The Stanton Wood Mystery
I am aware that The Watsons, an unfinished novel, is not the most popular of Jane Austen's works, and it probably has not been read by everyone. All the better - for my story is not a conventional sequel, just an elaborate game of sorts. Mind you: I didn't dispute a single statement of the author; though I couldn't resist the names, still tried to be historically accurate. To those of you who think that I am taking liberties with both Jane Austen and Conan Doyle, I might offer my apologies, but I shan't take it back.
The Watsons: Mr Watson, a rector of Stanton, an old widower, quite poor.
Robert, an attorney at Croydon.
Penelope, now Mrs Harding, lives in Chichester.
Samuel, an assistant to Mr Curtis, a surgeon in Guildford.
Lady Osborne of the Osborne Castle.
Lord Osborne, her son.
Miss Osborne, her daughter.
Admiral Osborne, their uncle.
People in Wickstead:
Mr Howard, clergyman of the parish, formerly Lord Osborne's tutor.
Mrs Blake, his widowed sister, who lives with him.
Charles, her ten-year-old son.
People in Dorking:
Mr Edwards, a rich friend of Mr Watson's.
Mrs Edwards, his wife.
Mary, their only child.
Mr Tomlinson, a banker.
Mr James Tomlinson, his son.
Mr Thomas Musgrave, a young man of good fortune.
A mysterious man at the White Hart inn.
Mr Norton, his cousin.
Mr Styles, his particular friend.
Jack Stokes, a man from Stanton, who has a pedlar uncle.
Pamela Downie, of Redoubts Cottage.
Abel Panton, the gamekeeper at Osborne Castle.
Nanny, one of Mr Watson's servants.
Note: I have introduced only two persons and a half to Jane Austen's well-populated world, namely: Admiral Osborne (for someone had to inherit the estate), Pamela Downie (to promote Sam's courtship), and the mysterious man, who is not an addition really. Besides, I have given a name to Lord Osborne's gamekeeper, undoubtedly there was one employed at the Castle. I do not count the necessary background: nameless gentry and farmers, servants and shopkeepers, the coroner and the jury.
It was upon the 4th of March, 1808, as I have good reason to remember, that I was driving from Guildford to the village of Stanton, near Dorking. I was in a hurry, but not professionally, so to speak, though at that time I worked as an assistant to Mr Curtis, a very experienced surgeon, much in demand, even that far into Mole Valley district. My sisters felt that they owed a visit to their friends, whom they had unwillingly neglected, and there lay my opportunity. Mr Curtis wouldn't often spare me, and it was a great disappointment to me that I couldn't always get away to Assembly balls or other social summonses. But the winter season was almost over, with Ash Wednesday in sight, so my worthy master allowed me a half-day, while it was possible, as Lent was usually a sickly time at Guildford - and still is. As a compliment to the ladies he consented to my using his calash with a folding top and carriage lamps of cut glass, very elegant, even if it somewhat resembled a small boat.
The house was in pretty commotion when I arrived at last. By the previous arrangement my eldest sister Elizabeth and my youngest sister Emma were to go, while Margaret was to stay with my father. One of his children was always necessary as companion to himself, for he was sickly and had lost his wife. It is not my wont to describe illnesses in detail, which cannot interest my readers, or at least only physicians among them, but his health was rapidly declining.
Poor Margaret, left out of an evening's entertainment, even such a tame one as tea with a clergyman and his widowed sister, was bent to have quarrelling going on, sooner than nothing at all. Elizabeth, who would give anything to have peace and good humour, was being bullied into staying - and a very patient nurse she made, to be sure. But Emma, more high-spirited, reminded Margaret that a few hours at home couldn't possibly hurt her, for she had spent part of the winter in Chichester.
Our sister Penelope lived there after her marriage to rich old Dr Harding, an uncle of her friend Mrs Shaw. The match was of that lady's making, though Penelope herself had taken a vast deal of trouble about the man and given up a great deal of time. In autumn Dr Harding had an attack of the asthma, she was hurried away to him on that account, and the mischief was done then - as lady novelists put it down. I have this on authority of my sister Elizabeth, who always declared that she had rather have Penelope well married than herself.
Partly because of the good doctor's family feelings, which prompted that the luck of one member of a family was luck to all; perhaps a little because Mrs Harding wanted to show off to her unmarried sisters, they were very generous to the rest of us, who were not individually lucky. They immediately offered the girls to stay with them; even Elizabeth went, for she had a great desire to see the sea, but had to return after several days, for my father couldn't do without her. Margaret hinted at a disappointed heart and departed for several weeks. And how can I forget that it was Dr Harding's liberal support, among others, that enabled me to get my M.D. That took place afterwards, at the time described I was still plain Mister, a humble surgeon, though the people around insisted on calling me Dr Watson, whether to give their medicines more consequence, or out of politeness to myself, I cannot say.
As I was later than we counted upon, in order to save time I suggested to take a short cut through Stanton Wood. Emma, who but recently returned to family home (she was brought up by an aunt in Shropshire) and didn't know Surrey well, asked for explanations.
"Nothing can be simpler, sister. Imagine a triangle with a narrow base, the sides meeting at Dorking. Three miles from Stanton to Dorking, then back in nearly the same direction to Wickstead, going around Osborne Castle into the bargain. While at the same time we have the base, why spend ages on the road?"
"Hardly ages, brother. Father's quiet old horse makes it to the turnpike in five-and-thirty minutes, and, I'm sure, this glossy creature can do much better."
"Oh, thirty minutes, it's nothing," Margaret interfered. "A curricle can go from Stanton to the market place in ten minutes. I used to..."
Her stormy features assumed a dangerous expression, promising a swoon from the fullness of the disappointed heart, and Elizabeth said quickly, "You mean the dirt road. It must be impassable after winter rains."
"You forget that I'm out riding in all weathers. It is in condition as good as could be expected. There is only one... mm... doubtful spot, near the disused quarry. But I'll help you to alight, lead the carriage through, and we can take the part on foot - it is not more than twenty paces."
"On foot in this mud!" Elizabeth exclaimed and took the decision. "No, we are going by the turnpike road, and if we are late, we'll have to depend on Mrs Blake's good-will."
