This is Chapter 6 of my [Miss Roylott's] novel, and it's a reinterpretation of Doyle's "Speckled Band". You might wish to refresh your memory, but then again, much of the text is reproduced here. If Holmes's personality is throwing you off, let me hint that the first five chapters are for developing the conceit of Holmes as an imp, a haughty detective whose coolness is often broken by his playfulness and his propensity to sarcastically taunt Watson, especially about his writing endeavors. It's something the doctor gets used to, in a behind the scenes way. Please note that this is a depiction of their early life, in 1883, when they are young men and new partners, and is not meant all to be applicable to their later lives.
(written a few months after the described events)
My stepfather's eyes were watching me that morning. I could feel the cold chill of them on me as I escaped, hurrying on the foot-path to get down to the gate and across the road to the Crown Inn. He just stood in the doorway, still scowling after me in his displeasure and filling up the whole frame with his bulk. The faded grey dressing-gown he'd thrown on over his night-clothes made him one in the same with the grey, lonely old house. Ancient, imposing, stark. I was a little afraid of both of them, dodging their fierce glare breathlessly. I did not feel truly safe until I shut the gate behind me and turned, finally off of the grounds.
My heart had not fully settled, of course, but I could at last slow my stride to a more seemly pace. I reached the Inn and quickly made inquiries about a dog-cart. Thank heaven that five thirty-seven was not too early. When I did check my watch, I saw that it was actually close on six. So my stepfather had detained me a while. I thought only my nerves had lengthened the time.
I got on the cart and we started. The journey to Leatherhead would be five miles, and then there'd be the train to London. And then . . . I'd try not to convince myself to turn back. Better to not complicate things by thinking too far ahead, I told myself. London was my resolution for now, and at London I would make further decisions.
I sat at the left and held to the cart as we rolled on through the mud. The April air was crisp at this time of the morning and somewhat irritating to the throat. It might also have been a lingering effect of my scream.
I normally could handle these blowups with my stepfather in a cooler, more reasonable fashion, but this morning was certainly not normal, was certainly not reasonable. I smiled bitterly at the thought that my brief rashness might just cost me the privilege of freely coming and going for weeks. My life reduced to such absurdity, didn't it?
But I bit my lip on any self-pity or tears. I didn't care. It didn't matter, so long as I got out of that house. He couldn't frighten me into obeying him every time, in everything. I kept clenching my fist in my lap, unable to be calm.
My right wrist still throbbed, and I saw then that it was bruised. I pulled down my cuff over the mark and shook my head. Stepfather's temper was getting worse and worse lately. That poor blacksmith last week.
The sky continued to brighten.
I vaguely wondered if I'd have time to eat anywhere. But it didn't matter. Breakfast could certainly wait, as could sleep. The morning was certainly not normal, certainly not reasonable. At the station, I quickly purchased a ticket and boarded the train. Soon Surrey was slipping away outside my window, and I breathed a long sigh of relief. At that moment I thought that heaven resided in London. I only hoped I'd not have to return to hell too soon.
Perhaps I ought to have gone through the side door this morning, rather than have tried passing my stepfather's room. He was roused by my boots in the corridor, though I'd tried to be quiet. I'd jumped when he opened his door.
"Helen! what are you doing up?" His brooding eyes were suspicious and his mouth set in a frown. "What--fully dressed, too?"
"Good-morning, stepfather," I said, keeping my voice as steady as I could. I forced a polite smile while his hard wrinkles never shifted. "I was just going out."
He stepped towards me, throwing his immense shadow forward. "To where? It's barely dawn."
"Yes, I know, stepfather. But it's my desire to catch the early train. I have business--"
"Leaving Surrey, then? Why? Has Percy come down again?"
I shook my head, "No--"
"And you were going to just go off without a word to anyone?" His voice was sharper.
"I--I didn't think it necessary to disturb you or Mrs. Beale so early. I left a note in my room."
"You know I have business in London later today. You ought to wait and we'll drive to the train station together."
"No," I said, "It's just some shopping and small business to do with my wedding that I would fain take care of quickly. I would much prefer a slightly inconvenient start now, in hopes of an early return. Do go on with your schedule and don't trouble about mine, stepfather." I dropped my veil and stepped to the front door.
"You haven't had breakfast, either," he said, blocking my path.
"I'm not hungry."
"Come now," he took my wrist. "You must eat before your journey."
"I'm in a hurry. I'll do without just now."
He would not let go. "Where is it that you are going again?"
"Stepfather, please, you'll make me late. If you'll excuse me--"
He held me with an iron grip. "I don't like you going alone."
"Stepfather!" I tried to remove his hand.
"Not so fast." He relinquished no force while I struggled.
He stepped closer with a menacing look, and I fancied that he meant to snatch my other arm and shake me. I let out a shriek, and at last stumbled freely away. He looked at me oddly, startled by the fierceness of my resistance.
"You'll have woken Mrs. Beale," he said with a pretence at restraint.
I still saw the menace of his dark eyes.
"Then say good-morning to her for me," I said. I turned and opened the door, quickly stepping out from his shadow.
Yet as I went down the foot-path, half glancing every now and then, he was still there, standing in the door without a word or a motion. Thank God for my marriage in six weeks.
My train arrived at Waterloo station, and I looked for a hansom cab. As I did so, I pulled out the scrap of paper in my pocket and checked the address. "221B Baker Street." Mrs. Farintosh had said that this was the new address, as the man had left his rooms in Montague Street. I hoped sincerely that Mrs. Farintosh was in no way mistaken.
I spotted an empty cab and hurried to it. "221B Baker Street, please," I said and climbed inside. We started.
I worried as the streets passed. Had I overreacted? Had I hallucinated? Everything always did come back to the validity of trusting my senses. Yet the sound of that low whistle in the night had been so clear, so distinct. This time, too, there had been no storm. That was something, surely? In any case, what else could I do? A private detective was the only option left.
But what if this trip was useless? What if he didn't believe me, just like Percy? I sighed, feeling lonely. Even Percy thought I must have let my imagination run too free. Even Percy judged me so unsettled by my nerves and my lonely environment that I would have unreasonable fancies and false suspicions. He hated my even mentioning my fears, ashamed that I acted as suspicious as the rest of the village. "Please, please, don't descend to the level of the gossip mongers in that little town of yours!" his eyes said. So I knew I could not tell him of my latest apprehensions. And yet, what was I doing going to a complete stranger instead?
"Baker Street!" cried the cabby as we came to a stop.
After a breath, I stepped down and paid my fare. "Um, excuse me. Would you know for a fact if a Mr. Sherlock Holmes definitely resides here?"
He smiled, nodding. "I would, Miss. He's been here over a year now. 'S had quite an assortment of visitors, too." He grinned knowingly.
"I see," I said as he took the extra coin. "Thank you."
He tipped his cap and drove on.
At the door I fought my anxiety. I couldn't have come all this way for nothing. I wouldn't have an ounce of sleep ever again if I didn't do something, right now.
I took a breath and pulled the bell chain beside the door. I pulled several more times and knocked loudly before at last there was an answer.
A grey-haired little woman opened the door and peered at me with blinking eyes.
I bit my lip. "I'm sorry for waking you, ma'am."
"Well, it must be quite a thing to keep ringing for," she replied, not harshly, but still tiredly. "However," she straightened up, "I've been told lately that frequent excitement is a blessing. Are you wanting to see Mr. Sherlock Holmes, dear?"
My voice shook. "Yes, please."
"Come on in, then."
She let me into a dim front hall that even still appeared friendly and cosy. She shut the door and turned a lamp up higher. "You'll have to wait a bit, Miss," she said, "because he's most likely to be sleeping now. I'll just go up and wake him."
She ascended the stairs and passed down a corridor off of the landing, entering the door marked 221B.
Sitting down on the stairs, I checked my watch. It was just seven now. Perhaps I should have stopped for breakfast first. Yet I never usually ate before eight-thirty.
The door opened, and the lady called down to me. "Come on up, dear, and wait in here. I'll start the fire and warm you up a little."
"Yes, thank you, ma'am." I ascended and soon entered a large, rather crowded sitting-room that was considerably untidy. I nearly tripped upon a violin case, then tiptoed my way to a seat.
"There you are now," she said, finishing and rising from the hearth.
"Thank you, ma'am."
She left and closed the door. I heard some movements come from the inner chambers, but no one emerged from the corridor as yet. I waited.
The crush of furniture was accompanied by a close atmosphere of tobacco smoke, and a foul chemical smell had its source in a laboratory at the far corner. I tried not to be nauseated, clinging to the fresh air at the window, though it was cold.
At a desk by one wall was an accumulation of pens, notebooks, newspaper clippings, and some letters. I wondered what separated those from the correspondence that I saw affixed to the mantle with a knife.
I heard footsteps in the hallway. He was coming.
I felt myself shake. Could I confess my fears to a detective? Dare I accuse my stepfather? I felt even now that my suspicions might be unjust. I floundered in doubt. This man was my last hope.
Two men entered, one tall and clean shaven, and another with a moustache.
I rose from the window.
"Good-morning, madam," the taller one smiled, taking my hand. "My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before whom you can speak as freely as before myself." He turned around. "Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it, and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering."
I swallowed as I sat down. "It is not cold which makes me shiver."
"What, then?" he asked, dropping into a chair opposite me.
I raised my veil so that I might face him. He surprised me with his youth and his keen eyes, reflecting the grey that streaked my own red hair. "It is fear, Mr. Holmes," I answered him quietly. "It is terror."
He blinked at me and reached forward, touching my arm. "You must not fear," he raised an eyebrow, his voice encouraging. "We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt." He leaned back and crossed his legs. "You have come in by train this morning, I see."
I blinked. "You know me, then?"
He shook his head, looking bored. "No, but I observe the second half of a return ticket in the palm of your left glove."
I looked to my hand, having forgotten that I had not even dropped my ticket into my pocket yet. In fact, I was crushing it in my hand.
"You must have started early," he continued in a matter-of-fact tone, "and yet you had a good drive in a dog-cart, along heavy roads, before you reached the station."
I sat back, startled.
He smiled, opening his eyes a little as his friend shifted closer. "There is no mystery, my dear madam. The left arm of your jacket is spattered with mud in no less than seven places. The marks are perfectly fresh. There is no vehicle save a dog-cart which throws up mud in that way, and then only when you sit on the left-hand of the driver."
I wondered at his curious kind of knowledge of vehicles and at his whole peculiar manner. "Whatever your reasons may be," I replied, "you are perfectly correct. I started from home before six, reached Leatherhead at twenty past, and came in by the first train to Waterloo."
