The Adventure of the Haunted Oast House at Harrow Weald
Chapter Six
by
C. S. Williams

     
      Holmes looked about to certain himself that we were indeed alone. Respectful of Lady Dunbury's wishes my friend refrained from smoking, yet he still went through the motions with an empty pipe, out of habit, I suppose. "Watson, do you have your service revolver with you?"
      "After all these years with you I never leave home without it. It's in my bag. Shall I get it?"
      "By all means. We have made someone terribly frightened, if only by our presence, and that someone means to be rid of us."
      "If I had known we would be in danger so quickly I would have already had it on my person. But dash it all, Holmes, we were only going to look at an old oast house. Whoever would have thought someone would try to murder us there in broad daylight?"
      "Alas, my dear, Watson, I should have suggested you arm yourself before we went there. After all, it has been the scene of five murders."
      "Five? But there were only four, the three tenant farmers and that poor daily maid whose pitiful remains are still up there."
      "You forget, Watson, the original murder, Uncle Beckley Dunbury. We were told he died exactly the same as the others."
      "By Jove, you're right, Holmes!"
      "At least we have solved the how. Now we must uncover the who and the why. Once we discover the one, it should lead us to the other. At this juncture we neither know what the victims were doing up there, nor how they were discovered. The top of the oast house is such an out-of the-way location that no one should have thought to look up there, at least for the first victim. After that it would occur to someone to look. So the question remains, how was the first victim's body discovered?"
      "You mean you know how these murders were committed?" I gasped.
      "Come, Watson. Think. You and I were almost the victims of it ourselves."
      "Of course! Asphyxiation! After our misadventure I should have seen it myself."
      "I'm sure you would have reached the same conclusion once the shock had worn off, Old Fellow. Are you feeling better now? I may have an errand for you."
      "An errand, Holmes?"
      "Yes, Watson. One particularly suited to you. I wish you to call upon the local doctor and make an inquiry. He should be more open to one of his own profession. First, request to see the death certification of Beckley Dunbury. Once you have the exact date of his death, look through the doctor's medical records for any pregnancies around that date, and get the name or names of the patients."
      "Certainly I'll go, but why? What would a murder some forty-five years ago have to do with these four murders now?"
      "Everything, Watson. I'm convinced of it."
      "Then I shall go straightway. Still, it's highly unlikely that the same doctor would still be practicing."
      "Perhaps not…it would be useful if he were, but surely if the old doctor has retired he would have given his medical records to his successor."
      "True. And if he is still alive, shall I call upon the old doctor as well?" "Good thinking, Watson. If he is still alive, perhaps he can add more information than a simple medical record."
      "Should I stop at the telegraph office on the way, or will you send a messenger to wire Lestrade?"
      "Make your visit first, Watson. Then, if you have a name, ask Lestrade to find out if there is any record of the woman and her child before coming to join us…and caution him to be swift, there may be more lives at stake. It is a gamble, but there is a likely chance an unwed pregnant girl may have run off to London. While you are out, I intend to take another look at that oast house."      "Do be careful Holmes. Our would-be murder may still be lurking about. I shall go at once. I'll ask Barrows to show me to our room so I can change out of these smoky togs, and procure my revolver while dressing."
     So saying I rang for the butler. A moment or two later he appeared, tall, nearly as thin as my companion, neatly trimmed salt-and pepper hair, bulbous nose showing the first reddish signs a drinker, and an expressionless face. Only his sapphire blue eyes sparkled with interest. I thought, in passing, I would hate to play cards with that man.
      "Ah, Barrows. Be so kind as to show me to our rooms; I need to change. Oh, and could you tell me the name of the local Doctor? I wish to pay a courtesy call. Please ask Jefferson to have a carriage ready."
      "That would be Dr. Kennelworth. I shall inform Lady Dunbury at once that you wish a carriage. This way, Dr. Watson…

      The rain clouds had gone, replaced here and there by small wispy white ones scudding along across the azure autumn sky by a stiff breeze like tufts of cotton. Still, the rain had ushered in a damp chill that made me huddle inside my tweed jacket.