We were rather late, but Mr Howard and his sister received us very cordially and very heartily excused. Mrs Blake was anxious to show every civility to my sister Emma ever since the Assembly in October when they had met. I could not be there, being busy at the bedside of a sufferer, but I heard many times from different people how is was that little Charles Blake had been promised a dance by Miss Osborne, and though this fickle partner was led away by Colonel Beresford, Emma felt for the boy and offered to dance with him. From the beginning, based on lively gratitude and the most unaffected good humour, the friendship blossomed, in which Elizabeth and Mr Howard were soon included.
We sat in the best parlour of the parsonage and laughed and talked unrestrainedly. Mrs Blake was joking at her brother.
"I don't know why, but there is a tendency among clergymen's wives to call their husbands by the first letter only. Do you remember a Mr E.?"
"Ah, this caro sposo!"
"Exactly. A very affected way of address, to my mind."
"It is not so much an affectation, perhaps, just a habit. I know of the very deserving man of the cloth, whose wife calls him simply 'Q.', but they are a most simple-hearted, nice couple."
"I take it as your approval. May a sister have the licence to call you Mr H.?"
"No-no," he laughed in mock horror. "The Howards are of a good old Anglo-Saxon stock, on a par with the Lowthers, I'm told, more ancient than the Fitzgeralds or De Burghs, and 'H.' might mean anything - Higgins, Holmes..."
At this moment a servant knocked at the door and asked Mr Howard out. When he returned to the room, it was clear that something terrible had happened.
"It's lucky that you are here, Dr Watson," he said abruptly. "A gentleman has fallen down the quarry. The ladies will excuse us."
He bowed deeply and hurried away, I hardly could keep pace with him. In the yard a young man with a stupefied face, dressed in a labourer's coat, was waiting for us to show the way. We got into my master's trap, which stood handy, and headed to Stanton Wood by the old road, which led to the mouth of the quarry. It was rutted but dependable, used formerly to move quantities of the greensand gravel; the horse went briskly by the light of carriage lamps and a few torches.
Little could be gathered from the dazed lad, except that he was on his way home with other fellows, when they saw that gent. No, they did not see him falling. He was lying flat when they came. Two of them staid and he was sent running to the parson, being the youngest. Maybe they had seen him before, maybe not - what did they know about gentry.
We recognised him at once, in spite of the flickering shadows. The proud Roman features were not damaged, though the fair hair was dark with blood, and the elegant attire was cut into ribbons by sharp rocks. And neither all medical science, nor any spiritual consolation could help the poor man now. Lord Osborne was dead.
I felt for Mr Howard, to whom that must have been a heavy blow. After all, Lord Osborne was scarcely more than a name to me, I don't think that I had ever exchanged a word with him. But Mr Howard had been his tutor, an intimate of his family, and I knew I shouldn't intrude while he was reading a short spontaneous prayer.
But, of course, even a stranger would be moved when a young and promising life had come to a death both untimely and unexpected. At the very moment of it Lord Osborne was trifling with some small object, a box, still clutched firmly in his hands, and the tragic irony of this chilled my bones. The honest labourers, too, seem to be affected by the solemnity of the occasion; they bared their heads and stood around in reverent silence.
Then they helped us to put the body into the calash and hurried to their belated suppers, also, no doubt, to eager listeners, and Mr Howard had presence of mind to ask where the coroner could find them.
Our immediate concern was to remove the body to Osborne Castle as soon as possible. I considered it my duty to be on the spot when Mr Howard broke the terrible news. No medicine can help ladies stricken with profound grief when they realise that the hope and joy of their house is gone, but still the physician's presence serves to show that one is not left to face it alone. He is sending for this and that; he is making a fuss over too much or too little sugar in tea, this universal British remedy, as if it matters; he is scientifically choosing the kind of a wet cloth to place on a forehead; besides - he does know some real drugs that can deaden tired nerves for a while.
It occurred that worry had already set at the Castle, for Lord Osborne's road-horse ran into the stables all in a lather, with an empty saddle; search-parties were forming. The appearance of the body confirmed that the horse lost its footing on the brink, but managed to scramble away, shedding its rider. Leaving, I heard an excited discussion among stable boys upon similar accidents, even as the great church bell began tolling nine tellers for the departed man.
Any other woman, but kind-hearted Elizabeth and well-mannered Emma, would have reminded me of my unfortunate suggestion, when I was driving them to Stanton, keeping scrupulously to the turnpike road. They spoke little, and mostly of the bereaved family and friends. But how many friends did Lord Osborne have? He was not fond of company, and it was an open secret that he came to assemblies only because it was judged expedient for him to please the borough, as he never danced there. He went about with Tom Musgrave, hunted and dined with county families, visited neighbours - in fact, he paid a few calls to my father, had given no ground for rumours of favouring any young lady, though he was very handsome and a lord. His death could be regarded in awe, for his being a nobleman, a squire, a magistrate, but what friend cried at it, or what foe rejoiced?
If I needed another example of pure amazement, it was my worthy master. When I hurried to Guildford, using the most of the scanty moonlight, I didn't notice that the paint on his elegant carriage had been carelessly scratched. But I did not get a sharp offer to pay for it out of my salary, not so much as a dressing-down.
Just as subdued and awe-stricken looked the large crowd that gathered for the inquest. It was held the next afternoon in the great hall of Osborne Castle, a true old English hall of noble size, where warriors could dine and revel. At the further end of the room was a huge fire-place, empty now except for the iron dogs, half-buried in the masonry of the grate. It was cold enough to perish any desire to linger there; though, to be fair, the antiquated grate would probably need about a hundredweight of coal. The ceiling showed the massive rafters, and the walls were hung round with darkened Osbornes of old, each properly let into his own panel. There were three quadrangular windows with stone mullions; over all other windows of the house the blinds were drawn, but these were allowed to let in the daylight, what there was of it.
A table had been wheeled to the top of the room for the coroner, a double row of chairs were set at the right hand of the table for the jury. The hall was filled with all sorts of people: gentry, members of the local hunt, farmers from the estate and small shopkeepers from the neighbourhood, enjoying the inalienable right of any British citizen to be present. The coroner, a large man, with a very affable manner, had got to his work promptly and proceeded, after the usual preliminaries, to call up fourteen good and lawful men and swear them diligently to inquire and a true presentment make of all matters touching the death of Lord Osborne and to give a true verdict according to the evidence, so help them God.
