(NOTE: If you did not read the first half of the story, scroll down to last week's entry and read it first, otherwise you'll be confused and frustrated beginning the tale in the middle!)
Now, here goes . . .
However, those hours were not without excitement of their own. I had dispatched Jenkins to our summer cottage to retrieve a change of clothes for Holmes and myself. Then Detective Gregson returned to the manor not long after us – his second visit of the day. He was bearing two telegraphs in his hand; one he had opened and read, the other was addressed to Sherlock Holmes.
“What word from London, Gregson?” I asked.
“Well, Mister Holmes was wrong,” he said. “There was a Professor Randall O’Neill at Oxford, an expert in Tudor history. He died several weeks ago; murdered in his office at the college. The cache of gold coins he was examining was also gone, so the local police dismissed it as a simple murder.”
“So he was murdered right after he visited here?” I asked.
“Right before, more like,” said Gregson. “According to his department chair, the real Professor was seventy-five years old and bald as an egg. I daresay the person who came here impersonating him could tell us exactly how O’Neill died! Now, this other telegram is from Chief Inspector Lestrade, for Mister Holmes’ eyes only. Where is he?”
“Resting,” I said. “He was up all night, but he seems to think that we shall apprehend the culprit and recover the boy this evening.”
At this point, we were left at loose ends until Holmes’ self-appointed hours of rest came to an end. I returned to the library and flipped through some of the tomes of Atboro family history and correspondence that Holmes had read the night before. I only ran across a few fleeting references to “the thing that liveth in the house,” mostly referring to its growing noise and discontent, and fears that the servants should stumble across its hiding place. Finally, I found a passage in a letter dated May 30, 1530, that made me shudder. The letter was from Sir Robert Atboro, Duke of Portland, to His Majesty King Henry VIII. I copied it out in my notebook, and still have the words before me as I write today:
My Gracious Sovereign, Lord King Henry VIII of the House of Tudor –
That which lived in the House of Atboro liveth no more. I entered the secret chamber in order to bring its victuals and found it had expired in the night. The secret is kept; that which is hid shall remain hidden until the end of time. With mine own hand have I sealed up the chamber and all its approaches; with me the knowledge of how to unlock the passage shall die.
I call upon thee now, Your Majesty, to remember the solemn oath by which thy father bound me and mine, and the promises made should that oath be faithfully kept. The secret is preserved; the House of Tudor is secure. I ask that the Duchy of Portland be conferred upon me and mine heirs until the end of time, or until the fall of our fair realm, in exchange for leal service granted. I humbly beseech Your Majesty to remember and honor the bound word of the House of Tudor to me and mine heirs.
What secrets did this old pile of stone and wood hold that had slept for nearly four hundred years now, I wondered? What promises had been made so many years ago to Sir Keith Atboro, and what had he kept chained behind these walls? As I was reflecting on these questions, I heard an automobile pull up into the drive, and went downstairs to see who had arrived.
I found Sir Richard greeting a tall, muscular man whose head was shaven as bald as an egg. Judging by his build, he could have been a boxer or circus strongman, but his gaze was lively and intelligent, his expression that of a scholar.
“Good afternoon, Doctor Watson,” he said. “I am Nigel Crandall, late of the Royal Fusiliers. I work for His Majesty’s Secret Service.”
“Ah, hullo there, Nigel!” Sherlock Holmes called out as he came trotting down the staircase. Barely more than three hours had passed since he retired to his bedroom, but the bounce in his step was that of a man waking after a full and refreshing night’s sleep. “How is my brother faring these days?”
“Good day to you, Mister Sherlock!” he said. “Mycroft seldom leaves the club any more; since that last stroke he has trouble using his left leg. But his mind is as keen as ever, and he filled me in on your discovery here. I’ve been dispatched to assist you and Doctor Watson in any way that I can.”
“Well, then, gentlemen, let us reconvene outside, under the trees, if you will,” my friend said.
“Outside?” Sir Richard queried.
“Yes, outside. It is a lovely day, and the sunshine will help us concentrate,” Holmes replied. Looking puzzled, the five of us trooped out together.
