Being the partner of the greatest (if not the most modest!) detective ever to walk the earth meant that I got to see all sorts of strange and exotic locations. Admittedly I often got to see them whilst being barely able to sit down without a wince that was without fail followed by a knowing (if justifiable) smirk, but I certainly travelled much more than another other doctor of my ilk would have done. On the other hand, Sherlock preferred very much to stay in London if at all possible, and our one venture abroad had been at least partially forced by circumstance, ending with both of us deeply glad to return to our dear rooms in Baker Street. But I certainly got to see many parts of the island of Britain which I would otherwise have missed, which was why we were currently in rural Gloucestershire. Sort of.
The county map of England has of course evolved over the centuries, and two ancient counties, Winchcombeshire and Hexhamshire, had been lost to it over time. It was one of those statistical curiosities that this and our subsequent case took us to each of those lost counties in turn, first to the Welsh March and then to the Scottish one.
The changing face of our country is also reflected in the title of this story. Greyminster, which lies about eight miles east of Cheltenham, was once the largest town in the area, and must have been a major reason for the ephemeral existence during Anglo-Saxon times of the county of Winchcombeshire, Winchcombe itself lying some miles to the north-west. The area had long retained some autonomy, even under the powerful Mercian kings of the eighth century, and was of course important for the wool trade, one of the main drover roads passing south of the town. Unfortunately as things turned out, Greyminster's wealth was primarily dependent on the abbey that gave it its name, and when that duly fell victim to the monstrous King Henry the Eighth, many people moved away to Cheltenham and Stow-on-the-Wold. By the start of our century, what had been the tenth-largest town in England at the time of the Domesday Book (the 1080's) had been reduced to little more than a country village. Indeed, when the railway had been built between Banbury and Cheltenham some years before the time of this story, it did not even merit a deviation to serve it, the nearest station being some two miles to the south.
We had come to this part of the Cotswolds at the urgent request of Cuthbert, nineteenth Duke of Greyminster, whose telegram had arrived at Baker Street late the previous night. His title had been created in 1503, ironically not long before the loss of the town's abbey, and his family's support for parliament in what had been a predominantly Royalist area in the English Civil War had seen Greyminster Abbey (confusingly the name of the great house built from the ruins of the old abbey) besieged for six months at one point, before it was relieved during the events surrounding the Siege of Gloucester in 1643. They had of course lost some lands at the Restoration but were still a powerful force, both locally and nationally. The duke sat in the House of Lords as a Tory peer, and was renowned for speaking his mind most forcibly, even against his own party when he felt that they were in the wrong. Which was a little strange, because Sherlock told me before leaving London that the nobleman had said almost nothing as to the reasons for our visit.
“The only hint he dropped was that it may have something to do with the Greyminster Library, which he is currently establishing in London”, Sherlock said, frowning as our carriage rumbled out of the station yard of Notgrove (for Greyminster) and headed along a dusty country lane. It was April, but showers had been considerably lacking as of late, and the countryside looked parched.
“I have read about that”, I said. “It sounds a most honourable venture, if an expensive one.”
“The family are reported to have done particularly well in their investments in South African gold mines”, he said, “so one supposes that with the Boer War finally over, that source of income is now guaranteed. Do those social pages that you hardly ever spare so much as a glance at in the newspaper every day tell us anything more?”
I scowled at him, and he gave me an injured look in return.
“There was speculation that the Duke is setting up the library partly because he has fallen out with his eldest son, Edgar de Grey”, I said, still sulking a little at his snipe at my reading habits. “He has one other son, a boy called Ælfric, and one daughter, Edwina. Not forgetting his mother, the dowager Duchess Deirdre, who lives in the Dower House on the estate.”
He looked set to remark on my reading habits again, but I shot him a warning look and he just sniggered instead. Which was worse, actually.
Greyminster Abbey was a fine old building and I could see the Elizabethan structure in it, even though I knew that it had been partly destroyed by a fire early in the last century. The then fourteenth duke, St. John (not an ancestor of Duke Cuthbert) had been something of a rake, and had lost much of his ancestral lands at cards, so his death in that fire had been providential. There had been some suspicion that his brother and successor Duke St. George (the current duke's great-grandfather) may have been involved in dispatching his sibling into the next world before his time, but as he had then proceeded to repair most of the damage done to the estate in his forty-year tenure of the dukedom, people tended not to comment on such trifling little details.
