THE THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE
Dr. John H. Watson, MD
As recorded by
Lewis B. Smith
For many years, it was my inestimable privilege to be the flat-mate, friend, and professional associate and chronicler of the world’s first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Although the passage of time and my marriages eventually disrupted our cozy living arrangement at 221B Baker Street, our friendship has persisted to this day, and now that I have retired from my medical practice, I again have the occasional opportunity to assist my friend in his work. Holmes seemingly has no intention of retiring from his detective work, now or ever, although he is certainly financially able to do so. However, these days he has become more and more selective in the cases he chooses to investigate.
“There is an appalling lack of creativity among the criminal classes since the turn of the century,” he said to me one fine spring morning in 1910. “I can count on one hand the number of cases in the last decade that have presented any true points of interest.”
“Now, Holmes, surely recovering the stolen diaries of the Prince of -” I began.
“You mean the Duke of Steffordshire,” he said sharply, nodding towards a group of businessmen who were standing on the train platform within earshot.
“Of course!” I said, minding client confidentiality. “But still, recovering those journals from that devilish blackmailer was certainly -”
“Boring!” said Holmes. “I knew where the journals were hidden before we left the Duke’s presence. It was but a simple matter to trick his valet into confessing to the crime after that.”
I shook my head in wonder. Holmes’ mind moved at speeds that left me dizzy and baffled on occasion, but I did recall how quickly he had resolved a case that could have had the direst of consequences to some very highly placed members of the aristocracy.
“In all honesty, Watson, I appreciate this invitation to accompany you to the shore,” he said. “Even in Sussex I have a hard time avoiding all the desperate supplicants beating a path to my door. A bit of sea breeze and sun, perhaps a chance to add some new shells to my collection in the process, will do me a world of good. Ennui is such a deadly foe!”
My youngest son had just left for university, and since my second wife, God rest her soul, had died five years before, I was feeling the emptiness of my house quite keenly. A patient whose life I had saved a few years before had given me the key to his summer home, a lovely cottage near Portland, which he rarely used anymore, and encouraged me to take a holiday there whenever I saw fit. After a long and cold winter, whose chills seemed to soak into my sixty-year-old bones more deeply than ever before, I had decided to seek some recreation, and called Holmes on my newly installed telephone to see if he would like to join me.
As our conversation meandered on, the train pulled into the station and we both boarded. It was a two-hour ride from Sussex Station, where I had met Holmes, to Portland, where my friend’s cottage was situated on a lovely stretch of unspoiled beach east of town. I had brought along a favorite Western novel by Rider Haggard to pass the time on the train, while Holmes contented himself perusing the agony column of the morning’s issue of The Times. We passed most of the journey in companionable silence, occasionally commenting on the passing scenery or, in Holmes’ case, an amusing entry in the newspapers chronicle of Londoners’ personal and romantic woes.
“Would either of you gentlemen care for a coffee or brandy?” a steward asked as we drew near to our destination.
“Turkish coffee, if you have it,” said Holmes.
“A small snifter of brandy would go down well,” I said.
The porter, a pale young man, nodded and poured the requested drink for each of us. Holmes dropped a couple of coins into his palm when he was done, and then spoke.
“My sympathies on the recent loss of your mother,” he said.
The young man paused, stunned by the casual remark.
“Do I know you, sir?” he finally asked.
“I have never laid eyes on you until you came by our compartment,” Holmes replied coolly.
“Did someone tell you about her passing, then?” the porter queried.
“No,” Holmes replied. “I simply wanted to offer my condolences on your loss.”
“But how the devil did you know about it if you don’t know me and no one told you?” the young man demanded.
“I must apologize, sir. I often forget to take human emotions into account when making deductions, and did not mean to mock your grief,” Holmes said. “As to how I knew – well, your face is pale, your eyes are red, and your expression is one of considerable sorrow, so you have obviously experienced a recent loss. There is a small white flower pinned to your lapel, such as are commonly given out at funeral services to the next of kin, and it is still fresh despite the warm weather, meaning the funeral had to be yesterday. Despite the fact that this is a peak travel season and rail employees are working extra hours, there is a ticket to London protruding from your vest pocket, indicating that you journeyed a good distance to attend the funeral. You wear no wedding band, so you did not bury your spouse. Last of all, the locket that is dangling from your left hand displays a picture of a young woman that was obviously done several decades ago, and I can see a distinct resemblance in the shape of her nose and eyes to your own. So, I offered my condolences on the loss of your mother, since that is obviously who you traveled to London to bury.”