“All right,” Holmes said as soon as we were a stone’s throw from the front door. “We will make our move after dark tonight, but I will require all of you to follow my instructions to the letter. In a few moments, Watson and I will gather our things and summon a hansom cab to bear us back to town. Sir Richard, you and Detective Gregson will climb into this automobile along with Nigel and drive off in the same direction. We must give every impression that the house is empty when darkness falls. I realize I am imposing on your trust, Sir Richard – and yours, Detective – but I must ask both of you to remain in town for the evening. I will summon you as soon as this business is resolved, so be on standby to come flying back, even if it is the middle of the night. Watson, Crandall, both of you will join me in quietly slipping out of our transports at the end of the gate, and then waiting till full dark to stroll down the lane and very quietly re-enter the house. We must give our killer the impression that the mansion is quite deserted. Watson, I know you did not bring your service revolver to the beach, but perhaps Sir Richard has a firearm you could borrow?”
“Of course,” the squire said.
“I’m always armed,” Nigel said as calmly as he might have announced he was subscribing to a magazine.
“Excellent!” Holmes said. “Now listen well, all of you. Once we are back inside, all conversation should focus on our departure. There is an unseen presence lurking somewhere in this vast old house, listening to us, and it knows I am searching for it. We must create the impression that we are leaving, and that we will return early tomorrow morning. Then our unseen observer will know that he has only this evening to act, and will act quickly – and, I hope, rashly. Then we will make our move!”
“Unseen presence!” snorted Sir Richard. “Mister Holmes, don’t tell me you believe in ghosts!”
“I meant ‘unseen’ as in concealed,” Holmes said. “Our opponent in this deadly game of cat and mouse is quite mortal, and quite human. Gregson, may I see the telegram from Lestrade, please?”
“Of course, Mister Holmes,” said the young detective, handing it over. Holmes took it, ripped open the envelope, and read the missive quickly. Then he folded the message and tucked it into his vest pocket.
“What does it say, Holmes?” I asked.
“All in good time, Watson,” he replied. “For the moment, let me just say that one of my suspicions about this case is now confirmed. Now, gentlemen, let us return to the house and prepare to depart until tomorrow morning - according to our conversations, at least.”
It was late in the afternoon by now, and the shadows were starting to grow long. I accompanied Holmes to our rooms, and we changed into the fresh clothes that Jenkins had kindly fetched for us.
“Do you think it is safe for us to leave the house until tomorrow?” I asked Holmes after I had changed.
“I believe whoever abducted the child has left the premises,” he said. “I am confident we can pick up the trail in town, but if he should return to finish whatever he is up to, we should be able to catch him by surprise if we return at dawn,” Holmes said.
“Well, then, we should head out if we are going to be up while it is still dark,” I said, shouldering my bag and patting my pocket where I had discretely pocketed the Luger pistol Sir Richard had loaned me.
The sun was just touching the treetops on the horizon as all of us, even old Jenkins, loaded up into our vehicles and headed out. Our coachman let the automobile get a head start, so that its commotion would not spook the horses, and then we climbed into the carriage and got underway ourselves.
“Just past the end of the drive, slow down for a moment,” Holmes told the driver. “We will quickly disembark, and you shall drive straight on into town as if we never left. Don’t even come to a full stop, and here’s a quid for your trouble.”
The driver did exactly as instructed, and we found that Crandall was already waiting for us, concealed from the mansion by the high hedge of evergreens that bordered the road.
“Smooth work, gentlemen,” he said. “Watson, I must admit my chief worry was that you or I should twist an ankle disembarking from the carriage while it was in motion!”
“I may not have your catlike reflexes,” I told Holmes, “but a lifetime of living with a leg injury has taught me how to tread with care!”
“Jolly good!” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “I can always depend on you, Watson! Now, we wait for full dark and carefully make our way down the drive. I made sure that the front door was left unlocked, and slightly ajar. Once we are in the house, gentlemen, I must impress upon you the need for stealth. Our quarry is going to be busily searching for something, but we must remain silent in order to catch him unawares.”
“I don’t suppose you’d care to give me some inkling as to who or what we are hoping to apprehend?” I said.