The jury departed into an adjoining room to view the body, which they did steadily, solidly, with a kind of morose delectation in the grim spectacle. The first business of the coroner was to establish how the body had been discovered. One of the labourers - not the young dullard, but a sedate older man - stepped forward, was sworn and explained that they worked at draining "home meadow" near the Castle Path, which was to be converted to arable crops, and by sunset, as usual, went home to Stanton village through the disused quarry.
"Wasn't the way dangerous?" one of the jurors wanted to know.
"The Redoubts on the whole is a danger area, but I worked in these parts, man and boy, an' I can find my way with eyes blindfold."
Quietly and concisely he finished his statement, stressing that they saw or heard nobody, either down or up at the brink, not even a horse or a dog. They were not sure whether to go to the Castle and whom to tell there, but Wickstead being near, and the parson known to be an active, outgoing man, not like frail Mr Watson at Stanton, they sent Joe to him.
Mercifully, Joe stuttered through his piece quickly. Mr Howard then described what we saw and, to my astonishment, dwelled on the box, which, I thought, did not merit a special mention.
"Lord Osborne held it with both hands, and for a moment - God forgive me - I was afraid that it contained a suicide note."
The whole crowd gasped as one man. The coroner threw around a severe glance and voiced cautiously, "And was it there?"
"No, nothing of the kind. I looked into it later, in the Castle, in the presence of the butler, and found only tinder, steel and flint."
"An ordinary tinder-box, in fact. Have you looked into his pockets?"
"Yes, at the same time. Everything that there was could be in any gentleman's pockets. I repeat, it was only a moment's weakness on my part, and I can state authoritatively that no reason exists to suspect suicide. A young man, wealthy, who had scarcely ever had a day's illness in his life, level-minded... No."
"Could it be an accidental fall? Was Lord Osborne a good rider?"
"He was hunting with hounds two or three times a week, oftener, when he was younger; rode about his farms almost every day - yes, I'd say he was a good rider. But he did not fall off a saddle."
Again a murmur of surprise met his words. I must confess that I was as startled as others, and couldn't imagine how Mr Howard had learnt that.
"I have looked at the quarry this morning. The place where the body hit the ground was clearly seen: bushes broken, rocks unsettled. But the edge of the brink was not disturbed. An overburden is not a monolith; if a shod horse only slipped there, it would cause an avalanche of stones and mud."
"But could Lord Osborne, then, lose his balance while walking?"
"When he was looking for whatever it was, he could forget about danger or misjudge distances."
Now the coroner himself was forgetting his bearing of an impassive servant of the law.
"How do you make it?"
"The tinder-box, sir, shows that he needed light for some purpose."
"Hm! Just as well the purpose might be seeing a person, not an object. A person, in the circumstances..."
In meaningful silence the clergyman's distinct voice rang unhappily, "This is also probable, sir, but I cannot swear to the foot-marks or hoof-prints; too many sightseers were all over the place, I personally startled one idler."
The coroner commended Mr Howard for his public spirit and continued his questioning. I testified to the cause of death, not mysterious in the least, as the poor man had literally broken his neck. Lord Osborne's butler confirmed Mr Howard's statement of the box and pockets content, and related his master's words when he had set out. He had intended to go on business to Dorking, to return in a roundabout way through Stanton village to give the horse some exercise, and be home for dinner. His lordship was always methodical and punctual.
I was not surprised to see my old Nanny at the stand then. With many sighs and head-shakings she affirmed that his lordship had really called the day before, at the dusk, but Mr Watson was unable to receive him, so he had a word with Miss Margaret and rode off.
The Coroner then addressed the jury, reminding them that they should consider whether, according to the evidence, death could have been accidental or self-inflicted, or whether it was deliberate murder, or homicide. If they considered the evidence on this point insufficient, they could return an open verdict. He then dismissed them, with the unspoken adjuration to be quick about it.
While the jury was out, I reflected on perplexing facts that were revealed during the inquest. I do not hold with modern cheap sensationalism, nor did then. The picture of the accident stood clearly before my eyes. Lord Osborne was in a hurry: the prolonged business call, the lengthy trip, the short cut... Very likely he dismounted, for whatever reason, then a treacherous stone - and the tragedy. The state of roads in this country is responsible for more deaths than rheumatic fever. My brother Robert, an attorney at Croydon, once described the road through Stanton as "infamous", and threatened to indite. Now he has much to say in praise of a Mr MacAdam, who has been appointed surveyor general of the Bristol roads, and foretells that England will get passable roads yet. But I am digressing again and must return to the hall, where the foreman of the jury announced the verdict.
"There is no evidence to prove how the deceased had come by his death."
One part of the listeners considered an open verdict highly unsatisfactory, but what other could have been returned. There was no reason - so far as could be ascertained - to suspect foul play, and even less reason to suspect suicide. The other part was of opinion that the occurrence was trivial enough, and only because of the deceased being a lord it was made into something more than a nine days' wonder.
I did not take part in heated discussions, for I had to hurry to Guildford, where Mr Curtis decided that I had been shirking my duties too long. So many people were ill, or curious, or both, that my round was almost doubled. My master, as a conscientious surgeon, had to ride over and pay his respectful compliments and inquiries for the health of their ladyships, who were better, he was told. I could not attend the funeral, but Mr Curtis went and kindly described the whole splendour to me.
By his reckoning, there were at least a score of undertaker's men to direct and place about the mass of people, so that no-one collided with the neighbouring gentry's carriages. The undertaker surpassed himself in the matter of polished oak and brass handles, and a word spread around that the nails were gilt. Whoever made the hatchment above the great entrance, achieved a work of art: Osborne arms looked most impressive upon the background of wood painted throughout in heraldic sable.
The servants of the house were in full mourning, some tenants also, the rest were most correctly attired, crapes flowed everywhere, and he could see that his own hatband of real French ridged silk looked to advantage. In the light of a surgeon's presence at funerals as a matter of moral obligation, he should not disgrace himself, hobnobbing with the high and mighty.
The new head of the family was in his uniform, with attractive crapes, too. Mr Curtis wanted to ask how the ladies bore the affliction, whether medical help was needed, but could not find the opportunity: the new lord was always surrounded by people reminding him of their acquaintance. Admiral Osborne, of course, was well-known in the neighbourhood before he began his naval career, and then he came from time to time to see his brother, and nephew afterwards. He looked well suited to the new station in which Providence had placed him: a fine man past the prime, but not past the vigour of life.