The porter gawked for a moment, and then smiled.
“I swear, sir, you are as clever as that detective, Sherlock Holmes!” he exclaimed.
“That is because I am Sherlock Holmes,” my friend replied. “But do me a favor and keep that to yourself. I am going on vacation.” He dropped a couple of extra coins in the man's pocket, and the porter thanked him and moved on.
Not long after, we arrived in Portland, and caught a cab out to my friend’s cottage. To our dismay, the vehicle was not a horse-pulled hansom, but an automobile – one of those noisy, chugging, smoke-belching monstrosities that were slowly taking over the streets of London. But it was the only available transport, so we held onto our bags and endured the bumpy, deafening ride for the fifteen minutes it took us to get clear of town and out to the house.
The next morning, I grabbed a rod and walked down to the beach determined to catch some fish for our dinner, while Holmes removed his shoes and rolled up his pant legs and contented himself with shell collecting along the water’s edge. It was a fine, warm April day, and I felt my energies being renewed by the delightful sunshine. By noon I had caught three haddock and two flounders, and Holmes had gathered a fair basket full of shells. Our cook served the fresh fish up for our supper that evening. We had finished our repast and I was dozing in front of the fireplace while Holmes cleaned and catalogued the shells he had collected when a knock sounded at the door.
“Who the devil could that be?” I wondered aloud, since only my housekeeper back in Dover knew our destination.
“I honestly have no idea,” Holmes said, looking up from the rows of shells he had laid out on the dining table.
Moments later, the butler showed an earnest looking young man dressed in the uniform of a constable into the room. He was obviously excited and began speaking almost as soon as he entered the room.
“Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson, I am terribly sorry to disturb your vacation,” he said. “But this is a most perplexing case, and time is of the essence. A child’s life may well be at stake!”
Holmes sighed and put down a large shell he had been studying with his magnifying glass.
“I suppose this splendid specimen of Atrina fragilis will have to wait, then,” he said. “By all means, Detective Gregson, please be seated and tell us the entire story from start to finish, omitting no detail.”
The young man froze, stock still, at the use of his name.
“By God, sir, I see my father did not exaggerate!” he finally said. “How on earth did you know who I was?”
The late Tobias Gregson had been a colleague of our friend Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and had been involved in many of our early cases back in the eighties. I had not heard from him in years but had noted his obituary in The Times last fall. Holmes uttered a sardonic chuckle at the detective’s astonishment.
“No great deductive leap,” he said. “Your father kept a picture of you as a boy on his desk at Scotland Yard, and I saw it there many times. I also noted in The Times that you had followed in his footsteps and become a police detective when I read his funeral notice last year. You bear a strong resemblance to him, as I am sure you have been informed. Walter is your given name, is it not?”
“Yes, sir, Detective First Class Walter Gregson at your service,” he said.
“Now then, Detective Gregson, please tell us the details of this case that brings you here in such a dither,” Holmes said in his most soothing voice.
“The local squire, Sir Richard Atboro, came into my office early this morning. He’s a powerful man, sir, MP for this district and a close friend of Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister. Unflappable is the word I would normally use to describe him, if you want to know the truth. But he was in tears when he came rushing into my office today, sir!” Gregson exclaimed.
“And what has happened to so upset the worthy squire?” Holmes asked.
“His only son and namesake was killed fighting the Boers nearly ten years ago,” said the detective. “Young Atboro had one son, a boy of two, whose mother died in childbirth. Since losing his heir, Sir Richard has devoted all his time and energy to raising his grandson, who is now twelve. Charles is his name – a bright young man, full of energy and curiosity about all things, but as friendly and humble as if he came of the most common blood instead of England’s noblest stock!” He paused and cleared his throat. “Sorry, sir, I will have to be honest, I am quite fond of the lad. So, you can imagine my shock and sorrow when Sir Richard came bursting into my office and said: ‘You must help me, Detective, the thing that lives in the house has taken my precious boy!’”
Holmes’ eyebrow shot up, and I also sat up and took notice. What an odd turn of phrase!
“What on earth did he mean by that?” I asked.