“I always prefer to wait until the resolution of a case before revealing all its details,” he said. “But I have imposed on your patience enough. There is a foul plot afoot, Watson, a plot that could shake the British Empire to its very foundations if successful. The principal author of this plot is the young man who came here posing as Professor O’Neill. Young in years, but old in evil he is – Lestrade’s telegram confirmed his real identity for me. Somehow, he has come to suspect the secret that this brooding old mansion has concealed for four centuries and is determined to unveil it at a moment when such knowledge could do the greatest possible damage.”
“What secret could that possibly be?” I said.
“I have my suspicions, Watson, but I imagine that we will all be privy to the information before this evening is over,” he said. “So kindly indulge my vanity a while longer, if you would.”
“What about the boy?” I asked.
“He simply interrupted the search,” Holmes said. “I have a pretty fair idea where he is confined, and I shall make his safe retrieval our first priority once we are inside the mansion. Now then, we are safely concealed from the windows of the house by this high hedge, so I intend to smoke a pipe full of shag while I still can. Once we are inside the house we shall need to be odorless as well as silent!”
We passed a half hour in silence as the sun sank lower and lower; Holmes smoked his pipe and calmly strolled back and forth; I quietly conversed with Crandall. Judging by his guarded remarks, he had worked for Mycroft for some years doing things for our King and Country that he could not describe. Finally, the twilight began to fade, and the three of us quietly strolled towards the house, hugging the row of linden trees that lined the drive. The huge stone pile loomed before us, dark and silent.
We entered the door, which was indeed slightly ajar, and followed Holmes on tiptoe to the second floor, past the library, and then to the stairs that led up to the boy’s room. The door was ajar, and a single lamp was burning in the corner. Holmes led us down the hall and halfway up the flight of stairs at its end.
“This is the exact point at which young Charles was taken,” he whispered. “Now listen!”
Far away, somewhere above us and on the opposite end of the house, I heard a faint tapping. It would continue for several strokes in a row, pause, and then resume. Once, in between the bursts of tapping sounds, I heard a very faint rustle that was much closer, somewhere just beyond the wall on the left side of the stairs.
“Good!” said Holmes. “He is still there! Now, hold this torch, Watson. I think we can risk a little light while our quarry is busy. Shine it on these rails to my right.”
The stair was fronted by a wall of rich wooden paneling on the left, but on the right the sturdy wooden bannister was supported by thick, ornately carved posts.
“Notice the motif of these carvings?” he asked me.
“Rose blossoms,” I said.
“Ten of them on each post,” Holmes replied. “While they have been repainted many times, I doubt not that when this stair was first built, they were solid white. Now, watch this.”
He studied the paneling on the opposite wall for a moment, and then turned to the post directly across from the seam between two sections of wall. He pressed the top rose blossom firmly, and it sank an inch into the beam with an audible click. Holmes moved to the next post and punched the fourth blossom down from the top; it too recessed when pushed.
“One, four, eight, and three!” he exclaimed as he pushed down on the fourth and final wooden rose. There was a low scraping sound, and behind us the paneling slid to one side, revealing a narrow corridor.”
“A secret passage!” I said.
“I could not find a single extant diagram of the house in all Sir Richard’s records,” Holmes said. “But pacing the place off and measuring the walls, I found many voids and spaces where rooms should have been and weren’t. The top two floors are honeycombed with corridors and chambers that have no visible means of entry! Now, very quietly, step into this passage. Let me see the torch, Watson. Ah, look, the dust of neglect is our friend!”
He pointed the light to the floor, and we saw that there were several sets of tracks coming and going up and down the hall. On closer inspection, all but one appeared to come from the same pair of shoes. The odd set were much smaller and appeared to be walking on tiptoe.
“The boy found the secret passage standing half open and was grabbed suddenly by our suspect while he stood there staring at it,” Holmes said. “He was then gagged and imprisoned in the nearest available hidden chamber – here!”
He pointed the light to a narrow doorway opening to the right, and easing it open we found young Charles Atboro. He had been tied up tightly with a long rope that bound his hands and feet together, blindfolded, and a gag had been inserted in his mouth and tied roughly. I knelt by his side and removed the blindfold, then whispered in his ear.
“You’re safe now, lad,” I told him. “We are working for your grandfather. But we need to apprehend the man who did this to you, so you must be absolutely quiet. Let me untie you now!”
