when Antonio entered to announce a stranger at the door asking to speak to the Master of Baskerville.
Dr Watson, Countess Voloymyrovna and Mr Barrymore looked at each other with alarm. The doctor took charge.
“Does this stranger have a name?”
“It is Mr Saint Giles.”
Dr Watson rushed into the great hall and clasped his friend by the hand, giving it a robust shake. “Good God, man! What are you doing in this corner of the world? And at this late hour! Take off your coat and hat and follow me into the library. You can have something to drink and I believe I may have left you some Stilton! No doubt you have a tale to tell and you might as well be comfortable in the telling.”
As soon as introductions and refreshments were out of the way Jensen Saint Giles commenced his tale. He had unearthed more information regarding the history of the de Chivers family and decided to come personally when that information linked up with the name of Baskerville. He was as privy as everyone else in England to the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville and the part Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson had played in solving it. He had also read in the newspaper of the recent death of the baronet and rightly concluded that Dr Watson was involved in a fresh mystery, possibly related to the new baronet, and deduced from the telegram that the doctor might be staying at Baskerville Castle. His tale was as unexpected as it was extraordinary:
Sir Charles Baskerville fathered a child with a gypsy girl by the name of Yanina Slivko. The child was legally begotten because he and Yanina were married at the time of conception, this was months before Sir Charles’ senior discovered his son had married without permission and in a rage burnt a Saxon church to the ground hoping to destroy the marriage certificate. To no avail; Yanina fled with the certificate and lodged the certificate with a solicitor in Tavistock. She changed her name to Nina and lived with a man called John de Chivers, though they never married. They raised the child fathered by Sir Charles as their own. The child and rightful heir to the Baskerville estate is John de Chivers.
There were no collective gasps of shock and dismay. Everyone had been intently following the tale and had reached the extraordinary conclusion moments before the name was spoken. Nevertheless, Mr Barrymore was speechless. Dr Watson broke the tranced silence.
“This is Mr John de Chivers,” he said to his friend, “also known as Mr John Barrymore.”
“Can you be sure about the facts?” Barrymore’s voice came throttled with dismay and Bessie gave a low growl in sympathy.
“Oh, no doubt at all,” replied Mr Saint Giles confidently. “I have interviewed dozens of people who were connected with your family and the incident I just described. Plus there is the marriage certificate and birth certificate. And on the day of your baptism your mother wrote a full account of her story, witnessed by her priest and her solicitor, a man who recently passed away but who I trusted implicitly, outlining everything you just heard – no doubt at all.”
The doctor called for a celebratory toast but fell short of congratulating himself – not such a bumbler after all. He’d done it! Solved a case without the help of Sherlock!
They were drinking to the health of the rightful Master of Baskerville when the Countess pushed abruptly to her feet. Something wasn’t right. Something niggled. Something propelled her to the bedroom of Lady Laura.
The lady was sitting at her dressing table, smiling smugly at herself in the oval glass; a bejewelled finger was twirling a pretty auburn ringlet; soft candlelight highlighted a sparkling sea of costly brilliants scattered amongst the silver hair brushes and ivory combs.
Lady Laura was startled by the untimely intrusion. “Oh, it’s you, Countess.”
“You knew it was a neckerchief.”
“What are you raving about? Have you gone mad?” Lady Laura had decided to adopt an air of innocent hauteur but the Countess was not fooled.
“When I said ‘his neckerchief’ you knew what I meant. The pronoun could only have referred to a man’s accoutrement yet you passed me the perfumed cloth handed to you by a woman – the red and white check neckerchief!”
“The other was a handkerchief, I could see that.”
“A neckerchief and a man’s handerkerchief are the same size. There is no way of telling the difference. In fact, that’s what labourers do with their handkerchiefs, they fasten them around their necks to soak up the sweat; they mop their brows and blow their noses on them. You said you had never met Lysterfield and yet you recognized his neckerchief.”
“Neckerchief, handkerchief, what’s in a name?” the lady shrugged, twirling a ringlet. “If that is all, Countess, I must ask you to leave. I am feeling weary. I need my rest. In fact you are making me quite dizzy.” She stood up and appeared to sway but the appeal to sympathy was lost on the Countess.
