When I left Afghanistan, I thought I had had enough blazing skies to last me a lifetime and that the cool, grey clouds of London were the balm I needed for my blistered soul. I had been wrong.
I smacked the book in my lap shut, let my head fall onto the back of my chair and closed my eyes.
Rain had obscured the view from the train as we travelled west from Paddington to the Cotswolds. It had drummed above us as the wheels churned below and with Holmes deep in thought on the seat opposite me, I had let the sway and rhythm of our conveyance lull me to sleep. With a firm thump to my thigh, Holmes had called me forth from my slumbers at our destination, apparently in a different land, for the sun had poured down on us from a sky as blue as a butterfly’s wing. We had deposited our cases at the most convenient inn, and set out immediately to investigate the environs of our new client’s misfortune.
It had been a gleam that had caught Holmes’ eye. He had plunged down the embankment that bordered the lane and peered into the butterbur by the edge of the stream at its bottom. After a less precipitous descent, I had joined him. He had held up the dagger and grinned at me, pushing away the hair that had fallen into his eyes and smearing muck across his face in the process. The steel blade had glittered in the sunlight as he turned it to read the inscription around the ornate hilt.
“Best not to commit crimes with family heirlooms,” he had observed.
I had moistened my handkerchief in the stream and, supporting his chin with one hand, wiped the grime from his cheek. His eyelids had lowered and the nature of his smile had changed. I had touched the corner of it with a fingertip.
With a sigh, I settled more comfortably in my armchair and gave my memory free rein.
Evidence secured, we had adjourned to our rooms on the top floor of the picturesque inn’s tower. There we had carefully stowed it away, and awaited the darkness needed for our next foray. The westering sun had poured through the semi-circle of windows overlooking naught but the greens and golds of fields and treetops as I had divested Holmes of his muddy garments and checked for any injuries that might require my attention.
He had stood still for me, bright in the sunlight, cool skin flushing with returning heat beneath my fingers as I had gone on. It had been he that had sighed then as I stroked and probed; he that had gestured towards the bed as my examination descended down the backs of his thighs. Thorns had lightly scored the skin there, worse having been avoided only by the sturdiness of his trousers, since he had given no care for brambles once a possible clue had been spied.
As he had arranged himself upon the pillows with that grace that pervades everything he does, I had shed jacket, waistcoat, collar and cravat with military efficiency, my motions unaided by sight, so unwilling was I to forfeit a moment watching him. The garments had fallen where they would and I had left those remaining on my person half undone because he had turned his gaze towards me and blinked slowly against the sunlight.
Even in my distracted state, I had snatched my medical kit from the floor and once upon the bed with him had raised each leg in turn and dabbed an antiseptic of Holmes’ own concoction on every scratch. Oh, how close some had come to dealing him a truly uncomfortable injury. I had bent down and pressed my lips to those, the tincture tingling on my lips, and by the time I had finished, my respiration had been too rapid to be described as sighing. Holmes had smiled as I capped the disinfectant and set it aside, his fingers uncurling on the sun-warmed covers like blossoms. I had kissed the juncture of each finger and when his legs had eased further apart, I had kissed there, too, the sun hot upon my back.
Wind rattled the sitting room windows in their frames. I opened one eye and squinted at them. It was unreasonable to be so irked by the weather, an overcast day in London at any season was no rare thing, but Holmes was not the only resident of 221B Baker Street to have moods. I took a deep breath and set my book on the side table. I surveyed the landscape of our sitting room, leeched of colour in the watery light. Several new items that Holmes had brought back from our sunlit adventure were strewn about, a couple still boxed. He was ensconced at his chemistry table, examining the contents of the smallest parcel, apparently suffering none of the usual symptoms of ennui that so often dogged the heels of a recently completed case. Beyond him, raindrops trickled down the windowpanes.
The only colour to be found was the scarlet of Holmes’ dressing gown, and I fell to observing the shift of the silk across his shoulders as he made minute adjustments to his microscope. Now and then, he turned to take another sample of soil from the open packet on the table and I would gain a glimpse of his profile, the lofty curve of his brow and the flutter of his fingers as he brushed back an errant curl from it. He had not pomaded his hair into submission upon waking. The corners of my lips lifted.
I liked his hair untamed, a preference of which Holmes was aware. Although today, it did not seem to be a summons to run my fingers through it and massage his scalp in a manner that results in an almost boneless relaxation of his wiry frame. He has complimented me on this skilful adaptation of my medical knowledge. I have not told him I learnt it of a barber in Kandahar. Alas, I concluded that his dishabille meant no more than that he planned to spend the day in scientific pursuits at home and that he was oblivious to what I might be dreaming of doing.
His methods might be familiar to me, but I have not perfected their use.
I smoothed the nap of the upholstery on the arms of my chair. I should have been grateful to take my ease after the two weeks of vigorous investigation from which Holmes and I had returned only the previous day. The case that had taken us to the Cotswolds had involved more than a goodly share of traipsing up and down the countryside as well as some nocturnal and clandestine explorations of certain interiors belonging to the key suspects. Our prompt discovery of the murder weapon had not narrowed the field as much as I had thought it would, the family having several extant branches, each as fruitful as the others, together with households replete with staff and landholdings well-populated with tenants, any of whom could have borne a grudge, real or imagined, against the deceased. Unfortunately, their intricate tale, which had had me on tenterhooks the whole time Holmes was unravelling the tangled skein of clues and eliminating the numerous contenders one by one, was of that type that may never be shared with the public, even at a distant date and thoroughly disguised, and so there had been no point in working on its notes, already recorded in cursory fashion, and I had simply filed them away.
At least my curiosity had been satisfied and I had revelled in watching Holmes scintillate as he identified one false trail after another until only a single clear path to the truth had remained. There had been amazement expressed, freely by some and grudgingly by others of the various scions of the house, to the extent that I had found myself standing so close to Holmes during such exchanges that those among his new admirers who might have essayed to demonstrate how impressed they were by more than words of praise or an increase in the fee proffered, were effectively deterred, as were the perpetrators of the vicious misdeeds from expressing their consternation at having been caught out.
Holmes had glanced over his shoulder at me as one such fellow had dropped his extended hand to his side and taken a few steps in retreat. I had not been able to read Holmes’ expression then or puzzle it out since.
Silently, I vowed to refrain from such displays. Holmes could take care of himself as well as any man I knew and I had no evidence that he intended the privileges he had granted me to be exclusive. I had pondered the matter on the train ride back to London as it had begun to rain.
What remained to me on this dreary day subsequent to our return was a longing for the warm light that had blessed our excursion and lit Holmes’ skin in our tower. I opened my eyes to the grey, weeping skies over Marylebone. I missed the sun.
“Why don’t you see if the post has brought us anything of interest, John?”
I drew in a breath and sat up straighter in my chair. Holmes had not turned when he spoke nor changed his posture in any manner I could detect. In every way, he seemed as engrossed by his experiment as he had been since breakfast and yet the deep tone of his voice as he pronounced my given name seemed an invitation to activities of a less than scientific nature, activities in which I yearned to engage once more.
Yet I could not be certain that such had been his intent and I was loath to misconstrue. So new was this aspect of our life that no routine had been established, no glossary of terms defined, no signs or signals agreed upon and although I have never considered myself a boorish lover, nor encountered any indication that my former partners had ever thought of me thus, I feared with Holmes that I could misstep and cause a door so recently opened, to be shut and barred.
I gripped the arms of the chair, the sound of my name echoing in my head.