My worthy master was disappointed that the service took place in the chapel of the Castle, with nobody present, literally nobody: only gentry allowed in and the select tenantry. Still there was much to relate, beginning with the solemn procession (extra slow because it was rather a short way) to the church, very tastefully decorated, the chancel hung completely in black; ending with the sacramental formula of "our dear brother departed" and the final consignment to the family crypt. Mr Howard, they said, had composed a beautiful Latin epitaph, and the next time he (Mr Curtis) would go to Osborne Castle to inquire after the health of the family, he should look into the church and write it down.
But the fates decreed that it was I who had to take over from him the cares about the health of the Castle family. The next afternoon a note arrived from Lady Osborne, asking specifically for Mr Watson to bring again the medicine which had benefited her poor frayed nerves. Mr Curtis was a little piqued, but I reminded him his own oft-repeated words about high-born women and their nerves: half of them had nothing the matter with them but boredom and desire to be fussed over. Of course, they couldn't expect to impose upon the experienced practitioner, but hoped to pull the wool over the young assistant's eyes. He chuckled, decorously reproved me for being so callous and gave me leave to go. Still, I don't know what the consequences would be, if that flatteringly incorrect "Dr Watson" was used.
I was led to my lady's bed-chamber and found her prostrated on lace-edged pillows. My professional questions brought out that she was deeply distressed.
"...And I have lived through this catastrophe only to be humiliated by my brother-in-law with his offers to stay in the Castle as long as I find it convenient. What does he think - that he'll earn my gratitude, throwing the mistress of the house out, and then making a standing invitation from him and his lady - a lady, she! a daughter of a non-post captain, and now that she is legally Lady Osborne... Oh, my head is spinning round. And to think that my dear son left this world without issue," she lamented, bringing a tiny handkerchief to her face.
"Certainly, my wishes were that he would make a suitable marriage, but, as the things turned out, almost any girl would have done. Fanny Carr, a most interesting little creature, you can imagine nothing more naive, in a roguish sort of way, what men consider piquante. Or that girl dancing with Mrs Blake's son at the October Assembly; she appeared slightly silly with the little boy, and showed more self-confidence than propriety, but a bold spirit can carry the day in some circles. Why, I believe she is your sister, Dr Watson?"
"Your ladyship pay my sister Emma a great compliment, but, to my knowledge, she met with Lord Osborne but rarely."
"Ah, there is incessant drumming in my ears. Rarely met? Surely he saw her even on his last day..."
"No, that was Margaret. Emma was with me and yet another of my sisters at Wickstead. Is your ladyship's sleep much disturbed?"
She stared at me; I noticed dilated pupils, a symptom of great inner turmoil, and was completing a recipe in my mind, when the door opened, as if on cue, and Mr Howard was discreetly announced. Considering the surroundings, I was sure that Lady Osborne would prefer my staying in the chamber, as more proper.
After some hesitation she began, "I asked you here so that not to delay my thanks for your revealing evidence at the inquest."
He bowed gravely. "I tried to do my best, but unfortunately it did not help to clear up the circumstances."
"If anyone can make them perfectly clear, it is you, Mr Howard. I implore you, a broken-hearted mother begs of you, learn how my son died."
Malicious tongues even presumed to gossip that she admired him to the verge of love. I have a certain maiden lady in mind, let us call her Miss A. True, she said it only to her friend, someone from Great Bookham, but it was in Assembly rooms, a public place, after all, and I overheard them by pure chance. To that friend's credit, she doubted it and asked how Miss A. could be so sure, to which she remarked coolly that she had a knack of observation and proceeded with examples, "I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an adulteress; once in Bath, though repeatedly assured that another in the party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first." I'm told that Miss A. has intimate knowledge of human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, and can explain it away very wittily, but personally I hold in high regard women of irreproachable decorum, like my dear wife of my esteemed mother-in-law. But back to my story.
Mr Howard acknowledged, "I am of your ladyship's opinion that the matter ought not to be allowed to drop, and investigation seems to be called for. But is it not a question to be put to magistrates?"
"Magistrates!" Lady Osborne exclaimed with great bitterness. "Nowadays fellows get put on the bench who are no more fit to be magistrates than your vestry-clerk, sir. It's a matter of influence more often than not. Where the country is going to? The ancient nobility and gentry have with very few exceptions been thrust out of all public employments. A race of merchants and manufacturers and bankers and loan jobbers and contractors have usurped their place. Pitt's creatures! He baked peers by a dozen, and now we cannot have law and order."
Roused by her noble wrath, she gesticulated with energy that would stir up envy of the most robust woman in the county, but overtaxed her strength and collapsed gracefully on the pillows.
"While a gentleman may be a magistrate, a magistrate is not always a gentleman," murmured she in exhaustion. "No, I won't go to Mr Tomlinson with my vague suspicions."
"Suspicions you say, Madam?" Mr Howard enquired. "What kind of suspicions?"
She opened her fine eyes wide and fearlessly proclaimed what lesser people kept to the back of their minds.
"My son was murdered."
The word was spoken and was past recalling.
"Madam, an accusation of such enormity must not be formed lightly. I advise your ladyship to put the matter in the hands of professionals. It is widely known that a private person may hire the services of Bow Street Runners; they are most dextrous in their occupation."
"Thieftakers! Yes, they are proficient in looking for stolen goods. But this is not theft or trespassing - it is murder!"
"How can you be sure, Madam?"
Lady Osborne smiled sweetly and answered in coaxing tones.
"But this is the whole point, Mr Howard. I cannot be sure. I want to know for certain, notwithstanding how bitter is the truth. That's why I'm asking you to look into all the circumstances as thoroughly, as only you can, with your logical mind, your knowledge of the world. It transpired at the inquest that it could be an accident, because my son had been too eager to find something to watch his step. I'll accept it when you discover what he was looking for. In what spirits was he: upset, uplifted? Was it because of something he heard? Then to whom was he talking and what about? I shall accept your final decision in best faith."
Mr Howard continued resolutely, "I can try to re-establish the chain of events, as far as humanly possible; for our innermost thoughts and movements of the soul are opened only to the all-knowing God. But right now your ladyship mentioned suspicions."
"The obvious ones," she declared intensely. "Who had to gain most from Lord Osborne's death?"