I pulled out my trusty penknife and cut his bonds. He sat up without a word and flexed his arms and legs, trying to stand on his own. However, his limbs were so stiff he gave up after a moment and sat back down.
“I don’t know if I can walk yet or not, sir,” he said. “I was trussed up pretty tight!”
“I must apologize, lad – I knew where you were last night, but your captor was close by and I dared not attempt a rescue. I will try to make that up to you now. Crandall,” said Holmes, “I am going to ask you to take the young man to safety. Watson and I can take care of what comes next.”
“Your brother sent me -” Crandall protested.
“He sent you to assist me, and this is the assistance I require,” Holmes said firmly. “I promised the boy’s grandfather I would retrieve the lad safely, and I am a man of my word. Go now, Watson and I have chased dangerous quarry on our own before.”
“Mr. Mycroft will have my head if harm comes to you,” Crandall told him.
“I shall make sure you retain possession of your cranium,” Holmes assured him. “Now go, quickly and quietly.”
The muscular agent guided the boy through back down the dimly lit passage, and Holmes and I waited till they had regained the stairwell. In the stillness of the old house, we could still hear a faint tapping, far off and above us.
“Not all of these secret passages connect,” Holmes whispered, “but I think that perhaps our foe may guide us to himself. Look out here in the passageway! He’s come back and forth here several times to check on his captive, apparently, but he has headed back in the same direction each time. Let’s see where his tracks lead us - but keep listening. Anytime that he falls silent, we must pause until the sound resumes if we are to take him unawares.”
Using the small electric torch, we slowly made our way down the long-disused secret passage, following the tracks in the dust. The hallway zigged and zagged, no doubt passing behind and between various rooms of the house. Finally we came to a dead end, with a single pull rope dangling from the ceiling. By now the tapping was much closer, almost directly above and slightly in front of us, and it had taken on the distinct ringing tone of metal on stone.
“Fortunately for us, it appears that he has oiled these hinges,” Holmes said, pointing to a few drops of dark fluid on the floor directly below the outline of a drop ladder. After waiting for the sounds to pick up in volume, he carefully pulled on the rope. The panel swung down silently, and I beheld an ancient metal ladder which was folded in half on top of it. Together we gingerly unfolded it. With the panel open, the busy tapping of hammer on stone became much louder. We were drawing near to our quarry, no doubt.
“Extinguish the light,” Holmes whispered very softly. I did so, and I found that, once my eyes adjusted, I could still see the outline of the opening above us, silhouetted by a faint light coming from above. His finger over his lips, Holmes started to ascend the ladder. There was a slight creak as his foot came down on the third rung. The tapping stopped, and Holmes froze for what seemed an eternity until the sound resumed. I followed him, consciously stepping over that rung, and moments later both of us were on the next floor.
We were in a narrow corridor, much like the one below. The left-hand wall was almost a foot shorter than the right due to the slant of the ceiling; clearly we were somewhere in the manor’s vast attic spaces with the slate roof directly above us. The right-hand wall was solid stone; large, hand cut blocks of limestone blackened with age and neglect. The light was coming from around a corner about twenty feet in front of us; judging by the angle, a lamp had been set down on the floor. The tapping was loud, harsh, and when it paused this time, I heard a human voice grunting with effort, and then the sound of stones falling.
“Nearly there!” a soft exclamation echoed down the hallway, and the tapping resumed. I drew my revolver and we began to creep forward again. In a moment we were at the corner, and Holmes boldly stepped around, his own gun drawn.
“Don’t move, MacShaunessy!” he snapped, but apparently our quarry had heard us at the last moment. Before Holmes could level his weapon, the man charged him and tackled him firmly around the waist, bearing him backward to the ground and sending Holmes’ revolver flying.
I have seen Holmes engage in hand to hand combat on numerous occasions, and my friend was wickedly strong despite his lithe build, in addition to being skilled in the various martial arts of the Far East. But he was also a year older than I, and his catlike reflexes had slowed down a bit. His opponent was easily thirty years younger, strong, and desperate. All I saw of him in the dim light was a blur of stained white shirt and red hair, with arms and legs flailing in deadly combat. The intruder was armed with a sturdy geologist’s hammer, and for a moment I could not draw a bead on him, so intense was the wrestling match between the two.