      Dr. Kennelworth's home was a typical whitewashed country cottage with a stone fence and white picket gate. The small lawn was neatly trimmed and there were beds of bright fall flowers. I thought it looked not unlike a Winslow Homer painting. Charming. I knocked upon the door with the large brass lion's head knocker, and straightway I was greeted by a young woman of perhaps thirty years. She was slightly plump with rosy cheeks, merry eyes of periwinkle blue and a dazzling, friendly smile that instantly put me at ease. Her ash blonde hair was done up in the Gibson style.
      "May I help you?"
      "I was looking for the Doctor." I presented my card.
      "That would be my husband." She glanced down at my card. "Gerald, there's a Dr. Watson here to see you."
      Returning to me she greeted, "I was just brewing some Earl Grey. Would you care for a cup with us, Doctor? It's a chilly day out there."
      "That would be appreciated. Thank you."
      A handsome young man much the same age as his wife came toward me, hand extended in greeting. His hair was dark, but his skin was even fairer than his wife's. "Dr. Watson? Are you perchance THE Dr. Watson?"
      "Guilty."
      "I've read of your adventures with Sherlock Holmes in The Strand. What can I do for you?"
      Mrs. Kennelworth busied herself pouring three cups of tea into delicate flowered china cups.
      "I'm sure you are aware of the mysterious deaths at Dunbury Hall," I began.
      "Yes. I examined the bodies. Not a mark upon them. I've been stumped. I wish I could tell you more."
      "Well, Holmes and I may have figured that one out. Asphyxiaition by carbon monoxide. Someone lured or carried the victims up there, sealed off the air vent, removed the ladder and lit a fire in the roasting brazier."
      "Amazing!" my young colleague remarked, his walnut brown eyes focused on me. "How did you figure it out?"
      "The hard way," I replied. "Holmes and I were up there to examine poor Tilly Raines and the killer-or killers-attempted to kill us the same way. We were fortunate enough to be able to unblock the vent before it was too late."
      "My God! Are you all right?"
      "Yes, thank you."
      "Is that why you've come to see me? To enquire about the murders?"
      "In a manner of speaking. I did want your observations on the current murders, but Holmes wished me to consult you upon another matter. There was a similar death some forty-five years ago, the current Lord Dunbury's Uncle, Beckley Dunbury. Obviously that was before your time, but we were hoping that perhaps you had your predecessor's records that may shed some light on the matter. Holmes is convinced that there may be some connection between that murder, the subsequent disappearance of the servant girl who was alleged to have been his mistress, and these current deaths. Do you have those records?"
      "I do, and you are certainly welcome to look through them if it would help. Imagine! I'm going to be of service to the famous Sherlock Holmes, Rebecca!" I swear, the young fellow was absolutely bubbling with enthusiasm. "If there is anything at all I can do for you and Mr. Holmes, don't hesitate to ask." "That's most generous of you."
      "You might want to speak to Dr. Attenborough too. This was his practice before he retired."
      "He's still alive?" I had hardly hoped for this stroke of good fortune.
      "Very much so. And he lives nearby."
      "Then I shall most certainly call upon him." Once we had finished our tea and I had repaid my host and hostess by recounting one of Holmes and my minor adventures which I had not as yet set to paper, which I dubbed The Adventure of the Purloined Pearl my young colleague led me to pair of file cabinets.
      "They're organized by year and then by patient. Dr. Attenborough was very thorough in his notes. Forty-five years ago, you say?"
      "Or thereabouts. I don't have the exact date. In fact that is one of the things I need to ascertain. Holmes is of the opinion that the serving girl who disappeared was probably pregnant with Beckley Dunbury's child."
      "Oh my!" interjected Rebecca Kennelworth. "That must have been scandalous."
      "Apparently. According to Lady Dunbury, Beckley threw her over for a woman with position and-given that at the time, the Dunburys were in dire financial straits-money. Not long after the wedding Beckley was found dead in the oast house and shortly after his death the girl departed. Perhaps she was murdered as well, but no body was ever found. Whether she fled from grief or because she was with child, no one seems to know. Thus far we don't even know her name. That is another reason I need to see your records."