He had whispered it again and again as my exertions had moved his body beneath me.
Holmes was speaking again. I shook my head to clear it of visions.
“I believe I heard someone pausing at our door,” he added.
I focussed on his words. It was past the time for the morning post and well before the afternoon delivery was due, but Holmes could hear things almost no one else could. Perhaps there would be a knock on the door presently.
I stood. A bit of exercise on the stairs might be what I needed to jostle my thoughts into a less libidinous path.
I saw the black border from the stairs. A funeral invitation. My pace slackened and yet I reached my destination soon enough.
The envelope was thick. When I picked it up from the floor, even with my less specialised knowledge, I could tell the stationery was fine, more cloth than paper. The flap was sealed with black wax, imprinted with a bird. Upon turning it over, I saw that it was addressed to both Holmes and me.
I mounted the stairs slowly. Holmes had little in the way of family and I had none. A former colleague of mine would not be likely to include Holmes in the address, an old acquaintance of Holmes’ would not be likely to include me. A member of staff at Bart’s or a member of the Force might well do so, but they would be unlikely to use such stationery.
It would be a short-lived mystery in any event.
Holmes did not acknowledge my return, intent on some minute measurement of a fluid he was dropping into a simmering beaker.
I stood by the corner of his work table and waited.
He adjusted the flame beneath the glass and turned to me. His eyes flickered from my face to the envelope in my hands and back again. He held up his stained fingers. “If you would be so good as to open it and read it out to me, John,” he said, “I can keep my eye on this.” He pointed at the burner. “It needs watching.” With that, he turned back towards the table, but there had been in his glance something I could not identify. Holmes likes to charge his words with more than one meaning. The efficiency appeals to him.
All of it had its effect on me. I put out my hand to steady myself against the table. He knows he can do this to me.
“Yes, very well,” I said after a brief pause to assure the steadiness of my voice. I took the knife lying next to the parcel and slit the envelope open.
“Sit close,” he added, his voice descending.
There are things he can do with his voice that I attribute to his musical training. Vibrating like a plucked string, I drew out a chair, sat myself at his table and separated the contents of the envelope.
I read the note beseeching our aid in a matter that the writer did not wish to commit to paper, but hoped to describe to us in person if we would agree to grant him audience that very afternoon and accompany him thereafter to a funeral service at Westminster Abbey at five o’clock and a meeting at a solicitor’s office immediately following. He begged that we excuse the short notice of his request and his forwardness in enclosing a narrative which he had prepared to explain some of his circumstances. The missive was signed with a wavering flourish: Edgar Iorwerth Corvus, Esq.
“Thus the stamp on the seal,” Holmes said, spooning several grains of soil into a vial.
“Do you know the Corvus family?” I asked.
Holmes shook his head, which was a strong indication that they were not from London.
“Shall I?” I asked, picking up the folded papers that had been enclosed with the letter.
Holmes nodded as he filled a pipette with the heated liquid from the beaker.
I smoothed out the numerous, fine papers and began:
DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.
Holmes held up a hand. “If we had any doubt as to the style of address of our prospective client after hearing his letter, it has been sufficiently corroborated now.”
I raised my eyebrows and inclined my head in agreement.
“Kindly peruse the rest silently until you come to a passage that you think relevant for me to hear prior to meeting our new client,” Holmes said.
“You have already decided to take his case on?” I exclaimed, wondering silently whether the mention of opium use had struck a chord of sympathy in Holmes.
“You have not heard of the House of Usher,” Holmes stated, lowering the flame as the beaker’s liquid began to bubble. “Their seat is in Usher Fell in the Lake District; if I had not known, the description would have informed me. They have a manor house in the City, adjoining the Roman Wall, north of the Tower, one that did not burn in the Great Fire. The funeral service will be in their crypt in the oldest part of the abbey where the pre-Norman foundations of the former monastery have endured.”
“How can you know all this?” I asked, despite being aware of how eclectic his knowledge was and how deep it could go in any area that pertained to his Work. I simply could not see the connections sometimes and worried about my ability to fulfil his charge to select the relevant passages in the florid text in my hand.
“A smuggling case took me deep beneath the abbey years ago where I saw the family crypt,” Holmes explained, “and the Ushers have made significant, if esoteric, contributions to the field of music composition and theory through the generations. I’ll play one of them for you sometime.” He put a stopper in the phial and shook it. “Although perhaps on a sunny day to counteract its mood, the airs tend towards the melancholy.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. Melancholic music might not be my preference, but listening to Holmes play any piece was something I considered a privilege. “Long trek down to London to bury their dead.”
“Those that died at home were no doubt interred there, but as members of the family sometimes succumbed while fulfilling duties or pursuing interests in London, and, as you remark, the journey home would have been a long one, they also had a crypt here and kept a record in stone in that place of those that had died elsewhere,” Holmes added.
His interest kindled mine and I returned to the pages of ornate script eager to find information that would fuel it further and shortly I read out the following:
…in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country—a letter from him—which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said—it was the apparent heart that went with his request—which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very singular summons.
“The mention of medical symptoms has engaged you,” Holmes commented when I paused.
I nodded and continued on:
Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science.
“Ah,” I murmured.
I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain.
“Someone claiming to be a long-lost relative appearing on the scene?” I wondered aloud.
“Best not to get ahead of the data,” Holmes cautioned.
A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master.
“Ah,” I murmured again, but did not say aloud that I felt the first suspect had entered upon the stage. I read quietly on.
On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on.
“Oho,” I said.
“Offended?” Holmes enquired with an arched brow.
“Not at all,” I protested. “A physician has so much knowledge that can be put to ill use.”
Holmes smiled. “Carry on,” he said as he took the heated beaker off the flame with a pair of long, metal tongs.
And so I went on, quietly reading and giving the words voice by turn. Whether I was choosing the most salient lines, I could not be sure because I found myself drawn into the narrative much more than I had thought I would be. I read out the parts about Roderick’s sister, who was as ill and wasted as Roderick himself, the extraordinary circumstances of her apparent demise and subsequent revival and the effect of those events on Roderick and the narrator. I had glanced at Holmes at that point, but he had not turned to catch my eye when I had paused and finally I had read out:
…I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
I put the papers down in my lap and scowled. “Could a storm do that to a stone building?” I asked, “even one in disrepair?” I patted the papers on my knee. “Do you think someone helped things along with a well-placed explosive?”
Holmes swabbed some residue from the bottom of the test tube and smeared it onto a glass slide. “Send Billy round to the post office with a telegram message granting Mr Corvus his interview, then lock the door when you come back. I’m nearly done here.”
“That is what you’ve been thinking about since breakfast, isn’t it, John?”
“Do we have time?” I stammered.
“I think we can manage,” Holmes said, centring the slide on the landing stage of his microscope.
I was out in the hall by the time he had finished his sentence.
The voice of a driver calling his horses to a stop rose from the street.
I checked my cravat in the mirror over the mantel, touched a fingertip to the perfectly knotted silk. I smiled at myself, the feeling of Holmes leaning round me to tie it was still fresh. My inclination to protest that I had been tying my own cravats for many years had died on my lips as his knuckles had brushed against the underside of my jaw while he worked, pale fingers vivid against the dark cloth. He did tie a better knot than I. I stood up straighter, drew my shoulders back. My colour was a bit high, but nothing that a man might not acquire from too much wine with his luncheon. I glanced about the room once more. All evidence of our indulgence had been tidied away. We were ready for Mr Edgar Iorwerth Corvus.
