|The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
SHOSCOMBE OLD PLACE
SHERLOCK HOLMES had been bending for a long time over a
low-power microscope. Now he straightened himself up and looked round at me in triumph.
I stooped to the eyepiece and focussed for my vision.
But you saw him clearly in the moonlight?
Yes, I would swear to his yellow facea mean dog, I should say. What could he have in common with Sir Robert?
Holmes sat for some time lost in thought.
Who keeps Lady Beatrice Falder company? he asked at last.
There is her maid, Carrie Evans. She has been with her this five years.
And is, no doubt, devoted?
Mr. Mason shuffled uncomfortably.
Shes devoted enough, he answered at last. But I wont say to whom.
Ah! said Holmes.
I cant tell tales out of school.
I quite understand, Mr. Mason. Of course, the situation is clear enough. From Dr. Watsons description of Sir Robert I can realize that no woman is safe from him. Dont you think the quarrel between brother and sister may lie there?
Well, the scandal has been pretty clear for a long time.
But she may not have seen it before. Let us suppose that she has suddenly found it out. She wants to get rid of the woman. Her brother will not permit it. The invalid, with her weak heart and inability to get about, has no means of enforcing her will. The hated maid is still tied to her. The lady refuses to speak, sulks, takes to drink. Sir Robert in his anger takes her pet spaniel away from her. Does not all this hang together?
Well, it might doso far as it goes.
Exactly! As far as it goes. How would all that bear upon the visits by night to the old crypt? We cant fit that into our plot.
No, sir, and there is something more that I cant fit in. Why should Sir Robert want to dig up a dead body?
Holmes sat up abruptly.
We only found it out yesterdayafter I had written to you. Yesterday Sir Robert had gone to London, so Stephens and I went down to the crypt. It was all in order, sir, except that in one corner was a bit of a human body.
You informed the police, I suppose?
 Our visitor smiled grimly.
Well, sir, I think it would hardly interest them. It was just the head and a few bones of a mummy. It may have been a thousand years old. But it wasnt there before. That Ill swear, and so will Stephens. It had been stowed away in a corner and covered over with a board, but that corner had always been empty before.
What did you do with it?
Well, we just left it there.
That was wise. You say Sir Robert was away yesterday. Has he returned?
We expect him back to-day.
When did Sir Robert give away his sisters dog?
It was just a week ago to-day. The creature was howling outside the old well-house, and Sir Robert was in one of his tantrums that morning. He caught it up, and I thought he would have killed it. Then he gave it to Sandy Bain, the jockey, and told him to take the dog to old Barnes at the Green Dragon, for he never wished to see it again.
Holmes sat for some time in silent thought. He had lit the oldest and foulest of his pipes.
I am not clear yet what you want me to do in this matter, Mr. Mason, he said at last. Cant you make it more definite?
Perhaps this will make it more definite, Mr. Holmes, said our visitor.
He took a paper from his pocket, and, unwrapping it carefully, he exposed a charred fragment of bone.
Holmes examined it with interest.
Where did you get it?
There is a central heating furnace in the cellar under Lady Beatrices room. Its been off for some time, but Sir Robert complained of cold and had it on again. Harvey runs ithes one of my lads. This very morning he came to me with this which he found raking out the cinders. He didnt like the look of it.
Nor do I, said Holmes. What do you make of it, Watson?
It was burned to a black cinder, but there could be no question as to its anatomical significance.
Its the upper condyle of a human femur, said I.
Exactly! Holmes had become very serious. When does this lad tend to the furnace?
He makes it up every evening and then leaves it.
Then anyone could visit it during the night?
Can you enter it from outside?
There is one door from outside. There is another which leads up by a stair to the passage in which Lady Beatrices room is situated.
These are deep waters, Mr. Mason; deep and rather dirty. You say that Sir Robert was not at home last night?
Then, whoever was burning bones, it was not he.
Thats true, sir.
What is the name of that inn you spoke of?
The Green Dragon.
Is there good fishing in that part of Berkshire? The honest trainer showed  very clearly upon his face that he was convinced that yet another lunatic had come into his harassed life.
Well, sir, Ive heard there are trout in the mill-stream and pike in the Hall lake.
Thats good enough. Watson and I are famous fishermenare we not, Watson? You may address us in future at the Green Dragon. We should reach it to-night. I need not say that we dont want to see you, Mr. Mason, but a note will reach us, and no doubt I could find you if I want you. When we have gone a little farther into the matter I will let you have a considered opinion.
Thus it was that on a bright May evening Holmes and I found ourselves alone in a first-class carriage and bound for the little halt-on-demand station of Shoscombe. The rack above us was covered with a formidable litter of rods, reels, and baskets. On reaching our destination a short drive took us to an old-fashioned tavern, where a sporting host, Josiah Barnes, entered eagerly into our plans for the extirpation of the fish of the neighbourhood.
What about the Hall lake and the chance of a pike? said Holmes.
The face of the innkeeper clouded.
That wouldnt do, sir. You might chance to find yourself in the lake before you were through.
Hows that, then?
Its Sir Robert, sir. Hes terrible jealous of touts. If you two strangers were as near his training quarters as that hed be after you as sure as fate. He aint taking no chances, Sir Robert aint.
Ive heard he has a horse entered for the Derby.
Yes, and a good colt, too. He carries all our money for the race, and all Sir Roberts into the bargain. By the wayhe looked at us with thoughtful eyesI suppose you aint on the turf yourselves?