He nodded, as if confirming me. He quite threw me off balance.
I wrung my hands. "Sir," I burst, "I can stand this strain no longer. I shall go mad if it continues. I have no one to turn to, none!--save only one, who cares for me, and he, poor fellow, can be of little aid." I closed my eyes for a moment, swallowing, and then looked up again. "I have heard of you, Mr. Holmes; I have heard of you from Mrs. Farintosh, whom you helped in the hour of her sore need. It was from her that I had your address. Oh sir, do you not think that you could help me too and at least throw a little light through the dense darkness which surrounds me? --At present it is out of my power to reward you for your services, but in a month (or six weeks!) I shall be married, with the control of my own income, and then at least you shall not find me ungrateful."
The detective slipped over to a desk in a corner. He consulted a small book from the drawer. "Farintosh. Ah yes, I recall the case. It was concerned with an opal tiara. I think it was before your time, Watson." He shrugged, closing his book. "I can only say, madam, that I shall be happy to devote the same care to your case as I did to that of your friend. As to reward, my profession is its own reward. But you are at liberty to defray whatever expenses I may be put to, at the time which suits you best." He put away the book and resumed his seat. "And now I beg that you will lay before us everything that may help us in forming an opinion upon the matter."
Form an opinion? I had opinions enough. Our whole county had opinions, the sum of which could resolve nothing. I had two years' worth of doubts and self-doubts on the matter. But I had to begin somewhere.
I sighed. "The very horror of my situation lies in the fact that my fears are so vague, and my suspicions depend so entirely upon small points, which might seem trivial to another, that even--" I sounded ridiculous. Did he look at me like Percy did, his eyebrows raised? I struggled against tears, startled by my emotion, "He to whom of all others I have a right to look for help and advice looks upon all that I tell him about it as the fancies of a nervous woman. He does not say so, but I can read it from his soothing answers and averted eyes." I whispered, "But I have heard, Mr. Holmes, that you can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart. You may advise me how to walk amid the dangers which encompass me."
He narrowed his eyes, and his voice became peculiarly hard and distinct. "I am all attention, madam."
I realized then how I had slipped, telling him of my guarded suspicions, speaking wildly of wickedness and danger as though stepfather were some plotting fiend in a horror novel. How irrational and desperate I was, asking him to perform miracles for me on the basis of small points, trivial facts.
I wanted to leave right then, but Dr. Watson moved nearer to touch my hand and offer his handkerchief. He kept it tucked in his sleeve, like an army man, like the friends of my father in India. I looked up at his dark, kind eyes, and took his handkerchief. His touch lent strength to me, even as he withdrew it.
He looked past me to Mr. Holmes again, who sat back with his fingers touched together, waiting. I fumbled for my voice, half glancing back to Dr. Watson. "My name is Helen Stoner, and I am living with my stepfather, who is the last survivor of one of the oldest Saxon families in England, the Roylotts of Stoke Moran, on the western border of Surrey."
"The name is familiar to me," he said, closing his eyes. Dr. Watson indicated that I should continue all the same. He began taking notes on my words himself, so I supposed that this was their professional routine by which they could at convenience check back over the facts I now recited.
I began telling them of the history of my stepfather, of his ancestors' financial ruin which had driven him to seek his fortune in India, and of his determination and character that had made him the success that my mother met. I spoke of the terrible fit of anger in which he'd brutally beaten the butler to death, earning himself a long imprisonment that ended both his practice and his hopes of coming to great things. I feared perhaps that I might seem to be speaking obscurely in respect to my case, but I could speak no other way.
"When Dr. Roylott was in India he married my mother, Mrs. Stoner, the young widow of Major-General Stoner, of the Bengal Artillery. My sister Julia and I were twins, and we were only two years old at the time of my mother's re-marriage. She had a considerable sum of money--not less than £1000 a year--and this she bequeathed to Dr. Roylott entirely while we resided with him, with a provision that a certain annual sum should be allowed to each of us in the event of marriage. Shortly after our return to England my mother died--she was killed eight years ago in a railway accident near Crewe. Dr. Roylott then abandoned his attempts to establish himself in practice in London and took us to live with him in the old ancestral house at Stoke Moran. The money which my mother had left was enough for all our wants, and there seemed to be no obstacle to our happiness."
Already as I spoke I felt I must be doing a great injustice to my stepfather to conceive such an unwholesome prejudice against him. Surely there was no evidence against him? Surely my mother had been right in her unswerving faith in the man? She would not think ill of him during his eleven-year imprisonment, and told us always to have sympathy and patience concerning his brash temper, as it was founded upon many trying disappointments in his life. She said he was a man of talent, resolve, and intellect, all of which would carry him far in the world. Our mother lost no hope though his had failed him, and in the months before her fatal accident she encouraged him to persevere at his meagre London practice, repeating those words of praise.
True also, Dr. Roylott had once been quite kind to Julia and me. His appeal to us to retire with him to Stoke Moran had been full of the paternal fear that we might find some charming men in London and marry and too quickly leave him without familial company. We also knew it likely that he wished out of pride to feel that he himself, and not our mother's money, was actively supporting us. We had no doubt in his love for us those eight years ago.
"But a terrible change came over our stepfather about this time. Instead of making friends and exchanging visits with our neighbours, who had at first been overjoyed to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the family seat, he shut himself up in his house and seldom came out save to indulge in ferocious quarrels with whoever might cross his path. Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather's case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics. A series of disgraceful brawls took place, two of which ended in the police-court, until at last he became the terror of the village, and the folks would fly at his approach, for he is a man of immense strength, and absolutely uncontrollable in his anger.
"Last week he hurled the local blacksmith over a parapet into a stream, and it was only by paying over all the money which I could gather together that I was able to avert another public exposure. He had no friends at all save the wandering gypsies, and he would give these vagabonds leave to encamp upon the few acres of bramble-covered land which represent the family estate, and would accept in return the hospitality of their tents, wandering away with them sometimes for weeks on end. He has a passion also for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent, and he has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon, which wander freely over his grounds and are feared by the villagers almost as much as their master.
"You can imagine from what I say that my poor sister Julia and I had no great pleasure in our lives. No servant would stay with us, and for a long time we did all the work of the house. She was but thirty at the time of her death, and yet her hair had already begun to whiten, even as mine has."
"Your sister is dead, then?" said Mr. Holmes, his eyes still closed.
"She died just two years ago," I answered, "and it is of her death that I wish to speak to you." I thought carefully of what I said next, not entirely certain if I still wished to pursue the conversation. "You can understand that, living the life which I have described, we were little likely to see anyone of our own age and position. We had, however, an aunt, my mother's maiden sister, Miss Honoria Westphail, who lives near Harrow, and we were occasionally allowed to pay short visits at this lady's house. Julia went there at Christmas two years ago, and met there a half-pay major of marines, to whom she became engaged." I paused, wondering if he would question the wisdom of Julia's abrupt betrothal. Percy and I certainly had at the time, but she'd been unshaken by such cautions.
Mr. Holmes said nothing.
"My stepfather learned of the engagement when my sister returned, and offered no objection to the marriage. But within a fortnight of the day which had been fixed for the wedding, the terrible event occurred which has deprived me of my only companion."
Mr. Holmes half opened his eyes. "Pray be precise as to details."
I shivered. "It is easy for me to be so," I said, "for every event of that dreadful time is seared into my memory. The manor-house is, as I have already said, very old, and only one wing is now inhabited. The bedrooms in this wing are on the ground floor, the sitting-rooms being in the central block of the buildings. Of these bedrooms the first is Dr. Roylott's, the second my sister's, and the third my own. There is no communication between them, but they all open out into the same corridor. Do I make myself plain?"
"Perfectly so," he said.
"The windows of the three rooms open out upon the lawn. That fatal night Dr. Roylott had gone to his room early, though we knew that he had not retired to rest, for my sister was troubled by the smell of the strong Indian cigars which it was his custom to smoke. She left her room, therefore, and came into mine, where she sat for some time, chatting about her approaching wedding. At eleven o'clock she rose to leave me, but she paused at the door and looked back.
"'Tell me, Helen,' said she, 'have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of the night?'
"'Never,' said I.
"'I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?'
"'Certainly not. But why?'
"'Because during the last few nights I have always, about three in the morning, heard a low, clear whistle. You know I am a light sleeper, and it has awakened me. I cannot tell where it came from--perhaps from the next room, perhaps from the lawn. I thought that I would just ask you whether you had heard it.'
"'No, I have not. It must be those wretched gypsies in the plantation.'
"'Very likely. And yet if it were on the lawn, I wonder that you did not hear it also.'
"'Ah, but I sleep more heavily than you.'
"'Well, it is of no great consequence, at any rate.' She smiled back at me, closed my door, and a few moments later I heard her key turn in the lock."
"Indeed," said Mr. Holmes, raising his hand to halt me. "Was it your custom always to lock yourselves in at night?"
"I think that I mentioned to you that the doctor kept a cheetah and a baboon. We had no feeling of security unless our doors were locked."
"Quite so. Pray proceed with your statement."
I continued, wishing to hurry to the end, but remembering his request for details. "I could not sleep that night," I said slowly. "A vague feeling of impending misfortune impressed me. My sister and I, you will recollect, were twins, and you know how subtle are the links which bind two souls which are so closely allied.
"It was a wild night. The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows. Suddenly, amid all the hubbub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a terrified woman. I knew that it was my sister's voice. I sprang from my bed, wrapped a shawl round me, and rushed into the corridor. As I opened my door I seemed to hear a low whistle, such as my sister described, and a few moments later a clanging sound, as if a mass of metal had fallen.
"As I ran down the passage, my sister's door was unlocked, and it revolved slowly upon its hinges. I stared at it horror-stricken, not knowing what was about to issue from it. By the light of the corridor-lamp I saw my sister appear at the opening, her face blanched with terror, her hands groping for help, her whole figure swaying to and fro like that of a drunkard. I ran to her and threw my arms round her, but at that moment her knees seemed to give way and she fell to the ground. She writhed as one who is in terrible pain, and her limbs were dreadfully convulsed."
I fought to keep down my tears, finding that the recital of these old facts still affected me deeply. I seemed to relive every moment. I trembled and breathed uneasily into Dr. Watson's handkerchief, catching the sob in my throat.
"At first I thought that she had not recognised me, but as I bent over her she suddenly shrieked out in a voice which I shall never forget, 'Oh my God, Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!' There was something else which she would fain have said, and she stabbed with her finger into the air in the direction of the doctor's room, but a fresh convulsion seized her and choked her words.
