The estate of the recently deceased Lord Ruthvney was located just north of Billericay en route to Chelmsford. Agreeing to meet Silence at St Pancras for the four o’clock to Inverness, Holmes and I made our way first to Scotland Yard, then Liverpool Street and, thenceforth, for the country.
Despite my love for London I do enjoy visiting the open country; the air is revitalising, the scenery enriching. Holmes did not feel the same. In fact, for most of the time I knew him, he acted as if the open air was sheer poison to him, like a sea creature pulled from his familiar rock pool and forced to wither in the sunshine. I have seen him nearly choke to death when placed on a hill in a strong breeze. It is an argument for evolution certainly, that a man so immersed in smoke and fog now needs it to survive. Of course, he would later retire to the country which proves what a contrary swine he could often be.
“The chief investigating officer is a local,” Holmes said, “an Inspector Mann. A good fellow by all accounts who is only too happy to tolerate our presence.”
It would be thought that any police officer would welcome assistance from someone as famously insightful and – perhaps more importantly – happy to pass on the credit as Holmes. Experience had frequently taught us otherwise. Holmes is of the opinion that there will come a time when the consulting detective is so common in society that he will no longer bear the jibes of the official forces, rather such a proliferation will in itself bring about a change in how crime is detected. He foresees a time when deduction is compartmentalised, a nation of experts of every possible stripe. You wish to investigate a poisoning? Then you would call on the consultant who specialises in deadly venoms. Someone has been shot? Then you would talk to a detective who specialises in gun crime. Personally I wasn’t convinced the police force would devolve in this manner. Experience showed that Holmes’ methods were initially distrusted, sometimes outright loathed. Once he had built a working relationship with the officer in question things might be different – there were a number of young officers rising through the force thanks in no small part to the patronage of Holmes – but on first meeting I could recall none that had warmed to him. Even less so once he had mocked their methods and then proceeded to apply his own.
However, in the case of Inspector George Mann I was to find an exception to this rule. From the first he was graciousness itself and it was clear that he hoped to learn as much from Holmes as their time together would allow. Such an attitude stood him in excellent stead with my friend of course, a man who has never found a compliment he didn’t like. Mann was in his early thirties and sported a beard so neatly trimmed one could tell one was in the company of a fastidious man. His waistline, while far from the excesses of, say, Holmes’ brother Mycroft, also suggested a man who enjoyed the sensual pleasures in life. It was the belly of a man who shared my opinion that, as important as deduction might be, it shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of meal times.
Having greeted us at the local station, Mann had provided a trap so that we might easily get to Lord Ruthvney’s estate. While we traversed the quaint, narrow roads, he did his best to fill us in on the investigation thus far.
“To be honest,” he admitted, “it’s not the sort of business we’re used to handling. It seems from the outside of it to be a case of suicide, albeit it by a method we can’t claim to have seen before.”
“The newspapers say he died from ingesting ‘foreign matter’,” I said. “Can you be a little more specific?”
“He consumed a heroic quantity of his own taxidermy collection,” said Mann, “causing considerable damage to his teeth and jaw as he did so.”
“Had he exhibited previous signs of being mentally unstable?” I asked.
“Not in the least,” said Mann. “In fact he was the very model of rural respectability.”
“Bar his occult hobby at least,” commented Holmes, “though maybe that is more de rigeur outside London.”
“Occult?” Mann asked.
“He was a member of the occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” I explained. “A fact that we expect to have some bearing on the case.”
Mann raised an eyebrow. “Really? I find that somewhat hard to believe.”
“That he was a member or that it will have a bearing?” asked Holmes.
“Both frankly,” Mann said. “Life is even more conservative amongst the rural gentry than in the cities, and Ruthvney was a regular face at the local church. In fact he had been known to take part in festivals, giving a reading at the Christmas mass and so on. You know what it’s like with these people, they think it’s important to play a fairly central role in local life.”
“Indeed,” Holmes agreed, “and perhaps it is that rather than any real devotion that saw him take part in local worship.”
“Perhaps,” Mann admitted.
“And yet you do not believe it?” Holmes said.
Mann smiled. “If you have it on good authority then it seems I’ll have to,” he replied.