“Have a look at the carriage, Watson.”
I joined Holmes at the window.
The coal black horses pranced, too high-spirited for a harness, they looked as though they should be rounding the turn of a race course, far ahead of the field. The driver, decked in solemn livery, sought to quiet them with quieter words than he had used to bring them to a halt. The carriage matched its steeds, its brass fittings and the varnish of its wood shining in the few weak rays of the sun that had succeeded in piercing the overhanging clouds. It was a conveyance from an earlier day, preserved as though in amber.
I glanced at Holmes and he returned the look, raising a brow as he resumed his scrutiny of the scene below.
The carriage door opened.
It would not have surprised me to see a patent leather slipper and a stockinged shin appear atop the step. Instead, a black-booted and trousered leg was our first glimpse of our visitor. The rest of his person emerged in a graceful motion, clothed in contemporary fashion, his colours ebon. He paused a moment on the pavement, then straightened his waistcoat and strode to our door.
We heard Billy answering and leading our guest up the stairs. We moved to the centre of the room and turned only when Billy knocked on the open door and announced Mr Corvus.
Between the lace of the curtain, the hazy light of the day and the brim of our visitor’s hat, I had not had a clear view of his countenance from the window. In our doorway, however, he was like a framed portrait of some noble scion weighed down too soon by sorrow. The colour was drained from his face, which only heightened the beauty of its lines and threw his large, dark eyes into startling contrast. He looked from me to Holmes and parted his lips to speak. Judging from the formality of his dress, that bore every token of mourning I had ever encountered and a couple that I had not, I expected him to address us with equal formality. He surprised me.
“Please, help,” he said and a shudder ran through his frame.
“Come inside,” Holmes said, already at Corvus’ side, a hand beneath his elbow. He led him to the chair upon which every new-comer must sit. “Watson, a fortifying glass for our guest.”
“No, thank you. I should not,” Corvus replied, taking off his hat with that same fluidity of motion I had observed from the window.
Holmes relieved him of the hat and set it on the side table by his own chair. “Tea, then,” Holmes said, “as your correspondence suggests that what you have to add to the written portion of your tale may take a while to relate.”
I moved to the door and pulled the bell. Mrs Hudson, from long practice, would understand from it what we required. I lingered there, regarding Corvus as he looked up at Holmes as a man overboard might gaze upon a face peering down at him from the safety of the deck with a coil of rope in his hand.
Patches of hectic colour were appearing on his cheeks and in his lap the fingers of one hand plucked at the bottom edge of his waistcoat, while the thumb and forefinger of his other hand ran along the chain of his watch.
I was looking for signs of excess opium usage, but what I saw chiefly was fear. Holmes’ careful questioning would, no doubt, draw out of what precisely.
I took my seat and Corvus glanced at me as though to beg my pardon for excluding me from his pleading looks.
Holmes settled into his chair.
“You had time to read all that I sent you?” he asked, regarding us both in turn.
My eyes flickered towards Holmes. He is not keen to repeat himself and he had as much as said that we had. Instead of impatience, however, I saw that Holmes was profoundly still. It was for me, then, to begin; Holmes wished to observe.
“We have read all that you sent us,” I replied.
Corvus turned his bright, dark eyes upon me. Their look conveyed his desire that I say more.
It was the author, more than the consulting detective’s assistant in me, that spoke next. “Did you record your thoughts contemporaneously or after events forced you from the house?”
He leaned forward in his seat, his fingers leaving their fidgeting and unfurling near his heart as though to signify that he was opening it to me. “Each night, I wrote,” he said, “especially when I could not sleep.” He inclined his head and slipped one long-fingered hand inside his jacket. “I have a notebook I keep with me,” he explained, drawing out the item. “It was still in my pocket when I dressed so hastily that frightful night.” He held it out to me.
I glanced at Holmes again, but his eyes were fixed on Corvus. I took the journal. It was finely made, the black leather binding embossed with a monogram with a prominent ‘C’.
“Look inside,” he urged. “I have left the ribbon where I wrote my impressions on the first night of my visit. Your telegram marks the end.”
The book was warm in my hand. It felt a trespass to examine such a private thing, even if he had given us what I surmised must be an extract. The pages marked off were far more numerous than could have been transcribed onto the few pages he had sent us.
I tugged on the tip of the ribbon and the notebook fell open. On the left-hand page I skimmed notations about his journey north, on the right, was the paragraph that had opened the preamble we had read, word for word, if my memory served. I turned the pages slowly, scanning the lines. Sometimes he had written in ink, sometimes in pencil, dating his entries on a blank line and writing over corrections or crossing out phrases rather than employing a rubber, even for the pencilled words. Some days’ work was more neatly inscribed than others, but the trend was to a less and less legible scrawl.
“You see why I needed to copy it over before sending it to you,” he said, “but, other than skipping some descriptions of our pastimes and mending a few errors in spelling, I have transcribed my observations exactly as I wrote them there, in the House of Usher.” He drew in an audible breath, his voice dropping when he spoke again. “Several times I nearly abandoned it. When I would re-read the previous day’s entry, my words seemed fantastical even to my own eyes, but words were all I had to capture, to preserve, what I saw and heard and…felt, so that I might try to understand…”
His fingers had returned to their fidgeting, twisting the black medallion dangling from the end of his watch chain back and forth. I could see that the gold and black band he wore on his left ring finger had writing upon it, but I could not see more than a capital ‘R’ from where I sat.
Holmes finally bestirred himself and stretched out his hand. I handed over the notebook. He would, no doubt, read more from the smudges and ink blots than from the words on the pages.
There were steps upon the stairs and a moment later, Mrs Hudson arrived with the tea tray. Billy trailed behind with a stack of snowy serviettes with which he covered the tables next to our chairs before placing a folded linen on each.
I thought Holmes might dismiss them with a suggestion that I would serve, but he allowed Mrs Hudson to take her time preparing our cups and dividing up the platter of cakes for Billy to distribute round the room. She left with a sympathetic smile for our guest before closing the door quietly after her.
“Please,” Holmes said, with an open gesture of his hand towards the refreshments at Mr Corvus’ side.
Corvus lifted his cup and took a sip.
I thought to encourage him to continue by doing the same. My stratagem worked.
He drank more deeply and sighed as he returned the cup to its saucer soundlessly. “Thank you,” Corvus said, his shoulders falling slightly. The interlude appeared to have put him more at ease.
Holmes returned the notebook to him. “I have read your most recent entries. Dr Watson and I agree to accompany you to the funeral service at the abbey this afternoon and thereafter to the solicitor’s office. Is it the family physician that you fear encountering at one or the other of those gatherings?”
The tea cup rattled against the saucer in Corvus’ hand. He set it aside and reached again into his jacket, this time taking out an envelope.
“This was the letter waiting for me when I reached London,” Corvus said, holding the letter out and looking at Holmes.
He gestured at me and Corvus handed me the envelope.
“If you would read it aloud, Dr Watson,” he said to me. “Pray, finish your tea, Mr Corvus, it will be best to face the coming hours fortified.”
Corvus did as bid and I shook the pages from the envelope and commenced to read them aloud, starting with the heading of the firm of solicitors, as I know all such details have meaning for Holmes.
“We shall not have to worry about locating the chambers of Mr Braithewaite, since he will be joining us at the abbey to pay his respects. The Dr Adamantine who is allotted the modest bequest in Roderick’s will is the family physician you saw at Usher?” Holmes said when I finished reading.
Corvus nodded. “How do you know he will be attending the service?” Corvus asked, his wide eyes fixed on Holmes.
