The Stanton Wood Mystery
Afterwards I was only too glad that I had said nothing. Reflecting on the circumstances in a cooler state of mind, I figured by elementary arithmetic that a girl, however angry, cannot match the speed of a rider. I distinctly remembered Nanny's words at the inquest that Lord Osborne "rode off". It was not as if they walked together, and Margaret certainly couldn't walk far in that mud, even if she borrowed maid's pattens.
So the mystery had to be left awhile, Mr Howard carried out his duties of Lent services, and I went about my duties. In short course I was asked to attend Lady Osborne, whose condition suddenly took a turn for the worse.
In the great hall of Osborne Castle I ran across Miss Osborne, who remarked condescendingly to the civil footman, leading my way, that she herself would take the surgeon to her mother. On the staircase she commented, without turning her head to my side.
"I hope there is nothing drastic with mama. Fainting in affliction I can put up with, it was the sacred custom in the last century; but taking to bed upon knowing that her son had willed lots of money to her is pure affectation. All those talks of residing in Bath, for the benefit of her poor health. Bath is not bad on a widow's jointure, but I'm sure, now you should find her healthy enough to live in London; pray tell her so. What a family! My brother wasn't going to the Season himself, and didn't let me to stay with friends, while he had this money all the time; and then my mother thinks of burying me with her in a country town. Here is the door; find a really sharp medicine to set her up again."
I was shocked and grieved by this rampant lack of delicacy in a high-born damsel. I heard that in aristocratic circles in Town a certain daring was coming into fashion, that young ladies talked in racy language called slang, even that some of them discarded petticoats and wore men's articles of small clothes. I felt for Lord Osborne, attempting, as the head of the family, to keep his sister from their pernicious influence.
Also I was bewildered, what money came into question, as the estate was entailed together with the title. Luckily, Lady Osborne talked of it at once as connected with her condition.
"The moment I began feeling just a mite better, I've got unexpected news that worked on my nerves abominably."
"The speed of your ladyship's recovery will then depend on the nature of the news."
"I don't know. I cannot call it good, for I'd rather have my son than all the money in the world. It appears that he took on some war contracts together with Mr Edwards - I believe I've heard the name - and his share of the profit was deposited for his mother and sister. So it stood in the letter from his London charge d'affairs. He could, of course, do what he liked with it, it doesn't go with the estate."
"I can safely promise that after the first shock is abated, your ladyship will return to normal condition."
"Is it so, Dr Watson? I have no concern for myself; I'm no better than an invalid, and though the traces of my sad losses haven't yet shown on my face, as I am constantly flattered, I know they are here. I mean to settle quietly in Bath, in true dowager propriety, with a modest chariot, a single footman and a few maids, take waters, even if they prolong my cheerless life for several years. The animation of a card-table is all that is left for me, sometimes perhaps amusing my partners by description of Osborne Castle, for not everyone comes from a stately home, and what is commonplace here, may seem a wonder to humbler people. But I have another child still, and, as a good mother, must look after her chances in life."
"If your ladyship follow the prescriptions faithfully, have plenty of rest and set your mind on getting well, your ladyship... well, you shall get well. And as for those traces on your face, with all respect for your ladyship, I cannot see them either."
"Oh, you'll make a fine courtier, Dr Watson," she smiled, and though she was shaking her head, I could see that she was less depressed already.
I suppose I may have an innocent pride in my bedside manner. It is an important professional advantage, for medicine remains faith-healing, as it has been from time immemorial.
"So you think I'll be equal to fatigue of living in Town? I shall make every sacrifice for my dear daughter," she pledged eagerly. "Besides, one can help one's friends better from there. Don't you think that Mr Howard would make a celebrated preacher? People of taste will be crowding to hear him: he reads extremely well, with great propriety and in a very impressive manner; and at the same time, without any theatrical grimace or violence."
Well, the women had to go somewhere to make place for the new Osborne family, and letting a patient fret never helped the success of a physician. So I filled some immediate prescriptions, and a few for the period of convalescence, but stressed that for some time she would have to spare herself, at least for three months of first mourning, which is convenient.
"Besides, your ladyship's health will be greatly supported by proof of Lord Osborne's tender care for you and Miss Osborne."
"Yes, my son was always very responsible and thoughtful. It was sweet of him to add to his sister's portion and to my small income as well. Only if he hadn't been so reserved, I wouldn't have learnt of it by surprise. Or this..."
She turned to a small table at the side of her bed, a dainty doll's thing, white and gold, fumbled with a lace handkerchief and got from under it a ring - no, the ring. Lady Osborne began talking in a musing voice, gracefully turning her eyes upwards.
"It was in the family for two centuries. Mr Howard tells me it was found on the very place... He suggested that my son had taken it with the intention to propose to Miss Emma Watson. He didn't say a word to me, I'm sure. I asked my daughter, she could only remember that back in October her brother had pestered her to send Miss Emma a name of her shoemaker. Yes, reserve was very characteristic of him. He never sought advice, and would go his own way, even if the whole world went another. I do not profess an opinion, how far Lord Osborne could forget his elevated state to stoop to misalliance, perhaps he just wanted to show an antique jewel to the girl, known for her refined tastes. So this is what he was looking for in the dark."
"Did Mr Howard mention anyone who could be suspected?" asked I, unable to restrain my curiosity.
