Holmes and I
were asked by Lady Dunbury to wait for her in the game room
while she changed into more suitable attire for accompanying
us onto the grounds. Before she repaired to her rooms, she ordered
her husband to remain with us, ostensibly for the purpose of
entertaining us. But it was as clear to me as it was to Holmes
that this was for no other reason than to see that we should
not be left alone in the house. Whether this was to avert some
perceived danger of my private detective friend and I - in the
absence of Inspector Lestrade - from making off with the dining-room
silver, or to ensure that we should at no time be at liberty
to speak freely between ourselves or turn so much as the slightest
glance of enquiry in any direction without being closely watched
ourselves, I could only guess.
It took no guesswork
on my part, however (nor yet with what little grasp of those
methods that I flatter myself to have gleaned from my long association
with my old friend), to know that Lord Dunbury - terrified little
man, squirming inside the folds of his frogged, velvet smoking-jacket
- was obliged to his task, against his will. Amidst the usual
driveling small talk about beastly weathers, enquiring after
our journey in the train, etc., he cast quick, furtive glances
over Holmes's shoulder at the great imposing oil portrait of
his domineering wife, hung above the mantelpiece. The artist
had captured her likeness very well (if ever a man could boast
that he had captured her at all): posed in such a fashion as
to show her features to their best effect. It is no secret that
feminine pulchritude has turned my head on more occasions than
I can number. And yet, despite Her Ladyship's over-imposing
stature, she possessed those other endowments, which - on any
other woman - would tend to make men forget the color of her
eyes. Not so with Lady Dunbury, whose piercing green eyes seemed
to peer out from the canvas and demand accountability from her
husband for his every thought, even in her absence from the
room. Against the tiresome ebb-and-flow of Lord Dunbury's babble,
calculated to hold off a moment's pause, into which the subject
of the deaths of the three laborers and the housemaid might
be introduced, Holmes took out his tobacco pouch, filled his
pipe, and struck a match.
"Oh, you can't
smoke, Mr. Holmes," Lord Dunbury said, "I'm sorry."
"Don't you smoke?" asked Holmes.
"Curious. You wear a smoking
jacket, but you don't smoke."
"I used to. But Sophie - Lady
Dunbury - forbids it, so I gave it up."
"But are you not hereditary lord
of the manor? Have you no say in the enjoyment of your own set
"Alas, Mr. Holmes," Sir Horace
replied with a tremulous chuckle, "though I am native here,
and to the manor born, it is a custom more honour'd in the breeding
than the observance."
with a mixture of sympathy and appreciation for our host's jocose
deconstruction of Hamlet (and, with one bushy eyebrow raised
suggestively in my direction, I read in the sideways glance
of my friend, with what timeliness he implied in the choice
of a quote from that particular play, with the unfolding tragedy
"Dear me," Holmes
remarked, returning his pipe to his coat pocket, "but how often
I have seen, that while an Englishman's home is his castle,
an English nobleman's castle is not his home. Should you chance
to call at our rooms in Baker Street, you will always find a
box of cigars in the coal scuttle, and a slipper full of good,
strong, black shag tobacco. You are welcome to them both."
"You are very kind, sir," said
Lord Dunbury. Genuinely moved by the gesture of good fellowship,
he drew himself up in his chair, and forgot his former deference
towards the portrait of his wife.
Holmes took advantage
of this opening to avail himself of the data he so longed for
to catalogue the series of deaths in the oast house. To this
purpose, he drew out a pocket almanac. First turning to the
page for that month, September, he leafed backwards to every
other month, which were the sequences of each death, beginning
"I should just like to see whether
I might find a common denominator to each of these tragic incidents,"
Holmes explained. "It strikes me as significant that they had
occurred in what appears to be something of a pattern. Can you,
Lord Dunbury, recollect the specific date upon which each of
the deaths took place?"
"Capital! And with each instance,
if you would, please give the full name of each victim, beginning
"That was on the seventh. The
victim was Joseph Lovat, tenant farmer and joiner."
to the notation beside the date on the page of his almanac,
"'Moon on the Equator. And for the next, the month of May?"
"The sixth; James Smyth, tenant farmer
and ton for St. Mary's at Harrow-on-the-Hill."
"Moon at Perigee."
"Perigee, Lord Dunbury: the point in
the Moon's orbit that is closest to the Earth. Now, July-"
"The first; Mansfield Parke, tenant
farmer and miller. " Moon at Perigee, again. Now, September?"
"The twenty-eighth, just yesterday.
Tilly Raines, seasonal field-laborer and daily woman for odd
jobs about the house."
"Moon on the Equator. I say there
is a pattern to these deaths," said Lord Dunbury, "either with
the Moon at Perigee or on the Equator. What's the meaning of
it, some occultist fixation with the Moon?"
"More likely it has to do with
the fact that these orbital positions of the Moon occur either
on a night of a New Moon, or a night or two after, when the
night should have been very dark indeed," explained Holmes.
"And you said that this Tilly
Raines was a daily woman? Lestrade described her as a housemaid."
"In a manner of speaking, she
was." It was Lady Dunbury who answered, framed in the doorway,
her long, rous flaming hair braided, and draped in front of
her. She was fetchingly attired in form-fitting Norfolk jacket,
snug jodhpurs and riding boots, and menacingly brandished a
brass-knobbed stick in her hands, like a Zulu with a knobkerrie.
She had come in as surreptitiously and unexpectedly as before,
and those serpent-like green eyes flickered malevolently at
her husband and Holmes for this unsanctioned interview.