“Basic courtesy would require it as he is in London, which Mr Braithewaite has told you,” Holmes said, “now, Dr Adamantine travelling all the way from Usher to attend goes beyond that. You have an idea why he came such a distance and if you wish us to help you, you must share with us everything you know and anything you suspect. There is no need to stand on propriety with us, indeed you must not let it interfere with your giving us any scrap of information you have. What detail might unlock the mystery that has brought you here may not be obvious at this stage, so include everything. This room has heard more than its fair share of secrets.”
Corvus stole a quick glance at me.
“Dr Watson’s stories are altered to protect those involved and those that cannot be thus disguised are left untold. Do not let that concern you,” Holmes added.
Corvus looked down at his lap wherein his hands were clasped so tightly the knuckles had gone white.
“I never doubted your discretion. You have been recommended to me in the highest terms,” he said.
Holmes rested his hands on the arms of his chair. “It is a matter of honour,” he said.
Corvus looked up, shoulders hunched, lips pressed tightly together.
“Rest assured, Mr Corvus, that if it is legally possible to do so, we will protect the lady’s honour and yours as well,” Holmes said.
Corvus covered his face for a moment then rubbed his hands down to his chin and addressed Holmes. “I was told you would know my purpose after a glance at me.” He almost smiled. “I had hoped it might spare me having to explain.”
Holmes stretched out his hand. “The other papers you have for us,” he said.
Corvus drew forth an envelope much thicker than the one I had in my lap. “It is a carbon copy of the will that Mr Braithewaite thinks I will be seeing for the first time this afternoon,” he said, passing the papers to Holmes. “The signatures on it are original, however. Roderick emphasised that when he entrusted it to me shortly after I arrived at Usher and made me promise to keep it upon my person even whilst I slept. It was an eccentric request, but he had grown increasingly distressed until I had vowed to do as he asked.”
Holmes studied the signatures at the end of the document and passed the papers to me.
“Roderick had requested Mr Braithewaite bring along two of his clerks to act as witnesses when he made the journey to Usher not long before I did. Roderick had not wished to use any of his staff in that capacity. He had me read the will in front of him, but would not answer my questions about the paragraphs at the bottom of the second page. He said he was covering all contingencies upon the advice of his solicitor,” Corvus explained.
“If you could read those to me, Dr Watson,” Holmes said and settled back in his chair with his eyes closed.
In the event that at the time of my death any Child of my body shall be unmarried and shall not have attained the age of twenty-one years, then and in that event, I name, constitute and appoint my only sister, Madeline Anabel Lenore Usher, as Guardian of the Person of said Child or Children with all the powers, rights, duties, privileges and liabilities of a Guardian under the Laws of England and Wales.
In the event that at the time of my death any Ward for whom I have the power to appoint a Successor Guardian shall not have attained the age of twenty-one years, then and in that event, I name, constitute and appoint my only sister, Madeline Anabel Lenore Usher, as Successor Guardian of the Person of said Ward or Wards, with all the powers, duties, privileges and liabilities of a Guardian under the Laws of England and Wales.
In the event that Madeline Anabel Lenore Usher should not survive me, or if she shall die before or after qualifying as Guardian, or if she shall fail, neglect, refuse to serve, or be unable to serve or continue to serve, or shall resign as such Guardian, I name, nominate and appoint my friend, Edgar Iorwerth Corvus of Iorwerth Manor to be Successor Guardian…
I drew a breath to continue and Holmes raised a finger.
“Did you press him as to the identity of these minors?” Holmes asked.
“I did,” Corvus replied. “Despite the delicacy of posing such questions, I persevered. Considering the condition in which I found my friend and from what I understood of his sister’s health, I felt those duties might fall to me far sooner than I would wish, and therefore, I would need to know particulars.”
After this rush of words, he fell silent.
“And what did you learn?” Holmes prompted.
Corvus shook his head. “Nothing,” he sighed. “He just repeated his reply about standard phrasing that the lawyer had insisted be included to provide for any future offspring or future appointments as a guardian.”
Holmes took a sip of tea.
I was impressed at his forbearance, but Holmes has an instinct for when to press and when to give people time.
“But you have a theory about this,” Holmes said.
Corvus looked up at Holmes.
“A feeling,” Holmes amended.
“Yes!” Corvus exclaimed as if Holmes having said the word had unlocked something in him. “Yes, that is what I have. A feeling that Roderick wanted to tell me more, but could never bring himself to do it.” Corvus took a deep breath. “And then that night happened…” Corvus gestured at the pages of his manuscript that were on my side table. “…and the chance was gone.”
“I think it may have been his child,” Roderick whispered, “and he was protecting it.”
“But surely he could have confided such a secret in you, his oldest friend,” I interjected. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a hint of a smile on Holmes’ face.
Corvus had turned to me when I spoke. He held his hands out, palm up. “Maybe with more time, without his sister also being so ill, he would have. I don’t know. Perhaps his father had had a natural child, a much younger sibling for whom Roderick was responsible. He rarely spoke of his family. He had visited mine during some of the shorter school holidays, but I had never been invited to met his. Although I thought his father died one summer while we were at school, I have no recollection of him having told me that or of his appearing to grieve. Maybe I heard of it from our schoolmates somehow.”
“These are delicate situations, assuredly,” I said, “but they happen. People have pasts. If there was a responsibility he wished you to discharge in his stead, he needed to let you know how to go about it.”
Corvus pressed his lips together before he spoke. “What if it wasn’t Roderick or his father who would have been implicated in such a disclosure?”
It was my turn to hang fire while Corvus worked up the courage to speak his mind. “What if it was someone else’s honour that he felt bound to defend…or…what if his secrecy was connected with his theory about the stones and the fungi, their sentience, their influence? What if he didn’t want them to know?” Corvus covered his eyes, his chest rising and falling erratically. “You read…how it was with him.” Finally, he looked towards Holmes again. “This is why I have come to you. If anyone can help me, it will be you.” He turned to me. “Then we won’t have to guess, we will know.”
Holmes stood. “If it can be known, Mr Corvus. With the house gone, the bodies gone, the personal papers gone, we will not have much to go on.”
Corvus stood as well. “I am staying at their house in London, Lower Bramerley Manor. Roderick mentioned annual sojourns in the City when we were at school. More recently, I understand only Madeline came, although it has been nearly a year since her last visit. Whatever might be of use to you there is at your disposal.” He paused. “I am told there are also a number of buildings left on the Usher estate, a dower house, stables, cottages and lodges for certain staff and the farmhouses of various tenants. I did not see them when I was there. Roderick and I did not go out. I am informed that the dower house is comfortable, if you think a visit to Usher would assist your enquiries.”
“We will see what London yields first,” Holmes said.
“Was everyone able to evacuate the house that night?” I asked.
“The consensus in the village the next morning was that everyone was accounted for,” Corvus replied. “I left before noon to catch a train to London. I did not go back. I…I couldn’t do it…then. When I arrived in London that letter was waiting at my club. The rest you know.”
Holmes had moved to the door. He pulled the bell. When Billy came bounding up the stairs, he was sent to fetch a cab.
“I was hoping you would come with me,” Corvus said upon hearing Billy’s instructions.
“We will be right behind, if you would be so kind as to wait until our cab has arrived,” Holmes said. “There are certain observations I can better make from an external vantage point and there is a stop we need to make along the way.”
“Oh. I see,” Corvus said, wilting.