      "Ah! Here we go! 1852. Dunbury, Beckley, Esquire. Died August 3, 1852. Is that what you need?"
      "Partly. Now see if you can find a pregnancy diagnosed in July or early August of that year. I can't give you a name; in fact that's what I'm trying to discover."
      "Hmmm." Gerald Kennelworth unconsciously chewed at his lower lip as his dark brown eyes scanned the crabbed writing. Then he looked up and grinned.
      "You found it," I smiled. He beamed.
      "There was only one pregnancy I could find that fit the time frame you described. See this 'D' in the upper left-hand corner? That was Dr. Attenborough's notation that the bill was to be paid by Dunbury Estate. That certainly seems to bear out your suspicions."
      "And the patient's name…?" "Nancy Ashcroft." "Thank you so much for your help. Is there anything I can do for you?" My host laughed. "There certainly is. When Mr. Holmes solves this case and you write it up for The Strand be sure to include us. Rebecca and I are both such fans of your stories."
      "We certainly are!" agreed his wife. "We'll be looking forward to it."
      "We haven't solved the case yet," I reminded them.
      "Oh, you will. You always do. Gerald and I have every confidence in you."
      "Thank you. I won't forget you. And now I must be on my way. You say Dr. Attenborough lives nearby?"
      "Just a quarter mile down this very lane. Do you need more explicit directions?"
      "It depends on whether Jefferson knows where it is." We said our polite good-byes and Jefferson, a taciturn little man, perhaps a bit sullen in demeanor, did indeed know the location of the elder physician's home. He clucked to his chestnut geldings and we were off.
     
      Meanwhile Holmes was setting about business of his own. He began by requesting to see Lady Dunbury. Barrows quickly returned and Holmes was ushered into the Lady's parlor.
      "How may I help you, Mr. Holmes," she asked, looking up from some correspondence she was reading at her oak secretary.
      "I am about to make another visit to the oast house, but first I have a few questions."
      "First, I have one of my own. You said earlier that our finances had taken a beating of late. However did you know that? Had someone told you?"
      "It was rather obvious, really. You have reduced your house servants to a minimum, and while everything is kept in good repair, there doesn't seem to be anything new anywhere in the house, save perhaps your portrait. Even your clothes and shoes, while well-maintained, are not new. That and the overall rundown condition of your unmown fields and outbuildings."
      "I see. It sounds so simple when you explain it." "A mere observation." "Very well. You had a question?"
      "First of all, Lady Dunbury, you seem to be familiar with the oast house, so you may be able to answer a question that has piqued my curiosity."
      "I'll be glad to answer anything I can."
      "When the oast house was in operation, how were the hops taken to the upper floors? Surely they were not toted a sack at a time up that ladder, or even the now-gone staircase. So the question remains: how were the hops taken up to the upper floors for drying? Not to mention the furniture that was used by the servants when it was used for quarters."
      "You know, I never thought of that, since we've never used the place except for equipment storage since I have been here. But you do raise an interesting question. Perhaps there is some kind of lift, a hidden dumbwaiter. It's possible, but if so I've never seen one. It would make sense, however."
      "I was thinking much the same. I believe it might be instructive if I were to look for it. It may be that our murderer already knows of its existence and has put it to use. I was hoping you might have some knowledge of it."
      "I'm sorry, but I don't. I would think it would be connected to the operations room attached, though. That would make sense, but it's only a guess."
      "And a good one."
      "Is that all?"
      "Only one other question, for now. Who found Joseph Lovat's body? Since the upper floors were never used, what was the finder doing up there."
      "Another good question. I can see why Inspector LeStrade thinks so highly of you, Mr. Holmes. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what he was doing up there. Possibly looking for Joseph, since we had looked everywhere else. I don't know."
      "Well, who found the body? We can ask him."
      "Therein lies the problem. You see Joseph was found by Mansfield Parke…"
      "…Who was later found dead under the same circumstances. It would have been useful to talk with him, but that is not to be. Thank you, Dear Lady, for your time. I shan't keep you any longer. I intend to return to the oast house this very afternoon and seek out this hidden lift and to re-examine the scene of Tilly Raines' death. She may yet have a secret to tell us."