“That was my question,” Gregson said. “He responded something about an old tradition about a thing that lived in the house, that had to be placated with occasional offerings of food. He told me that he had always considered it to be a silly superstition, such as most old houses have attached to them, but recently some historian had asked to look at his family’s records and seemed to attach some importance to the legend. Then, over the last few nights, he reported hearing odd noises in the house at night – although he could never figure out where they were coming from. Last night he heard the sounds more distinct than ever, and then heard his son’s footsteps as the boy got out of bed. He left his study, intending to tell young Charles to get back to his room. But then he heard a loud sound from somewhere upstairs, like a door slamming or a trunk closing, he told me. There was a muffled cry, and when he got to upstairs, there was no trace of the lad. He spent the whole night searching and came to me this morning. I went out to the estate and did a thorough search but found nothing. No clues, no sign of what might have happened. I was quite frustrated by the end of the day, and Sir Richard is quite beside himself. On the way back to the station I wished out loud that I knew how to get ahold of Sherlock Holmes, and a young man leaving the train station told me he had encountered you this morning on your way here. I rang Sir Atboro and asked him if I could bring you in on the case, and he begged me to gain your assistance. Would you be willing to come, sir?”
“I should be delighted,” Holmes said. “While it is always foolish to speculate in advance of the facts, it seems to me that this case might not be devoid of points of interest. I was lamenting to Watson on the way down here about the appalling lack of imagination in today’s criminal classes.”
“Well, they can’t all be Moriarty,” I said as I slipped out of my comfortable house shoes. While it was always my privilege to assist Holmes in his cases, I found myself wishing Detective Gregson had either located us earlier in the day, or else the next morning.
“True enough,” Holmes said, donning his tweed cap. “But I do sometimes wish the late and unlamented professor had instilled a better work ethic in his would-be successors! He was the Napoleon of crime, Watson, and those who have come along since are more like the George MacLellans of crime!”
Holmes had recently been reading up on the late Civil War across the Atlantic and had developed a particularly poor opinion of the first commander of the Army of the Potomac. Young Gregson simply shook his head at our exchange and led us out to a waiting carriage – a proper carriage, with horses and a driver, not another one of those dreadful noisemaking contraptions that had conveyed us to the cottage that morning. We boarded, and the driver turned us southward, down the west coast road, towards an area of the island noted for its fine wooded estates. Perhaps thirty minutes after leaving the summer cottage we were staying in, we pulled through an imposing arched gate and down a long drive lined with linden trees and cobbled with white stones. The manor house, located perhaps a half mile back of the road, was an imposing four story stone structure, its blocks grey and smooth with age.
“Fifteenth century, pre-Tudor architecture, unless I miss my guess,” Holmes remarked. “Built to last, Watson, as nothing constructed in our century has been!”
As the hansom rattled to a stop, the front door opened and a tall, strongly built man about our age came stepping out to greet us. He was obviously upset, but still moved with the grace and assurance of someone accustomed to commanding other men. He opened the door for us himself and studied our faces keenly.
“Mister Sherlock Holmes, I presume?” he said.
“None other,” my friend replied. “It is always a pleasure to meet a holder of the Victoria Cross, Sir Richard. Your valor during Kitchener’s campaign in Egypt was truly noteworthy.”
I paused, unable to believe that the man’s name had not triggered the memory in my own mind. During the expedition to rescue General Gordon of Khartoum, Richard Atboro, then a much younger man, had turned the tables on an ambush by the armies of the Mahdi and led a cavalry charge that had mowed down over a hundred fanatical dervishes and probably saved Lord Kitchener from assassination.
“I did my duty, Mister Holmes, nothing more,” said Atboro. “But I am flattered to think that you remember my youthful exploits so many years later. Please, sir, can you help me find my grandson? He is all that is left of my family line, and I cannot stand the thought that we might come to an end. This home has been in my family’s possession since its construction in 1481.”
“Rest assured, Sir Richard, I shall do all in my power to deliver the boy back to you safe and sound,” Holmes said. “But in order to do so, I will need to know everything you can tell me about how and when he disappeared, and any bit of historical information about your home that may be related to the incident. First, if you will, the scene of the crime.”
“This way, sir, if you will,” the nobleman said, and conducted us into the huge stone manor house. He led us up a sweeping staircase that led from the entryway up to the second floor, and then down a wide, carpeted hallway, finally pausing before a thick set of double doors, carved of rich, dark English oak.
“I was here in my library,” he said, “reading some of the old family chronicles. Ever since that historian came around last month, asking so many questions, I have been more curious about the founding of this place. Even more so since the noises started up again, of course. I told Charles some of the stories I had read, too, and he was more curious than ever about the thing that supposedly dwells here, in this house. I fear that feeding his curiosity may have been a very costly error, Mister Holmes. If some harm has come to him, I do not know what I shall do!”