"Cui bono?" my words rushed out before I knew what I was saying.
They both looked at me: Lady Osborne as if she had only just noticed my presence, and Mr Howard in a scholarly way, awaiting explanations. I felt my orbicularis oris tighten, but described what I meant.
"We in the medical profession know only kitchen Latin, but it is always on the tips of our tongues. Isn't it the first question that was asked by Roman judges?"
"Actually the jurists used the expression Is fecit cui prodest, but it comes to the same thing," Mr Howard corrected absent-mindedly. "They were overly suspicious of heirs, what with their complex testaments and laws of adoption."
Lady Osborne's triumphant look worked on my brain like a stroke of lightning.
"But surely your ladyship cannot mean... Lord Osborne's own... The hero who stood at Howe's elbow in the battle of the First of June... And anyway, Admiral was in London..."
"It takes four hours to reach London, especially if one doesn't mind a little inconvenience. One of the great sages - am I right, Mr Howard? - said that for a warrior the price of a human life was smaller than for the rest of us."
The clergyman shook his head sadly. "Let us not deal in abstract sayings, the reality is too menacing. The title can be only entailed, and the estate, surely, goes with it. But for the man who had gathered honours and, I believe, not inconsiderable prize money from the wars, whose sons are on the same glorious road, an inheritance cannot be the question of life and death. I have the pleasure of Admiral's acquaintance, also of his eldest son, the Captain. They always seemed content with their lot and on the best terms with Lord Osborne."
"Mr Howard, you are so high-minded yourself, unambitious to a fault - I am speaking as your true friend - you don't understand these designing people. Until my son had male heirs, this naval brood was biding their time. And you know there was an air of coldness, of carelessness, even of awkwardness about him, they expected he would stay a bachelor forever."
Mr Howard looked at Lady Osborne with great curiosity, and so, I must admit, did I.
"Lord Osborne had intention to marry, then?"
"He never told me anything," she fretted, but in a pretty way, not spoiling her beautiful countenance. "I thought perhaps he confided in you."
"No; nor would I expect him to do so. He wasn't open-hearted as a child, and when I stopped being his tutor, we kept the proper distance."
"Oh? I've had a notion that rumours were circulating. Even if it was only idle talk of Tom Musgrave and his like, it was evidently enough to stir up a hornets' nest."
"Besides a motive, there was an opportunity needed. How Admiral in London could have known that Lord Osborne would take the short cut in the dark?"
"He knew - he possibly put forward the idea himself. Why is it that nobody got interested, with whom my son had the business talk in Dorking?"
I was staggered by her intellect. What price the high birth; she could have been a Queen, a ruler of nations.
Mr Howard bowed. "This can be found out. In accordance with your ladyship's wishes I shall also undertake writing to Town to ascertain whether Admiral Osborne had been there at the time."
The lady threw up her white hands daintily. "I do not insist that Admiral himself did the rough work. It might be a hireling, some paid minion..."
He gave forth a rueful smile. "I think we can leave such bravi to Gothic romances. A stranger would be only too noticeable in these quiet parts, and the talk of one wouldn't stop for days, if not weeks. If Lord Osborne was pushed over the precipice, then by someone who knew the surroundings well," he said, forming his words slowly, as if testing an idea.
The audience clearly was at its end. I recommended a harmless mixture to take, as the patient's condition was obviously improved; Mr Howard assured her ladyship that he would spare no effort, and we were off. On the staircase I ventured to ask whether Lady Osborne had persuaded him.
"Too far-fetched. I'll make the inquiries, as promised, but, I'm afraid, the mystery is only too simple, sad as it is. Lord Osborne was set on defending his legal rights, and preserved his game zealously..."
"Of course! Poachers!"
"Excellent, Watson, excellent," murmured my companion. "The importance of the point struck me so forcibly that I took the liberty of calling the game-keeper for an interview. No doubt there he is, waiting by the garden gate."
Yes, it was Abel Panton. I knew him more or less, as I knew most people around, and there was no mistaking his tall, loose-limbed frame and glum, dark face. As if to remove all doubts, his inseparable companion, a giant mastiff, barked and growled ominously at us, but stood still, held by his master's strong hand.
Though sullen and closemouthed as a rule, Panton was talkative on the stinging subject of poachers.
"I'll poach 'em to rights! Sneaking devils! Lord Osborne, he was relentless with them, sir, but he was a right-minded gentleman and never set man traps. 'I look after my own,' his lordship used to say, 'I'm not after their bones.' Anyone will say you, sir, they just asked for it, but no: he scorned traps."
"Without doubt," Mr Howard agreed. "Lord Osborne, as I knew him, would disdain to resort to the extremes of unsocial savagery."
"Mind you, sir, it was from charity, like. A fellow once shot at him, and his lordship shot back and shattered the man's leg. He had him sent to hospital first and cured, and then prosecuted him straight away. Oh-h, the poachers hated him."
"Is there much of this... activity around?"
"Over the grounds day and night, sir. Them people, they've no hem to their garments. Why, Snap here found fresh rabbit snares down in the same quarry his lordship fell to, further aside, in the bushes. Seeing they were fresh Saturday, they've been put Friday, the very same day. Curse their impudence!"
"Now, my good man, what you say is very important. Can you, so to say, put a name to those snares?"
Panton looked him squarely in the eye. He might be uneducated, but he was not wanting in sense.
"I know nothing for certain, sir. If I did!.. But in Stanton village they said that Jack Stokes had invited his pedlar uncle to share a rabbit pie."
I met both of them before: Jack Stokes, who lived in the village of Stanton, an obliging, hearty fellow, and his uncle, forever on the move, spry and crafty. Many a letter from my sister Elizabeth I had got through their hands, whenever Jack's uncle happened to go near Guildford on his pedlar's business. Without them I'd surely lose track of my family, as none of us could well afford to pay the mail.
To think of Jack as a poacher was startling, but in the eyes of common people the poacher is rarely a criminal in the ordinary sense, he is likely to be considered a man of outstanding intelligence and daring. Some historians have called poaching a national British pastime; why, they teach at schools that Shakespeare himself had a shot at it. Probably I ought not to trust this to paper, but if I ever saw Jack setting his rabbit-cords, I'd look the other way.