Then a resounding blow knocked Holmes dizzy for a moment, and the kidnapper raised himself up, rock hammer posed to bash my friend’s head in. That was all the opportunity I needed. The report of the Luger was deafening in the narrow corridor, but the bullet found its mark, shredding the assailant’s shoulder as it passed through. He dropped his hammer and shrieked in pain, and Holmes was on him in a trice.
“Rope, Watson?” Holmes said; sitting on his opponent to hold him down. Incredibly enough, the red headed man was still struggling, despite the blood pouring from the hole in his back. I saw a sturdy knapsack resting on the floor near the lantern and rummaged around in it. There was a ten-foot length of cord in it; freshly cut at one end – doubtless the remnants of the rope used to bind young Charles Atboro. I tied the man’s hands together behind his back, and then tore some cloth from the jacket he’d left sitting in the hallway to make a crude compression bandage. Once the bleeding began to let up, we lifted the man to his feet. He snarled as he saw my friend’s face.
“Sherlock Holmes!” he snapped in a strong Irish brogue. “I might have known that it would be you, you cursed old meddler! Mark my words, this government will fall – if not by my hands, then by one of my compatriots’. No people can remain repressed forever.”
“No crown endures forever, save one,” Holmes said. “But you are facing charges for murder, burglary, and kidnapping, Malcolm MacShaunessy. I would say the life span of this government will be longer than yours by an age or more!”
“Let us get this man into the hands of the authorities,” Holmes said. “Then we shall return to this place and see exactly what it is he was trying to find.”
“Trying, nothing!” the Irishman said. “I found it, and I would have had it out of this house in another hour. You’d have been reading of it in every newspaper in London in the next few days.”
“Would have, perhaps. Will be? I think not,” Holmes said. “Now let’s get out of here!”
Holmes picked up the man’s knapsack, and we picked our way back down the corridor and ladder, then to the opening in the stairwell paneling where we had entered the hidden passage. Once we were back down in the library, I treated the gunshot wound on our snarling patient’s shoulder as best I could. He would not die, I thought as I stitched up the exit wound, but it would be a long time before he swung a hammer of any sort again.
After my ministrations, the criminal lapsed into unconsciousness, and Holmes did a thorough search of the man’s pockets and knapsack. He retrieved a sheaf of ancient, yellowing papers wrapped in an oilskin purse. He spread them out carefully on the dining table, then went to Sir Richard’s telephone and asked the operator to connect him with the police station. He informed Gregson that our suspect was in hand and asked him to bring Sir Richard and Mister Crandall back to the manor house.
By now I had our quarry propped up and seated in a chair, his hands and feet securely tied. He was regaining consciousness and fixed Holmes with a venomous glare.
“Ah, MacShaunessy, I see you have rejoined us,” Holmes said. “I think introductions are now in order. You appear to be aware of my own identity; this is my associate, Doctor John H. Watson. Watson, meet Malcolm MacShaunessy, recently released from His Majesty’s penitentiary facilities for his role in -”
“The Charing Cross bombing!” I exclaimed as the name finally registered.
“Indeed,” Holmes said. “It is only by the grace of God and the vigilance of the local constabulary that dozens were not killed. As it is, only the two policemen removing the device were injured, and neither perished – hence Mister MacShaunessy’s relatively light sentence. But it appears his potential for mischief was not exhausted. May I ask you one question, sir, before Detective Gregson arrives?” he addressed our prisoner.
“Don’t see what harm it can do now,” snarled the Irishman.
“How did you know it was here?” Holmes said. “For centuries everyone thought it was in London.”
“The letter I found,” said MacShaunessy. “Before the bombing I was a student at Oxford and I was helping Professor O’Neill catalog some old books found in the attic of one of the oldest buildings on the campus. They’d been up there for centuries, since the Civil War at least. As I was carrying them down, I tripped on a loose board and dropped the stack. One of the books fell open and a sheaf of letters fell out. Just out of curiosity, I stuffed them in my pocket and returned to the dormitory. There was one there from King Richard III to one of his barons, and a line in it caught my eye and launched my search. My time in prison delayed the plan, but as soon as I was released I knew where to go. Professor O’Neill was curating a large collection of documents from the early Tudor era, and they provided the other clues that I needed.”