No, indeed. Just two weary Londoners who badly need some good Berkshire air.
Well, you are in the right place for that. There is a deal of it lying about. But mind what I have told you about Sir Robert. Hes the sort that strikes first and speaks afterwards. Keep clear of the park.
Surely, Mr. Barnes! We certainly shall. By the way, that was a most beautiful spaniel that was whining in the hall.
I should say it was. That was the real Shoscombe breed. There aint a better in England.
I am a dog-fancier myself, said Holmes. Now, if it is a fair question, what would a prize dog like that cost?
More than I could pay, sir. It was Sir Robert himself who gave me this one. Thats why I have to keep it on a lead. It would be off to the Hall in a jiffy if I gave it its head.
We are getting some cards in our hand, Watson, said Holmes when the landlord had left us. Its not an easy one to play, but we may see our way in a day or two. By the way, Sir Robert is still in London, I hear. We might, perhaps, enter the sacred domain to-night without fear of bodily assault. There are one or two points on which I should like reassurance.
Have you any theory, Holmes?
Only this, Watson, that something happened a week or so ago which has cut deep into the life of the Shoscombe household. What is that something? We can  only guess at it from its effects. They seem to be of a curiously mixed character. But that should surely help us. It is only the colourless, uneventful case which is hopeless.
Let us consider our data. The brother no longer visits the beloved invalid sister. He gives away her favourite dog. Her dog, Watson! Does that suggest nothing to you?
Nothing but the brothers spite.
Well, it might be so. Orwell, there is an alternative. Now to continue our review of the situation from the time that the quarrel, if there is a quarrel, began. The lady keeps her room, alters her habits, is not seen save when she drives out with her maid, refuses to stop at the stables to greet her favourite horse, and apparently takes to drink. That covers the case, does it not?
Save for the business in the crypt.
That is another line of thought. There are two, and I beg you will not tangle them. Line A, which concerns Lady Beatrice, has a vaguely sinister flavour, has it not?
I can make nothing of it.
Well, now, let us take up line B, which concerns Sir Robert. He is mad keen upon winning the Derby. He is in the hands of the Jews, and may at any moment be sold up and his racing stables seized by his creditors. He is a daring and desperate man. He derives his income from his sister. His sisters maid is his willing tool. So far we seem to be on fairly safe ground, do we not?
But the crypt?
Ah, yes, the crypt! Let us suppose, Watsonit is merely a scandalous supposition, a hypothesis put forward for arguments sakethat Sir Robert has done away with his sister.
My dear Holmes, it is out of the question.
Very possibly, Watson. Sir Robert is a man of an honourable stock. But you do occasionally find a carrion crow among the eagles. Let us for a moment argue upon this supposition. He could not fly the country until he had realized his fortune, and that fortune could only be realized by bringing off this coup with Shoscombe Prince. Therefore, he has still to stand his ground. To do this he would have to dispose of the body of his victim, and he would also have to find a substitute who would impersonate her. With the maid as his confidante that would not be impossible. The womans body might be conveyed to the crypt, which is a place so seldom visited, and it might be secretly destroyed at night in the furnace, leaving behind it such evidence as we have already seen. What say you to that, Watson?
Well, it is all possible if you grant the original monstrous supposition.
I think that there is a small experiment which we may try to-morrow, Watson, in order to throw some light on the matter. Meanwhile, if we mean to keep up our characters, I suggest that we have our host in for a glass of his own wine and hold some high converse upon eels and dace, which seems to be the straight road to his affections. We may chance to come upon some useful local gossip in the process.
In the morning Holmes discovered that we had come without our spoon-bait for jack, which absolved us from fishing for the day. About eleven oclock we started for a walk, and he obtained leave to take the black spaniel with us.
This is the place, said he as we came to two high park gates with heraldic griffins towering above them. About midday, Mr. Barnes informs me, the old  lady takes a drive, and the carriage must slow down while the gates are opened. When it comes through, and before it gathers speed, I want you, Watson, to stop the coachman with some question. Never mind me. I shall stand behind this holly-bush and see what I can see.
It was not a long vigil. Within a quarter of an hour we saw the big open yellow barouche coming down the long avenue, with two splendid, high-stepping gray carriage horses in the shafts. Holmes crouched behind his bush with the dog. I stood unconcernedly swinging a cane in the roadway. A keeper ran out and the gates swung open.
The carriage had slowed to a walk, and I was able to get a good look at the occupants. A highly coloured young woman with flaxen hair and impudent eyes sat on the left. At her right was an elderly person with rounded back and a huddle of shawls about her face and shoulders which proclaimed the invalid. When the horses reached the highroad I held up my hand with an authoritative gesture, and as the coachman pulled up I inquired if Sir Robert was at Shoscombe Old Place.
At the same moment Holmes stepped out and released the spaniel. With a joyous cry it dashed forward to the carriage and sprang upon the step. Then in a moment its eager greeting changed to furious rage, and it snapped at the black skirt above it.
Drive on! Drive on! shrieked a harsh voice. The
coachman lashed the horses, and we were left standing in the roadway.
You spoke of some bones, Mr. Mason. Could you show
them before you go?
He turned and tore open the coffin-lid behind him. In the
glare of the lantern I saw a body swathed in a sheet from head to foot, with dreadful,
witch-like features, all nose and chin, projecting at one end, the dim, glazed eyes
staring from a discoloured and crumbling face.
|David Soucek, 1998