We arrived at Ruthvney Hall, an austere pile of bricks that cast a gloomy shadow over its well-kept lawns.
The trap pulled up on the gravel of the entrance court and we all climbed out.
“What would you like to do first, Mr Holmes?” Mann asked. “Inspect the study or interview the staff?”
Holmes smiled. “Inspect the study I think, let the lay of the land inform before the opinions of the help distract.”
We followed Mann to the room in question and he stepped back to allow Holmes access. Both myself and the inspector watched from the doorway as Holmes went about his usual investigation. Watching Holmes at work, I am often reminded of the descriptions of how Native Americans went about the tracking of animals. They read volumes in the depth of mere dust, in the angle of a paw print or the quantity of shed hair. For Holmes the drawing room or front lawn were the more likely sites of his hunt than the plains of Utah or the green fields of the Midwest. But he went about it with alacrity, throwing himself into the scene of the crime and studying it on the most intimate level of which his senses were capable. He plotted traffic on the hearth rug by inconsistencies in its pile, identified a brand of furniture polish by a single hearty sniff and could analyse the emotional state of the char by a brief analysis of the mantel.
It was an act that I never failed to enjoy watching. It seemed that Mann was also an eager spectator. He observed silently, not interrupting as many of his fellows frequently did, determined to promote their own observational abilities rather than take note of Holmes’. At one point he removed his notebook and jotted a few observations down. I smiled – Holmes had found himself an eager student.
“The room offers several points that prove there was more to Ruthvney’s final hours than a fit of madness,” Holmes announced. “The fire was smoking abnormally as is shown by the tarry deposits on the tiles around the grate. I would want to analyse the powder I’ve collected from them before committing myself, but the soot certainly contains more than the simple remains of an open fire, something abnormal was burned there.”
“Something that could have caused Ruthvney’s behaviour?” I asked.
“You’re thinking of the Radix pedis diaboli?” my friend replied with a smile.
I confess I was. A recent case where the root of an African plant had been burned in a sealed room, the smoke it released causing madness and death to those who inhaled it.
“It could certainly have been something along those lines,” Holmes admitted. “Something affected Ruthvney unfavourably enough for him to start dining on his collection.” He poked delicately through the shattered glass with the toe of his boot. “And, given the bloodstains on this glass, numbed his pain sufficiently for him to pay his wounds scant attention.”
“So it’s a matter of poison then you believe, sir?” Mann asked.
Holmes held up his hand. “Please, Inspector, these are initial impressions. While further investigation may prove them to be facts, it would be a grievous mistake to treat them as such for now. Tell me, did you or your men take anything from this room?”
“No sir, I was particularly determined to avoid such a thing, I knew that you would wish to examine everything just as it was.”
“Most kind, and it is immediately useful in that it confirms one thing for us: someone removed something from Ruthvney’s desk after his death.”
“How can you be so sure?” I asked.
“Because there are four letters and five envelopes,” he said, sitting down at the desk. “He was clearly going through his correspondence just prior to his unfortunate attack. The desk is tidy, he is not a man who leaves his letters lying around. Here we have a pile of letters. An invitation to a play and one to a dinner party, a letter concerning his position as governor of a school, and a request for a charity donation. The latter, you will notice, opened first and destined for refusal, filed as it was beneath the five envelopes.” Holmes looked around. “There is no basket for waste paper and yet he is a tidy man so presumably he intended to throw them in the fire. The fact he didn’t do so means that he was interrupted. So where is the fifth letter and what was it?”
“Surely a man would go through his correspondence at the start of the day?” I asked.
“That rather depends whether the man in question cares to respond. Lord Ruthvney clearly felt he could keep people waiting. He was also,” Holmes gestured to the pile, “a man who received exceedingly boring post.”
He lowered his face to the desk, and grinned. “There was also a sixth envelope!” he announced. “And presumably therefore a sixth letter.” He looked to Mann. “He had nothing on him?”
“Not in the sense you mean, sir,” Mann replied. “Certainly he had nothing which could have been posted to him.”
Holmes removed his small leather tool pouch from his jacket pocket, untied it and removed a pair of tweezers. He picked up a small triangle of black paper from the surface of the desk. “A fragment of the envelope. You’ll note he didn’t use a letter opener – one often tears off the first piece of an envelope when one opens it by hand. Black paper, portentous as well as pretentious.”