"I rushed out, calling loudly for my stepfather, and I met him hastening from his room in his dressing-gown. When he reached my sister's side she was unconscious, and though he poured brandy down her throat and sent for medical aid from the village, all efforts were in vain, for she slowly sank and died without having recovered her consciousness. Such was the dreadful end of my beloved sister."
"One moment," said Mr. Holmes, opening his eyes, "are you sure about this whistle and metallic sound? Could you swear to it?"
I shook my head and wept. "That was what the county coroner asked me at the inquiry. It is my strong impression that I heard it, and yet, among the crash of the gale and the creaking of the old house . . . I may possibly have been deceived."
"Was your sister dressed?"
"No," I sniffled, "she was in her night-dress. In her right hand was found the charred stump of a match, and in her left a match-box."
He nodded. "--Showing that she had struck a light and looked about her when the alarm took place. That is important. And what conclusions did the coroner come to?"
Here I faltered. His continued stare unnerved me. "He investigated the case with great care," I began, then excused, "for Dr. Roylott's conduct had long been notorious in the county. . . ." Mr. Holmes nevertheless watched my face with sharpness, and I looked away. "But he was unable to find any satisfactory cause of death. My evidence showed that the door had been fastened upon the inside, and the windows were blocked by old-fashioned shutters with broad iron bars which were secured every night. The walls were carefully sounded, and were shown to be quite solid all round, and the flooring was also thoroughly examined, with the same result. The chimney is wide, but is barred up by four large staples. It is certain, therefore, that my sister was quite alone when she met her end. Besides, there were no marks of any violence upon her."
"How about poison?"
"The doctors examined her for it, but without success."
"What do you think that this unfortunate lady died of, then?"
"It is my belief that she died of pure fear and nervous shock, though what it was that frightened her I cannot imagine."
"Were there gypsies in the plantation at the time?"
"Yes, there are nearly always some there."
"Ah," he sat up, "and what did you gather from this allusion to a band--a speckled band?"
I hesitated. "Sometimes I have thought that it was merely the wild talk of delirium, sometimes that it may have referred to some band of people, perhaps to these very gypsies in the plantation. I do not know whether the spotted kerchiefs which so many of them wear over their heads might have suggested the strange adjective which she used."
Mr. Holmes shook his head, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair. He sat back again. "These are very deep waters. Pray go on with your narrative."
I struggled with my voice again, hurrying to keep myself from succumbing again to emotion. "Two years have passed since then, and my life has been until lately lonelier than ever. A month ago, however, a dear friend whom I have known for many years has done me the honour to ask my hand in marriage. His name is Armitage--Percy Armitage--the second son of Mr. Armitage, of Crane Water, near Reading. My stepfather has offered no opposition to the match, and we are to be married in the course of the spring. Two days ago some repairs were started in the west wing of the building, and my bedroom wall has been pierced, so that I have had to move into the chamber in which my sister died, and to sleep in the very bed in which she slept." I shook involuntarily, whispering. "Imagine, then, my thrill of terror when last night, as I lay awake, thinking over her terrible fate, I suddenly heard in the silence of the night the low whistle which had been the herald of her own death. I sprang up and lit the lamp, but nothing was to be seen in the room. I was too shaken to go to bed again, however, so I dressed, and as soon as it was daylight I slipped down, got a dog-cart at the Crown Inn, which is opposite, and drove to Leatherhead, from whence I have come on this morning with the one object of seeing you and asking your advice."
"You have done wisely," he nodded. He folded his hands and peered at me as I dabbed the handkerchief to my final tears. "But have you told me all?" he asked.
"Yes, all." I breathed a little more calmly and blinked my eyes dry.
Mr. Holmes sat forward. "Miss Roylott," he said, rather strangely, "you have not. You are screening your stepfather."
I stared. "Why, what do you mean?"
Mr. Holmes reached across my lap and pushed back the lace from my right hand. The bruise of my stepfather's grip still showed plainly on my wrist.
"You have been cruelly used," he said.
I pulled back from him and covered it again quickly. How did he see that? Why should a young man as he see so clearly how foolish I had been? How I, a grown woman, had shrunk in fear from my own stepfather?
I could not face his eyes. "He is a hard man," I whispered, "and perhaps he hardly knows his own strength."
Mr. Holmes did not say anything, and he turned towards the fire. I was relieved to be free of his unnerving gaze. Indeed, I wished he had kept his eyes closed during the whole interview. Dr. Watson touched me again, leaning closer with a look of sympathy and a frown of concern. I pulled away my sleeve from his grasp and slunk uncomfortably into my chair. We sat in silence.
At last Mr. Holmes turned his head to us. "This is a very deep business. There are a thousand details which I should desire to know before I decide upon our course of action. Yet we have not a moment to lose. If we were to come to Stoke Moran today, would it be possible for us to see over these rooms without the knowledge of your stepfather?"
"As it happens, he spoke of coming into town today upon some most important business. It is probable that he will be away all day, and that there would be nothing to disturb you. We have a housekeeper now, but she is old and foolish, and I could easily get her out of the way."
"Excellent. You are not averse to this trip, Watson?"
"By no means."
"Then we shall both come. What are you going to do yourself?" he asked me.
"I have one or two things which I would wish to do now that I am in town. But I shall return by the twelve o'clock train, so as to be there in time for your coming."
"And you may expect us early in the afternoon. I have myself some small business matters to attend to. --Will you not wait and breakfast?"
I paused in my rising, finding his hand upon mine a surprise. He had a peculiar way of looking directly at one when his voice intensified on a certain point.
"No, I must go. My heart is lightened already since I have confided my trouble to you. I shall look forward to seeing you again this afternoon." I lowered my veil and quickly exited.
Outside on the street I in fact headed first for a restaurant in which to dine. I felt better to be free of the close atmosphere of the flat, and I didn't feel it appropriate to intrude on my hosts any longer, even by invitation.
I had mixed feelings about Mr. Holmes, overall. He was such an odd person, with a lean frame and intense features which resembled those of a keen raptor or hound on the hunt. Mrs. Farintosh had warned me that he was startling and generally cold in his manner, but that he was really very kind and helpful. I supposed that she was right. Dr. Watson had been so silent and withdrawn that I could not distinctly form an opinion of him. His dark, alert eyes seemed to follow us very closely, and his hand was most forceful and quick as he wrote. How had the detective entered into partnership with a doctor?
I stirred my cup. My reflection in the polished surface of the tea service was quite pale, even to the lips, and I must have appeared so when the detective asked me to stay. But I had felt faint more because of the flat than anything else, and was simply relieved to have discussed my sister's death in earnest. I was not yet sure if I should be convinced that my stepfather was guilty of anything whatsoever, but I was glad to have someone come investigate and give an objective opinion on the matter.
My talk with Mrs. Farintosh just three weeks before had been too coloured by my suspicions, I feared. She had congratulated me, as had everyone at Aunt Honoria's, on my engagement to Percy. One of my aunt's new friends, she was very bubbly and talkative. She soon began a friendly interrogation of me on the history of my romance with Percy. She occasionally clapped her hands with pleasure at all the charming details I told her. Then I made a stray comment about my twin, and her inquisitive nature soon turned the conversation to the fate of Julia.
Mrs. Farintosh listened to my account with grave interest and concern. "Is it all true?" she asked, horror-stricken. Both she and I were shivering after I'd painted the vivid image of my sister's terrible, unsolved death. "But how can you live with him?" she asked softly, already as impressed as I was with a dread of my stepfather.
"He's done nothing," I said slowly. "It's been two years--"
"But don't you fear? Don't you ever wonder?" she insisted. "And now," her voice lowered, "with this. . . ." She touched the ring on my hand.
I turned from her gaze, but I knew I hid nothing. "He only has a temper, that's all," I said stubbornly. "He's unpleasant, violent, and frightening. Everyone naturally suspected him. The police probed him warily. But in the end the coroner found nothing against him. Nothing!" Despite my emotions, I was determined at least to keep my facts clear. "There's no proof to connect him with anything."
"My dear," she said gently, "I know I am not one to advise you. Why, if your Aunt Norrie trusts him with you. . . ."
With a sudden thought, she rose and scrambled for a sheet of paper, scribbling on it decisively. "Here is the address of someone who might help you. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, a detective. No, don't be cross! I wouldn't give you his name if I had not a true faith in him. He is most excellent, most amazing. I have not words enough to describe him! --Oh ignore the wild claims of a nosy old biddy, if you must, but do take this address. Take it! to humour me. Now do hold on to it. Keep it somewhere that you'll remember. Do promise a foolish, anxious old matron that you'll think of this discussion if ever you are in trouble. Do remember this name if ever you have a need for advice, for a little kindness and counsel." She shrugged, "Perhaps I am entirely wrong about your stepfather. But it eases my mind to think, in any circumstances that may arise, that dear Honoria's niece might be aided and watched over by the same able guardian I once had. He was most good to me, my dear, I assure you. He was most good to me when I thought I would never hold my head up again."
She told me a few details of her case, but spent more time elaborating on the remarkable man himself. Then Mrs. Farintosh said goodnight.
I swallowed the last of my tea. I rose and stretched my legs. The meal had warmed me considerably, making the chill April morning seem more fresh and inviting than it had seemed at dawn. I paid and left, putting down my veil again as I stepped out the door. I found a hansom and got in, heading for a milliner's I knew.
At noon I caught the train home. I put my parcels above me and sat quietly, trying to steel myself for Stoke Moran.
I thought again of the detective, feeling faintly puzzled.
She hadn't mentioned his youth. His voice, his postures, his coldness--not his youth. How could Mrs. Farintosh speak of his wisdom, his insight, and his expertise if he was so young? How could she regard him as a beacon of light, a paternal benefactor, a miracle worker? Surely Percy would never believe that I'd consulted such a person.
I sighed, shaking my head. It was too late to regret anything. At least it was a little better than my running in hysterics to the police, only to receive no real help and no easier relationship with my stepfather.
I came home and found only Mrs. Beale about, preparing luncheon. She said that stepfather would definitely be gone until evening.
"Why did you leave so early, Miss?" she asked, sitting down with me at the kitchen table. "I was so startled when you woke me this morning! I didn't believe my ears for a little while. Then I threw on my shawl and I came straight out, and what with the door thrown open and the doctor coming back in just then, muttering about 'that impertinent girl,' I was quite unsettled. I asked him what the screaming was about, and he just scowled at me, saying, 'Go read the note in her room!' Ooh, he was in such an awful temper! He turned on his heel and went into his room, rummaging for clothes. Then he shouted at me to get together a cold breakfast and a train schedule, so he could see what train you might have took."