Perhaps I did read those social pages a little. Only a little, mind. And that had better not be a smirk!
Duke Cuthbert was a fine old gentleman of about sixty years of age, clearly not in the best of health as he greeted us from a bath-chair in which he was wrapped heavily in blankets. His attendant nurse gave us both a mighty scowl when he dismissed her before talking to us, and I wondered if she might stoop to listening in at the door. She looked the sort.
“Thank you for coming in response to my poor request, gentleman”, he said.
“You were somewhat vague in that request, sir”, Sherlock said a little reprovingly. “Was there a reason for that?”
“Indeed there was”, the duke said heavily. “I have lost something of great value, and I am threatened with social and possibly even financial ruin unless I can find it.”
“I am sure I do not have to tell you about Magna Carta”, the duke began, once tea had been served (how Sherlock managed to get the cream from that doughnut onto his nose, Lord alone knows!). “That famous document now exists in four copies, held in various places around our fair country. You may not know that, when it was originally drawn up, it was known simply as ‘The Charter’. Once the invasion of the French Prince Louis had been defeated, the barons re-issued the document along with a smaller charter, curbing royal abuse of forest laws.”
(Although I did not have any great interest in history, I have to say that the royal forests were one of the few areas that had appealed to me, especially because so few people understood them. 'Forest’ in the Middle Ages was defined differently to today's meaning, then describing a protected wild area comprising different habitats that included trees but was mostly open ground; this is why places like the 'New Forest' in Hampshire so confuse people today. From that dark year of 1066 onwards, the rights of free men to access these areas, for fuel and for the grazing of their animals, had been curtailed by the Norman and Plantaganet kings, and brutal punishments had been imposed for any who were caught breaking the new laws. Worse, the definition of just what was a royal forest had been greatly extended, a process known as afforestation. The Charter of the Forest, which features in this story, set things to rights, thanks to the efforts of that great nobleman William Marshall.
See? It was not justthe social pages that I read! And that had still better not be another bloody smirk!)
“It is a copy of that second charter, the Charter of the Forest, or ‘Parva Carta’ as the newspapers called it, that was discovered one year ago in the vaults of a house in Buckingham”, the duke went on. “It is the version re-issued eight years after the original, with some minor changes to the wording. By a stroke of great good fortune, the owner of that house, who had just died, was an uncle of mine through marriage, and his will bequeathed the precious item to me. Naturally my first thought was to add it to my planned collection in London.”
“I might speculate that your sons offered their own opinions as to that course of action?” Sherlock asked politely. The duke smiled.
“Ælfric was all for housing it in the library as what he termed 'a crowd-puller', but Edgar, of course, wanted to sell it and use the money to pay for a complete refurbishment of the Abbey”, he said. “Like most so-called 'great landowners', I have mostly moved out of land as it is currently a poor investment. The house does need work, but nothing that I cannot fund through my current income sources.”
“And now the charter had disappeared?” Sherlock asked.
“That is not the worst of it!” the duke groaned. “The Greyminster Library opens in London at the end of next week, and the Princess of Wales herself is cutting the ribbon. The press will have a field-day when they discover that the prize exhibit is an empty glass case!”
“When did the charter disappear?” Sherlock asked.
“Last night sometime”, the duke said. “The last time that I definitely had it was just before dinner at seven o'clock; I had been examining it when the gong sounded. After dinner we adjourned for coffee, and at just before nine I went for one final look. You can imagine my horror to find the document gone.”
Sherlock pressed his long fingers together.
“Who was in the house at the time?” he asked.
“Myself, my two sons, my daughter Edwina and her fiancé, Mr. Callow”, the duke said. “I have to say that I do not really approve of their relationship, especially as he is some nine years her senior, but I suppose that that is the way of the world nowadays, and they have been together for nearly a year now. The staff were all down in the kitchens, except the maids who brought up the food.”
“That fact may be important”, Sherlock said. “Please tell me more about Miss de Grey and Mr. Callow.”
“I married late in life”, the duke said, “and was fortunate enough to be blessed with three children before, sadly, my wife died trying to provide me with a fourth child, who did not survive her long. I was left to raise my three children on my own, although I was fortunate to have my mother's help.”