"Suspected?.. No. I comprehend now that it was pure accident, for Mr Howard's correspondent in London reports that on the 4th of March Admiral Osborne definitely attended the funeral of Admiral Crawford's wife, and then dined with the bereaved husband. And my son's business in Dorking was with Mr Edwards, understandably."
So Mr Howard didn't relate to Lady Osborne what Jack Stokes had heard. Why? I'd think she should be gratified to get an affirmation of what was, after all, her theory. She did not hesitate to point at Lord Osborne's own uncle as his possible murderer; erroneously, as it turned out, but it threw light on her noble vengeance, that she wouldn't spare the nearest and dearest. Nearer to her was only...
Yes. Her daughter. Miss Osborne, bent on getting what she wanted. She desired to stay in London and was ready to compel her mother to take residence there without consulting about the real state of her health. She couldn't prevail upon her brother, who wouldn't give up, and was - not desperate, surely? And this new money - did she know beforehand?
I stopped myself, I didn't want to make stupid mistakes again. But I could see no fault in my deduction. Unlike Margaret, Miss Osborne was a horsewoman. It was not a case of running after him, but riding to meet him. Then a quarrel, not the first one, tragically getting out of hand - to remain the last.
Blood froze in my veins at the thought that such fiend in human shape existed. I fervently hoped that Miss Osborne could be tracked down, notwithstanding her fair outward form and high birth.
I got down to the stables to claim my horse. A talkative groom handed the bridle to me. It was a good chance to know when and where Miss Osborne was riding on the 4th of March, and I stopped to chat with him. After an exchange of opinion upon horseflesh in general, the hunters and hacks of the family were discussed. I was shown Miss Osborne's magnificent mount. Innocent questions whether it got enough exercise, was the lady herself abroad often and such like soon brought me the desired answer: she was out riding on the first Friday of the month.
"I accompanied her myself, sir. We went through the whole of Oldean Common. So this boy was sweated thoroughly."
Here my bubble of a theory burst completely. A part of my brain still tried to fit the pieces together, suggesting ways to give a servant the slip, incredible by-roads; but it was useless, as I understood at once. I let the groom to finish his discourse and rode away, not knowing whether to laugh at my imagination or to cry at the elusive mystery. So, I thought, I'd fare better with other kinds of solutions, namely, paregoric elixir or antimonial wine.
I busied myself with the battery of bottles for Lady Osborne, got out the ounce and half-ounce glasses and the article of great importance, Shuttleworth's drop-measure. Mr Curtis considered the practice of administering the most active and costly fluids other than by drops dangerously inaccurate. I mixed and labelled them with remarkable ease, almost without consulting The Universal Dispensatory. I barely found a place for the lot in a portable medicine-chest, but managed to shut the lid safely after a little tugging at leather straps. My worthy master, on the understanding that it was my last visit to Osborne Castle, had permitted me to deliver the tinctures.
When I was ready to set out, I was suddenly called to the front door by the sound of as smart a rap as the end of a riding-whip would give. The caller was Mr Howard; our surprise may be imagined. Mr Curtis asked very particularly after the health of Mrs Blake and her children, but the clergyman, flustered a little, assured that all of them were very well indeed, he just had business to discuss with Dr Watson, which might be talked over as well without doors as within. So, if Dr Curtis wouldn't mind... He, mollified by the honourable title, did not object and even saw us to the street.
"The point is, Watson, time has come to interrogate Mr Musgrave. But, as the questions will partly concern your sisters, I would like you to be present. Could your patients spare you for a few hours?"
"I have here medicine to bring to the Castle. Dorking, after all, is not very far away. But why Tom Musgrave?"
He didn't answer at once, and I knew that he was still pondering over the strange problem which he had set himself to unravel.
"I rather think that I ought to have looked at the mystery from another angle. Tom Musgrave, a notorious flirt, a Surrey Lovelace, forgot Elizabeth for Penelope, jilted Penelope for Margaret, slighted Margaret for Emma... But who supplanted Emma? No-one that we heard of. Every road comes to an end eventually. Could he be a rival - a deadly rival - of Lord Osborne in his affections for Miss Emma Watson?"
With all respect to Mr Howard it was a proposition which I took liberty of doubting.
"Tom Musgrave generally pays attention to every new girl, he is always behaving in a particular way to one or another, but he never means anything serious. And besides, Lady Osborne is not at all sure that Lord Osborne had a proposal in mind. Then there wasn't any reason..."
"Remember that she comes of a caste who do not lightly show emotion. No, whatever her ideas on inequality of rank, she knows well that Lord Osborne was visiting Stanton. There was a message from Mr Watson - Tom Musgrave was commissioned with it - a message of excuse to Osborne Castle that he couldn't return the visit, on the too-sufficient plea of his infirm state of health. And as for Musgrave himself, he made two or three visits for Lord Osborne's one."
"Much ado about Emma. I, for one, could never be persuaded that she were half so handsome as Elizabeth had been ten years ago. With some her brown skin is the annihilation of every grace."
"Yes, her skin is very brown, but clear, smooth, and glowing. And then her open countenance and the air of healthy vigour... - but we are talking of a possible suspect. Tom Musgrave loves to take people by surprise, with sudden visits at extraordinary hours. He could chance upon Lord Osborne on the deserted road."
In view of future events I wonder at myself how I could be so unobservant, staying in Mr Howard's company for hours on end, but I freely confess that I'm not one of those writers who claim by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man's inmost thoughts.