I looked up from my plate. "My train?"
"Yes! Silly, isn't it? He finally tossed the schedule aside in frustration and stormed out the door, all shaking his head and swinging his hunting crop and pounding his footsteps straight over to the Crown." She nodded with finality.
I stopped sipping my coffee. "What--he did not return?"
"No, Miss, he certainly didn't."
"He went to the train station then?" I said unsteadily.
"Yes. Where else, Miss?"
"He was not long after me?"
"Well, about twenty after six."
"But surely it means he will return from London before evening?"
"No. Whatever time he left here, he didn't change his business appointments for the day. He didn't even mention trying. He's booked into the evening. I thought that he meant to find you some time this morning and to scold you again. I didn't think he'd be successful, though. Not likely, after all. You didn't see him today, did you?"
"Right," she nodded. After a moment she frowned and spoke involuntarily in a whisper, the whisper that had become our habit when we expressed our more uncertain fears of Dr. Roylott. "I just wonder at his getting so angry, Miss," she said slowly, her green eyes darting. "I guess he's not used to being defied, in any little thing. He's just gotten so very sensitive, dear, as your marriage gets closer."
I nodded, and for a moment we were silent.
Then she sat up and patted my hand in her motherly way. "Now don't keep up this practice of early rising, my dear!" she said in a brighter tone. "Other than it agitating Dr. Roylott terribly, it's not good to upset your sleeping habits."
After luncheon I changed into a day dress and then opened my parcels that I left in the front hall. Mrs. Beale thought the hat was definitely very pretty, and she liked the style of the gloves, which would so complement the embroidery on my wedding dress. I opened the last parcel and became terribly annoyed, crying out, "Oh, no!"
Mrs. Beale looked in the box at the broken remains of a watch and its chain. "Oh my, the hinge is bent and the glass shattered."
"It's terrible! And I meant to give it to Percy. I'll have to have it repaired. Could you go do it Mrs. Beale?"
"Yes please. I'm so upset and I'm already weary from my trip this morning. I don't feel up to London yet again, but I know I'll fret about this until it's fixed or replaced. Will you go?"
"Thank you. Here's the address of the place."
I scribbled the note for her, and she soon changed her dress and left on the errand. I didn't think it a large deception, nor a terrible waste of time for her. After all, once I'd resolved to break the thing, I had to have it fixed. But really, if the business of this afternoon turned out to come to nothing, I'd much prefer her not to know anything had ever happened. She would only become nervous at realising that I'd actually felt in enough danger from my stepfather to have gone to a detective.
I went outside and paced on the lawn, brooding. Though Mrs. Beale was very sweet and sympathetic, I knew that she did not like to follow an unpleasant thought to its end. But I had time to consider it, and I knew that the thought had to be followed.
She was wrong. It was not unlikely for my stepfather to find me. If he'd resolved to do it, he could have done it. I had made myself quite conspicuous today in my dress and veil. Yet the morning had been chilly and the outfit was my warmest. I certainly didn't think at the time that I would wake my stepfather.
He only needed to describe me to the porter at the station and to ask which train I'd taken, making up some excuse for his inquiry. Then he could follow on the next train and question the cabbies at Waterloo. It would take some patience, but he had the morning free, and my cabby could tell him a great deal about where I'd gone.
Yet had he done it? Had my stepfather looked for me, or changed his mind when the fit of anger wore off? Did he merely spend his morning fury on going to Harrow to complain to my aunt about my wild behaviour? He had done so over Julia when she'd disobeyed him more often in her last year of life. Her patience and nerves had worn thin with the loneliness of the house and the constant trials of his temper in the village, so she rather recklessly grew hostile and defiant toward him. She was soon only agreeable in my company or in our aunt's house. Julia seemed more in love with the thought of leaving Stoke Moran than she was with the half-pay major.
But perhaps I myself was lately developing Julia's precipitousness, at least in my imaginings about the possible actions of my stepfather. Why was I sketching in my mind these wild pictures of him skulking after me in train stations when he might be even now discussing our financial investments with the accountant to see how much could be spent on my wedding? I finally forced the suspicions from my mind altogether. I could not think clearly in my state, and there was someone coming today who could think with infinite clearness, if Mrs. Farintosh was to be believed.
I looked up suddenly and saw that very man above our stone wall. He and Dr. Watson were coming over the stile twenty metres down from the gate, and they faced each other, speaking. They fell, rather than jumped, in an unsuccessful negotiation of the drop, not seeing that the other half of the stile had been broken and removed to prevent the cheetah or baboon from escaping into the village when they wandered freely in the night. I gasped and ran toward the men.
Dr. Watson rose gracefully and dusted himself off, uninjured, for besides a stiffness in his shoulder, he was an agile man. Mr. Holmes, who had been the first to fall, slipping backwards and unfortunately pulling his friend down, still lay on his back in the grass.
As I neared, though, I realised with some surprise that Mr. Holmes was actually, and quite merrily, in fact, chuckling to himself. "That's what comes of taking an out-of-town driver at his word," I heard him say good-naturedly. "He only knew the place by reputation, and his information needs updating."
Dr. Watson began checking him for fractures and trying to coax him to sit up. Mr. Holmes just kept laughing. "I'm sure Boswell never had such a funny experience. Do write this in your stories, if anything."
The doctor rolled his eyes, looking exasperated.
I called out. "Dr. Watson!"
He looked up and rose, coming over and shaking hands with a smile. His words were cut off by Mr. Holmes, speaking from the ground with his head tipped up to look at me. "Good-afternoon, Miss Stoner," he said calmly. "You see that we have been as good as our word." His hands were folded and his ankles crossed, as if he were casually reclining in his chair at Baker Street.
I came and stood over him, blinking. "Will you not rise, sir?"
He smiled. "Certainly." He put out his hand. I gave him mine and he got up to his feet. "I haven't startled you I hope?"
I half glanced at Dr. Watson. "Um, no. Are you quite all right?"
"Yes," he nodded placidly. He stepped back and dusted himself off.
Dr. Watson said "Ahem" loudly.
Then I led them back to the house.
"I have been waiting so eagerly for you," I said. "All has turned out splendidly. Dr. Roylott has gone to town, and it is unlikely that he will be back before evening."
"We have had the pleasure of making the doctor's acquaintance," said Mr. Holmes.
I stopped and turned around. "What?"
"Not long after you left us this morning, Miss Stoner, your . . . lovely stepfather honoured us with a visit, a few crude insults, and a display of his manual skill with a steel poker." He smiled and laid his fists side by side, pulling them apart in a straight line to show the bar in his grip. Then he made a sharp motion of bending it out of shape.
I was horrified. "Good heavens! He has followed me, then." I gasped and felt ready to faint.
Mr. Holmes caught hold of me, startled by how badly his words had upset me. He looked towards Dr. Watson in a little confusion, blinking. "So it appears," he said breathlessly, trying to keep me up.
I swallowed and steadied my nerves. Then I raised myself on somewhat wobbly legs and shook my head. "He is so cunning that I never know when I am safe from him. What will he say when he returns?"
Mr. Holmes grew less pale, and more stern. "He must guard himself," he answered, pressing my hand, "for he may find that there is someone more cunning than himself upon his track." He turned to the house. "You must lock yourself up from him to-night. If he is violent, we shall take you away to your aunt's at Harrow." He walked on. "Now, we must make the best use of our time, so kindly take us at once to the rooms which we are to examine."
We continued on the foot-path and I pointed out to them the west wing on the right, with the scaffolding erected against the end wall. They tramped over the lawn and up to the building, peering at the windows. Dr. Watson knelt and began scribbling in a notebook with his pencil.
Mr. Holmes pointed at the windows. "This, I take it, belongs to the room in which you used to sleep, the centre one to your sister's, and the one next to the main building to Dr. Roylott's chamber?"
"Exactly so. But I am now sleeping in the middle one."
"Pending the alterations, as I understand. By the way, there does not seem to be any very pressing need for repairs at that end wall."
"There were none," I answered. "I believe that it was an excuse to move me from my room."
"Ah, that is suggestive," he nodded, and I felt a stab of guilt for my hasty words. Stepfather may have followed me and have blown up furiously at the detectives, but as yet there remained no proof against him about Julia's death.
Mr. Holmes opened the middle window and reached in to raise the blinds. Then he looked into the room, glancing with his keen eyes into the corridor, through the door that I'd left open. "Now, on the other side of this narrow wing runs the corridor from which these three rooms open. There are windows in it, of course?"
Why should he wonder about the windows? How, in fact, did he know there were windows? I peered in and couldn't see anything but the corridor lamp through the open door. But of course! It was unlit, and yet the hall was not dim. What a strange practice of indirect knowledge he had!
"Yes," I said slowly, shrugging my shoulders, "but very small ones. Too narrow for anyone to pass through."
He turned around to me, noticing my tone. Then he bit his lip and suddenly nodded when he took the meaning of my puzzled expression. "As you both locked your doors at night," he corrected himself, "your rooms were unapproachable from that side." He smiled a little, blushing. I was quite surprised. He glanced around quickly to Dr. Watson, to see if he'd noticed.
His friend was not looking up, still making notes. Mr. Holmes grinned.
Then he turned back to me and composed his serious expression once again. "Now, would you have the kindness to go into your room and bar your shutters?"
I nodded. "I'll use the side door."
I left them and walked around to the further side of the scaffolding, where the door still peeked through the ugly and useless mess that had been erected against the wall. I came down the corridor and quickly into the middle room. Then I barred the shutters and waited. Mr. Holmes tapped experimentally, and then in earnest began trying to force the shutters open. I listened to the exertions on the other side, but no matter how the shutters were pushed or pried at it, no headway was made. At last I heard the thoughtful "Hum!" of Mr. Holmes and the renewed tread of the men in the grass.
They came around the side and through the door, wiping the mud off their feet on the mat. They passed down the corridor and entered the room. Mr. Holmes went into a far corner and took a chair with him. Folding his arms, he sat down and began to inspect every feature of the room with his eyes. I offered Dr. Watson a seat and then went to sit on the edge of my bed. The doctor took out his notebook and wrote again, ignoring his friend. We were all silent.
Mr. Holmes paused at the lock on my door, an old contraption of heavy bolts that had been made more practical in the last century by the addition of a device that made it possible to activate the bolts by turning a single key. I never felt secure from the animals without that sturdy lock in place and the great, heavy shutters barred on the window. Mr. Holmes looked satisfied enough not to test the lock himself, and he continued his inspection, slowly bringing his gaze around the room.
He finally pointed above me at the bell-rope and asked, "Where does that bell communicate with?"