“I see,” said Holmes. “Well, it is a fascinating discovery, no doubt.”
“I would have made the Palace tremble!” snarled the captive.
“You overestimate yourself, Mister MacShaunessy,” said Holmes.
The man muttered a few more threats and imprecations, and then fell silent. I brewed a pot of tea, and Holmes and I sat wearily and waited for the dawn. As the horizon began to grow brighter, we heard the rattle of an automobile arriving, and shortly afterward a carriage clattered up the drive. Detective Gregson entered first, with a uniformed constable in tow.
“Ah, Gregson,” said Holmes. “May I introduce you to Malcolm MacShaunessy, Irish separatist, terrorist, and murderer of Professor O’Neill? He is also responsible for the kidnapping of young Master Atboro, and the nocturnal noises that have troubled the manor of late.”
“Well, sir,” said Gregson, “I imagine that Scotland Yard has quite a few questions for you sir. Patrolman Johnson, please take him out to the wagon, and I will follow you shortly. Does he require further medical attention?”
“I’ve got him stitched up well enough,” I said. “He’s going to be in some pain until that shoulder heals, but he should be recovered in time to stand trial.”
“Mister Holmes!” Sir Richard exclaimed from the door, where he stood with Crandall at his side. Young Charles stood between them, seemingly no worse for wear. “You did it, sir! I cannot thank you enough for restoring my heir to me.”
“No thanks necessary,” said Holmes. “In fact, I should thank you for presenting me with a most fascinating puzzle with several points of interest. If you gentlemen will meet me in the library, I shall explain what transpired here to you all. Gregson, you might send your officer back to the station, for this is a sensitive matter that may take some time to sort out.”
Holmes retrieved the stack of letters from the table and headed upstairs to the library, where we met him a few moments later. Sir Richard, young Charles, Gregson, Crandall, and I took seats around the table while Holmes stood at the head, an air of satisfaction playing across his features.
“Well, gentlemen, as I have already alluded to Doctor Watson here, there was far more at stake in this weekend’s drama than the kidnapping of one brave young man,” he said. “MacShaunessy is an Irish separatist and terrorist of the worst order, who had blood on his hands long before the bombing at Charing Cross. He is part of a militant group called the Sons of the Emerald Isle, whose goal was nothing less than the downfall of the monarchy. From the moment that Sir Richard told us the details of the disappearance of young Charlie here, I suspected that someone was searching this house for a hidden item of great value – not necessarily monetary value, however. The legend of the ‘thing that lives in the house’ seemed somehow linked to what they were looking for. The tapping sounds described and the footsteps coming from empty, boarded-up spaces – all of it made me think that someone was searching the hidden chambers in the house for something that had been hidden here long ago.”
He rose from the table and bade us join him.
“In my first perambulation of the house, I found the footsteps of young Charles leading from his room to the staircase. Although partly effaced by those searching for him, I managed to pick out his tracks heading up the stairs – and then they suddenly stopped and did not continue. Since twelve-year-old boys do not normally disappear into thin air, I knew that someone had removed him from the staircase – but to where? That was when I noticed the one set of tracks that did not match those of anyone else in the house. Late that evening, as I searched the upper floors and the attic, I found them everywhere – especially along remote sections of walls and paneling. Someone was searching for a secret passage. I returned to the staircase and conducted a more careful search. This time I noticed some fine grains of blackened sawdust and a bit of cobweb along the edge of the wall directly below the secret door we found later. That was when I noticed the roundels carved into the rails of the staircase – rose blossoms, ten on each post. Studying them, I saw that they could also serve as buttons, perhaps to activate a hidden door or panel.”
He paused on the stairs, adjacent to the now closed panel.
“But what was the sequence?” he asked rhetorically. “That was what drove me to search through Sir Richard’s library. By then I had carefully listened to the walls in the upper floors of the house and was aware that there were sounds coming from two different sources – a distant sound of probing and tapping, far up in the attic region, and a rustling, grunting commotion much nearer to the hidden panel I located. This led me to believe that the intruder had young Charles tied up and gagged somewhere in the third-floor level while searching for his hidden objective in the attic floors.”