I thought of the dowager Duchess Deirdre, a most formidable Amazon just turned eighty, yet still very active on the social scene whenever the duke came to London. I had met her the one time – yes, she had simpered at Sherlock! - and she had all but sniggered at my defensive growl, whispering 'lucky devil!' to me before sailing majestically away to terrorize someone else. I had the distinct feeling that she might, just might tend to be a strict surrogate parent. As in the ocean might, just might, tend to be wet!
“Edwina is nineteen, and quite determined when it comes to getting her own way”, the duke continued. “She has shown absolutely no interest in the charter whatsoever. Her fiancé, however, has a keen interest in history. He is originally from Norway, and it may be the Viking in him that makes me not quite trust him. Although as a historian he was able to authenticate the charter for me, I took the precaution of obtaining a second opinion as well.”
“And then we have your two sons”, Sherlock said. “Tell me a little about them, if you please.”
“Edgar is twenty-two and, sorry though I am to say it, something of a rake”, the duke said with a sigh. “Rather too many of the young generation seem to think that the world owes them a living these days, and the idea of them actually working for an honest crust is to them an alien concept. He was most unhappy when, last year, I insisted that he spend six months working on the estate, including doing farm labour.”
“Insisted?” I asked. The duke nodded.
“The title is hereditary”, he explained, “but the actual estate itself only has to go to someone of the blood lineage. If I were so inclined, I could leave it to any one of my children, or split it between them. I would be disinclined to disinherit my eldest son, but I would do so for the good of the estate.”
I thought to myself that his offspring would privately hate him having that hold over them all, but said nothing. I rather suspected that, much as he would doubtless have hated it, the heir would have benefited from seeing how the real world functioned.
“Ælfric is a year younger than his brother”, the duke went on. “Physically he is very different; Edgar is short and rather unfit, whilst his brother is very athletic and, perhaps, a little too proud of his own appearance. But then we all have our weaknesses.”
“You say that you spent time before dinner looking at the charter”, Sherlock said. “Does that not run the risk of damaging it?”
“I was unclear over that”, the duke admitted. “I have had the thing transcribed into Modern English, and it was the copy that I was examining, which is kept in the adjoining case. I am not a professional historian, but I enjoy seeing how things have developed over time.”
“I must ask you a somewhat personal question now”, Sherlock said. “You mentioned Mr. Callow, whom your daughter is seeing. Are either of your sons currently seeing anyone?”
The duke looked surprised at the question, but answered readily enough.
“It may be cruel to say it, but I rather think that my eldest son is waiting for me to quit this earthly realm, so that he can have the estate to counter his innate lack of personal appeal”, he said bluntly. “Ælfric is currently dating Lord Winchcombe's youngest, a girl named Brilliana of all things! A good girl, despite that; I think he is ready to propose an engagement, but her father is currently away in Ireland for six months, and they both wish to wait for his return.”
Sherlock nodded, and thought for some little time.
“Was the charter insured?” he asked at last.
“That is yet another thing”, the duke sighed. “It is of course irreplaceable, but I did insure it with the March Insurance Company for ten thousand pounds. Naturally they will be far from happy when they receive the telegram I sent them yesterday, informing them of its disappearance. Can you help me at all?”
“I am not sure”, Sherlock said thoughtfully. “I am concerned that, even as we speak, the charter may have already been damaged.”
“Damaged?” the duke asked, clearly shocked. “Why?”
“Not deliberately”, Sherlock clarified. “But remember, we are dealing with a piece of parchment that is approaching seven centuries old. It would not take well to being folded even once in its now fragile state, which one presumes would have had to occur before it could have been removed undetected from the house.”
“But do you know who has it?” the duke asked.
We both stared at him in surprise.
“That part is fairly obvious”, Sherlock said calmly. “However, retrieving the precious document – that will be a little more difficult.”
Sherlock wanted to take a look at the glass case that had housed the charter, so we went off to the study. The case had a lock on it, but unfortunately the duke had not used that as the house was locked up at the time, and he had thought it safe. I could see the insurance company rubbing their hands at that and using it as an excuse not to pay out – if anyone told them that detail, of course.
My friend examined the empty case in silence, though I caught a very slight twitch of the lips which told me had either seen or deduced something. What that was, of course, he did not tell me. He did however ask for a footman to take a telegram that he wanted sent to his brother Bacchus in London.