True, I heard tales of real armed gangs, or else why the Parliament had passed a law not five years before, by which a poacher who pointed a gun or attempted to cut or stab while resisting arrest should be hanged as a felon. It was a far cry from two years' imprisonment, and I shouldn't wonder that it made the poachers increasingly reckless in what they would do to avoid arrest. No wonder the game-keeper never parted with his hefty mastiff.
With a heavy heart I pictured to myself the upright landowner surprising or being about to surprise a stealthy poacher. I was sure that Jack Stokes didn't own a gun, but that was of no avail: caught, he didn't stand a chance before a bench of magistrates, every one of whom would regard him as their natural enemy, and of whom Lord Osborne was one. One bold blow could decide between gallows and freedom. Was that blow delivered? Was a murderer lurking under the guise of unpretentious country lad?
I shuddered and announced to Mr Howard that I wouldn't let him go alone straight into danger. He was riding, I also was mounted, and resolved to accompany him to the unknown end.
He listened to my incoherent fears with his usual politeness and answered enigmatically, "I'm always glad of your company, Dr Watson, but as the snares were in the quarry, there is no danger at all in visiting your ferocious suspect. For the same reason it is imperative to meet him."
I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbours, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Mr Howard.
He noticed my confusion and offered his reasonings.
"Of course, we don't know for sure that it was Jack Stokes who benefited from the quarry snares. Whether it was he or not, the man who set them, of all people, couldn't cross Lord Osborne's path with any intentions, fair or foul. The rabbit-cords, by Panton's words, were down in the bushes, which, I suppose, grew in the disused quarry after rains had washed down enough mud. When that evening you had to drive there, what road did you take?"
"Why, the old road to the mouth of the quarry. Any other way is too steep... Ah!"
"For a carriage. How about a pedestrian? Imagine that you are on the place; you grew here, Dr Watson, you must know Stanton Wood well."
"Let me see; one can walk to Redoubts, to London highway and from there to Stanton - it's not more than half a mile. But I see now what you mean: as he was down, he couldn't climb up in that exact point."
Soon we were riding through the same ill-omened road, and my own eyes persuaded me that the stone works formed an almost vertical wall. And I had contemplated leading my sisters by the route, which amounted to criminal negligence. Though the brink has since been fenced by the order of the present Lord Osborne, and the people go freely by, I cannot make myself to face it.
Suddenly a thought stopped me. "But if Jack Stokes is innocent, why go to see him?"
"In a faint hope, I'm afraid," Mr Howard sighed. "But the traces were fresh, and it is reasonable to suppose that the man came about sunset. Rabbits, naturally, are abroad in the dusk. Maybe, just maybe, he witnessed something: a far-away sound, a shadow of a figure..."
"Surely a witness would have come forward at the inquest?"
"What, and own that he was poaching? It is too much to expect of human virtue, in my humble opinion."
"And now that you have explained it, I confess that I am as amazed as before."
"It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I assure you."
At the cross-roads the children, two boys and a girl, spinning a top by turns, showed us the way to the Stokes' cottage. Jack lived there with his mother and two sisters - about thirty is as early as most men around can afford to marry - and Mrs Stokes met us at the door with every sign of deference. A big kitchen, which was obviously used as a living room, did smell of baking; the poor woman was visibly torn between the desire to invite high and mighty visitors to a delicious dish (and then to cut a superior figure among neighbours for that), and the sensibility of the sinful nature of this particular pie. Mr Howard in his easy pleasant way announced that we were in a hurry and would like to exchange a few words with her son.
We were led into a usual "parson's parlour" - the best room in the house, too important to live in, thoroughly cleaned, stuffy, inhuman and cold. Instead of tantalising flavours it reeked with furniture polish. Though the saying goes that no housewife should be ashamed of this smell, I, for one, would trade it for almost any other.
When Jack appeared, it did not escape my notice that some sort of recognition glimmered on the faces of the two men. Without equivocation Mr Howard explained what he had explained to me: that poachers were strongly suspected of causing Lord Osborne's death, except one, who would be able to prove being down in the quarry at the time.
Jack scratched his head and observed with village cunning, "What proof? People do not put their tags on rabbit-cords."
"Maybe that man heard something which, confirmably, only he could hear."
After silent consideration Jack nodded. "I'm your man, gentlemen. That's right: I was there in the bushes. I won't say why, and no-one has nothing on me, until I'm caught with my pockets full. But there I was, and was frightened out of my wits when he rolled down. I wanted to come near and twice as much I wanted to run away. Then I heard those fellows nearing and decided to sit tight. One lad was sent to Wickstead, and two remained."
"That much was brought forward at the inquest," I put in cautiously.
"Brought, was it? Was it also brought that one of them couldn't make up his mind whether to smoke his pipe there and then or save good tobacco till after supper? You just ask him. I can repeat every word of your prayer, your reverence. Though I have no reason to love the Osbornes, it got at me, too. I can repeat what that country bumpkin said when he let go of a body's leg - but better not, saving young doctor's ears. I'm telling you, I was lying in the bushes, frozen to the bone, and could get away only after all of you was gone."
Mr Howard appeared satisfied, then asked suddenly, "And what were you looking for on the upper road the next morning, my lad?"
"So you recognised me," stated he unblushingly. "I didn't think you would. No harm in looking. I found something which I thought my uncle would be able to sell for me. It should belong to the finder. Just an old ring, how do you know it was Osborne's?"
"Fair enough," Mr Howard placated him. "I'll show it to Lady Osborne; if she doesn't claim it, it shall be returned to the finder."
The man wasn't too pleased, but he gave the ring without fuss.
"Had you heard anything before the fall?"
"That I did," Jack Stokes grinned. "And your reverence may put out of your head that some poor poacher helped my lord down."
"Because of what he said. He yelled, 'I won't dance to your pipe', and was falling the next second. His talk to poachers was of another kind."
I could hardly breathe: the last dramatic moments of Lord Osborne's life, just as Mr Howard predicted, were revealed in artless speech of the uncouth witness. What more wonderful discoveries would follow?
"You heard this?"
"Not same words, though. It was..." the country lad frowned and produced slowly, " 'I shan't sacrifice my convictions for your fancies,' like."
"Are you sure it was Lord Osborne talking?"
"Me not to know his voice! Many a time in the gorse I heard him giving orders an' complaining of poachers."
"Who could be with him?"
"That I didn't see. But if you want to know, ask your own nephew what my lord learned about his gamekeeper, that self-righteous Abel Panton!"