"I take it that you didn't reveal your suspicions to Lady Osborne. She is persuaded now that it was an accident."
"I should prefer to have clearer proofs before I speak."
We stopped at the doors of Osborne Castle and left the medicine chest with the butler, to be called for later, when emptied.
Soon we stood in front of the White Hart, a double-fronted coaching inn with a royally-collared stag as its sign. In passing along a short gallery, we were accosted by our man, in a morning dress and boots, who was standing in the doorway of a bedchamber, apparently on purpose to see us go by.
"Ah! Mr Howard, how do you do? - How do you do, Dr Watson?" he cried, with an easy air. "Will you please step in my retreat?"
The room was rather small and somewhat dark, strewed with the litter of books, guns, and greatcoats. A tray with plates and cups still stood on top of a table.
"It's not at its tidiest," he said. "My stupid fellow ought to look to it ages ago. I've just taken an odd cup of coffee. I dine, of course, at eight o'clock; you see that the cloth is not laid, just the tray doesn't signify."
He bowed, and smiled, provided us with chairs, and did everything very prettily.
"Lady Osborne would tell me that I were growing as careless as her son, if she saw me in this condition. Ah! What a sad loss, and that on the eve of the most important event in my noble friend's life. For, you know, Dr Watson, Lord Osborne, who was an admirer of your sister Emma, meant to come to the point."
"How do you know it?" Mr Howard asked with hardly concealed anxiety.
Tom Musgrave was happy to oblige. His expression and all his bearing bespoke clear conscience.
"Why, I was a regular Cupid for him. Miss Emma was inclined to be severe upon my friend, I went out of my way to assure her Lord Osborne was a very good fellow. If it were not a breach of confidence, perhaps I might have been able to win a more favourable opinion of poor Osborne."
"We were talking recently that Emma was thought a beautiful girl by lord and commoner," I remarked, not too maliciously, I hope. "People must be converts to a brown complexion."
"Your sister's complexion is as fine as a dark complexion can be, but I still profess my preference of a white skin. You have seen Miss Osborne? - she is my model for a truly feminine complexion, and she is very fair. Wait! I'll show you a few lines that I've put down as a tribute. Now, where is... Ah!"
He unearthed a sheet of a dainty blue colour and began reading from it in a stilted sing-song.
"Whoso for hours of lengthy days
Shall catch her aspect's changeful rays,
Then turn away, can none recall
Beyond a galaxy of all
In hazy portraiture;
Lit by the light of azure eyes
Like summer days by summer skies:
Her sweet transitions seem to be
A pinkly pictured melody,
And not a set contour." ***
Well, well, my sister Elizabeth always said that Tom Musgrave would never marry unless he could marry somebody very great; Miss Osborne, perhaps, or something in that style. Certainly he was in a state of mind to be not displeased with her brother's marrying a little beneath him.
Mr Howard was looking away with the air of a man whose disgust is too deep for words. I had to keep the conversation up.
"The lady liked the offering well, no doubt."
"She would," unexpectedly he burst into temper, "but for that damnable Colonel Beresford. What business of his are belles-lettres?"
He was not the only man in the room who had little affection for the red coats. An idea, a completely new angle began forming in my mind, when a sound of exited voices penetrated through the door, and a booming bass shouted,
"I am telling you he is a French spy!"
*** ('Eunice', the first published poem by T. Hardy, who used it himself for a piece of amateurish verses in 'Desperate Remedies'.)
I must admit that we fell out into the passage without a thought given to proper manners, for a hue and cry is not raised every day in a peaceful countryside inn, and French spies are not widely encountered in Merrie England.
The scene that appeared before our astonished eyes was truly striking. The parish constable was barring the way of a tall pale man; a second more - and he would collar the culprit. The outraged master of the inn faced him.
"You are not going to say I'm giving shelter to spies!"
People gathered thickly around, and tongues worked at full speed. The commotion brought out the landlady from her bar.
"There are no spies among my customers! Why, this gentleman hasn't given a moment's trouble for his whole stay. Payments always prompt, he takes only the best claret and spends an evening quietly over a cup, not like some people I could name."
She glared at the constable, but the staunch servant of the law remained unmoved.
"Mistress, I received information about a suspicious character. It is my duty to put him before the bench."
The waiter, whom I thought a polite, unassuming lad, was full of accusations.
"He is, ma'am, he is. Why an honest man would wear blue spectacles?"
True, the stranger was nervously clutching at a pair of dark glasses. He smiled uneasily and suggested in a cultured voice, certainly without any trace of foreign accent, "A weak sight is not a crime that I know of."
The observation was just, and the man himself had a gentleman-like air and was dressed quite elegantly, though in sombre clothes.
"No? It is not? And question me and Walter here about people around - what's that for?"
The stranger gave an exasperated sigh. "If I take interest in some people, it is for purely private reasons."
"An interesting reason this - to fish everything about the road to Stanton and not go there after all."
"Surely it is my business, when and where to go!" the man began losing patience.
"No, it is not," the parish constable summed up sternly. "You go to the magistrates, and they'll probably send you to Assizes."
If the whole episode sounds laughable to my readers now, when the Corsican monster is overthrown, I beg them to remember that it did not seem so then. I had patients who used to wake up in the night many a time, and think they heard the tramp of French entering Guildford.