“I am very interested in this family history, Sir Richard, but first I must examine the scene where the boy disappeared. Tell me exactly what happened last night when he went missing,” Holmes said.
“I always go upstairs and read with him before bed when he is home from school for holiday,” Sir Richard said. “The boy loves Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, of all things! We were reading through it for the second time, and I left off just before the siege of Alesia began. I kissed him goodnight, then I came downstairs and was reading through Sir Keith Atboro’s account of the building of this house when I heard the distant sounds from upstairs again – scraping, tapping, wood bumping against wood. Every night now for well over two weeks I’ve been hearing it. I have tried to find the source, but the upper floors, especially the attic, are a warren of ancient, seldom used rooms that have got centuries’ worth of family possessions stored away in them. After a while the noises died off for a bit, and then I heard Charlie’s footsteps leaving his bedroom – it is directly over the library, and in the stillness his light tread was unmistakable. I’ve warned him about prowling about the attic, especially at night, and decided that I should go and corral the boy. I left the library and headed for the staircase yonder -” he led us out of the library and down the hall to another set of stairs - “and about right here I heard a loud sound, closer to me than the earlier noises, a sharp slap of wood on wood, like a lightweight door closing, or perhaps the lid of a steamer trunk shutting. Immediately after, I heard Charlie’s voice – unmistakably his! - crying out in alarm or distress. I started to run, but by the time I got up the stairs there was simply no trace of him. There are two staircases that lead from his floor up to the attic and gable rooms, and the noise seemed to come from this further one. But when I headed up the stairs, there was not a sign of the boy. I thought I heard a faint rustling once, from somewhere deeper in the house, but I went through all the rooms and found nothing. I searched all night by candle and lamplight, and then went for Detective Gregson early this morning.”
“I see,” said Holmes. “Well, I fear that your searching may well have obliterated many traces of the boy’s steps, but I will observe what I can. I must ask that all of you wait at the foot of the stairs, or perhaps in the library. I need some time to study the scene very carefully, now that I know the principle locations. I will return to you when I am done, and let you know if I have learned anything.”
With that, Holmes threw himself headlong upon the stairs leading up to the boy’s bedroom, using his magnifying glass to study each thread of carpet on each step. I was accustomed to his methods, but Gregson and Sir Richard stared at him with some astonishment, until finally I spoke.
“Gentlemen, I realize that Mister Holmes’ methods may seem a bit eccentric, but I can assure you that if anyone can find young Charles, it will be him. I suggest we retire to the library and let him work undisturbed,” I told them.
“I have read one or two of your accounts of Mister Holmes’ cases,” Sir Richard said, “but seeing him work in person is still a bit jarring.”
“My father described his methods to me in detail many times,” said young Gregson as we took our seats in the library. “I only wish that I knew how to read clues as readily as he seems to!”
“Tell me more about this – what did you call it? ‘The Thing that Lives in the House’ legend, if you please,” I asked Sir Richard.
“Well,” he said, “my twelve times great grandfather, Sir Keith Atboro, was a liegeman to King Richard III when he was still just Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Lord High Constable. Richard granted him this property in 1480 and ordered him to begin building this manor house. It was finished in 1483, around the time good King Edward died, and Richard seized the crown. When the Tudors invaded, apparently Sir Keith fell out of favor, for he was banished from Richard’s presence and told to remain on this estate until the Crown was secured. Apparently, the old knight was a very persuasive man, for although many of Richard’s inner circle were stripped of titles and estates by Henry VII, he was confirmed in his possession of this property in an elaborate ceremony – and in that ceremony, the Thing That Lives in the House is mentioned for the first time.”
“Mentioned?” I said. “In a ceremony?”
“Indeed, it seems odd. But here it is, in an account written by Sir Keith’s son a few years later:”
Whose shall the house be? Unto the clanne of Atboro shall it belonge;
Until the kingdome itself shall fall, until the trust shall be broken,
Until the hidden comes to light, and the line that is vanished comes anew;
Or until that thing which liveth in the house liveth no more,
but forgotten lieth in the dark, while the Kingdome thrives
And the progeny of Tudor and Atboro share in ye blessings yet to come.
“That seems bizarre indeed!” I commented.