“Who writes using a black envelope?” I asked.
“Someone wishing to seem satanic!” Holmes dropped the paper fragment into a small envelope of its own, sealed it and placed it in his pocket. It then occurred to him that perhaps, as it was evidence, he should have offered it to Inspector Mann. “Oh,” he said, somewhat awkwardly, “perhaps you should...”
The Inspector smiled. “Consider yourself a specialist drafted in under my authority. All I ask is that you share whatever you learn. I shall, of course, show you the same courtesy, though I suspect you will have more to tell me than I you.”
Holmes clapped his hands and patted the envelope where it rested in his pocket. “I shall wring it dry of all it offers,” he promised, “and send you my findings. He sat back at the desk, spreading out his hands on the soft green leather. He was, I knew, putting himself in the position of the now absent Ruthvney. “So,” he said after a moment, “tell me what you have managed to glean with regard to the chain of events.”
Mann smiled and flipped open his notebook, clearly he had been awaiting this cue. “According to Stevens, the butler, his master was often in the habit of going through his correspondence in the evenings. He observed that Ruthvney had not yet done so just prior to dismissing him for the evening. Ruthvney also complained that the chimney was smoking, asking Stevens to remonstrate with Mrs Pritchard, the housekeeper, for what he saw as a lack in her duties. Stevens insists that the chimney was cleaned regularly, indeed it had been done not eight weeks ago. Though he did make the point that as his master insisted on burning a great deal of paper in it, the soot was prone to build up.”
Mann looked at Holmes and smiled, pleased to have been able to endorse several of the detective’s assumptions.
“Stevens was dismissed at a quarter past eleven, I estimate Ruthvney was dead only a short time later. Say half past the hour, quarter to twelve at the latest. All evidence points to his being left to his own devices for only a short time. He was a voracious drinker and yet the brandy decanter – filled by Stevens that evening – shows only a fifth consumed. The fire was also not built up beyond the state the butler left it in and, as you rightly say, he had time to consult his correspondence and yet not burn it.
“It seems to me that he was disturbed in his reading by someone appearing at the patio door. You will note it was opened at some point in the evening as there are leaf fragments blown in from outside, and I am assured that – whatever the opinion of her master – Mrs Pritchard is fastidious in her duties and would certainly not have allowed a maid to leave such detritus on the carpet.”
“So it must have been blown in later, a fair assumption,” Holmes said. “What was the weather like here last night? Could the doors have blown open of their own volition?”
“Funny you should ask that,” Mann replied, “it was, by every account, a calm night. My house is in fact not far from here and I can assure you that it was a temperate and gentle evening. However, Stevens commented that he heard no noise coming from here after his retiring but that...” Mann consulted his notes so as to be precise, “‘given the violence of the storm, the master would have had to make a racket worthy of cannon fire in order to be heard over it.’”
“A storm, eh?” I said. “Not impossible, there could have been a localised bout of bad weather.”
“The hall is protected on all sides by trees,” Mann said, “plus it is built in a slight dip in the land. If there is a residence more sheltered hereabouts then I don’t know of it.”
“Your explanation?” Holmes asked.
“I don’t have one,” Mann admitted. “I’ve asked the rest of the staff and they all confirm that there was a enough of a storm outside to shake the house to its foundations. A walk in the gardens tells an interesting story also.”
Holmes inclined his head. “You are an intriguing fellow, Inspector! Do you wish me to make my own conclusions before you elaborate?”
“All the better to ensure your opinion is objective,” Mann said with a broad smile.
Holmes got to his feet. “Then by all means let us walk!”
We left the house via the study, striding across the well-kept lawns in the direction of the forest that faced the rear of the house. Either side of the building was built up into terraces of the sort wealthy landowners like to use to host parties. These terraces were lightly gravelled and monitored by mournful statuary wood nymphs and water-bearing maidens whose shrewish countenances made it clear they would brook no ill behaviour. For all its age and architectural beauty, Ruthvney Hall was a house that made an art out of the death of amusement. It was seriousness personified in every brick, every rectangular window, every perfectly shorn privet hedge. One simply couldn’t imagine having a good time there.