“Sir Charles, your account of the young historian’s interest in your family's history led me to believe that he was our suspect. The physical description you gave of him matched that of MacShaunessy, and my cable to Lestrade confirmed that he had, in fact, been released from prison not long ago,” he explained. “Perusing the records that Sir Richard produced from his library, I saw that whatever ‘the thing that lives in the house’ was, it seemed to take up residence during the reign of King Richard III. Indeed, I was already beginning to suspect what it was that MacShaunessy was searching for. So, I came to the staircase last night, and pushed the roundels in the sequence of one, four, eight, three – the year Richard usurped the throne. That opened the panel and enabled me to free you, Charles. Now, if all of you will follow me -” he punched the roundels on the rails again, and the hidden panel slid back once more. The five of us stepped through, following his lead.
“This manor has a warren of secret passages,” Holmes said, “not uncommon during that dark age of civil strife we poetically name the Wars of the Roses. But the room that MacShaunessy was seeking had been sealed and carefully hidden, hence his tapping and probing all through the upper floors – leading you to believe, Sir Richard, that the legendary ‘thing’ had returned. But when Watson and I made our way into this passage last night, the tapping sound was no longer moving about but concentrated in the same spot – so I knew that our quarry had found his objective. Now, if you will follow me up this ladder – carefully! It is quite ancient and rickety – we will see if my suspicions are correct.”
We made our way down the corridor to the scene of the previous night’s struggle. A congealing bloodstain on the floor marked the spot where MacShaunessy had been subdued. In our rush to get him back downstairs, neither Holmes nor myself had done more than glance at the section of stone wall that he had been attempting to remove. The Irishman had managed to pull loose enough stone to create an opening about a yard high and two feet across. The lamp he had been using sat next to the site, its wick burned out since we left it there hours before.
“He appears to have loosened the stones at the bottom,” Holmes said. “Gregson, will you and Crandall see if you can pull them free?”
They complied, and in a moment, there was an opening big enough for us to step through. Holmes went in first and shone his light around the small room we had uncovered.
“Come in, gentleman, it is time for you to meet someone,” he said. We stepped through the opening, and Holmes waited till we were all inside before shining his torch against the far wall.
A rude cot with a wooden frame stood there, and sitting up therein, back against the wall, was the ancient, mummified corpse of a man. His flesh was dried and blackened with age, but his features were still discernible. A long white beard trailed down from his chin; his mouth was open and his expression – what was left of it – seemed to be one of anger and protest. A long, black chain was bolted to the wall and fastened to a manacle around his ankle. Something about that open mouth struck me as odd, so I took the light from Holmes and shone it directly into the gaping maw.
“Great Scott, Holmes, this man’s tongue has been cut out!” I said.
Holmes shook his head sadly and crossed over to stand next to me, staring down at the ancient body.
“Of course it was,” he said. “They could not risk him speaking out, after all. Gentlemen, behold the mortal remains of His Royal Majesty Edward V of the House of York, by the grace of God King of England.”
“Edward the Fifth!?” said Gregson. “The little prince in the tower?”
“So he was, once,” Holmes said. “Everyone presumed that his uncle, Richard the Usurper, had him murdered. But apparently Richard simply ordered him into secure captivity. Then when Bosworth Field was fought, the victor, Henry Tudor, discovered the truth, and faced a grim decision: whether to restore the monarch who had been so rudely overthrown, or to make his own claim to the crown secure. The only way to do that would have been to murder the young prince in cold blood – or to lock him away, far away in the south of the realm, in a condition so dire that, even if he were to somehow free himself, no one could ever know who the sad figure was.”
“So my ancestor purchased his title and lands and this estate by offering to keep the rightful king in chains for the rest of his natural life?” Sir Richard said. “And cut out his tongue to make sure he could never say his own name again? Dear God, that is vile!”
“Forty-seven years,” I said softly.
“What was that?” Holmes looked at me with a puzzled air.
“A letter I found combing the archives,” I said. “A letter to King Henry VIII, dated from the year 1530, informing him that ‘the thing that liveth in the house’ was no more. King Edward was chained in this room for forty-seven years.”