“It does,” said Sir Richard. “and from that point forward, there are several mentions of this thing for the next forty years in Sir Keith’s letters and in the letters written by his son, Sir Robert Atboro, Duke of Portland. I have their collected letters in a volume put together by Sir William Atboro about a hundred years later. Let me see if I can find it – that historian was looking at it last month. Aha! Here it is!”
He crossed the room to a shelf full of heavy, leather-bound volumes, all of them blackened with age. He picked one out and brought it over to the table, opening it to a page about a third of the way in.
“This is a letter from Sir Keith to King Henry VII written in the spring of 1493,” he said. “Most of it is about taxes and impounds, but this last paragraph refers to the thing again.
The thing that liveth in the house grows stronger apace, seeking to burst its bonds whensoever any cometh near. Even when we approach it not, the struggles it undertakes to free itself are audible even on the ground floor. The servants know not the source of the noises, and whisper amongst themselves that ye house is haunted. None have discovered yet ye route thereto; and that which is hid remains hidden. God grant it will be so until the thing in the house liveth no longer!”
“That is positively chilling,” I said. “What on earth can it be referring to?”
“I have read about half the book now,” said Sir Richard. “Many of the letters have never been transcribed and are still in the original handwritten script – very difficult to read in places! I have found about a half dozen more references to the thing that lives in the house, always in letters to the King. Only later on, in the seventeenth century, are their references in letters to people outside the family. It seems by then that whatever it was had become half folk tale, half joke – I know that is how my father saw it when I was a lad. ‘Be good, Richard, or the thing that lives in the house might get you!’ he must have told me a hundred times. But apparently, at one time there really was something living somewhere in this house, a thing that no one was allowed to see. Has it returned after four centuries? How could it have?”
“I think that someone very much wants you to believe that, Sir Richard!” Holmes said from the door.
“Mister Holmes, you gave me a right scare, you did!” the squire exclaimed. “Have you found anything out?”
“How many men, besides yourself, have been in this house since your son disappeared, Sir Richard?” Holmes asked.
“Present company excluded, just my butler, Jenkins, and the cook, Laura,” Atboro said. “I have a groom named Wilson, but he is out of town this week.”
“Can you please summon your butler for just a moment?” asked Holmes.
“Why of course,” said our host, pressing a button in the paneling near his armchair. Moments later, the butler, a short, stout man of nearly seventy, appeared in the doorway.
“You rang, sir?” he said.
“He did so at my request,” Holmes told him. “Please let me see the sole of your shoe, if you please.”
“I beg your pardon?” Jenkins responded.
“Do as he says, please, Jenkins, he is trying to help us find Charlie!” the squire told him.
“Well, then, you can have my shoes to keep if that is the case!” the domestic said.
“No need,” said Holmes. “I just wanted to eliminate your footprints from contention.” He gave the sole of Jenkins’ right shoe a cursory glance and nodded. “Just as I suspected! That will be all, my good man, unless you happen to have a glass of sherry on you.”
“No such luck, but I should be glad to fetch one for you, Mister . . . ?” the butler said with a dry chuckle.
“Holmes, Sherlock Holmes,” my friend replied. “I should be most grateful!”
“Sherlock Holmes! As I live and breathe!” the old man exclaimed, his face lightening. “Master Atboro, I believe young Charles is as good as found!”
“Rest assured I am doing all in my power to justify your confidence,” my friend said. “Gentlemen, there is serious business afoot here! I need to speak with all of you in utmost confidence, and then I need to see every bit of information you have, Sir Richard, about the legends associated with this house, as well as a comprehensive floor plan if you have one.”
“In that case, Jenkins, bring glasses for all, and the decanter, if you would be so kind,” said the old knight, and the butler left to do his bidding.
After Jenkins dropped off the decanter and glasses, Holmes politely but firmly closed the library doors behind him and beckoned us close. I had not seen him so agitated in many years – while he maintained an outward attitude of calm, there was more color in his cheeks than his normal pallor allowed, and his voice had a keen edge I rarely heard there.
“Sir Richard, you said a historian came here to study the chronicles of your family, and this house, some time back. Do you recall his name?” Holmes asked.
“Professor Randall O’Neill, late of Oxford,” Atboro said. “He was a fascinating fellow with a deep knowledge of my family’s history, and of the Wars of the Roses in general.”
“What was his physical appearance?” my friend asked.