It was fairly clear that he did not. I, however, surmised that Holmes thought Corvus might be being followed or the victim of some form of assault en route. I decided then that I would take my pistol with me.
The front door banged and Billy dashed up the stairs. “Your hansom is at the kerb,” he said, puffing a bit between words.
Holmes consulted his pocket watch. “Excellent time,” he said and Billy beamed.
Holmes and I exchanged a glance.
“I will walk you out,” Holmes said to Corvus.
For an instant, I thought Holmes would take his arm, but, with the briefest look at me, he extended a hand towards the stairs and they descended.
I turned in the opposite direction, taking the stairs to my room at full speed. As I passed my glass, I saw the frown on my face. While I checked my pistol with the speed long practise allows, I realised that both my haste and my glower were not from concern for our client, but concern about him. His eye was as “large, liquid, and luminous” as he had described Roderick Usher’s as having been and his lips also had a “surpassingly beautiful curve” to use Corvus’ own words again. Their shape could not aspire to the beauty of Holmes’ mouth, fair few lips could, I thought, tucking the pistol into my coat. Unbidden, the image of the two forms pressed together rose before my inward eye. I turned and ran down the stairs.
Holmes’ gaze swept over me when I reached the pavement.
He said not a word, but signalled to Corvus’ driver, who pulled away from the kerb at his sign, then Holmes turned to usher me into the open door of the waiting hansom. Before climbing in after me, he spoke to the cabbie. The clop and clatter of the afternoon traffic kept me from distinguishing his meaning.
It was not until we had made a turn that took us from the road Corvus’ carriage was following that Holmes uttered a syllable. “John,” he said, his eyes shifting from the view out the cab window to my face.
I felt the flush that had bloomed beneath his scrutiny on the footpath reassert itself.
He rested his hand upon my knee and tilted his head as he studied me.
I was an interesting specimen. My flush grew hotter.
His fingers tightened. “Despite my very recent demonstrations of affection?”
“He is a fair fellow,” I blurted out. “Gazing at you, with his gazelle eyes, as though you were the morning sun.”
I snapped my mouth closed.
“He is deep in mourning for his friend, and needs our help to fulfil his last promises to him,” Holmes reminded me. “I know you can sympathise with that.”
There it was. I opened my mouth and closed it again. I had succumbed to the same combination of beauty and bereavement, although Mary had not been helpless in the aftermath of her father’s death nor so stricken by it as Corvus clearly was by the loss of his…
“…companion of earlier days, whose summons, despite their years apart, brought Corvus galloping to the desolate reaches of the Peewits,” Holmes said, carrying on from my thought in that prescient way of his.
“I would have come to you, wherever you were,” I said, my whisper more intense than a shout. “However arduous the journey. I would have come, because with you was where I most wanted to be.”
The dam had given way.
Despite the closer bond we had forged since Sherlock…yes, yes, that is the name I whisper in the dark and cannot say in the light without thinking on it…since Sherlock had returned to me, I had never complained of my hurt at his having left me to grieve for years…and he…had never told me how my marriage had made him believe I would not care overmuch whether he was dead or not.
“You didn’t know that then,” he said.
I put my hand over his and blew out a long, long, breath. “I cannot see myself, much less observe,” I said.
“You’re better at it now,” Sherlock said.
I shook my head and huffed. “Not nearly better enough,” I said.
He lifted his hand, taking mine with it, his fingers slipping down to my wrist. He pressed his lips to my knuckles. “You speak more clearly with these sometimes…or with your gun.”
He was correct, as he so often is.
He looked at me over my hand. “You brought it?”
“I did,” I said.
The hansom pulled up in front of the Dean’s Yard. “Ready to help grieving Corvus now?” he asked, flinging the door open, seizing a satchel from the floor and alighting on the cobbles.
I clambered after him.
“We will meet you here between half five and six,” he called to the cabbie.
The man touched his cap and drove on.
“Where’d that come from?” I asked, raising my chin towards the case Sherlock carried.
“I had Billy put it in when he fetched the hansom,” he answered, striding towards the east doors of the abbey. “As for the contents, I had him assemble those after he sent the telegram.”
We passed under the archway, the daylight fading behind us. Faint patches of light coloured the floor; in the distance, candles were being lit. A dark-robed figure emerged from the shadows and crossed the nave well ahead of us.
“Dean Bradley,” Sherlock called, his voice pitched very low, but still carrying in the hushed space.
How he could recognise an individual in the dimness, I could only guess: his gait, the outline of his raiment?
The figure halted and changed course towards us, arms already extended before he reached us. “Mr Holmes, what a pleasure to see you again,” he said, clasping one of Sherlock’s hands in both of his. “What brings you to us?”
“The funeral service at five of the clock,” Sherlock replied.
The dean sighed. “The two so close together.” He shook his head. “I did not realise you knew the Ushers.” He looked from Sherlock to me when there was no immediate reply.
“My apologies. Dean Bradley, allow me to introduce my dear friend and colleague, John Watson,” Sherlock said. “Doctor Watson, George Bradley, Dean of Westminster.”
“Oh, I would have recognised Dr Watson anywhere,” Dean Bradley said, shaking my hand. “I am an avid reader of your stories. Glad, however, that ours has not appeared.”
“Yours?” I said, brows rising. I should no longer be surprised; Sherlock has helped people in the most unexpected places.
“You haven’t shared that adventure with your chronicler, I see. Just as well, although I am sure you would be most discreet about it,” Dean Bradley continued. “As I will be about today.”
The connection to the smuggling case Sherlock had mentioned earlier in the day fell into place in a somewhat delayed fashion.
“Thank you,” Sherlock said. “Might I enquire if any of the other invited mourners have preceded us into the crypt?”
Dean Bradley shook his head. “The entryway is closed. Would you like to go down ahead of time?”
“If we could,” Sherlock replied.
“I don’t imagine you’ll mind being shut in until I return with the others for the service?”
“Not at all,” Sherlock answered.
“Where are we exactly?” I asked when Dean Bradley had left us. The vaulted chamber enclosing us was large and suffused with the fragrance of roses and spring flowers. There was no natural light, only the candle flames that flickered over the cold stone that shut us in on every side. I ran my hands along the joins between the blocks, reading the names and dates of Usher after Usher, and those they had married, that were carved into the rock. “They feel old,” I said.
“Ever the romantic,” Sherlock remarked. “Although indeed, this is the oldest part of the abbey. We are in a section of the undercroft between the Chapter House and the Pyx Chamber. More than nine hundred years since these stones were set in place. Could you hold this for me?”
It was a box of pins that Sherlock held out to me. He had put two between his lips and was pinning a very neat corner of black cloth around the edge of one of the plain stone sepulchres that rose from the floor. He used the two he had and stretched out his hand for another.
I passed one to him. “There’s already quite a lot of black crêpe hung about,” I observed, “why more?”
Sherlock lifted the drape and I read the sharp-edged letters in the stone. “So who’s 'Lt. Albert George Simpson, Beloved', married to?” I asked. “That’s usually written underneath.”
“Exactly,” Sherlock said, dropping the cloth and holding out his hand.
I passed him another pin, lifted the fabric again and considered the date. “Only twenty-four,” I calculated aloud. “Twenty-three. He didn’t quite make it to his next birthday.” I had closed the eyes of too many equally young soldiers. “Three years ago…almost exactly.”
I circled round to Sherlock’s other side and found Roderick’s inscription in the process. I raised the crêpe and saw his father’s name and dates above his. “He was fifteen when his father died,” I remarked. “Thirty when he did. His father made it to seventy though. Something of an achievement for their line, it would appear.”