It was widely imagined that the invasion of Buonaparte might take place at the mouth of the Tyne. One of Elizabeth's friends, a Miss Jenkyns, who stayed in Newcastle, in her letters conveyed particulars of the preparations which were made in the family, with whom she was residing, against the dreaded event; the bundles of clothes that were packed up ready for a flight to Alston Moor (a wild hilly place of ground between Northamberland and Cumberland); the signal that was to be given for this flight, and for the simultaneous turning out of the volunteers under arms; which said signal was to consist (if I remember right) in ringing the church bells in a particular and ominous manner. One day, when Miss Jenkyns and her hosts were at a dinner-party, this warning summons was actually given. No-one thought of doubting it, especially as those friends were intimate with the commandant of the garrison there, and heard from him of all the preparations that were being made to repel the invasion. Miss Jenkyns wrote the next day to describe the sound, the breathless shock, the hurry and alarm, which of course proved to be unfounded. The story became known far and wide, and I shouldn't be surprised if some writer use it, describing our times. ***
My father, frail as he was, preached a whole set of sermons on the occasion; one set in the mornings, all about David and Goliath, to spirit up the people to fighting with spades or bricks, if need were; and the other set in the afternoons, proving that Napoleon was all the same as an Apollyon and Abaddon.
So, however trivial do our apprehensions appear at the present moment, to calm and inquiring minds, they were not at all trivial or trifling at the time. The charge of being a spy for hated French was not a light matter.
Mr Howard valiantly stepped in. "Let us not lose our heads. Do you know anyone in these parts, sir, who can attest to your bona fides?"
The mysterious man turned to him quickly.
"Thank Heavens, one sane person at last! I live permanently in London, but I've been to the village of Stanton seven years ago. I used to know Mr Robert Watson very well."
"A clever idea!" the waiter sneered. "To name Mr Robert, who is far away at Croydon."
"Well, others in the family, too."
"Here is one of them," the constable pointed in my direction theatrically.
We looked at each other. I was sure that I didn't know this stranger from Adam. He shook his head regretfully.
"You must be Mr Samuel. What a pity that we didn't get acquainted earlier, in more pleasant circumstances, but I had gone away before you were out of school. May I see Mr Watson, then?"
"Your story is well prepared," the constable acknowledged. "Mr Watson is an invalid and cannot rush around the country at your convenience. In my opinion you've never put your eyes on him or his."
"We must give this man a chance to assert his integrity," Mr Howard interfered. "Someone should drive to Stanton for Mr Watson, who, I'm convinced, will understand the urgency of the case."
Tom Musgrave immediately offered his services, assuring both the accuser and the accused that they could not find a more willing or speedy messenger than himself. His curricle will go there and back in twenty minutes, in a quarter of an hour. It was the most safe carriage in the world, and there was not a possibility of fear with his horses. Mr Watson would be conveyed as if in his own arm-chair. And so, he departed, delighted with the bustle and importance of his mission.
The parish constable, a suspicious and conscientious man, refused to let his prisoner out of sight, so he and another burly fellow guarded him in his own room at the inn. The servants went about their errands, the master and his lady, and a few people departed, but some remained to see the matter through to the end. Meanwhile they discussed heatedly who the mysterious man really was, a spy or not, whether he was going to run away; for example, to smite the two guards with a blow - not that he looked like a man accustomed to give heavy blows - or to stab them, or anything, and jump through the window; perhaps it would be expedient to set a post under it.
I couldn't put out of my head that the mysterious stranger tried to learn the particulars about the Stanton road. Did he go there? Was he detected by Lord Osborne? Was the unfortunate nobleman murdered as a witness to his villainous occupation?
*** (Elizabeth Gaskell did, in 'Cranford', Ch. V.)
If not in twenty minutes, in half an hour the sound of the carriage was caught; it became more decided; the wheels rapidly approached; they stopped. Everybody listened. Steps were distinguished, first along the paved foot way which led under the windows of the house to the front door, and then within the passage. They were steps of a woman.
"Miss Watson, we expected your father," the murmur of the inn-keeper's voice was heard.
"He is ill-disposed from immediate pain. After being for ten years my father's companion, I know everyone he knows," was Elizabeth's decided answer.
Cautiously the constable opened the door, her eyes fell on the mysterious man.
He changed colour, then stepped forward, his arms outstretched towards her, and began talking in great agitation.
"Elizabeth - Miss Watson - dearest Elizabeth... Will you forgive me? I've suffered enough... My marriage was a terrible mistake. Now I've lost my wife - may she rest in peace - I never had any... I came to learn whether I could have hope... I'm yet in mourning, I didn't want people to know... Gossip touching you, this would be unbearable..."
So much for our fears and patriotic fervour. We cleared away, leaving them to sort out their wrongs. Except for the constable, who felt cheated out of a public reward, everyone else was glad at the turn of events.
When Elizabeth reappeared, she said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes; and Mr Purvis shook my hand warmly. Tom Musgrave, with no unbecoming ease, put the curricle at his disposal in case he was inclined to visit Mr Watson immediately, and off they went.
Mr Howard expressed hope that he would be the one to tie the knot. I could perceive that he took to heart his misjudgement of Tom Musgrave, so we parted in low spirits. As a brother I was elated, but as a seeker of truth was disappointed again.
Still, a soft whispering of the inner voice told me that we shouldn't overlook any person who could have association, of whatever kind, with the Osborne family. Tom Musgrave's passing remark directed my thoughts to a previously unexplored ground.