Greyminster Abbey was a long building with two great wings either side, and fortunately all the family rooms were in one wing whilst the guest bedrooms were in the other. My room adjoined Sherlock's, and they both had four-poster beds in, as well as some very dark furniture. I sighed as I opened my bag, checking that my gun was fully loaded and....
Sherlock must have got at my bag before we had left Baker Street that morning, because folded neatly underneath my revolver was my favourite pair of black lace panties, the ones that Sherlock had got me for my birthday a few months back. They were a size larger than my old ones – all those Baker Street breakfasts took their toll, despite the frequent 'workouts' that I got from my mate – and they even had a little blue bow on them. I gulped, but dutifully undressed and held them out to look at them. I was just running my finger round the waistband when......
The Voice! I gulped, and turned slowly round. The sheer ridiculousness of a fifty-one-year-old man standing in a bedroom holding a pair of lace panties probably should have bothered me, but there was not enough blood being supplied to my brain to care just at that precise moment in time. Well, that and the fact that Sherlock was wearing that damned sexy waistcoat of his, and fully clothed except for the formidable erection that he was palming, whilst looking at me like a starving dog eyeing up a juicy steak.
I do not remember how, but somehow my limbs managed the complicated task of getting out of my clothes, into his choice of underwear and onto the bed, sprawled out ready for him. The feral look in his eyes both terrified and aroused me, and I was already leaking as he clambered up between my legs.
“It is appropriate that this case involves Magna Carta”, he growled, beginning to finger me open with his usual efficiency. “That was a fairly minor document, which history endowed with far greater meaning that any of its authors had intended, merely because it was the first time that the power of a ruling monarch had been successfully challenged.”
That wasn't the only think being challenged, I thought acidly. He was brushing lightly against my prostate, making me writhe in anticipation.
“Then, of course, we have that other historical inaccuracy”, he said, slowly widening me and making me arch my back like an omega in heat. “Droit de seigneur. Literally the right of the lord, in this case to take the virginity of any of his serf's daughters. We have no proof that such a thing existed, yet it is in all the history books.”
His fingers withdrew, and I almost cried with relief when I felt him push aside my panties and his cock start nuzzling my entrance. Then, to my eternal chagrin, he stopped with his head barely inside me.
“I wonder if I should take your virginity, John”, he mused. “Perhaps I should make you wait a while.....”
I had nothing like Sherlock's flexibility at times like this, but desperation gave me strength. I already had my hands on his hips, and I forcibly impaled myself onto his cock, much to his evident surprise. The bastard then just grinned, forcing me to do all the work as I dragged him inside me, panting with the exertion. Never mind droit de seigneur; it was going to be a case of la mort d'amour if this went on much longer. I needed him to finish what he had started, and quick!
Only when he was fully seated inside me did Sherlock finally take control, pushing me back even further and finding the perfect angle to assault my poor prostate. I whined in delirium, and he snarled in return, both of us racing to orgasm. In fact we got there at one and the same time, my overwhelmed senses having to cope with Sherlock coming inside of me and one of the best orgasms that my poor, broken body had ever experienced. I let out a satisfied grunt, as Sherlock wiped us both off and then snuggled in behind me.
The next day passed uneventfully enough, apart from my wake-up call that resulted in me having to come downstairs quite gingerly (why did my bedroom have to be on the second floor and the staircases so damn long?). The duke asked me if I had had a rough night, but I denied it. Even if that was all too true!
A telegram came for Sherlock mid-morning, and he seemed pleased enough with the contents, though he did not share them with me (even when I pouted!). Mr. Callow left for London after lunch, and Edgar de Grey took him to the station before himself travelling on to Gloucester for the afternoon. I was a little uneasy about them both leaving the house, but Sherlock seemed unworried, so I supposed it was all right.
It was about an hour after the two men had driven off that we had a visitor. It was a local police constable, depressingly young (they all were, nowadays, and by now I was resigned to that fact). To my surprise, when he came into the main room where we were both sat, he greeted Sherlock.
“Constable Berkeley”, Sherlock smiled. “Welcome. Did you get it?”
“Yes, sir”, the constable smiled. “Had to wait a bit at the station for them to box it up for me, though. It looked like showers, and I didn't want to risk it getting wet.”