“Pin,” Sherlock said.
I dropped one in his outstretched palm, crouched down to see the carving in front of him. “Madeline was…How is it possible for her to be a day younger than Roderick?” I asked, peering up at Sherlock.
“Twins,” he said, without glancing away from his task. “One born a few minutes before mid-night, the other after.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I thought the stone carver had made an error.”
“I’ve seen those, here and there,” Sherlock said.
I craned my neck to see the writing above her name. “Her mother only died a year ago. Seventy-three.” I stood and dusted off one knee. “She wasn’t young when they were born.”
Sherlock extended his hand.
I gave him a pin before he asked.
“You’re creating a story,” he said. He moved behind me to the corner near Roderick’s inscription.
“I suppose,” I replied. “They’re the barest outlines of a life. They want filling in.”
“With facts,” Sherlock said. “Two, please.”
I smiled at the please, extracted two from the box and stepped closer to hand them over. “Not everyone has the world’s only consulting detective to help them find the facts,” I pointed out and got two more of the jet-tipped pins ready. I glanced back at the side of the monument next to me. “Ooh,” I uttered on a long exhalation. I picked up the cloth and saw more. “Five before Roderick and Madeline, one a year after. Their parents must have been in mourning for most of their marriage.”
“There might be some basis for Corvus’ description of ‘a pestilent and mystic vapor’ about the house,” I added.
“Pestilential, perhaps. Mystical, no,” Sherlock said, moving to the final corner and holding out his hand. “Don’t let the mood of his prose infect you.”
I gave him two more pins. “Now you’re doing it, ‘infect’ instead of ‘influence’.”
He put one pin in his mouth and worked the other deftly through several folds of cloth.
“How did you know there would be something down here you would want to hide?” I asked.
He used the last pin and stood back to survey his handiwork. He had managed to get the cloth to hang straight all the way around. It did not look as though it had been pinned up in a few minutes.
“A careful perusal of those bare outlines often provide a considerable amount of data,” he said, picking up the sprawling bouquet of white lilacs, lilies, roses and hyacinths that he had set aside on the floor and centring it atop the crêpe. “Especially in the aggregate as we have here.” He relocated the satchel next to the door. The bag would be hidden when the door opened.
We were translating some of the engravings on the markers from Latin and Old French, Sherlock handling most of the latter, when the door ground slowly open. The dean entered leading Corvus, two older men and four choristers into the crypt. We turned away from our scholarly pursuits to greet them as though it were the most natural thing in the world to be browsing through the inscriptions in a locked crypt. Sherlock maintained it was the only way to handle being discovered in unexpected places, if there was nowhere to hide and rendering the other people unconscious or dead was not appropriate.
The pinched expression left Corvus’s face when he saw us and he hastened to introduce us to Dean Bradley, who explained that we had already met, Mr Braithewaite and Dr Adamantine. My respect for Corvus’ descriptive powers increased as I shook hands with my fellow physician and could evaluate his demeanour in person. His handshake lasted the minimum courtesy required and his utterance was tight-lipped and equally brief. Corvus had taken the liberty of styling us as friends of his family. Adamantine did not take kindly to this news and the subtle shifting of his features as he regarded us in the unsteady candlelight with his emerald eyes made me feel Corvus’ use of the word sinister far less extravagant than I had thought upon first reading it. Perhaps Adamantine had aspirations to becoming Corvus’ private physician and thought me competition. Either our reputation had not reached him or its effect upon him was the distortion of his rather handsome features with something very close to a sneer.
I concluded that our renown had reached and made a favourable impression on Mr Braithewaite, however, from his enthusiastic handclasp and his rather awestruck gaping at Sherlock. Braithwaite was a man of middle-years, of about my height, although considerably rounder and sparser of hair than I. He emphasised the word pleasure in response to making our acquaintance, but with a meaningful glance at our surroundings indicated that he could not say as much as he would have liked due to the circumstances.
Introductions completed, Dean Bradley gave the choristers a cue and their angel-voiced funeral hymn marked the beginning of the service. The choir lent their chime-like tones to several pieces of liturgical music before singing two songs that Sherlock whispered to me were both composed by Ushers. The final piece the choristers sang was later identified by Corvus as a song Roderick had written for his sister on her twenty-first birthday. I understood what Corvus had meant about the beauty of the melodies being unorthodox, but their mournful airs suited the occasion well. In place of a eulogy, Corvus explained that he would read one of the last poems Roderick Usher had shared with him. It was the one Corvus had transcribed into the narrative he had sent to Sherlock and me. It was with difficulty that Corvus pronounced its last lines.
Final blessings intoned, the service concluded. Sherlock went to Corvus and took his arm. He sagged against Sherlock and I managed to see the spirit in need rather than the beautiful man. “Please bring a sprig of lilac,” he said as the other people filed out the door. “Roderick had a large bouquet of them in his rooms. I don’t know where they grew even when it wasn't winter. I never saw a garden that was more than statuary, yew and ivy from the windows nor any hint of a conservatory." Corvus smiled. "He said the lilac’s fragrance transported him to fairer realms.”
I stepped to the sepulchre, snapped off the freshest stem, with buds still at the tips of the spray, and presented it to Edgar. He closed his eyes as he inhaled and leaned even more heavily against Sherlock.
“A bit of air might help,” I suggested. The mix of candle smoke and the heavy scent of the flowers had become cloying by the end of the service and I was not surprised that he felt faint.
Corvus nodded and Sherlock led him away. I grabbed the satchel from behind the door and followed them out.
The clouds had thinned and though no ray of sunshine was visible, the sky was appreciably brighter than when we had gone inside. Corvus implored us to come with him in his carriage and Holmes agreed, sending me to tell the hansom driver to trail after us and wait at the solicitor’s office.
Corvus was nearly fainted in the corner, his arm still through Sherlock’s, who, perforce, was seated next to him. Braithewaite was seated facing Corvus with Adamantine situated as far away from Braithewaite as he could manage. I took the place next to Sherlock and we set off.
It was a silent journey scented with lilac.
Twice Mr Braithewaite attempted conversation, first, to express his hope that the evening traffic would not impede our progress to his office near St Paul’s and when that garnered no replies, he said he was glad that the rain had held off and hoped that it would continue to do so until we were all safely home. I gave him a nod each time, but as no one else made any sort of response, he turned his genial face towards the river.
Once arrived, Mr Braithewaite had settled Sherlock and I in his waiting room and with apologies to us, had taken only Adamantine and Corvus into his office. Our client had grown even paler than he had been at being separated from us and Sherlock had had to assure him we would be waiting when he was finished. As soon as the office door shut, Sherlock said he would go downstairs for a word with the hansom driver and I said I hoped Corvus would not call for him until he had returned.
“I am sure you would be able to deal with it,” Sherlock said. “You will be pleased to know that your medical kit is in the bottom of the satchel, complete with a new bottle of sal volatile.” And with that, he was gone.
I was slightly mollified; I had wondered at the satchel’s weight. Even so, the next quarter hour was an anxious one spent listening for a thump upon the floor signalling Corvus’ collapse. Fortunately my kit was not called into service, for when Dr Braithewaite next opened the door, Sherlock had resumed his seat by my side and Dr Adamantine was able to glower at both of us as he departed.
“He shall be a permanent fixture at Usher now,” Corvus said when we joined him.
“Adamantine?” I hazarded to guess.