“Very slender and lithe in build, with small hands and feet, but strong for his size,” Sir Richard replied. “He lifted these massive old tomes with one hand and carried them across the room many times as I watched. He had red hair and bright blue eyes and was quick and cat-like in his movements. I’d say he was between thirty and forty years of age, at the most. He was most interested in the years surrounding and immediately following the building of our home here.”
“Detective Gregson, I think if you will be so kind as to wire or call the offices of Oxford, you will find that no such person as Professor O’Neill exists. We are dealing with a diabolically clever man who is trying to uncover a secret that this house has concealed for over four centuries and will seemingly stop at nothing to find it!” Holmes said sharply.
“What about my grandson?” Sir Richard said.
“I think he interfered with the search, and was abducted,” Holmes said. “However, I found no evidence he was harmed. In fact, while I have yet to do a full search of the house’s outside perimeter, thus far I find no evidence that he has actually left or been removed from these premises. That fills me with hope that we may yet uncover him safe and sound. What I need now, Sir Richard, is time alone with these chronicles of your family history. The key to our dilemma in the here and now, I am convinced, is to be found in these dusty records from four centuries ago. Perhaps if you and the others could be so kind as to leave me alone for an hour or so while I seek the information I need?”
“Are you sure you won’t need any assistance, Holmes?” I asked.
“I appreciate the offer, Watson, but honestly, I need silence in order to concentrate. There is something far more serious afoot here, I think, than the disappearance of one young boy – no offense, Sir Richard!” he hastily added.
“All the more reason for us to let you do your work in the privacy you request, Mister Holmes,” said Sir Richard. “The hour grows late, gentlemen. Doctor Watson, I have adjoining rooms which will be at yours and Mr. Holmes’ disposal this evening, since I have called you away from your well-earned vacation. Detective Gregson, you are also welcome to spend the night.”
“With all due respect, Sir Richard, I have a wife and young son waiting for me at home,” the policeman said. “But I will return here early tomorrow to see how I can be of assistance.”
With that we left Holmes to his studies, and I tramped upstairs to the comfortable second floor bedroom that Jenkins had prepared for me. I intended to stay up until Holmes came to bed, but within a half hour of stretching out to read I faded into unconsciousness. Once, much later when the entire house was enveloped in darkness, my eyes opened. Far away, somewhere in the floors above me, I heard a faint tapping sound, then some furtive scratches that quickly faded away to nothing. I strained to hear more, but then weariness overtook me again, and when I woke the second time, sunlight was streaming through my window. Holmes sat in the armchair across from me, his meerschaum pipe clenched between his teeth, and a cloud of tobacco smoke surrounding him.
“Ah, good morning, Watson!” he said, springing to his feet when he saw me stir. “I am glad to see you awake, my friend, for momentous deeds are afoot!”
“You should have gotten me up sooner, Holmes,” I said. “I feel as if I have overslept!”
“Not really, Watson, although in another half hour I might have given you a shake. It’s just now seven o’clock, and the telegraph office at the train station does not open until eight. Why don’t you take care of your morning toilet and meet me in the dining room for a hasty breakfast?” he said.
He headed downstairs, and I quickly combed my hair, shaved, and washed my face before joining him. Jenkins had thoughtfully laid out a clean pair of socks, and my trousers had been brushed clean of the previous day’s dust. I resolved to go back to the cottage and retrieve fresh shirts for Holmes and me if we were going to stay here another night, however.
When I arrived in the kitchen, I found Holmes and Sir Richard deep in conversation.
“I don’t understand why you need to leave when my grandson is still missing,” the old squire said.
“I am not leaving, Sir Richard,” said Holmes. “I am going to send two very important telegrams and then I shall return. However, I will tell you what my overnight studies and my morning perambulations have revealed to me.”
“Your grandson is still on the premises and is most likely alive and well but restrained. However, I must ask that you NOT search for him until I return. There is someone else in the house as well, I must warn you, and that person is particularly dangerous and desperate. While he bears no animus to you or your kin, if he thought that he was in danger of being apprehended he would not hesitate to kill,” Holmes explained.
“This whole thing makes no sense to me,” the squire said.
“I trust, by the end of the day, that all will be made clear,” Holmes told him. “Now, Watson, if you are done with those biscuits, perhaps we can be on our way. Sooner departed, sooner returned, as they say!”
I had taken advantage of their conversation to grab a quick bite from the platter of biscuits on the table, knowing Holmes was in a rush to leave. I nodded my agreement, and we headed out the front door, where a carriage was already waiting.