"It goes to the housekeeper's room."
"It looks newer than the other things?"
"Yes, it was only put there a couple of years ago."
"Your sister asked for it, I suppose?"
I shook my head at such an absurd thought. "No, I never heard of her using it. We used always to get what we wanted for ourselves."
"Indeed," he said, "it seemed unnecessary to put so . . . nice a bell-pull there." He rose from the chair, nodding to us. "You will excuse me for a few minutes while I satisfy myself as to this floor."
He then dropped upon the floor and pulled out a pocket magnifying lens. He crawled along the boards with it, checking all the seams. He lifted the rug and peered under, then restored it. Moving back and forth, he slid over the floors, efficient and graceful. He gripped the handle of the little glass like a natural extension of himself. I found myself breathless while I watched him. He paced like a creature accustomed to four legs, and his breath kissed the floor. I realised with an eerie thrill that he resembled a cheetah in his prowling. How on earth did Mrs. Farintosh find such a person?
He progressed swiftly. His eyes glittered with intense concentration, yet remained vacant to any distraction. He drifted so near to me at the bed that I pulled my foot away just short of his face. He continued in his same oblivious way toward Dr. Watson, who anticipated him and removed himself and his chair onto the rug.
Finally Mr. Holmes rose and went to the walls next, thoroughly satisfying himself as to the panelling. Coming abruptly to the bed, he bumped into me.
I caught his dropped lens.
He turned and blinked. "Oh excuse me."
"No, I'm sorry," I swallowed. I handed the lens back to him and got up, standing back out of his way. So much I had learned from Dr. Watson.
Mr. Holmes removed his shoes and got onto the bed, still inspecting the walls. Then he got down again and finished circling the room.
I sat beside Dr. Watson in the other chair. He patted my arm and watched the scene without stress, yawning. I sighed and tried to take it as well as he. It was all so unlike the simple, gentle tapping of the crew of police two years ago.
When Mr. Holmes stopped he returned to the bed, standing before it and staring for several moments. Then he reached over suddenly and pulled the bell-rope. "Why, it's a dummy!"
"Won't it ring?" asked Dr. Watson, his pencil paused on his notebook.
Mr. Holmes climbed on the bed and had a look at the top of the rope. "No, it is not even attached to a wire. This is very interesting." He raised it to show to us. "You can see now that it is fastened to a hook just above where the little opening for the ventilator is."
"How very absurd!" I said, coming forward. "I never noticed that before."
"Very strange!" he commented, still yanking. "There are one or two very singular points about this room. For example, what a fool a builder must be to open a ventilator into another room, when, with the same trouble, he might have communicated with the outside air!"
I leaned against the bed, staring up at the tiny ventilator. "That is also quite modern," I said, tugging at his sleeve.
He glanced down. "Done about the same time as the bell-rope?"
I nodded vigorously, feeling breathless. "Yes! There were several little changes carried out about that time."
Mr. Holmes jumped down. "They seem to have been of a most interesting character--dummy bell-ropes and ventilators which do not ventilate." He hurried on his shoes again. "With your permission, Miss Stoner, we shall now carry our researches into the inner apartment."
I led the way to stepfather's room, trying not to shake. I didn't know if I ought to be relieved or angry at the discovery. At last a concrete reason met my intangible fears!--but so late? We were blind two years ago. Stepfather had only seemed to be accommodating us by spending the money on outdoor cages for his animals during the day and on breaking the stile for the nights. He must really have had other purposes in mind.
Inside, Mr. Holmes inspected all the furniture in the room and Dr. Watson stood taking notes. The detective tapped on the iron safe. "What's in here?"
"My stepfather's business papers."
He looked up. "Oh, you have seen inside then?"
"Only once, some years ago. I remember that it was full of papers."
He shook his head doubtfully. "There isn't a cat in it, for example?"
"No!" I stared at him. "What a strange idea!"
"Well, look at this!" He picked up a saucer of milk that sat on top.
I was puzzled. "No, we don't keep a cat," I insisted, not knowing what else to say. I shrugged. "But there is a cheetah and a baboon."
He smiled, quite amused. "Ah yes of course! Well, a cheetah is just a big cat, and yet a saucer of milk does not go very far in satisfying its wants, I daresay." He sniffed and put the saucer down, going over to a wooden chair beside the wall. "There is one point which I should wish to determine."
He pulled out his lens and sat on his heels, examining the seat of the chair. There were the very faintest scuff marks on it.
"Thank you, that is quite settled." He rose and turned back to us. Then his eye caught hold of something beyond. "Hello! Here is something interesting!"
He passed us and went to the corner of stepfather's bed, picking up a dog lash that hung in a loop from the bed post. The end of the lash was tied up and strongly knotted in a circle much too small for any dog's head, if we even had one. He pulled the lash out to see its length and then held the tied end up to his friend. "What do you make of that, Watson?"
"It's a common enough lash. But I don't know why it should be tied."
"That is not quite so common, is it?" His eyes sparkled, and then he neatly curled up the lash again and replaced it on the post. He sighed, shaking his head, "Ah, me! it's a wicked world, and when a clever man turns his brains to crime it is the worst of all." He turned back to us and rubbed his hands with finality. "I think that I have seen enough now, Miss Stoner, and with your permission we shall walk out upon the lawn."
We closed Dr. Roylott's door behind us, going down to the front hall and out the door. Mr. Holmes kept silent and held his hands behind his back as he brooded, pacing with us through the grass. Dr. Watson finally dropped to one knee and resumed writing in his notebook. I stood and wrung my hands, trying to decide what the strange items Mr. Holmes discovered might collectively mean. I couldn't decipher his remarks, nor yet make out more than the foggy indications of a scheme that nevertheless seemed to be unfolding with a frightening deliberateness by my stepfather. A saucer of milk? A dog lash that would not fit a dog? A useless and hidden ventilator in my room? It made no sense, yet it was definitely disturbing. I worried and wondered what Mr. Holmes would finally advise me to do.
At last he stopped and turned to me. Dr. Watson looked up.
"It is very essential, Miss Stoner," Mr. Holmes said, stepping nearer, "that you should absolutely follow my advice in every respect."
"I shall most certainly do so."
Mr. Holmes took my hand, chilling me with the intensity of his warning. "The matter is too serious for any hesitation. Your life may depend upon your compliance."
"I assure you that I am in your hands," I breathed.
Satisfied, he let go and then spoke of his plans. "In the first place," he said, ticking off the point on his finger, "both my friend and I must spend the night in your room."
Dr. Watson raised his eyebrows.
"Yes, it must be so," Mr. Holmes replied. "Let me explain." He turned and pointed. "I believe that that is the village inn over there?"
"Yes, that is the Crown."
"Very good. Your windows would be visible from there?"
He resumed his ticking with two more points. "You must confine yourself to your room, on pretence of a headache, when your stepfather comes back," he said. "Then when you hear him retire for the night, you must open the shutters of your window, undo the hasp, put your lamp there as a signal to us, and then withdraw quietly with everything which you are likely to want into the room which you used to occupy." He dropped his hands. "I have no doubt that, in spite of repairs, you could manage there for one night."
"Oh, yes, easily."
So he planned to make a substitution in my room tonight. He and Dr. Watson would slip in, unknown to my stepfather, and confront in my place whatever dark plot he meant for me in my rigged room. I thought it an unwisely dangerous task.
"--The rest you will leave in our hands," Mr. Holmes warned, cutting me off.
I nodded, staring in his eyes and taking their serious glance to heart. His conviction was hard to argue with. "But," I swallowed, "what will you do?" I failed at keeping my voice steady, concerned about the risk they might be taking through their bold action. How could they plan for an unknown, and possibly fatal, peril tonight?
He shrugged and looked past me toward my open window. "We shall spend the night in your room, and we shall investigate the cause of this noise which has disturbed you." He would go no further.
I touched his arm and stepped in the way of his gaze. "I believe, Mr. Holmes," I said quietly, "that you have already made up your mind."
He looked at his feet. "Perhaps I have," he murmured.
"Then," I stepped closer as he dodged my glance again, "--for pity's sake--tell me. What was the cause of my sister's death?"
He shook his head strongly, backing away with his discomfort. "I should prefer to have clearer proofs before I speak."
I sighed. I knew it was only right that he should hesitate on an accusation. Yet I felt frustrated that the fact of some danger should be so apparent, but that the precise details of it should still be so much in darkness.
He was slipping my hand off his arm, his eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed as he kept retreating from me.
I begged again. "You can at least tell me whether my own thought is correct, and if she died from sudden fright."
He stopped, finding that I would not let go of his hand. "No, I do not think so," he looked up. His words were slow and careful, "I think that there was probably some more tangible cause."
Now I looked away. So it was definitely a physical danger, then. It was not merely a horrid shock that stepfather had inflicted on Julia that night in her room. He hadn't sent her to her grave with a device to prey on her natural fright and disorientation at three in the morning. And these men, however prepared, would not merely be risking receiving a nervous shock for me tonight. They might face injury or even death. I felt sick inside, and my throat went dry.
Mr. Holmes stared at me a moment, uncertain that I would not faint. Then he let go of my hand quickly. He moved away and looked about him, suddenly smiling when he found Dr. Watson still scribbling in his notebook on the ground. He tapped his friend's shoulder.
"And now, Miss Stoner," he said, "we must leave you, for if Dr. Roylott returned and saw us, our journey would be in vain. Good-bye, and be brave, for if you will do what I have told you you may rest assured that we shall soon drive away the dangers that threaten you."
They turned and left me, walking down the foot-path until they disappeared beyond the iron gate. I stood shivering on the grass, not knowing what to do. I kept feeling that I might go after them and say that I'd changed my mind, that they need not assist me any further, and I would simply go to my aunt's until my wedding. And yet, how then could the detectives prove that Dr. Roylott had killed Julia? How could there be justice for her? We only had these strange items in the house as any kind of evidence for the police, and they'd very probably find it all quite inconclusive. How terrible this day was, how confusing and unsettling! I went inside the house, feeling perhaps that I might actually have a headache.
In my room I closed my window and then got on my bed, reaching up. I looked at the ventilator under the bell-rope. It was only about two inches wide and one and a half inches high. What could my stepfather have used this for? What could he have put through it to kill Julia? Did the whistling sound suggest some kind of gas? Did he burn some poison and release its smoke into her room? Did he have something to protect himself and to afterward cover the smell of the fumes? Or was it odourless? Did it choke her breath or merely make her delirious with hallucinations, until she died of fright at something she called 'the speckled band'? Would the coroner have found any traces? What was the metallic sound? How was I protected when she opened the door?