“Yes. The probate of Mrs Usher’s will was concluded shortly before Roderick…” Corvus took a deep breath. “It did not please Roderick that Dr Adamantine would be at Usher regardless of anyone’s health. His mother had granted the doctor a life estate in a hunting lodge on their land, and as executor it was Roderick’s duty to carry out her wishes, and he did. Carry them out. But it troubled him.”
There was a lull in our conversation after this. I thought Sherlock might make some enquiries on the point, but he did not. I took it as a cue for me to speak whilst his attention was elsewhere.
“He did not look like a man who had just come into property,” I remarked.
“And a £1000 a year,” Corvus added.
“Perhaps he has other worries,” I said.
“Perhaps,” Corvus agreed. “He was not pleased to learn that it would be some time before Roderick’s and Madeline’s wills could be probated, and he could receive the items of jewellery that they had left to him.”
“I doubt the amount of time surprised him,” Sherlock said. “He’s had to wait a year for their mother’s bequest.”
“Roderick thought he might be disappointed not to be named successor executor in his Will, if Madeline should die before him,” Corvus explained. “I think that is why he insisted on my keeping the signed copy with me.” At that, his head drooped upon his breast.
“Ah,” said Mr Braithewaite, “so you already know the full terms of the Will.”
Corvus did not answer.
“Perhaps it would be best to be certain that they are identical,” Sherlock said.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Mr Braithewaite said, not appearing the least offended. He turned to Corvus. “Shall I proceed?”
Corvus looked up from his reverie and stared at Braithewaite’s expectant face. “Yes,” he said with a start, as though the words were just then reaching his brain. “Yes,” he repeated and sat up straighter. “Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson are going to help me fulfil Roderick’s wishes; they must hear everything you have to say to me.”
“How is he?” Sherlock asked when I returned to the study where he was surrounded by papers.
“I mixed him a mild dose of laudanum,” I sighed, “and sat with him until it took effect.” Sherlock knew the reservations I had about excessive recourse to the drug and the opinion I had already formed of Corvus’ use of it for more than medicinal purposes. “Plain whiskey was not going to suffice, and he needed the sleep. It’s obvious that he has been getting little of it.”
He stood at that and gathered up a stack of what looked to be receipts. “Some of our investigations will have to wait for the morning,” he said. “Shall we repair to our room?”
“I’ll be fine here by the fire,” I said, loosening my cravat.
“You won’t be comfortable nor rested in the morning,” Sherlock said, coming to stand close enough to tower over me.
He uses that to make a point sometimes. It is more effective than I care to admit.
“Corvus had his housekeeper prepare a room for us this morning. It seems he planned to keep us with him from the outset. She was kind enough to explain when she came by on her way to light the fire a half hour ago. By now, any chill open windows might have left behind should be thoroughly banished.”
“A bed’s better than a chair, but I shan’t be comfortable,” I complained. The lack of a proper respite after our last case was beginning to make itself known.
“Your nightshirt is in the satchel, along with your razor and toothbrush and fresh linen and hose for the morrow,” Sherlock announced.
“You knew we would be staying,” I said and let him herd me towards the door to the next room.
“Yes,” he said, “and you know I think better when you are nearby.”
“I’m near now,” I protested.
He bent near my ear. “I’ve searched this room. I wanted to search the bedroom, but the housekeeper was dashing in and out. It’s where Madeline Usher stayed when she was in London, with an adjoining door to Roderick’s room. Those have been their bedrooms since they were children.”
“I am convinced,” I said, opening the door.
The room was pleasantly warm and the bed looked very comfortable.
Sherlock smiled. He likes convincing me of things.
“Aha!” Sherlock exclaimed.
I awoke from a dream of sun-drenched linens to a strange, shadowy room. I shook my head and spotted Sherlock seated on the carpet, silhouetted by a candle on the floor beside him. I crawled to the foot of the bed and peered at the glow in which he sat.
He heard me and held up the box from his lap.
By the candle’s light, I could see that the box was bound like a heavy book. Two walls of the room were lined with bookcases. Who knew how long it had taken him to find that particular book, which was a fake. I glanced about but did not see a clock.
“No need for a visit to the General Registry Office,” he whispered. “Look.”
I pulled the coverlet off the bed, gathered it around me and shuffled to his side.
“Sit,” he said. “There are a number of these.”
I sat on the ottoman against which he was leaning and he passed one paper after another over his shoulder to me.
“It was this house that Dr Adamantine hoped to be given, not merely because it is in London, but because he wished to look for these. There was always the chance that they had been at Usher and therefore were no longer a threat to him, but it was equally likely that they were somewhere in the city, in a safety deposit box, with a solicitor or among the papers here. If we had not been with Corvus, Adamantine would have inveigled his way into this house and tried to search,” Sherlock explained.
“Not everyone is as skilful at searching as you are. It might have taken him weeks,” I said, "if he succeeded at all."
“All the more reason why he would have liked to have had control of the house himself, but short of that, he probably hoped he could persuade Corvus that he needed his constant medical attendance,” Sherlock said. “Hence his extreme displeasure when your profession was revealed today.”
“I see,” I said, still less than half awake. “So other than being avaricious, what has he been doing?”
“That first paper I gave you,” he said, “see if you can find any familiar names upon it.”
“I’m too sleepy for this,” I said, but pulled the first document from the bottom of the pages on my lap and squinted at it. “It’s a marriage certificate.”
I tilted it to the light. “Madeline Anabel Lenore Usher and…ah, here is Lt Simpson, but why wasn’t ‘beloved husband’ written on the tomb?”
“I might point out that not every spouse is beloved, even when an elopement or clandestine marriage is involved. Marry in haste and so on,” he said.
“Yes, all right, but how do you know it was a clandestine marriage?” I asked.
“I would have noticed an Usher engagement or wedding announcement,” Sherlock said.
“Maybe they didn’t use a London paper,” I suggested.
“They kept a house in London, have had a crypt in London since before Westminster Abbey was built, of course, they would use a London paper,” he said.
“Also, there is this.” Sherlock held up another paper. “Not conclusive proof, but a letter from Roderick to Madeline dated within a month of the marriage saying ‘Of course, I will keep your confidence, but I fear for what may lie ahead for you both if mother finds out.’”
“Wasn’t mother going to wonder who the interloper in the family crypt was a few years later?” I asked. “Do we have his death certificate, by any chance?”
“We do. It’s the second paper I gave you. He had been seriously injured in an accident aboard ship and sent back to England to recuperate. Shortly before he was due to return to active duty, he contracted smallpox and died here in London, in fact, in the next room, two years before his mother-in-law. She had not been in robust health for several years prior to her death. Roderick mentions how she rarely ventured even into the garden anymore in the same letter from which I just read. It would appear that the annual trips to London were a thing of the past for her well before Simpson’s death, so it being seen by her mother shouldn't have worried Madeline.”
“So that’s how they maintained the fiction for so long. Madeline would come to London when Simpson would be back in England, which was not that often. Wouldn’t the staff here wonder about the bloke that died here?”
“It seems he was presented as a friend of Roderick’s, thus the use of his room,” he said. “There’s a letter here somewhere that refers to what they did one time when Roderick was in London at the same time. He and Simpson shared the room apparently.”
“People here must have known,” I said.
“If they did, it seems they didn’t tell tales. No one was disinherited. No evidence of annulments or divorces, forced or otherwise.”
“So why didn’t Madeline add the inscription below her husband’s name once her mother died?” I asked.
Possibly Madeline was already too ill herself by then to attend to such matters. Has nothing struck you about the symptoms of her malady?” Sherlock asked.