“You know, Watson, as a man of science, I am often inclined to skepticism on the subject of the Almighty,” he said as we headed out. “But then a moment like this comes along and I cannot escape the logical conclusion that there is a higher power at work in the affairs of men!”
“Well, I am pleased by your epiphany, Holmes, but equally mystified,” I said. Myself, I was a staunch Anglican, firmly convinced of the existence of the Eternal – and I usually imagined Him speaking in an English accent, of course!
“Had I not accepted your kind invitation to join you at the seashore, the monarchy itself might have been toppled by the end of this year, and the entire Empire cast into civil strife and disarray,” he said.
“By God, Holmes, is it as bad as all that?” I gasped.
“Hopefully not, now,” he said. “But it certainly could have been,” he said.
“But – how?” I asked.
“It is a dangerous habit, Watson, to theorize in advance of the facts,” he said. “But you have seen nearly all the evidence that I have. I think you will piece it together for yourself before all is said and done.”
“For the life of me I don’t see how!” I protested, but he would say no more for the rest of the ride to the station.
I waited outside while he quickly posted two telegrams, and then he insisted we stop by the local doctor’s office before climbing back into the hansom with a paper sack.
“Can I at least know to whom you sent your messages?” I said.
“One was to my dear brother Mycroft,” he said. “And the other was to Chief Inspector Lestrade at Scotland Yard.”
“Mycroft!” I exclaimed. Holmes’ porcine brother was seemingly an aging gentleman with no visible means of support who spent his days reading quietly at the Diogenes Club, but I had discovered years before that he was actually one of the directors of the King’s most secret intelligence service. “We must have stumbled onto something particularly dire, then!”
“Indeed,” Holmes said. “But I believe that we were fortunate enough to have intercepted it just in time to head off the foul plot. I shudder to think what might have transpired had I remained in Sussex this week!”
“Why the visit to the doctor’s office, then?” I asked.
“Because you left your medical kit at home, my dear Watson!” Holmes said with a smile. “And I needed one of these.”
He pulled out a stethoscope, and my expression was so puzzled that he laughed out loud. I was a bit peeved, if I may be totally honest, and he must have seen my irritation, for he quit laughing and patted my arm affectionately.
“My dearest of friends,” he said, “You are the one fixed star in my universe of wandering planets! I have known you for over thirty years now, and I still have not lost the capacity to wonder at your simplicity and lack of guile. If I am to find secret passages, I must be able to listen to the paneling with more than the power of my naked ear. Trust me, Watson; we are closing in on our quarry!”
With that the coachman headed us back out to Atboro manor. Holmes was in a downright cheerful mood now; whistling under his breath and leaning out the window to watch the birds flitting among the hedge-blossoms. Sir Richard was waiting for us anxiously; when Holmes and I disembarked from the carriage he began to bombard us with questions.
“Are you any closer to resolving the case, Mister Holmes?” he asked. “Do you know where young Charles is? Do you really think he is still alive?”
Holmes held up his hand and the squire fell silent.
“I think young Charles Atboro is still here on the premises, most likely alive but restrained,” he said. “I should have him safely retrieved no later than dawn tomorrow, Sir Richard, but I must ask that you cooperate fully with me for the next twelve hours or so. First of all, nothing is going to happen before sunset. Is it not true that all the mysterious noises you have heard have occurred at night?”
“Well, yes, that is so,” said Sir Richard.
“I am expecting a telegram and possibly a messenger from London later this afternoon,” Holmes said. “I was up all night long, reading volumes of Tudor era letters and chronicles and then exploring the upper floors of this house. I imagine it will be long after midnight before this matter is resolved, so what I require at this moment is four hours of unbroken sleep. We are dealing with a fiendishly clever foe, and I need to be in top form when we face him.”
Sir Richard opened his mouth, the shut it again, and gave a deep sigh.
“I am sorry, Mister Holmes,” he said. “I know you must be exhausted. It is not yet noon; by all means get yourself a bit of rest. I have read the good doctor’s accounts of your exploits for many years now, and I know that if anyone can bring Charlie back to me, it is you. I cannot help but be worried for the lad, though!”
“Understandable enough, my dear fellow,” said Holmes. “If it lies in my power to restore him to you, it will be done!”With that he disappeared down the hallway to the room adjoining the one I had slept in, and we did not hear from him again until several hours had passed.
COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR THE SHOCKING CONCLUSION!