      "Take care, Mr. Holmes. Would you like some assistance?"
      "Thank you, Lady Dunbury, but I would rather do this by myself."
      "Very well. But if you haven't returned by sunset I shall send someone after you."
      "How very kind of you. Thank you." Taking his leave, Holmes set off to return to the oast hose, paying close attention to see if anyone was following.

     Dr. Attenborough was a wizened little gnome of a man, and very spry for a man of four score plus years. I idly wondered if had had any Pictish ancestors. His skin was tanned and wrinkled like that of a field hand, and his beard and receding hair were curly and white. He smiled broadly and genuinely, shaking my hand with both of his.
      "Since I retired some five years ago I don't get many visitors anymore. How may I help you, Dr. Watson? Surely you had some purpose for this unexpected visit…"
      "I do. Your young colleague, Dr. Kennelworth sent me to see you."
      "Gerald? How are he and Rebecca? They still come by to check on me every week or so. I think they've adopted me as a foster grandfather," the old man laughed.
     "They're well. Surely you've heard of the strange deaths in the old oast house at Dunbury Hall?"
      "Dreadful business, and quite perplexing. But how does that concern me?"
      "My friend Sherlock Holmes and I are investigating the murders…"
      "So it is murder? I thought as much. Sherlock Holmes you say? I never thought I'd see the day he would be investigating a case in these parts….Oh!…Silly me!…I should have recognized the name immediately: Dr. Watson. Gerald and Rebecca can hardly wait for your stories to come out. They talk about you and Holmes incessantly. Of course I'll be glad to help in any way I can, but I doubt I have anything to offer. I haven't even been to Dunbury Hall in several years."
     "But you were the local doctor when Beckley Dunbury died?"
      "I was. But that was so long ago. What? Forty, forty-five years?"
      "Forty-five. But the cause of death was quite similar, I understand."
      "None, you mean. There was no reason for that man to be dead that I could discover.
      "Then you do remember it."
      "How could I forget it? John, may I call you John? I'm a Doctor, John, not a detective. It's puzzled me for years how a healthy young man could just fall over dead without a mark on him. It never made sense to me. Still doesn't."
      "There was another matter Holmes wanted me to ask about. There was a girl, a servant named Nancy Ashcroft…"
      "Aha! You want to know about the girl."
      "I do. I don't know how, but Holmes believes that she may be connected somehow with both the original death and the ones now."
      "And what do you think, John?" "It's possible. It has been my experience that Holmes is seldom wrong."
      "So what do you want to know?" "     "I take it you remember her as well?"
      "'Course I do. Believe it or not, I remember most all of my patients."
      "Remarkable."
      "Not really. This isn't that big a village, even counting the Hall."
      "I see."
      "Nancy Ashcroft was a pretty thing. Hair red like fire and eyes green as emeralds. Every young buck in the village fancied her, but she had higher aspirations. She set her cap for Beckley Dunbury. She wanted to be real lady, she did. She wanted servants instead of being one. Understand?"
      I nodded. It wasn't uncommon for a young woman to aspire to marry above one's station.
      "For his part, Beckley was a handsome devil with a silver tongue. Tall. Six feetm plus three or four inches tall, as I recall. Maybe a touch more. He could've had his pick of women. Looked a lot like Lord Byron, they say, so it was a bit surprising when he married the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Spindlethwait. Nice enough girl. Sweet, really. But kind of homely. Still, she was an only child, pampered, and lots of money. The Duke owned an armory works selling war materials: guns, cannons, ammunition. What with India and Africa and so on, England is always fighting somewhere, so the money fountain never runs dry. Young Beckely just swept her off her feet."
      "It happens. Many people marry for money," I sighed.
      "Too many if you ask me. Two, perhaps three, weeks after the big wedding Nancy came to see me, worried because she hadn't had a period in seven weeks."
      "I see. And Beckley Dunsbury was now married…"
      "Exactly. You know how it is, as a fellow doctor: we do double duty as confessors…" I nodded in agreement.