“Risk what getting wet?” I asked, confused. Duke Cuthbert, his daughter and his younger son had joined us, and they all looked equally nonplussed, which made me feel a little better.
“The box that is currently being brought into the Abbey contains a most precious certain medieval charter”, Sherlock said. “Your suspicions were quite correct, Your Grace. Mr. Callow had decided to relieve you of your historical artifact, sell it, and make a new life for himself abroad. I am sorry to say, Miss de Grey, the fact that he only started paying court to you just days after the charter came into your father's possession was not a coincidence.”
Miss de Grey bit back a sob, and her brother moved swiftly to comfort her.
“Well!” the duke said heavily. “The rat!”
“Indeed”, Sherlock said. “Doubtless he will have some time in a prison cell to consider the foolishness of his actions. The doctor and I must, regretfully, leave for London soon, but I would be grateful if, your men having safely unpacked the charter, we could both see the original document that has caused all this?”
“Of course”, the duke said. “Ælfric, kindly take Edwina to her room, please.”
The younger de Grey led his sister away, pausing only to look curiously back at Sherlock. I wondered why.
Fortunately we had at least an hour to examine the charter before we had to leave to make the last train to connect at Kingham Junction for London. It was virtually incomprehensible, I thought, not helped by the fact that in those far-off days they had for some reason written legal matters in short form. Sherlock, of course, could read it without looking at the modern translation. Show-off!
We had been there some little time when the door opened, and young Ælfric de Grey entered.
“I thought that I had better come”, he said, looking shame-faced for some reason.
“It is well that you did”, Sherlock said, quite sharply I thought. “Your behaviour has been shameful, sir.”
“But necessary”, the young man insisted.
“What is going on?” I asked, puzzled. Sherlock turned to me.
“There was rather more to Mr. Callow that met the eye”, he explained. “Mr. Ælfric suspected that his attentions towards his sister may have been opportune. He did not initially suspect theft as the eventual aim, until he did some research and discovered that as well as Mr. Callow, there was also a Mrs. Callow.”
“What?” I exclaimed, turning to the young man. “Why did you not say?”
“Can you imagine my sister's embarrassment?” the young man muttered, flushing bright red. “To be wooed by a married man, and then dumped? I only found out the other week, which was when I worked out what his real game must be.”
“Since he could obviously not marry Miss Edwina legally, his target was more likely theft”, Sherlock agreed. “Mr. Ælfric laid his plans. He had an almost perfect second copy of the charter made, and found an opportunity to effect a substitution. It was just days before he knew that his prey was paying a visit, and Mr Callow had no reason to check what he thought was the real charter when taking it.”
“Wait a minute”, I said, spotting something. “That means that the man has been falsely arrested!”
“True”, Sherlock said, “but you are forgetting that any time he serves in jail will be more than deserved, bearing in mind his intentions and the foul way that he used poor Miss Edwina de Grey.”
I could not but agree.
“You said that the copy was almost perfect”, Ælfric de Grey put in. “What is wrong with it?”
“I happen to know the forger whom you used for the copy”, Sherlock smiled. “He told me the secrets of his trade, after I had once helped save him from a matter that could have ended for him at the gallows. When he gave you the copy, he told you that he had placed a certain mark in a certain letter in the document which, whilst to the untrained eye might look like an ink-blot caused by a careless monk transcribing the original, shows itself under close examination to be something else. He always places those on any copy he does so that the owner, at least, can be assured which is which.”
Of course, I thought. Archie Stamford, who Sherlock had saved from his devious daughter.
Mr. Callow served four years for a theft that he never committed, and when finished had the belated good manners to remove himself from English soil. Ten years later and the year before war broke out, Ælfric de Grey, then married to Lord Winchcombe's daughter and with three sons, was badly injured in a road traffic accident that claimed the life of his father. His elder brother Edgar became the next duke, but did not live long to enjoy his title, enlisting in that war and dying in the trenches before the year was out. Duke Ælfric duly inherited, and soon emulated his late father as a prominent speaker in the House of Lords. His sister never married, and still lives on the estate. The Dowager Duchess Deirdre passed shortly after her one hundredth birthday, so has probably finished setting Heaven to rights. If she is not actually running it by now!
Seventeen months to go.
From one lost county to another, our next adventure takes us to my native Border lands, and a former tenant of Baker Street who shows a side that I had not even begun to suspect.