“LL – the two letters of the alphabet that look like pound symbols. Mallard wrote your initials in blood just before he died. You were the imaginative brains behind the letters. You manipulated Mallard and Lysterfield. They could not have done what they did without you. I bet there is a jib door in your dressing room that allows you to come and go unseen. You instructed Lysterfield to push Beryl Stapleton down the stairs! You ordered him to murder your own father! What a smug conceit to swoon with shock at the sight of Lysterfield on the day of your husband’s funeral!”
Lady Laura opened the drawer of her dressing table and used her palm to sweep the jewels into it then snatched up a pistol and pointed it at the Countess. Her genteel voice turned hostile and malevolent. “Yes! Yes, I had them both killed! The Costa Rican strumpet thought she could blackmail Robert and I couldn’t risk my father blurting out that he’d seen Robert on the stairs. My father loved that stupid dog more than le loved me! He cut me off without a penny when I ran off with Robert. Robert was easy to twist around my finger. I would have murdered him too and married Jack Stapleton but that meddling detective ruined everything. I married Sir Henry instead eventhough Robert and I were never divorced. Robert was a much better lover so I made use of him when he came crawling back, skint and desperate. Then along came Mallard with proof that Sir Henry was an imposter. What joy! Mallard was easy to control. He was in love with me too. So was old Charles Baskerville. I played on Sir Henry’s nerves and his fear of being found out. It was only a matter of time before he killed himself. I wanted Dr Watson to be here to witness it all. I am free to marry the real baronet now. Another fool for love!”
“How did you know Barrymore was the rightful hier? We only just discovered the truth tonight.”
She gave a scornful toss of her head. “I saw a letter on my husband’s desk from that stupid priest in Cumbria saying an old lawyer from Tavistock had contacted him with news pertaining to the true and rightful Baskerville heir. He was coming to Devon to discuss it. Imagine Sir Henry’s shock when he read the name Barrymore! I think that’s what pushed him over the edge. Imagine my delight! And now that you know the truth, well, it’s too late. I will tell everyone you entered my bedroom in the dark and I feared for my life. No one will doubt me; not even the witless Dr Watson.”
The door flew open and something leapt at Lady Laura’s throat. She fired her gun. There was a terrible howl as the beast dropped like a stone.
“Bessie! Bessie! My darling girl!” Barrymore burst in and fell to his knees.
Another shot rang out, but from a different gun. The Countess had whipped out her muff pistol and shot Lady Laura through the heart, sparing Barrymore from the next bullet and herself from the one after that.
Victoria Weyland was first on the scene. Hardy and sensible, she took one look at the dead body, decided there was nothing she could do for it then promptly knelt beside the bleeding dog. “It’s only a flesh wound,” she said, patting the whimpering beast. “The bullet took off part of the ear and grazed the rump. Fetch some towels,” she directed at the man kneeling over the dog. “We’ll staunch the blood and this dog will live. Who’s that lady?”
“It’s a long story,” sighed the Countess before turning to Barrymore. “How long were you listening at the door?”
“Long enough,” he said bitterly. “Long enough!”
Book 1 in a series of chronological stand-alone plots. England 1899. Ten years after Holmes and Watson solve the case of the Baskerville hound, Dr Watson receives an invitation to return to Baskerville Hall. The night before his departure he meets a Ukrainian countess who claims to be the daughter of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. She is vain, rich, fiercely intelligent, and she ends up accompanying him to Devon. The same characters from the original story have re-assembled at Baskerville Hall and it appears that someone is out to destroy Sir Henry Baskerville. When the baronet drowns in the Grimpen Mire a spate of anonymous letters is believed to have induced him to kill himself. Several further deaths follow in quick succession. Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna are not sure whether the deaths are accidents, suicides or murders, and they soon find themselves out of their depth. They even question whether they are merely playing to their own vanity as the best friend and illegitimate daughter of the greatest detective who ever lived. Book 1 serves as an introduction to the pairing of Dr Watson and Countess V, therefore I have chosen to rework a story familiar to most readers of the genre - one of Conan Doyleâ€™s most enduring works. It is the only plot to borrow from ACD. All subsequent plots are original.