The Adventure of the Haunted Oast House at Harrow Weald
Chapter Four
by
Jerry Riggs

    
      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.
     
"No."
      "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 of vices?"
      "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."

     Holmes smiled 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 at hand).

      "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 with March.

      "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?"
      "Certainly."
      "Capital! And with each instance, if you would, please give the full name of each victim, beginning with March."
      "That was on the seventh. The victim was Joseph Lovat, tenant farmer and joiner."

     Holmes referred 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."
     "Peri- what?"
     "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 husband.

      "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 to attain."

     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 stories, now."
     
"And that must be how the three laborers and the maid gained access to the place at the top story, where they met their deaths," said Holmes.
      "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.
     
"Well, 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 Tilly Raines."
      "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.

     I immediately 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.

      "Watson, look," 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!"