I shook my head. How terribly complicated everything was getting. I realised that I'd actually helped him go unaccused with my testimony that Helen's door had indeed been locked. Oh he was wicked!
I let go of the rope and sank down on my bed, shaking. What did Mr. Holmes mean to do tonight? What did he expect the attack to be? His thoughts were so hard to read. He seemed to understand everything, yet reveal nothing. Funny, Mrs. Farintosh was right. He was paternal in some ways. He avoided telling me anything specific, for fear that I might faint or lose my nerve to let them pursue the case. He seemed to foresee very dark occurrences in my room, and in great detail too, judging from the distance in his eyes when he stared past me.
But I couldn't understand the man. What did he mean about my stepfather's safe? He didn't believe it contained papers, and yet his suggested alternative was quite preposterous. In fact, he'd been preposterous all afternoon. How quickly and surprisingly he could drop the cold, reserved manner he had had in his Baker Street rooms! This morning he at least seemed unfailingly precise and knowledgeable despite his youth, but now he had become quite erratic. He laughed so self-mockingly after his fall from the stile. His joke about Dr. Roylott's threats seemed almost flippant. He looked so abruptly uncertain and inexperienced in that moment when he blushed and looked about, as if guilty of some crime. I didn't understand the ambiguous importance that he attached to Dr. Watson's constant writings, calling them "stories."
I thought a while longer and realised that Mr. Holmes gave conflicting signals of his age. As my grey hair made me falsely older and my faint, nervous voice made me falsely younger, so his assured manner and voice spoke of great clarity and wisdom and his face occasionally belied that impression. So which impression was the more true? There seemed to be no regularity to the fluctuations between the states of his personality. The cool, collected demeanour would seem permanent for a time, and then this other side broke through.
Still lying there and thinking, I must have fallen asleep. I woke up with the bell-rope in my face. It annoyed me, especially now that I saw it was only a cover for the ventilator. Julia had protested the rope from the first, saying she had no need for it and that it got in her way. Stepfather refused to do a thing, claiming she was only being wilful against a gift of his. The rope, besides being too long, was ornately tasselled and wound with gaudy beads that made her dislike it even more. It seemed specifically weighted to be vertical, so that we could not manage to tie it back against a bedpost. It was so thick that we could not find a pair of scissors that would cut it, when we even dared to try. We attempted shifting her bed to the side, but found that the legs had been clamped to the floor. Stepfather told us it was his correction for what he considered a wobbly frame. The repair was excessive, like everything else he did.
I sat up and snatched the rope, tugging on it. I pulled and pulled, wishing it were real so that I could make the whole house clang and echo with my fury. I yanked hard and determined to violently rip it down. The ugly thing might as well have killed Julia, for all the irrational anger I suddenly spent on it. I wanted to make it snap, to throw it in my stepfather's face and tell him that his 'gifts' were not wanted. Let him dare strike me then, the murderer!
Mrs. Beale stood in the doorway, still wearing her hat and coat. "Miss?" she repeated. I only blinked. She came nearer and frowned. "What are you doing?" she whispered.
I let go slowly. I caught my breath and swallowed, staring at the rope. "I-I was pulling it," I said.
"Why?" she blinked, staring at my flushed face. She looked at the rope and then at me again. "You never use it, and--" she frowned again, "I haven't been home."
With an effort, I shrugged, looking down. "That's why," I said. "I wanted to pull it down while you were gone, so you wouldn't be startled by the noise."
"But why pull it down?" She felt my head for a fever. "You don't want to upset your stepfather any further do you? Remember his temper of this morning."
I nodded. "Ye-es, I remember."
Mrs. Beale led me out, holding my arm and murmuring about the damage I'd done to my poor hands. She patted my shoulder and brushed back my hair.
We started on dinner in the kitchen, and Mrs. Beale brewed me a tisane. I told her I had walked outside while she had been gone, and that the sun had given me a headache.
She shook her head disapprovingly. "It's from worry and lack of sleep," she said. "You've got to be more careful with your health, dear."
I nodded. "I still feel quite unwell, so I don't think I'll be able to stay for dinner."
"Have a long nap, then, to set you right."
"Yes, ma'am. Can you give my apologies to Dr. Roylott for me, about my behaviour this morning? Tell him that I'll not go out so early again."
After we put dinner in the oven, I retired to my room and locked the door behind me. I sat on the floor by my hearth and watched the flames, wondering what Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson were doing at the Crown. I couldn't even think of sleeping or eating.
At dusk I heard my stepfather come home. He shouted furiously from the gate and exploded at his driver. I felt guilty to have left Mrs. Beale to face him alone, when it was I who had incited his anger. I listened anxiously and hoped that he would think me sufficiently cowed. As far as I could tell, he just stormed into his sitting-room and waited for his dinner to be served to him. He chuckled loudly with satisfaction when he heard about my being indisposed. Then he ate without incident.
While he did, I brought my lamp and matches over to the dressing-table. I changed into my night-dress and slippers, throwing on my dressing-gown as well. Then I got out a velveteen bag and packed it with my toothbrush, my watch, and a few thick blankets. I took the bag back with me to the hearth and sat on the floor again, watching the fire burn quietly. I decided that I would let it die out tonight, rather than leave my room to get more wood. It was only a minor inconvenience, and it was my fault, after all, for neglecting to restock my supply in the afternoon. Mr. Holmes had been right to tell me to stay confined, for I didn't particularly know how I'd face any accidental meeting with my stepfather. I couldn't even stand to look at the cursed bell-rope. In silence, I waited and peered repeatedly at my watch.
At nine o'clock, my stepfather retired to his room and began smoking and reading. My fire had died, so I lit my lamp in lieu of it, checking that I had enough oil to last a few hours. I paced around the room, feeling restless and cold. I worried about the planned expedition tonight. I wondered if I had forgotten to do anything. Would Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson need the iron gate unlocked? No, they'd probably use the stile to get in again. The only alternative would be the unrepaired breaches in the wall at the far back of the estate, where the gypsies resided and tended the cages of the cheetah and baboon. But that was silly. It would definitely, logically, be the stile. They could manage the jump now that they were aware of the drop. Darkness might make it difficult to aim, but the ground was soft and would receive them as easily as it had in the afternoon. The foot-path would lead them beyond all the trees and bushes to the house, and they would come to the west wing quickly. Would they need the side door unlocked? But then Mrs. Beale would only lock it again on her rounds tonight, and to break in the door, as the animals had done once or twice, was out of the question! The detectives would have to enter by my window, and yet I feared the risk that they'd take by passing so near to Dr. Roylott's room. But stepfather would be in bed by then and also have his shutters barred, wouldn't he? He would not be able to hear so well through the masonry as he had through the thin interior walls when he caught me this morning.
I considered this and decided that I should probably exit through the window as well. After all, going out my door and along the corridor might be heard, even in my slippers. Since the lock was peculiar, too, I wouldn't be able to lock the door after me, thus leaving the detectives vulnerable to the animals and forcing them to fumble with the key in the darkness, which would attract attention. My old room had remained both unbarred and unlocked since I'd changed places, so I could easily enter through the window. The key to that door still lay in my dresser drawer there, and I could quickly bar and lock myself into safety once more. I would need to leave my slippers behind, though, for they were not suitable for walking in mud. I took them off and put them away.
After two hours of tense waiting, I at last heard the sharp closing of a book and the tiny hiss of a final Indian cigar being tossed into the fire. As stepfather turned out his lamp and went to bed, I checked my lamp once more and opened the window. Picking up my bag and my lamp, I stepped quietly out onto the grass. The cold wind sent a shiver through me. I turned and carefully placed the lamp back inside on the sill, making it balance. Then I listened to be sure that stepfather didn't stir. Finally I rushed down to my old room.
I raised the window and the blinds, then quickly dropped my bag and myself into my old room. I closed and barred the window, then hurried to my dresser for the key to the door. I locked it. I went back to the rug to wipe the mud off my feet, for I'd nearly slipped and fallen in coming round. Then I returned to the window for my bag. Due to the breach in the wall near the ceiling, the room was bright with moonlight, but chilly. I laid out my blankets quickly and then got in bed, shivering.
After a few minutes, I heard a sound on the lawn. I ran over to the window to look out. Through the blinds I seemed to spy a gross, inhuman face staring out of the darkness. It suddenly sprang at me and screeched hideously, banging against the glass. I jumped back and almost screamed. Then I swallowed and calmed myself. It was the baboon of course. I saw it run off again and then closed the shutters. Looking up at the breach once more, I convinced myself that it was too small and ragged for either baboon or cheetah to penetrate. Then I slipped into bed again.
I worried for Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson. If the baboon had already come to the front of the estate, did that mean the cheetah had done so too? I had thought that all would be safe since the animals were fond of staying on the south of the estate, near the gypsies' bright fires. Julia had said that she usually began hearing the animals come near to the house at around midnight, and that she could only ignore their terrible noises with practice. How awful that at least one of stepfather's pets was early tonight! Both animals were known for their viciousness to anyone but himself and the gypsies. I lay anxiously awake for perhaps an hour, still straining to catch some sound in the stillness of the night that would tell me that the detectives had safely made their entry. But I only heard the baboon running about and the parish clock dimly striking in the distance. I wearily fell asleep.
I woke suddenly to the sound of a vigorous pounding in the next room.
"You see it, Watson? You see it?"
I snatched up my watch and saw that it was three thirty in the morning. What was happening? Were they all right? Mr. Holmes's voice struck terror into me. The striking ceased, and I listened for some indication of what they were doing now. Then I heard a ghastly and mangled scream, straining and rising out of the dark. I needed several moments before I recognised the distorted voice as my stepfather's. The agonising sound echoed loudly all through the great stone house, turning me cold.
Finally, it stopped.
I ran from my bed and hurriedly unlocked and opened my door. I stepped out and peered around the curve of the corridor. Then the middle door flung open, and I saw the detectives run out with my lamp and head to Dr. Roylott's room. Mr. Holmes knocked while Dr. Watson stood by with a pistol in his hand. Then Mr. Holmes tried the handle and opened the door, rushing in with Dr. Watson.
I came further down and glanced into the middle room, finding that only a small candle and a cane remained as vague evidence of whatever had just occurred. There was no sign of their shoes.
When I turned again, I saw Mrs. Beale coming from the front hall, pale and trembling. She had obviously woken with the scream, and now hesitated on approaching Dr. Roylott's open door. I ran to her and put my arm around her.
"It is a swamp adder!" Mr. Holmes said suddenly from within the room. "The deadliest snake in India."