I didn't forget the famous story how Master Blake had lost his dance with Miss Osborne because of Colonel Beresford. I had observed him at Assemblies, always the smartest officer in any set, of commanding demeanour and arrogant disposition. Some people might consider him pleasant and cheerful, but I didn't like the smile, that had often been struck from his mouth, as if by some invisible hand. It is your dashing jovial soldier of the traditional school, who shows himself capable of considerable violence and vindictiveness.
Perhaps Lord Osborne didn't like him either, taking into account that nothing decisive had yet been announced between the Colonel and Miss Osborne, in spite of all Musgrave's grievances. And what then? Could it be that Colonel Beresford proceeded to remove the obstacle calmly out of his way?
Remembering Mr Howard's lessons, I decided first of all to learn whether Colonel Beresford could have an opportunity to meet with Lord Osborne at the given time in the given place. If not, he should be allowed an alibi, as Roman jurists termed it, that is, "being somewhere else".
A little harmless deception was called for, to get a leave from my worthy master. But when I expanded on the touching reunion and referred vaguely to family affairs that might demand my presence, Mr Curtis was as meek as a lamb and permitted my absence for the next afternoon, after the morning round would be completed. I knew I was to thank not any persuasive qualities of my poor self, but that respect and good-will which he and Mrs Curtis had for Elizabeth.
Anyway, the next afternoon I was standing outside of Colonel Beresford's lodgings at Dorking, wondering what to do. I had called only to hear that he would be away for considerable time. Some unsavoury business awaited his orders, something about a private to be flogged, and the Colonel was not expected soon.
My attention was caught by a small group of officers, walking on the other side of the way. They bowed as they passed; that much I'd say for the regiment officers: they were in general a very creditable, gentleman-like set. I crossed the pavement with a half-formed intention to ask upon their colonel's whereabouts - on that day, or, if Fortune played into my hand, on that Friday.
When I came near, I almost wished I hadn't; if not for my quest, I'd surely turn away. One of them was Captain Hunter, and either because we met outside of a ballroom, or for another reason, he had lost completely his air of empressement, and looked down his nose. The two officers with him were Mr Norton, his cousin, and Mr Styles. Mr Norton addressed me directly and showed altogether a pleasant readiness of conversation - a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming.
He would like to help me if he could, but he didn't know for certain where the Colonel was, perhaps he could be of service with a message. He did not advise to wait, the Colonel was much sought after and was almost sure to be out for the evening. He saw no reason not to tell where, if it was within his knowledge - on Friday? Ah, the first Friday...
"And why are you spying out this?" Captain Hunter interfered in the most offensive manner.
"I asked a simple question," I tried to reason with him.
"A simple question! Do you want to know where all people spend all of their time?"
"Very well; where you had been on the 4th of March?" I was really provoked.
"I was in my lodgings for the whole evening, with these gentlemen," cried he in unseemly triumph.
His friends, to whom this outburst seemed as unexpected as to me, endeavoured to calm him.
"Certainly, you were; but Dr Watson wasn't even talking of you, Hunter," Mr Styles pointed out.
"Let him know, the dirty spy! And if you were not a base sawbones, I'd call you out, with weapons of your choice."
Mr Norton studied his cousin with a darkened brow.
"You cannot take someone's refusing a challenge, but you think you will demean yourself with another. Such are your convictions?"
"Don't talk of convictions to me!" he roared and dashed along the street, followed by his worried friends.
What a stupid, disagreeable fellow! And to think that Mary Edwards was deluded by his brazen countenance. I was so angry that I didn't notice Mr Howard, hurrying towards me.
"Dr Watson, have you had an altercation with these officers?"
"Nothing serious. I just hoped to learn where Colonel Beresford could be on March the fourth, when Captain Hunter flared up and called me a spy for my pains."
Mr Howard gave me a startled look. "So you were interested in Colonel Beresford? I see that our minds work in similar lines."
To say that I was flattered was to say nothing. I was tingling with that half-sporting, half-intellectual pleasure which I invariable experienced when I associated myself with him in his investigations.
"Perhaps I can alleviate your concern. I have just been told that the Colonel was invited to a regular gathering of the whist club at the White Hart; in fact, Mr Tomlinson sent a carriage for him. I'm lost without my Boswell; do you care to accompany me to the Tomlinsons' house?"
Bewildered as I was, I eagerly tagged along.
"But why to Mr Tomlinson?"
"In order to verify the statement, of course. Don't say that you believe everything you are told."
Mr Tomlinson the banker lived in a new house at the end of the town, fashionably built, with a shrubbery and sweep, and liked to be indulged in calling it his place in the country. He received us very cordially, begged us to warm ourselves at the fireplace, for country walks were cold in the present season. Without any hesitation he confirmed that Colonel Beresford had been indeed asked to make up a rubber, in Mr Edwards' stead. Mr Edwards pleaded some delayed business which transpired during his meeting with Lord Osborne in the afternoon.
"Mr Edwards had dealings with his lordship in war contracts. I don't know the particulars, for Mr Edwards hasn't condescended to include his long-time neighbour in the deal, but it must be very profitable, and Mr Edwards naturally wouldn't want to lose it, especially if Lord Osborne had exposed any neglect on his part."
When we left the smiling Mr Tomlinson, I could only vent my feelings in a helpless exclamation.
"This is all an insoluble mystery to me. It grows darker instead of clearer."