The tables were turned: now the poacher accused the gamekeeper, and judging from his vindictive leer, he really had something on Panton. But I reminded myself that the most withering look still was not enough to prove man's guilt.
"What do you mean exactly?"
"No, gentlemen, I'm not going to commit myself. I saw nothing, and heard very little. I was in a lewth - what town folks call a cover - in a little combe behind Wickstead... Never mind, I know that it was Master Blake shouting at Lord Osborne. Sort of stamping rage, the state he was in. And he cried - "murder". Ask him. If the boy knows what unlucky poacher that Cain put to death, he should speak up."
While I was listening to him, it dawned on me that a gamekeeper really had unique opportunities for taking somebody's life. He went about the quiet countryside armed with a gun; he could pursue someone - in fact, it was his duty to run down an offender - to a lonely spot; he simply could set that fierce dog of his on some poor soul... I shuddered. And what about Lord Osborne?
"What about Lord Osborne?"
"My lord was swearing he would discharge him at once. He was in a fury, that he was."
Mr Howard observed thoughtfully, "Panton keeps his place still."
"Because Panton took care to get his blow in first."
Nothing more could be drawn out of the man, and we turned to Wickstead in order to hear what Charles Blake had to say about this extraordinary story.
"Well, Watson, what do you think of it?"
"I can see that you are not satisfied."
"Oh yes, my dear Watson, I am perfectly satisfied."
"Do you believe Jack Stokes, then?"
"Of course, I do. He says the truth - as he sees it."
"But it cannot be proved."
"On the contrary. He certainly was in the quarry at the time when you and I were there; the scene he described was explicit to the smallest detail. As he couldn't get there after those three labourers, he was on the spot before them."
"Why couldn't he?"
"My dear doctor, the men waited for the help to come, they would immediately hear any steps. On the other hand, they had no business to spy around, and if nothing was moving, they wouldn't notice a shadow lurking among thick bushes in the dark."
"But then, he said... Then it really was a murder? Lord Osborne was pushed over the precipice?"
"That we shall prove when we find to whom he could be talking."
"How?" I exclaimed.
"By learning more than we do now. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
"Do you think the gamekeeper..."
"Never put forth theories until you know facts, Watson. A very common habit - and damaging to the brain."
The facts, as far as they could be ascertained at all, soon were pouring on us from Charles Blake's lips. Yes, he was shouting at Lord Osborne. No, not long ago, maybe a day only before his fall. He was very sorry, he knew it was a breach of manners, but consider the case...
"Of murder?" Mr Howard prompted him.
"It is worse than murder, because there's no legal remedy."
Charles's face had turned pearly white; his mouth, generally smiling, was tight shut, and his eyes blazed.
"I know I should keep my temper, but it's an awful thing. It's the ruin of good feelin' among neighbours. A man ought to say once and for all how he stands about preserving," he cried out in a grating voice. "I told Lord Osborne, 'Do you shoot foxes or do you not? Because, if you don't, your keeper does.' He was outraged first, but he understood and said, 'I do not.' I said and I'll repeat it to the new lord, 'Then you must sack you keeper. He's not fit to live in the same county with a God-fearin' fox.'"
Charles Blake told his tale alternately as a schoolboy, and, when the iniquity of the thing overcame him, as an indignant squire. He had been in the little combe and with his own eyes had seen how the gamekeeper threw the gun to his shoulder and fired both barrels.
"So you see he must be in the habit of it. One never wants to accuse a neighbour's man, but I took the liberty in this case... And a vixen, too - at this time of year!"
"Now, my boy, do not let yourself to be carried away," Mr Howard corrected him sternly. "The fox might be hunted to the Annunciation."
"Yes, sir. Anyway, Lord Osborne agreed with me. He said it was enough to ruin the reputation of an archangel, and that Panton should go immediately. Also he said that you, Uncle, had brought me up well. In loco parentis, or how it was?"
"And I thought I'd taught my nephew some Latin. What does the expression mean?"
"In place of the parents. Right, sir?"
"Yes. I'm not sure my bringing up was without fault. I won't punish you this time, but do not forget the decency due to elders, for whatever reason."
Master Blake ran away. I'm not, and never was, a hunter, unlike little Charles, who had already been out proudly several times with Lord Osborne's hounds, on a horse of his own given him by his lordship. Nor am I a landed man, but I've learnt enough to know that any one of them would have done as much if he'd seen the thing happen on other's land. The gamekeeper's future would look miserable indeed if his shot got widely known.
Now, I was sure, we held in our hands threads of one of the strangest cases which ever perplexed a man's brain. What horrible means to use! Going around as if in search of poachers, and in reality trapping his master. Getting him to dismount on some innocent pretext, to show something on the ground - hence the tinder-box. The final exposition, and the young man was cut in the prime of his life, a victim of his unflinching convictions, with the last parting arrow on his lips.
I offered to ride to the parish constable, for the blackguard who did not hesitate to lift his hand against his benefactor, would without doubt resist arrest desperately.
Mr Howard thanked me, but hinted that in my eagerness to help I missed an important point.
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog at the time."
"The dog did nothing at the time."
"That was the curious incident."
Not at once, but gradually I worked it out: if Panton's unavoidable companion, the huge mastiff, did not bark fit to burst when someone was quarrelling with his master, it could mean only that there was no dog. Consequently, the gamekeeper was not our man. Who, then?
So, going on my round, I never ceased wondering about this deadly adversary; the thoughts all the more oppressive because, pleaded to secrecy, I couldn't share them with anyone. I was very glad to see Mr Howard who came into my little apothecary's corner expressly to discuss the matter with me.
Instead of considering the likely suspects he surprised me by talking about the trinket, the ring that Jack Stokes had found in the morning after Lord Osborne's fall.
"I began with obvious assumption that it belonged either to his lordship or to the person who met him on the road. If an innocent passer-by dropped one of his belongings, the whole county would be informed."
It was a clever conclusion, as I had to admit, and it fascinated me by opening a completely new perspective.
"Have a look. Well, Watson, what do you make of it?"
It was a smooth band of pale gold, twirled on top into the design known as a true lovers' knot, set with two fair-sized stones. They were colourless, rather dull, not sparkling I mean. On the inside a motto ran in small but legible letters, "In thee my Choice, I do rejoice."
