Tuesday, December 18, 2018

THE SHOCKING CONCLUSION . . . of "The Thing That Lives in the House"!!!

   Last week I posted the first half of a lengthy Sherlock Holmes story that I recently wrote.  So tonight join the world's first consulting detective as he comes out of retirement to solve the strange disappearance of a twelve year old boy . . . and the ancient legend of a mysterious entity haunting Atboro Manor!

(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.

Holmes laughed.

“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.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A New Sherlock Holmes Story - THE THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE (part I)

     I fell in love with the exploits of Holmes and Watson when I was just a lad, and have read Doyle's collected stories many times, as well as the homages of modern authors ranging from Nicholas Meyer to Stephen King.  I've also enjoyed many of the movies and TV shows based on their exploits (and groaned at a couple of them as well!)  So I guess that it was inevitable I try my hand at writing a Holmesian tale or two myself, and this one is my longest and most ambitious yet.  Given its length (over 13,000 words), I am going to publish it in two parts this month.  So now join the aging detective and his faithful friend and companion as they prepare to leave on a vacation that will end up involving them in one of the most important cases Holmes has ever undertaken . . ..



                                    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.