"Yet, Watson, the alternative develops. If I am any judge of human nature, Mr Tomlinson meant to hint that Mr Edwards had conceived an idea more creditable to his head than to his heart and bent profits somewhat to his own side at the expense of his partner."
"Why be elusive? Say 'cheated him' in plain English. I expect, next you will be saying that he murdered Lord Osborne for fear of exposure. Well, let me tell you that I knew Mr Edwards quite well before he left for Dorking, and nobody knows better his little faults or vanities, but he is incapable of such gross dishonesty."
I was hot in defence of Mr Edwards, yet for proofs I had got only that he was agreeable, and good-natured, and Mary's father.
"It does you great credit, Dr Watson, that you stand by your friends, but to admit such intrusions into your reasoning means to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all mental results. I am not going to take the banker's implication at face value, but not for any emotion, simply because it wasn't validated. Audiatur et altera pars."
Perfectly reconciled under the auspices of this classical proverb, we moved to hear the other side, that is, Mr Edwards.
The family was at home. Mrs Edwards, though a very friendly woman, had a reserved air, and a great deal of formal civility. Mary, prim and elegant, with a pretty blush on her cheek, seemed very naturally to have caught something of the style of the mother who had brought her up. Mr Edwards had a much easier, and more communicative air than the ladies of the family. He asked after my father's health and expressed a thousand pities that he should be deprived of the pleasure to play cards in a social way in their little whist club.
"Your club would be better fitted for an invalid," said Mrs Edwards, "if you did not keep it up so late. You had better meet every night, and break up two hours sooner."
I understood it was an old grievance, my sister Emma had been a witness to a similar talk, like probably every visitor.
"So the club meets on appointed days?" Mr Howard moved smoothly into the favourable opening.
"Three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Mr Edwards is most regular in attendance, he had never yet missed a day."
Mr Edwards must have felt what was amiss, for he suggested with great briskness, "But Mr Howard has business to discuss. We won't bore the ladies with it. My dear, you and Mary wanted to look in the milliner's before dinner; I'm sure, Mr Sam would be glad to accompany you."
We accepted his arrangement without a murmur. On our way to the milliner's Mrs Edwards talked about Elizabeth's engagement with the liveliest sympathy, throwing a quick glance now and again at her daughter.
"Carefulness and discretion are quite necessary to young ladies at their choice. I'm so glad that your sister did not contract a match with some impecunious officer, of whom this town is only too full, but waited for a suitable party. I do not rejoice at a sight of a girl, surrounded by red coats; I should be better pleased to see her with some of our old neighbours."
Mary raised her eyes from the road, and half a smile dimpled her cheek very becomingly, but she said nothing.
"How come you not to dance with Mr James Tomlinson the other evening, Mary?" asked her mother.
"There was a mistake - I had misunderstood," muttered she.
Of course, though Mrs Edwards was not in favour of officers, it was because of other ambitions. What was I, a poor surgeon, that I should dare to think of such things? If my future were black, it was better surely to face it like a man than to attempt to brighten it by mere will-o'-the wisps of the imagination.
While Mrs Edwards was shown the latest style in caps, with a knot above the forehead, a la Ninon, the milliner referred to it - an absorbing business - Miss Edwards continued asking after Elizabeth.
"It was decided in a very short time, wasn't it?"
"Not exactly. Elizabeth is going to marry her first love. They parted, but she used to say that she would never love any man as she loved Purvis."
"Yes, this is the way with the first love," she blushed and finished lamely, "or so I've been told."
"For the life of me, Miss Edwards, I cannot help feeling for those that are crossed in love."
"There were times you called me Mary, when we were neighbours. Was Mr Purvis an old neighbour?"
"You are still at the news, I see," Mrs Edwards turned her attention from the cap to us again.
Mary slipped instantly into her prim and reserved attitude, under which guise nobody knew what she would be at. Except me. My dearest wife and I consider that talk to be the beginning of our engagement, not the day when, with the fresh M.D. from St Andrews, I applied to her parents.
Mrs Edwards acknowledged herself too old-fashioned to approve of every modern extravagance, however sanctioned, and turned to go, when another customer came into the shop. She curtsied very low - so low, in fact, that I think Mrs Edwards must have looked at the wall above her, for she never moved a muscle of her face, no more than if she had not seen her. Yet it was impossible not to notice her, for she was young and pretty. I perceived that Miss Pamela Downie had not achieved her society aspirations, but still persevered.
Back at the house Mr Edwards met me personally and shook my hand several times, with tears in his eyes.
"My dear young friend, I'm overwhelmed... Mr Howard tells me how you vouched for my honesty. My books are opened for inspection, but your touching confidence gladdens my heart. Lately you have been neglecting us, you should call oftener."
We went away. Jubilant as I was, I didn't pay attention to my companion's preoccupied look, until he asked, "Where is Redoubts Cottage?"
"Aha! You have more suggestions up your sleeve."
"Better say, I have another statement to confirm. It was in confidence; all I want is to find this cottage."
"Almost halfway between Stanton and Wickstead, in Stanton Wood, anyway."
Of course, I was burning with curiosity, and not without a concealed purpose I mentioned that I had just seen Miss Pamela Downie of Redoubts Cottage at the milliner's. Mr Howard asked me what kind of a person she was, and I readily complied.