I was glad to put at the clergyman's service that fine art of reading hidden meaning from external symptoms, for which the medical profession was always famous.
"It is old, judging by the colour and the condition of the surface."
"The probability lies in this direction. If it wasn't exposed to very severe conditions, the gold would be worn by time alone."
"I can say with certainty, because it is also old-fashioned. Such ring posies were common in Shakespeare's time, and a little later, maybe an occasional one could be met with in the beginning of the last century, but who wears an inscribed ring nowadays?"
"Perfectly sound! It gives us the basis for several deductions."
"Does it? Of what nature?"
"If an old jewel is worn, it is either because the owner cannot afford the price of resetting, a new one, and so on, or because it has historical or sentimental value."
"Ah! Of course. Well, I fancy the former. The stones, as you see, are nothing much. Is it rock crystal? The ring was not costly to begin with. Besides, look," I slipped the circlet on my little finger, and it stuck at the second joint, so I finished with some self-importance, "it is a woman's ring. Hence, it belonged neither to Lord Osborne, nor to the attacker, but to some village maiden, who is not heart-broken over the loss of an old ugly thing. It should go to Jack Stokes, and he will be lucky if his uncle can bargain it for a pound or two."
"Really, Watson, you surpass yourself," said Mr Howard, taking the trinket back. "It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but your are a conductor of light. I'm afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous, but your fallacies guide a listener towards the truth. Not that you are entirely wrong in this instance. The ring is certainly old-fashioned and made for a woman's finger."
"But..." I probed, not a little piqued, as I trusted that there was nothing of consequence which I had overlooked.
"But the gems are diamonds, big for such."
He brushed at the nearest medicine bottle, and the glass was notched like butter.
"When these were set, the brilliant cut of many facets, which gives a diamond its play, hadn't yet been invented. This is called the rose cut, and, as you have pointed out, it doesn't do the stones justice. So much for the value. Your second mistake is jumping to conclusions. How do you know that Lord Osborne's enemy was not a woman?"
How, indeed? There was no indication. And a woman can push or shoot as easily as a man, or a child, for that matter. It is not like a mortal stab or strangulation.
"Oh, what an ass I have been!" I exclaimed.
"Well, well," said Howard, good-humouredly. "We all learn by experience, and your lesson this time is that you should never lose sight of the alternative. All this is amusing, though rather elementary, but I must go back to business, Watson. I need your help in explaining some of your sisters' remarks."
"Have you been talking to my sisters on this matter?"
"I have, though not of our suspicions, just of the visit. Have you forgotten that Miss Margaret was perhaps the last person to see Lord Osborne alive, barring the murderer? Without going into details - I formed an opinion that his lordship had gone to Stanton with intention to propose to your sister Emma."
"Impossible!" cried I.
"Why?" he protested hotly. "Miss Emma is usually reckoned to be uncommonly pretty. Her lively eye, a sweet smile, and an open countenance give beauty to attract, and expression to make that beauty improve on acquaintance. Your sister Elizabeth was positive that Mr Watson had lived in Stanton fourteen years without being noticed by any of the Osborne family; and Miss Emma, in all her modesty, could not but take the compliment of his visits to herself."
"Still I cannot believe that Lord Osborne was her admirer. He simply did not behave like a man in love. He called now and then, his visits few and far between; while he was a full master of his time, he could come and go as he pleased."
I thought bitterly of my own too busy days, which did not let me see one young lady as often as I wished. I had been very much in love with Mary Edwards for two years. Mr Edwards, an old friend of my father's, lived in the neighbourhood once, and as children his daughter and I were very friendly; but he got richer and richer, went to reside in the best house in all Dorking, kept his coach, and looked much higher than a poor surgeon. After many an assembly that I had to miss because Mr Curtis couldn't spare me, Elizabeth would write me a letter, kindly meant, I'm sure, enumerating Mary's partners, including James Tomlinson, a banker's son, or dashing Captain Hunter. And yet, hoping against hope, I spent every free moment at her side. While Lord Osborne... no.
"The ring - supposing it is his - does look like an engagement ring, a heirloom. Besides, he had declared as much to Miss Margaret, if I understood her right. I'm afraid not all her statements were coherent; she had a very slow articulation in the beginning of our talk, but then spoke in a sharp, quick accent totally unlike the first, and in the end went into proper hysterics altogether. Miss Watson begged to excuse her as being of a nervous disposition."
"Long-suffering Elizabeth! Margaret speaks hardly a word a minute when determined on pleasing, but she is at no pains to conceal her vexation under a disappointment or repress the peevishness of her temper. Elizabeth is usually invaded by her fretful displeasure; I can't imagine how you became the object of her querulous attacks."
"I suppose Miss Margaret was past caring for appearances. And this is what I want to get clearer: had Mr Musgrave transferred his attentions from her to Miss Emma?"
"Elizabeth is the one to tell the whole story, for she was the first he paid attention to, when he came into this county, more than six years ago. Then there was my sister Penelope, who was sadly disappointed in him; when he had trifled with her long enough, he began to slight her for Margaret. As for her, she was expecting him to come to the point within a twelvemonth, went to Croydon twice on purpose to egg him on, but I remember Elizabeth predicting that he would no more follow her in October than he did in March."
"Yet Miss Margaret must have been possessed with the delusion, for she avowed that she had planned a revenge. A great sin," the clergyman frowned and asked sharply, "What was the treachery of Penelope towards Elizabeth?"
I, caught unawares, had to answer, though I'd rather never reveal the circumstances that pained my dearly loved sister so much.
"Elizabeth was attached to a young man of the name of Purvis, a particular friend of Robert's. Everybody thought it would have been a match. I was away at school then, I do not know all the details. But Penelope set him against her, with a view of gaining him herself, and it ended in his discontinuing his visits and soon after marrying somebody else. You don't mean that Margaret expected to do the same for Emma?.. In view of Lord Osborne's visits..."
My head buzzed with intruding implications. Disappointment, working on a high spirit... Machinations thwarted... Other's engagement ring - the last drop... Just how far Margaret's frustration could lead her? My father wouldn't be a reliable witness... She could slip out unnoticed and he none the wiser...
I was too shaken to speak and resolved that not a word about my unfortunate sister would escape my lips. Let Mr Howard come to conclusion without my help, but the verdict had been rendered long ago in one line of a poet,
Continued in Part 2
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