We were startled and silent. There were further murmurs inside and then we heard hurried movements that ended with a sharp metallic clang. It was the safe!
I stood with Mrs. Beale and tried not to betray my own shivering. She clung to me and whispered, "Who was that? What's happened?"
The men exited and closed the door behind them.
"Mr. Holmes!" I called.
They turned back to see us with some surprise.
"Oh, Miss Stoner, there you are. Is this your housekeeper?" Mr. Holmes came toward us, extending his hand to Mrs. Beale before he gave a start. "Where are your slippers, Miss Stoner? Come, you mustn't all be standing about." He led us quickly into the middle room as Dr. Watson brought the lamp.
Mr. Holmes closed the door and hurriedly fumbled with the lock. I looked over his shoulder and then reached across his hand to push the key further in. It finally turned and the bolts clicked sharply into place.
"Ah," he turned, "I could have used your expertise. It took me twice as long to open it just now."
"It just sticks--oh, did you have trouble finding the key? I'm so sorry, I forgot to leave it in the lock--"
"No," he said, with a half-surprised smile. "Careless of me to not ask you this afternoon," he murmured, staring at me.
Backing away, I turned and looked for Dr. Watson quickly. Having set the lamp down next to the candle, he sat with Mrs. Beale upon the bed, soothing her distress and introducing himself to her in reassuring murmurs. "Yes, we came from London and . . . ."
Coming over to them, I stepped on the cane, which now lay on the floor instead of on my bed. I stopped and picked it up, leaning it against the bureau. Startling me from behind, Mr. Holmes brought a chair over and suddenly sat me down. He knelt and peered at my feet. "It was your footprint in the mud!" he muttered. "But why no shoes?"
I blinked and curled back my cold feet, pulling them under my dressing-gown. I couldn't stand the suspense. "Did you mention a snake, Mr. Holmes?"
He looked up, narrowing his eyes at me, then slowly nodded. "Yes, but we have it locked up now. It came down your bell-rope and we attacked--"
"Ah, and in what condition is my stepfather now?"
He looked at Dr. Watson, and then turned back. "Where is the nearest police station, Miss Stoner?"
"Yes, we need to report the death of Dr. Roylott."
I was stunned and Mrs. Beale gasped, beginning to cry. "Oh, that dreadful scream! Oh!"
"Dead?" I stumbled over my half-formed thoughts. "Already? But Julia lived for close to an hour! How--?"
He touched my hand. "Your sister must have had an exceptionally strong constitution, to not have died within ten seconds of her scream, as Roylott has just now. She made it to striking a match and getting to the corridor all on her own. He might too have had a more horrid experience because he could see and fully comprehend the danger that was coming at him, too quickly for him to flee from or fight off. Also, there was a lack of brandy--"
Dr. Watson interrupted, dismissing such speculations impatiently as he tried to calm Mrs. Beale. "When is the next train to Harrow, Miss Stoner?"
Mr. Holmes suddenly grabbed my hands and turned them over, examining the palms. He sprang up and climbed onto the bed, considerably disturbing Mrs. Beale and closely peering at the bell-rope.
I looked back to Dr. Watson. "I don't think for another two hours."
"Is there any other place you can go?"
"They'll come back with us to the Crown, then," said Mr. Holmes, nudging past his friend and getting down. He went over to the window, listened a moment, and then unbarred the shutters. He leaned out and then came back with two pairs of shoes in his hands. He dropped them and barred the shutters.
"Ah," he said when he examined the shoes, "the cheetah had a fondness for my left heel. I'll just walk with a limp, I guess." He looked up at me. "If your stepfather were not gone, I'd congratulate him on the fine set of teeth that his feline has."
Dr. Watson rose and turned, now that Mrs. Beale had quieted and become equally puzzled by Mr. Holmes's behaviour. I shrugged at her and whispered lamely, "That is Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes."
The doctor listened at the window. "Do you think it's safe to go out yet?"
"The gypsies lock the animals up at about five o'clock," I said.
Mr. Holmes checked his watch. "Quite an hour still. I wonder if their master's scream would startle them away or attract them near." He went back to the door and opened it, peeking out. "I can't hear or see anything through the windows," he reported. He went out further into the corridor.
Then he came back in, locking the door. "There's nothing about, so far. I saw the light of a fire spring up, though, down at the far south of the estate. Would that be the gypsies? Ah, that's good. And they're in charge of the baboon and the cheetah, you said? I see." He suddenly smiled, "Do you suppose this is our lucky night, Miss Stoner?"
I had no answer to that. He was getting quite obscure.
His smile broadened. "Wouldn't it be very providential, in fact very logical, if the animals were spooked all the way back to the gypsies? And the gypsies, very naturally, would be spooked enough to lock the animals up, for fear that some violence might arise. They might even, if they had enough loyalty to Dr. Roylott and enough trust of the police, try to go to the nearest station to report a wild attack on the doctor by his animals. The man never locked his door, did he? Or they might scent deep trouble and quickly make a dash from the county altogether." He came nearer, picking up the cane and running it through his hands thoughtfully. "Either way, it seems that we would be safe from Dr. Roylott's pets."
"But how can we be sure?" asked Dr. Watson. "Suppose they dashed first, and didn't wait for the animals to come back to them?"
"Then why take the risk of lighting the fire that would attract them? Think about it, Watson. If you were the leader of a band of gypsies, with tents, property, women, and children to move, would you try outrunning a cheetah, on any vehicle? It'd be better to wait for the animals to come and to capture them, with perhaps an amplified version of whatever methods you usually use to coax them peacefully into their cages. The horrid scream of Dr. Roylott may have startled them, but it would not rob them entirely of their wits."
"Perhaps so. But how do we know when the animals are captured? Between the gypsies dashing from the county and dashing to the police, from here we cannot tell the difference, for they'd probably not think to put out their fire in either case."
"Ah, good point. Well, it seems that we can only know by testing, so," he moved to the window with the cane, "I'll do the honours."
"Mr. Holmes, stop!" I said, jumping up. "Don't go. Just wait here until five o'clock, won't you?"
He paused and turned from the shutters he was unbarring. "I'm afraid not," he shook his head. "It's rather urgent that we get the police here, and medical examiners. I don't know how long the venom will last in Dr. Roylott's system. It's obvious that the venom somehow dissipates into the body of the victim after death. How else could Julia be found without poison? --Unless," he let go of the bars, looking thoughtful, "the county coroner could not identify the traces of such an exotic animal. Eastern venoms cannot be among his regular medical knowledge, can it? --Or was it the brandy, after all, that did it? Did your stepfather do anything unusual with the brandy, Miss Stoner?"
"Yes. Mixing it before administering it to Julia. Hesitating to examine her wou--" He gripped my arms rather suddenly. "Are you certain there was no wound on her, Miss Stoner, not even the tiniest thing?"
"I--I don't know what you mean."
In his urgency he nearly shook me, his voice intensified. "Two little dark spots, not more than an inch apart?"
"No! Nothing I know of."
He let go of me, irritated. "It must be a mistake," he insisted. "She must have had bitemarks somewhere, very likely on the head or face, for the venom to have killed her so quickly. How could a competent coroner not find--!" He paused, calming down. "But then, I myself just barely found any marks upon Roylott now, lost in the scalp under his hair. . . ."
I stopped him, grabbing his sleeve. "Sir, these details are all jumbled. I--I don't understand. What were you saying about the brandy?"
"Oh, that. I thought it at least possible that he could have slipped a small dose of antidote in the brandy to mix with and inoculate the remains of the venom. After all, the poison had severely affected her already, and nobody would think to examine the contents of his brandy bottle when it was perfectly clear that the cause of her death occurred before either you or he had gone into the corridor."
I sat down again. "I see."
". . . But I have so few details of what Roylott knew about poison. Did he chemically find some way to alter the strength or composition of the snake's venom by feeding it some home-made formula in the milk? Did he have time to administer anything in the brandy?" He turned to me, still preoccupied, "What exactly did he do that night, Miss Roy--Stoner?"
"Um, I don't know," I told him slowly, regretting that I should have to disappoint his theories. "He met me in the corridor and then, returning with brandy, poured it down Julia's throat to revive her. No mixing. Then he said we needed to send for help, so he left me pouring and rushed out the front door, going to capture his animals and send them to the gypsies. When he came back, he told me that it was safe and that I should hurry to the village. He remained alone with Julia since he was a doctor, after all. She died before I returned with help, but as I said there was nothing suspicious."
Mr. Holmes stared at me, not looking well. "I don't believe it! He was acting like a dutiful guardian. There's no way now to verify anything he did in all the time he was alone with her, save that it wasn't obvious enough to leave evidence. He probably didn't need to do anything but examine her, anyway, in hopes of covering her wound. He most certainly was careful about it. Ah, he's too clever by far. He was quite confident when he left you alone with her, trusting that she would not have the strength to come to again and that even if she did, her words would be taken as delirium."
I nodded. "That was the problem. Despite anyone's intuitive suspicion of him, his actions that night could only be described as complete and automatic selflessness for Julia. The police repeatedly checked every fact they had but could find no real excuse to bring a charge against him. The coroner did no better on the evidence, and the two years since have changed nothing, of doubts or evidence." I bit my lip. "I've driven myself mad trying to decide if her vigorous pointing at Dr. Roylott's room was an accusation or the natural plea of a dying person for the nearest medical help possible."
He nodded. "Yes, this is an impossible and hateful case indeed! No wonder you--" he trailed off into unintelligible murmurs, shaking his head.
Dr. Watson cleared his throat quietly, holding up his open watch. "I think it would be safe now."
"What?" Mr. Holmes looked up. Indeed, neither of us had noticed that the doctor had begun writing again in his notebook, and his efficient, secretarial pose in a chair startled us.
Mr. Holmes blinked at the displayed watch. "Oh, the time. So much for urgency," he sighed. "Well, you and I can at least testify that Dr. Roylott was definitely found bitten. The snake still on him and all."
"Yes. And all the problematic details that you were just discussing can be settled by the police, when they examine him and his brandy. Also," he tapped his pencil in his notebook, "Julia's reference to 'the speckled band' ought to be enough to confirm that the snake had been involved in her death, too." He made the note on his page and then snapped the notebook shut.
The men got on their shoes and began checking for the sounds of animals. Mrs. Beale and I went to my old room, which still retained the majority of my clothes, and hurriedly put on heavy cloaks and boots. Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson moved my bureau (in the centre room) in front of Dr. Roylott's door, as a way of securing it without requiring someone to be locked inside with the body. Then they took up the lamp and walked with us in the chill, dark morning toward the Crown Inn.