It was this prim neatness that ensured the path we had to follow was obvious. Certainly Holmes didn’t need encouraging as he set foot upon the wide trail of scattered leaves and branches, a swathe of natural untidiness that seemed to swoop down from the woodland to collide with the bricks of the house itself.
“Remarkable!” I said, stopping in the middle of the lawns to better appreciate the absurdly methodical line of destruction. “I’ve heard of cyclones of course, particularly in America, but I’ve never seen anything of the sort here.”
“Indeed not,” agreed Mann. “But the most bizarre detail is yet to come.”
As we reached the edge of the woodland, a mix of evergreens that darkened considerably beyond the periphery, Mann’s point became clear.
“It started here,” Holmes said, gesturing at a clear circle pressed into the ground as if something heavy had flattened the grass and earth, “then chased forth in a gentle arc towards the house itself.”
“You make it sound as though it were alive,” I said.
“Yes,” he admitted, “or controlled.”
“Which is impossible,” Mann said.
Holmes nodded. “It is, isn’t it? Completely impossible.” He tapped at his chin with the crook of his cane, deep in thought. Then he looked up at us both, a big grin on his face. “This is certainly a case worthy of great interest isn’t it?”
He began to pace around, scanning the ground. After a few moments he pushed into the forest, eyes always fixed a few feet in front of him as he made his way through the undergrowth.
“On the trail?” I asked, only too aware of the signs that indicated Holmes had a scent in his nostrils.
“As far as I can tell,” he replied, “three men gathered around that bizarre circular patch. I’m trying to retrace their steps. A shame our inexplicable wind didn’t bring a few rain clouds with it, the ground here is so dry that it’s a devil’s job to follow their tracks.”
I smiled. I knew only too well that Holmes could read every detail, with or without the ease of a muddy surface. I have always placed a complete belief in Holmes’ abilities, and for all his occasional announcements of fallibility, I have yet to be disappointed.
“Is there a road near here?” Holmes asked as we got deeper and deeper into the forest.
“Yes,” Mann replied, “some way to the east. It’s the road we used earlier to get here from the station.”
“I thought as much, we will likely find ourselves there before long,” Holmes said.
I had moved slightly ahead during their discussion and a glint in the grass ahead of me caught my eye.
“I say! There’s something here.” I reached for it, gritting my teeth as I scratched my hand and arm on a cluster of brambles that were in the way. As carefully as I could, not wanting to lose all my skin in the attempt, I pulled out a small signet ring. It was onyx with a five-pointed star engraved in white.
“Do be careful with it!” snapped Holmes, reaching for a pair of tweezers.
He pinched it carefully and held it up to the light. “To S.L.M.M.,” he said, “engraved on the inside.” He dropped the ring into another one of the small envelopes he used to store evidence safely and stepped in front of me. “I’d better stick to the front, I think,” he said, jogging ahead. “We don’t want you contaminating all the evidence, do we?”
“Thank you, Watson,” I muttered under my breath, “a singularly important clue, Watson.”
I put on more speed in order to keep up with Holmes, but lost my balance due to the persistent weakness in my left leg (the result of muscle damage cause by a jezail bullet during my time in Afghanistan). With considerable embarrassment I found myself falling onto my side in the dense bracken. Mindful of what an idiot I must look to the following Inspector Mann, I pulled myself to my feet with a defensive bluster. I needn’t have made the effort, since quite impossibly I was alone in the forest. Mann had been right behind me, I had been sure of the fact, Holmes only a few feet in front. And yet, turning on the spot, I could see no other soul in that dark forest but me.
As I turned, the meagre light that fell through the thick branches of the pine trees appeared to pulse like the flickering of sunlight on the sea. The repetitive flashing was somehow both terrible and yet compelling, making my head spin. The thick scent of loam came to me and I seemed surrounded entirely by wet rot and the soft, masticating crunch of dead wood and pulped leaves. There was an animal scent there too, perhaps the long-dead cadaver of a fox or badger, its skin dry, its mouth pulled back in that final grin of the corpse. There was a sweet musk of flesh that has liquified and begun to seep into the soil.
It was all I could do not to vomit as all of this assaulted my senses.