      "She told me she'd never been with any man except Beckley, and now he'd abandoned her."
      "So she was certain the child was Dunbury's?"
      "That's what she claimed."
      "What happened to her? Any idea?"
      "The last time I talked with her was a day or two before Beckley died. She and the baby seemed to be doing fine. She said she was going to confront Beckley, and at the very least see that he paid for her upkeep and the baby's or she would tell his family."
      "Did he pay her off?"
      "No idea. Just a day or two later, he was dead."
      "So she was still around after he died?"
      "For a brief time."
      "Then Beckley didn't do her in."
      "Beckley may have been a cad, but I don't think he had it in him to kill anyone."
      "Did she kill herself, do you think?
      "Not her! Too spirited. But there was nothing for her here with Beckley dead. Beyond her hopes of high position, I got the impression she really loved him. I think she just left."
      "Any idea where?"
      "None. She never told me she was going."
      "Did she have family somewhere?"
      "I am not awre of any, but it is possible. Her parents lived here. Mary, her mother, died some twenty-odd years ago. Poor Fred, he grieved himself to death within a year. If Nancy had been alive, she didn't come to her parents' funerals. That's all I know. I wish I could help you more."
      "You've been a great deal of help. Thank you very much."
      We chatted briefly about things like how medicine was changing and I made my departure. I told Jefferson to take me to the telegraph office. Perhaps LeStrade would be able to find a trace of Nancy Ashcroft.

     With some effort Holmes managed to fight his way through the tangle of weeds, cursing when he felt the nick of a brier scratching his hand. Sweating despite the cool breeze, he doggedly continued to clear the doorway of the abandoned operations building. At last he found himself inside. Sections of collapsed roof covered whole sections of the room. Rusty tools lay scattered about, orange and brown from water, weather, and time. The dirt floor was muddy and in some spots rain water still pooled from the recent downpours. Holmes gingerly picked his way around, checking the footing with his cane before taking each step.
      Not to his surprise there were footprints near the dilapidated door into the oast house proper. He took a ruler from an inside pocket and made careful measurement, mentally noting both the size and depth. His brow knit in thought. After looking around for perhaps another twenty minutes he was satisfied for the moment that he had seen all this room had to offer.
      He tried the door. At first it wouldn't budge, but after careful inspection he discovered a hidden catch. Once the catch was released the door swung open easily. The wood, he noted, looked much older than it was. This, too was no surprise, for Holmes knew of several successful antique forgers who could do this kind of distressing in their sleep. The door, he observed, swung easily. On closer inspection he saw that the hinges looked rusted, but were well oiled to operate smoothly.
      From his coat pocket he retrieved a candle and lit it with a match. As he suspected, he was facing a second door, one that opened out into the oast house proper. In this narrow space between the doors were even more footprints. Again he made careful measurements until he was satisfied he knew how many people had been there.
      As he had suspected, this section of the tower had a double wall. He had guessed so when he had observed that the interior was a few feet narrower than it should be, given the size of the exterior. Holmes smiled slightly when he found not one but two dumbwaiters, one on either side of the door. He carefully examined both and found that both were sound, that the hardware was rust free and well oiled, and the pulley ropes were practically new. The dumbwaiters had been built to hold large sacks of hops, so it was no problem fitting himself inside the one on his left. He blew out his candle and began hauling himself up a foot at a time, stopping to peer out between slats whenever he reached the hatch to each floor until, arms aching, finally he reached the top floor, that dread place where he and I had only hours before nearly met our doom and where poor Tilly Raines lay still awaiting transport by the mortician.
      Holmes pushed open the hidden door and stepped out into the shadowy room. He stretched to relax his cramped muscles before walking toward the dead girl. Behind him he heard the unmistakable click of a firearm being cocked.     
     "Too bad, Mr. Holmes," said the voice behind him. "You got out of here alive once. You should've taken the hint and shoved off. Believe it or not, I was hoping it wouldn't come to this. I'm sorry, really I am…"
      The roar of the gun was deafening!