I shivered as I unlocked the gate, hearing Mrs. Beale breathe unevenly behind me while we hesitated for what seemed to be an interminable time. Dr. Watson looked behind us and waited with his hand in his pocket on his pistol. He was not the kind of man to take risks. Mr. Holmes stood silently, holding up the lamp for me to see. It finally opened and we went through, shutting it quickly behind us. I locked it, for I wasn't entirely sure that I believed in luck either.
At the Crown, we roused the landlord fairly soon, for he had not quite gone back to sleep since he heard the haunting scream of more than an hour ago.
Dr. Watson quickly told him, "Dr. Roylott has died horribly in the night. We've evacuated the ladies and we need to contact the nearest police and to telegram the county officials as well."
"You'll need the dog-cart, then, for Leatherhead. Hurry inside and I'll fetch it." He let us all in, shut the door, and disappeared to get dressed. Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson scurried us up the stairs and brought us into the rooms they had taken. As they relit the fire and warmed themselves, we went to crawl into the beds and shiver under the blankets. As I kicked off my boot and rather unfortunately hit the wall, I heard the detectives talking in the sitting-room.
"No, no. I insist, Watson. You stay here with them and catch a little sleep after your long night. I'll hurry on to the police and take care of everything. The officials will come here anyway to wake everyone again and take statements. I'll be fine."
"No, Holmes. My shoulder couldn't stand the couch anyway. The rest would do you more good."
"Rest? Why I'd be pacing around with nothing to do. I'm in much better condition than those ladies, I assure you."
"Don't be silly, Holmes. You said you had difficulty taking a nap this afternoon, and you didn't eat a thing after you woke. I'll go."
"No, Watson. The ladies will resign themselves to hysterics soon, and they'll need your peculiar skill in comforting."
"Nonsense! All Mrs. Beale needed was an explanation, however disordered, and you saw how completely in her wits Miss Stoner was. I'm going."
"Watson, please. I won't stay! --Ah, there's the landlord calling for us. I'm off now. Well, fine, come with me if you want."
The door slammed and I sprang from the bed, hurrying to the outer room and opening the door. I looked down the staircase and saw them disappearing rapidly. "Wait! Don't you want a cloak or some blankets before you go?"
The front door slammed.
I went back into the rooms and shut the door. Shivering, I went to the fire and warmed myself, hearing them drive off in the cart while I knelt. When their clatter had faded away I rose and went back into the bedroom.
From the doorway I could see that Mrs. Beale had gone to sleep. Her eyes closed and her little self no longer trembling, she nestled soundly and snugly. I pulled the blanket over her. Then I realised that I was cold and tired enough to collapse as well. I returned to the other bed and quickly buried myself in the blankets. Reaching over to the lamp, I knocked an old black pipe off the night-stand. I put it back, turned out the light, and slept.
Somewhere in my dreams I drifted restlessly without vision. In deep black I heard screams and pounding and even laughter. The echoes chased all about in circles, sounding shrill. Mud had a wet, close touch like blood on my hands, leaving me no anchor until the morning. Yet before I woke, long before, I heard something that lingered beyond the dream, that even now retains vividness.
"Ah, the ladies have commandeered both our spots," a crisp accent said. Pairs of footsteps moved closer.
A whisper of a lower voice.
The answer of the other. "I shan't allow you to sleep on the couch, the chairs, or the floor, Watson. Let me just do a little shifting here. . . ."
Coldness brushed me. I was raised, weight floating, the whole air surrounding me. All things became an odd-feeling movement. I thought I was falling, but landed suddenly on a bed, just as before. I felt an elbow at my back and the sighs of a sleeper. Cold hands placed a blanket on me and closed my blinking eyes.
"There," the soft breath.
A murmur from another direction.
"What? No, no, I evacuated the bed for you. I don't need it. No, I tell you I won't. Don't argue with me at this time of night! Yes, perhaps I am a little frantic!" the whispers were hoarser. A groan. "Already the atmosphere of these females nauseates me. Just hand me my pipe and a blanket, please. I need to get out of here. No, not that one from the bed. The one we had from the landlord just now. Yes I know it's cold! No, please, keep everything else for yourself. Thank you. Good-night, or good-morning, rather." A door creaked and shut.
I woke. I felt steady, deep breathing behind me and a close margin of warmth. Presently I realised it was Mrs. Beale lying next to me, but I half doubted myself because I had thought it a dream. I stirred and slowly glanced around.
Mr. Holmes was sitting cross-legged on the floor, frowning to himself and folding his hands in his lap. He was before the windows, barefoot and only half dressed, with a dressing-gown thrown on top.
I raised my head above the covers. "Mr. Holmes?"
He looked up and turned to me with a surprised kind of smile. "Miss St--" he half rose. However he halted, turning with an odd glance in another direction, and sank back to the floor. "Good morning," he said quietly.
I frowned and wondered at Dr. Watson's silence. I sat up and turned about, finding a slumbering Mrs. Beale as expected, but beyond her a most jarring surprise. A polished young constable stood formally at the far wall, presiding, as it were. He turned a little red at seeming to intrude upon me, and brought out one hand from behind his back to touch his brim toward me. "Morning, Miss Stoner." Dr. Watson was nowhere to be seen.
I closed my parted lips and started to blink again. I nodded and smiled somewhat breathlessly. "Good morning, Mr. Tibbs."
He smiled a little brighter, pleased that I should so promptly remember his name, and the brief joke we'd once shared about his being the master of his own house. He stood proudly and touched his brim again. "Always pleased to be of service to you, Miss."
I looked down to keep him from seeing the dampness in my eyes. He was always just so kind and gallant with me, not of course realising the irony of his eagerness to see me, and my own hoping each time we met to be the last. These constant civil troubles, and once even a criminal charge against my stepfather, were so very exhausting and straining to the nerves.
"What time is it?" I said quietly, glancing around for the clock.
"Half past eight now. Do hope that you slept well enough, Miss? Wouldn't want to have woken you with all our going about here, not after your dreadful rousing last night. If you'd want, Miss, you can just lie back down and sleep however much longer that you'd need. I don't really have to inform the inspector now and fetch him up here this early."
"No thank you," I answered. "I was waking on my own, and I--" Mr. Holmes was just quietly frowning again, looking down at his feet, his knees drawn up. "--really couldn't sleep again now."
"Then perhaps you'd like some breakfast out in the sitting-room until Mrs. Beale wakes?" dear Mr. Tibbs said. "Then you'll have her arm to steady you when you give your statement."
I blushed. "Not--just now." I found myself curling up under the covers and sinking my face timidly in against my drawn up knees. He was too, too kind. I thought again how I might have reacted had it been him, not Percy.
Mr. Holmes sat silently. What he sensed about us made him uncomfortable, I was sure. I swallowed faintly, ashamed of myself again on behalf of Percy.
"Mr. Holmes," I said when I found my voice, "where is Dr. Watson?"
He didn't really look at me. "Oh nowhere really." He spread out the fingers of his hand before him. "Just doing his usual disappearing." He loosened up, shifting his position. "You'll ask Constable Tibbs in a minute to actually explain his presence, and this whole odd arrangement you've woken up to. Do."
I frowned and stared at his accentuated boredom. "Please."
He gave a mild, slow shrug. "Dr. Watson is on a train to London, in the company of a pair of county police constables, to fetch us some items from our flat. In the meantime, I'm as good as threadbare here, for all that these clothes we telegrammed for yesterday do us now. You see, we came rather ill-prepared yesterday, Miss Stoner, expecting that we'd only spend a very short, businesslike afternoon with you. Possibly a meal in the evening at most."
"Evening?" I said. "Oh yes. You came without luggage. You'd obviously just come from the station on the cart, and could not have had time to drop off anything at the village yet. I should have remembered that when you left for the Crown later."
He stared at his feet again, and shrugged. "We had some little embarrassment in explaining our over-dusty clothes to the landlord, but gave an excuse I'd used earlier about being concerned with your building repairs. Seeing that we had to stay the night and actually observe the phenomenon in your room, we sent a telegram for our landlady to post a change of clothes and some other things to us, which soon arrived that evening. However, when we came to the stile again, we had difficulty jumping cleanly down and unfortunately spoiled a second set of clothes. There was nothing to be done until morning, and we expected to muddle through for the brief while until we could throw on our overcoats and head on an early train to London. But here we are the next morning, your stepfather is dead, Watson has run out of pages in his notebook, we have no change of clothes, the county police are detaining us, and as you can see, I'm rather the worse for the wear of the two of us." He pulled at the collar of his dressing-gown. "The light of day certainly does reveal unkind truth, doesn't it? I'm hardly presentable."
I sat up. "Detaining you?"
Mr. Tibbs answered. "It's a matter of waiting until we have your statement, Miss, and Mrs. Beale's, to confirm those of these gentlemen. The county also await a response from a London inspector that they gave as a reference. Just the county inspector's precaution, Miss."
[Holmes and Miss Stoner go back to the manor, half-dressed as they are, and still "presided over". They discuss details of the case again while looking at the snake which is still contained in the safe. Yeah, yeah, I wasn't going to avoid addressing the snake-in-the-safe issue!]
[Helen's interview with the police inspector, in which she combats his suspicions by skewing her testimony firmly in favor of Holmes and Watson's innocence to any premeditated conspiracy against Roylott, and by relating a plausible way in which the Roylott's death was purely "an accidental death, from playing with a dangerous pet." Watson's return in the meantime.]
[Her discussion with Watson about his writings, and Holmes, while departing for a late morning train to her aunt Honoria's in Harrow. As a farewell, he gives her his notebook into which he had been writing this case.]
[Days later, at Aunt Honoria's, Holmes meets her to discuss the case once more, since the inquest about Roylott's death has returned a surprising verdict.
she asks him to explain his calling her Miss Roylott, mentioning that she has begun reading Watson's notebook and found his earlier discrepancy. He is at a loss, then asks her why she protected her stepfather so strongly for so many years, if she suspected him to be a murderer, and at least knew him to be brutal. They are both silent, until finally she confesses to her having been calculating, hesitant, and cautious when telling her case, due to feeling a sort of duty to her late mother to behave well to Roylott. He confesses that he was beginning to identify her calculation and cunning at the time, and had equated her in skill to her stepfather.
Then arises his suggestion that she get away from it all for New York, almost jokingly, but also because of the sudden discomfort with which he realizes that he continues to be casual and personal with her. She laughs at his suggestion, rather startled, and says goodbye to him with a thought to his strangely charming eccentricity. At that, Helen Stoner's "Reminiscences" end.]
I will finish rewriting this story soon!
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