Miss Downie was an orphan with a small property, and she and her aunt occupied the smallest habitation which could be ranked as genteel among the buildings of Stanton parish. It was believed that her father's calling was that of a miller. No very kindly feeling was shown for Pamela Downie, though it was only too obvious that jealousy was at the bottom of it. From those competent to speak, however, she was regarded as a nice young woman, and admittedly good-looking. Her fatal flaw was the desire to enter a higher circle than that in which she was born, or, as country people put it, "giving herself airs".
Busy with the discourse, I almost stumbled upon the object of it on the street. Common politeness demanded me to stop and make introductions. Miss Downie was uncommonly gratified with the acquaintance. She had a childish, winning way about her, but a painful want of education which made itself very manifest when she spoke; and a harsh, unmusical voice detracted a good deal from her winsomeness, while in everything she did, and almost everything she said, she revealed that vanity was her besetting sin.
Mr Howard sent me a withering look to show that my tactics hadn't deceived him, and addressed the young woman.
"I am sure you wouldn't like to be thought that you were withholding information which, in the interest of law and justice, might be valuable."
"Certainly not," she replied in a terrified voice, "but I have nothing to tell you."
"You need only to name the man - in strict confidence, of course - who called at your cottage in the evening of March the 4th."
'Oh, this!" she answered complacently. "Yes, Captain Hunter waited on me; but then he courts me fair and square. My aunt always says I shall be a fool not to aim at high game."
I couldn't believe my ears; and the cad lied that he had been at his lodgings.
"Are you sure it was on Friday, the 4th?"
"The night poor Lord Osborne broke his neck. For the next few days I was all a-flutter, for dear captain could just as easily fall down the quarry; it is so near."
Mr Howard pressed his enquiry, "Was there another visitor?"
"Well..." she looked embarrassed, but soon found the firm footing. "Mr Edwards called a little later, almost at dusk. I do not care a jot what the common people say. He used to be very civil to me and talk to me when he met me. My aunt says as I'm a superior sort of girl, no wonder gentlefolk liking me."
One thing was clear, Miss Downie was a weak-headed, giddy, flighty girl, incapable, as it seemed to me, of seriously reflecting on anything.
Mr Howard announced himself content and bowed his thanks, then I related to him what Captain Hunter had claimed.
"You are a well of information, Watson. I take back my wishes not to have you with me. I wonder if the captain asked the girl to keep silence and whether he thought it would do much good. I fear it is rather too late an hour for explanations, but tomorrow I mean to have a conversation with Captain Hunter."
On the next day, however, it occurred that Captain Hunter had been sent to headquarters with dispatches, and his evidence would have to wait.
Then there was another nice cosy evening, and again Elizabeth, Emma, and myself were the guests at Wickstead, discussing whether it was worthwhile to sit at cards, as it would leave one of our pleasant company out. Elizabeth laughingly dwelled upon how previously she could think of Mr Howard but as playing cards with Lady Osborne, and looking proud. Those days Elizabeth made a lively speaker, probably kept in high spirits by carefully sealed letters, each thoughtfully franked by the sender.
"I should have been frightened out of my wits, to have had anything to do with the Osbornes' set. I was surprised no end when I learnt that Emma found Mr Howard's manners to be of a kind to give her much more ease and confidence than Tom Musgrave's."
"I was surprised," Emma remembered, "that he had not been able to make his pupil's manners as unexceptionable as his own."
"You did Lord Osborne an injustice," Mr Howard tried to defend his pupil. "He was thought proud and cold, but what was set down as pride was really an attempt to cover extreme natural diffidence."
"It is not personal disposition of Lord Osborne that I deplored," Emma continued in mild seriousness, "but I felt all the inconsistency of such an acquaintance with the very humble style in which we were obliged to live."
Mr Howard gave her a long searching look. "You are not like other people, Miss Emma. Most ladies would consider nobleman's visits as an honour which might please at least their vanity."
"I confess to being flattered, but I would rather have known that he wished the visit without presuming to make it, than have seen him at Stanton. You, sir, had not taken the same privilege of coming."
"Like you, I thought that it carried quite as much impertinence in its form as good-breeding."
At this point Mrs Blake suddenly recollected that she wanted my advice on her younger boys' state of health, and led me away, disclosing her apprehensions of spring chills. She left me with them; I thoroughly checked their condition and had an enjoyable chat upon a monstrous curious stuffed fox in the Castle and a badger, even exceeding it in attractions. The children were hale and hearty, and I could carry down a favourable report.
On opening the door I perceived my sister and Mr Howard standing together over the hearth, as if engaged in earnest conversation. The faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, told me all. Their situation was awkward enough, but mine, I thought, was still worse. In my confusion I found nothing better than to ask, "But where are the others?"
"Oh, they have gone upstairs. Mrs Blake thought of giving Elizabeth advice on trousseau," Emma answered in trembling voice. "I'll better join them," and she fled.
Mr Howard then came to me and claimed the good wishes and affections of a brother. I honestly and heartily expressed my delight in the prospect of our relationship. We shook hands with great cordiality, and then I had to listen to all he had to say of his own happiness, and of Emma's perfections.
A distant knock at the door was heard, and two officers to see the master were announced. They were Mr Norton and Mr Styles. Immediately after they took their seats Mr Norton began with much concern,
"Mr Howard, in you note you beseech us to state the truth. We freely admit that we didn't do it before. My cousin wasn't in his lodgings for the whole evening. We knew for some time that he was at foolish sweethearting in the neighbourhood of Stanton, and we had to cover up for him several times already. On March the 4th he went to Redoubts Cottage and returned after dark."