“You know what you always say about theories before facts,” I admonished.
“We shall have facts soon, I think,” he said and held up a locket enclosing a small braid of hair. “This was enclosed with a letter to Lt Simpson from Madeline. He had kept them together and she had had them back when he died. I should be able to test the hair for traces of poison.”
“But she would have given him that years ago,” I said.
“A new lock of hair in a new piece of jewellery for each anniversary,” Sherlock explained. “Watch fob, tie pin, ring...”
“All right,” I said, “so would it have been these locks of hair that Adamantine wanted to get back, assuming he even knew she did this.”
“He is not likely to have known. What I think he would like to have back is this,” Sherlock said, waving another document.
I rested my cheek on the top of his head. “Can this be explained in bed,” I asked. “My mind is awake, but my body isn’t.”
“Yes,” he said, “yes, it can. Tuck yourself back in.”
I dragged myself back to bed and a moment later Sherlock set the candle on the night table and the book box on the bed. He settled cross-legged next to me and pulled something from the box.
“An 1893 diary belonging to Madeline,” Sherlock said, holding up a book with black ribbons dangling from the covers. The entry for 23 April 1893 reads: ‘at half seven this morning, Anabel Alberta Usher Simpson entered this world, six months after my beloved Albert was taken from us both.’ Folded between the pages for 23 and 24 April is a birth certificate for Anabel Alberta Simpson Usher, born on 23 April 1893, daughter of Roderick Arthur Alfred Usher and Alberta Georgiana Simpson, recorded 10 May 1893. Dr Adamantine signed it as a person present at the birth, relationship: attending physician. Tucked into the back of the diary is a telegram from Adamantine to Madeline: ‘Arriving Euston 10 May 1 PM train from Manchester. Please meet with carriage. Must return on evening train, your mother insists.’”
“Had he been in attendance?” I asked.
“No. He was in Usher. There was a mid-wife in attendance. More information from the diary.”
“So the baby was born in London?” I asked.
“Yes, then Adamantine came down from Usher, went with Madeline to register the birth as Roderick’s child with Madeline posing as Roderick’s wife, Alberta Simpson,” Sherlock explained.
“Do we know whether Roderick agreed to this?”
“I haven’t found anything yet. It would appear that he knew by the time he drew up his will, however, and that is why there are the clauses about a child or a ward,” Sherlock said.
“But he was still unwilling to explain it to Corvus. Why? Mrs Usher was dead. There was no one to chastise Roderick or Madeline or disinherit anyone. I’m guessing that was why Madeline kept the marriage and the baby a secret. But by keeping Corvus uninformed, Roderick was risking the child not being taken care of at all. I can’t see any reason why he would do that,” I said, regretting that I was not more clear-headed. “Have you figured out where the child is yet?”
“I think the child was here until Adamantine had her brought back.”
“When?” I said, sitting up. “Before the house collapsed? Was it a child crying in the house that Corvus heard?”
“No, the child was here in London until Roderick died,” he said.
I scowled. “Shouldn’t we be stopping Adamantine?"
“I have one of the Irregulars following him. I was surprised you didn’t recognise Barrows driving the hansom.”
I shook my head. “How can you be so calm?” I demanded
“The child is with the housekeeper’s daughter, who is her nurse. All three of them went to Usher a couple days ago. The housekeeper is only just back,” he said. “And I have Barrows tracking Adamantine. I want to know what else he does. Barrows will send us telegrams, as necessary, and watch out for the child once he reaches Usher.”
I eased back under the covers. “All right, then, Barrows will keep track of the little girl until Corvus can go to claim her. But I still don’t see why Madeline did not clear everything up regarding her child once her mother had died and avoid…all this.”
“There’s an unpleasant little note from Adamantine to Madeline dated shortly after her mother’s death. Let me find it,” Sherlock said, leafing through the pages of the diary. “Madeline wrote that she stayed on in London for several weeks after her mother’s funeral service at the abbey, probably to spend time with her daughter. Adamantine seemed keen to have her back at Usher, but not the child. Here it is. Hmm. Weather fine…brother’s health concerning…not sure if it might be contagious…best not to risk such a young child, especially one that is ‘his’ and ‘yours’.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Oh. Setting the record straight would be awkward and it would reveal Adamantine’s unprofessional part in the deception,” I said.
“Also, he wouldn’t have any leverage with them anymore. From what Corvus says, Roderick did not especially like Adamantine, he was simply the family doctor of whom his mother had thought highly and his sister’s doctor by default more or less,” Sherlock said.
“But now that they are all gone, what would his interest be in the child?” I asked.
“Perhaps he would like to be her guardian and have control of her assets for nearly twenty years,” Sherlock said. “It’s a mundane reason, but often more than sufficient.”
“If even half of these possibilities turn out to be true, he is a scoundrel of the worst sort, and should be apprehended as soon as possible,” I hissed.
“I sent one of the Irregulars to Lestrade’s home with a message to pay us a call here in the morning,” Sherlock said.
“When did you do that?” I asked, reassured at the thoroughness of his measures.
“While you were sleeping. I have a couple Irregulars keeping an eye on this house as well,” he said.
I yawned, and despite my outrage, my eyes were closing. “Your troops are well-trained,” I murmured and let go of consciousness again.
“We could be in Rome by now,” I exclaimed as the cart bounced and jostled us along the track.
“All roads lead to Rome,” Sherlock said, handling the reins with that gentle facility that he has with animals. “Very few roads lead to Usher Fell.”
“No roads lead there,” I groused. My leg ached, my shoulder ached, my back was beginning to ache. “In good conscience, you cannot call this a road.” I dared not think what passing this way would have been like if it had rained in the morning.
I heard a horse whinnying. Corvus was riding a short way ahead and I hoped nothing had frightened his horse and caused him to be thrown.
We rounded a small out-cropping of rock and the vista opened before us, sloping away to a glassy expanse of water. It had to be fairer in its spring garb, with the tarn tinted blue by a clear, mid-day sky, than the view Corvus would have seen in the twilight of late winter, and yet the scene emanated an austerity that I could not ignore. I recognised the stand of blasted trees that marked where the house had been swallowed whole and the small bridge over which Corvus had fled. The sedge along the shore had a haze of white bloom on it.
Corvus and his horse were standing perfectly still facing it.
We rattled up closer to him and stopped.
“It’s changed,” he said. “You must not be able to recognise the landscape I described.”
“On the contrary,” I said. “I recognised it immediately and think I can imagine it under a cold, grey sky.”
“I won’t keep her here,” Corvus said. “We can stay in the house in London or I’ll find another where the air is better in Hampstead or Richmond. Or we could take a house in France or in Italy, so she can learn languages and study painting. Roderick and I spent a year travelling in Europe after university. It was a good year.”
His horse tossed its head.
“But his sister wrote to say their mother was ill and wished him to come home. He left and I heard little from him after that. I just kept travelling, and was only stopping in England long enough to change direction when his summons reached me.” He sighed and looked around towards us. “ I am certainly changing direction now.”
The carthorse pawed at the earth; the harness jingled. Sherlock made a soft, hushing sound to the animal and it quieted.
I caught his eye. We had spoken of Italy from time to time, of the art and the sun and the crime.
He gave me that flicker of a smile he allows when our focus must be on other things.
"Lestrade and Detective Constable Dupin will have joined Barrows near the lodge by now. Shall we go down and begin?” Sherlock asked.
Corvus nodded and turned his horse onto the sunlit path.