Holmes met her gaze with
daggers of his own from those cold, steely eyes of his, while
Lord Dunbury withered away into his chair once more. I, who
had said nothing in all that time, silently thanked the Lord
above for having escaped her notice, and secreted my pad and
pencil, with which I had been taking shorthand notes until then,
and attempted to make myself as small and inconspicuous as her
"In a manner of speaking, indeed,"
agreed Holmes dryly, not missing a beat in his enquiry. "The
late Miss Raines, I expect, was only too glad for the work between
planting and harvest that would just allow her to live on her
little allotment with hardly any wages at all. She would come
cheap as a daily; doing any of the work required in the household
to help your small resident staff, which are all you can afford
to keep. One can only wonder what she would have thought, had
she known that you can hardly pay wages to your regular household
staff, let alone furnish that lavish accommodation which she
and the three laborers who died before her had worked so hard
The startled Lady
Dunbury stammered, groping for the words to justify herself.
"I, I had fully intended. . ."
"No doubt, no doubt. But keep in mind where
good intentions alone can lead. Keep in mind as well, that while
you depend on your tenants for revenue and profit, they depend
on you for their living, and now four of your best tenants are
dead. If you persist in coming the heavy over Dr. Watson and
me, you'll find you have no other friend to protect you and
your husband from either Inspector Lestrade (who considers you
both as persons of interest in the case), or your own tenants,
from whom it is no secret that you would prefer the use of the
lash to keep them down, over any empty incentives for them to
improve their lot in life." That being said, as coldly dispassionate
as ever I have heard Holmes speak, he smiled pleasantly up at
the blanched face of our hostess to add, "And now, Lady Dunbury,
I'm simply dying to have a look at that oast house of yours."
The clouds had
given way to reveal a clear, cerulean September morning sky
over a wooded country lane whose trees had begun to turn to
autumn flame. Lady Dunbury walked in silence between us, her
stride kept apace with Holmes's own brisk stride, and I was
hard-put to keep abreast of them, for I was much out of training,
and my crippled leg soon forced me to bring up the rear. The
crisp air brought some of the roses back into her face, but
the pallor remained. Clearly Holmes's masterful speech and demeanor
had affected her, and more than a few times I caught sight of
her turning her head to look at him walking beside her, with
a mixture of trepidation and curiosity at his stolidity and
his perception of everything above and below, and on every side.
We turned into
a disused compound about a quarter of a mile from the castle,
where shrubberies and vines had overgrown the ruined outbuildings,
and the grass had not been mown for many a year. There stood,
on an eminence in the center of the compound, the oast house.
The side building that housed its keeping rooms was so obscured
with overgrowth that all we could make of it were the remnants
of the roof. Half its slates had broken and slid off, exposing
the garret to the weather. An owl looked down at us from its
nest inside. But looming ominously above and at the end of it
was the oast oven itself: a round tower more than forty feet
tall, and crowned with a great conical-shaped cupola that looked
like a witch's hat.
We opened the
door at the front of the oast oven's tower. Its ground floor
was full of barrows, spades, pitchforks, and every other manner
of implements for farming. In the center of the room lay the
great round charcoal brazier, which had once been used to toast
the hops that had lain in loose mounds on the slatted floors
in the stories above. Looking above us, we could see through
the slats of the first story overhead. At the side of this was
a round, covered hatchway, just large enough for a man to pass
through, but with no way to get up to it.
"That is where
the winding stairway once had been," Lady Dunbury said. She
pointed to a narrow, rickety wooden ladder leaning against the
wall beneath the hatchway. "This is the only way up to the upper
must be how the three laborers and the maid gained access to
the place at the top story, where they met their deaths," said
"But the ladder had been found
lying here on the ground each time that we found one of them
dead on the top story," replied Lady Dunbury.
that proves murderous intent," reasoned Holmes. "I should like
to have a look at the place where these victims lay, now. Afterwards,
we shall just go to the mortuary to have a look at the late
"No need, Mr. Holmes. She's waiting
for you," Lady Dunbury explained, pointing with her finger towards
the stories above, "up there."
"What?" I gasped.
"Inspector Lestrade had thought
it best to preserve the scene and the placement of Tilly's body
for you both to examine, just as she'd been found."
"Well," said I, "that's rather
irregular, still, it might be of some use to the investigation."
And so we climbed,
but Lady Dunbury begged to stay behind. It had been enough,
she had said, to discover the corpse in the first place. At
each successive story, we drew our ladder upwards to the next
hatchway; a tiresome business to be sure, especially in anticipation
of what awaited us at the end. At last we climbed through the
last hatchway onto the top story, and there, lying prostrate
in the middle of the slatted floor, was the desiccated body
of Tilly Raines.
set to work on the examination of the corpse, which showed no
marks from a violent attack or injury due to any accident. But
this was anything but a natural death. Despite the discoloration
in the leatheriness of the dried skin of her face, I thought
I detected cyanosis around her mouth and lips. Holmes, meanwhile,
had surprised me by taking out his pipe and lighting it: a strange
departure from his usually active routine in rooting out clues.
he said, directing my attention to the cloud of blue tobacco
smoke, which hovered, listless, just over his head. "The
overhead ventilator should be drawing that out, but it's bunged
completely shut. And do you feel that sudden, pleasant warmth
rising up from beneath us? Hullo, what's this?"
Holmes was looking
downwards at the floor. Tilly's skirts stirred slightly in the
warm updraft and, to my horror, looking through the four stories
of slatted flooring underfoot, I saw the red-orange glow of
burning charcoal in the brazier on the ground floor! Nausea
and shallowness of breath gripped us as carbon monoxide rapidly
poisoned the air we breathed. We staggered to the hatchway.
The ladder was gone! Suddenly I felt my head begin to swim.
A voice, echolike, called me: "Watson! Watson!"