"I was sure that honour wouldn't let officers and gentlemen to keep it hushed. I will venture to reconstruct the scene to you, as far as I have been able to understand it, in a very few words. Captain Hunter left the cottage hurriedly, in troubled state of mind, for he was afraid to be recognised by a visitor there. He walked to the shortcut, well known to him, and chanced upon Lord Osborne, who was looking for the ring that he had dropped. Heated words ensued, and the captain, in a fit of murderous frenzy, pushed his adversary over the precipice. What I fail to account for: why? What was the quarrel between them?"
"Everything you say tallies; I had it from my cousin himself. Unfortunately, Lord Osborne was aware of his carryings (probably saw him, I gather his lordship was often in Stanton Wood area), and told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of men who courted one girl in the Assembly rooms, and another amongst the rustic landscape."
"It is not that his lordship threatened to expose him," Mr Styles remarked, "but his language was offensive and insulting."
"Yes, and my cousin intended to stand out with Lord Osborne. This we know definitely, for we agreed to be his seconds. You shake your head, sir, but it is your wont as a clergyman to condemn duels. As a soldier, my cousin couldn't bear a stain upon his honour. I myself brought the challenge to Lord Osborne, who answered thus," he produced a small square of paper, unfolded it and read, "'Sir, you say I have insulted you and the matter may or may not be so. But I possess too much sense to risk my life against yours for so foolish a circumstance.'"
"I'm not surprised," Mr Howard mused. "His lordship was always upright; as for duels, he was against them on principle."
"My cousin understood it only too late. He was offended because he thought Lord Osborne considered him beneath his noble self. It was a constant sting to his proud spirit. The rest I have dragged out of my cousin after his skirmish with Dr Watson, present here. I couldn't let him down, sir. I persuaded the Colonel - without naming real reasons - that Hunter was the man to deliver the reports due. His influential friends then have helped to transfer him to the force now in training for invasion of Spanish America under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. He is going into a battle in few months. Do you intend to alert the law, sir?"
"It is not for me to cause the frail thread to be snapped before God's time."
"Thank you, sir."
They made their bows.
Thus the Stanton Wood mystery was uncovered but never revealed to the world. Of course, I was pledged to secrecy, but now I may consider myself to have been freed from my promise by the untimely deaths of both Captain Hunter and his gallant cousin.
As we know, the expeditionary force was redirected to Portugal, and Captain Hunter was listed among the casualties at Vimiero in August of the same year. A higher Judge had taken the matter in hand, and he had been summoned before a tribunal where strict justice would be meted out to him. Mr Norton, in captain's commission, fell on the battlefields of Waterloo.
My father paid the last debt to nature, too, but the rest of our family are doing well.
Elizabeth has made an excellent mother to Mr Purvis's children, and has children of her own. She lives in London, but corresponds faithfully with Emma. When in town, I am delighted to find the things going on in her elegant home in peace and good humour.
Emma, of course, is the brightest treasure of Wickstead, a busy parson's wife, a supervisor of charities, a good angel for high and low. Mrs Blake, now that her assistance is not needed for keeping her brother's house, has taken a comfortable cottage nearby, roomy enough to accommodate her four children, but it seems there is no house big enough to stand against Charles Blake when he is home from Oxford. Their friendship with Emma is flourishing, and both ladies have the most cordial relationship with the ladies at the Castle. Especially Mrs Osborne, the wife of the lord's eldest son, is so fond of Mrs Howard that she says she is never so happy as when she enjoys the benefit of her conversation.
From her husband we hear now and again about his cousin and aunt. Miss Osborne made a bid for strawberry leaves, but unsuccessfully, and had to agree to a Viscount. Lady Osborne has moved to Bath, where she continues in style, no doubt, according to her expectations as delineated to me during our memorable talk.
My dearest wife and I have settled in Guildford, where I have bought the practice from Mr Curtis, and, I am humbly proud to say, improved it greatly. So well I am doing that I have already paid what I owed to my brothers-in-law, and can put aside a nest-egg for my little ones. The little Osbornes and Howards are all, without fail, under my medical observation, successfully treated so far.
The little Tomlinsons are not. The great disappointment of Margaret's found its counterpart in sad despondency of Mr James Tomlinson, when he understood that Mary Edwards was not going to accept him. After discoursing on human perfidy for a proper number of balls, she persuaded him that they were kindred souls, meant for each other. They behave coldly towards us, but when we meet at Dorking assemblies, which for the sake of old times and friends we sometimes attend, I see her well content and stylishly attired.
Mrs Harding, my sister Penelope, is anxious about Dr Harding's current state of health, and Robert in his brotherly care, though as busy as an attorney can be, has hurried from Croydon to Chichester to look after her interests, for his set opinion is that a woman should never be trusted with money; not when she is likely to have a nice property for him to have the direction of.
Tom Musgrave hasn't married. He is beginning to dance at balls with the daughters of the young ladies, with whom he danced when he appeared in our parts, and Jane, Robert's wife, is keeping her eye on him for her eldest daughter Augusta, who is growing fast.
Stanton stays, as before, on no very public road, and contains no gentleman's family but the rector's, with whom we are acquainted rather slightly, so no-one of us has a reason to return to the old place, no more than to return to the old lives. Only Charles Blake can be seen there during vacations, among the eager hunters taking Stanton Wood, now devoid of its mystery.
© 2001 Copyright held by author