I reached out, meaning to steady myself against a tree trunk, to stop this terrible spinning, to find stillness in a world that was moving too fast. My hand connected with the bark and the wet ooze of beetles and worms pressed beneath my palm like grapes exploding in a wine press. Nothing would hold me and nothing would stop the world from revolving around me.
I gave a short cry as I lost my feet once more, toppling onto my back in the undergrowth, feeling its wet leaves and creepers wipe themselves on my cheeks and reach for the wet sustenance of my mouth and eyes.
The ground beneath me continued its motion, rippling like the soft ebb of high tide. I could feel it embracing me, the earth cool and damp as it lapped over my arms and legs, pulling me down into it where I would rot and feed the fat, glistening earthworms that I could swear were exploring my hair. As I sank even lower, what little light there had been vanished as the soil buried me, pulling me deeper and deeper.
Soon I was so far down that I could no longer tell which way led to the surface. Slowly, and with a sharp pain in my chest, I breathed nothing but thick soil and wet clay. I fought to cough the sodden mass from where it clogged my throat but there was nowhere for it to go and I choked. The last sensations, felt just above the pounding in my head, were the touch of the molluscs and beetles that worked their way beneath the folds of my clothes.
My eyes snapped open at the sound of my friend’s voice. I was lying on my back in the undergrowth, both Holmes and Inspector Mann looking down on me with obvious concern. I confess my embarrassment quite got the better of me and my initial response was somewhat tetchy.
“I’m fine,” I retorted, brushing away their hands and pushing myself to my feet.
Utterly disorientated, I looked around, assuming I would determine what had happened in a moment, I just needed to get my bearings... I could still taste soil in my mouth and I rubbed at my face, sure there would be creatures still clinging to me. There were not.
“What happened?” Mann asked.
To my great irritation I simply couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer. So I provided a lie. “It was nothing,” I said. “I just caught my foot on a root. Shall we carry on?”
I pushed past them both, meaning to force them to continue our pursuit of the trail. I realised almost instantly of course that I could no more lead than explain what had just occurred. Holmes may be able to discern the telltale signs of broken branches and compressed grass but to me their passage was as good as invisible.
Luckily my friend circled around me and took the lead again. He gave me a brief look, as if to ascertain I was all right, then kept his eyes to the ground where the trail was so clear to him it may as well have been painted.
Soon we reached the road we had travelled down earlier. Holmes scouring the verge for further evidence.
“Is it possible to hire a cab from the station?” I wondered aloud.
“Indeed,” Mann replied, “though I have already enquired from the station master as to whether any strangers arrived on the late train. He assures me they didn’t. This is a quiet area, Dr Watson, and strangers would find it hard work to arrive unnoticed.”
“Besides,” said Holmes, “if you planned on paying a legitimate visit to the hall you would drive up to the front gate. If your visit was intended to go unnoticed – as their arrival via the forest would certainly suggest – you wouldn’t ask a local cab driver to drop you here.”
“Yes, all right,” I agreed, irritated again. “It was a stupid idea clearly.”
“Not at all,” Holmes said, giving me a friendly glance. “It was simply a consideration that needed to be addressed and then discounted. It’s only by so doing that we get to the truth.” He sat down on the verge. “Certainly they did arrive by a small carriage, there are clear grooves in the grass where they pulled off the road a few feet.”
“They can’t have travelled too far then,” Mann said. “Only an idiot would use a horse and carriage for a journey of any great distance.”
Holmes shook his head. “Not so much an idiot as a cautious group of men,” he said, “one of whom smokes a particularly unusual tobacco.”
He scooped a few strands into another empty envelope.
“They had smoked during the journey,” he explained, “and knocked out their bowl – most likely on the carriage wheel – here before refilling with enough fresh tobacco to accompany them on their walk through the trees.”
“A devoted smoker indeed to feel the need for a pipe on that walk,” I said.
Holmes smiled. “Yes, even I managed to avoid tobacco for the duration.” He got to his feet. “Right, I don’t think we have anything else to learn here. Might I suggest we head back to the station ourselves?”
“You don’t wish to interview the servants?” Mann asked, sounding somewhat disappointed.
“Not for now,” Holmes replied, “though I will happily read the transcripts of your interviews if you would be so kind as to share? Watson and I have a long journey ahead of us today and I need time to think as well as pack a travel bag.”