“He must have gone mad long before the end, poor soul,” said Gregson.
“MacShaunessy planned to make this information public, with documentation to prove its veracity,” Holmes said. “Think about the repercussions! With all the discontent in the realm at this moment - Irish separatists, socialists, anarchists and the like demanding the abolition of the monarchy, to have it suddenly revealed that the very foundation of the crown rests upon an abominable crime and fraud – indeed, his plan might have borne fruit.”
“And it could, still,” said Crandall. “Mister Holmes, I think we can agree that the best thing we can possibly do is discretely seal this chamber back up and make sure its secret is never uncovered again.”
“I will leave that determination to Mycroft and those shadowy individuals he employs,” said Holmes. “But we should all agree, for the good of the kingdom, that this matter cannot be spoken of again.”
“I hereby swear myself to absolute secrecy,” said Sir Richard, “and Charles, I would ask you to do the same.”
“Of course,” the lad said. “What would be the point of having it all come out now?”
“I do have one question, however,” Sir Richard said. “How did this MacShaunessy find out the truth?”
“He had discovered a letter, buried in the archives at Oxford,” Holmes said. “He was a serious student of history at one time, whatever his politics. It was a letter from Richard III to the Viscount Holderness, dated a few months before Bosworth Field. Near the end, the king told his liegeman: ‘Yea, although manye of my subjects presume that I didst put my brother’s sons to execution, the truth before God is that one of them lives to this day in comfortable confinement; and ye other did perishe of ague only a few months after his father did returne to the earth. Because their bastardy hath been proclaimed by Parliament, neither is rightful heir to my brother’s throne. But young Edward V, so-called, remaineth in the care of a faithful liegeman in the south of the realme unto this day.’ That single paragraph launched MacShaunessy’s search, a search that ultimately led him to Atboro Manor and the stories about ‘the thing that liveth in the house.’ I imagine he found a reference somewhere in the collection of Professor O’Neill, and when O’Neill caught him searching the office, a struggle ensued.”
“Then he came here, posing as O’Neill, and gained access to my library, confirming his suspicions,” Sir Richard said.
“For over three hundred years, every single king and queen of Great Britain has been a direct lineal descendant of Henry VII, either from his son or from one of his daughters,” Holmes mused. “Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovers, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – all their claims to the throne rooted in their blood relation to one man.”
“One man who was so ruthless he had a teenaged boy mutilated and locked away for decades, just to cement his claim to the throne!” I exclaimed harshly. “Egad, I knew Henry VII was a cold fish, but this is truly deplorable!”
“And yet the blood of York flows in the veins of our good old King today, also,” Holmes said, “since Henry married Elizabeth of York, the sister to our prisoner here. In the end, our country and the world are better off if we keep the secret we have discovered here today, don’t you think?”
With that we made our way back down to the library, and Crandall caught the first train back to London. What happened next, I do not know for sure, beyond the barest bones of detail. MacShaunessy was judged criminally insane and remanded to an institution for the violently mentally ill. Sir Richard’s old family title, the Duke of Southport, was re-instated by the Crown in the most recent list of knighthoods and honors. As for the sad remains of the last Plantagenet King, and the letters that revealed his fate, I imagine that neither will see the light of day ever again.
A month later Holmes and I stood, clad in black, as the funeral cortege of Edward VII passed before us. The new King, George V, rode ahead of the black-draped hearse, in between his cousins, the Tsar of Russia and the Kaiser of Germany, with six more sovereigns riding behind them.
“The King is dead,” Holmes whispered. “Long live the King!”
“Indeed,” I said. “I wonder if our new sovereign knows the truth of his ancestry?”
“I know the old King was told,” said Holmes, “and I have a feeling it may have hastened his end. He was a man of conscience, more so than his youthful reputation would make one think. But that is none of our concern, Watson, and I would suggest that if you should write up your account of ‘the thing that lives in the house,’ that you seal it in a safety deposit box and never look at it again.”
So now I write these closing lines and am preparing to seal these words in an envelope. They will go into my safety deposit box at the Bank of England, and there they will stay. Perhaps in a new century, the truth can be told.