I didn’t mention our sighting of the ‘woman in white’ to our host, as he seemed a little on edge. Instead, we spent a couple of hours discussing his pet subjects—the long and boring history of the Usher clan and, more especially, the unusual design of the house. When I say ‘discussing’, I mean Holmes and I listened while Roderick droned on about the place, as if it were some site of architectural significance.
“In addition,” he said, cradling a large glass of crème de menthe, “the House of Usher, as we like to call it, has one or two idiosyncrasies. In point of fact, I should alert you to the possibility of—shall we say—noises in the night.”
“Ah,” said Holmes, showing a spark of interest. “Ghosts, eh?”
Roderick pulled a face. “Wouldn’t say that, so much. Rather, something along the lines of structural disturbances. Nothing to concern yourselves about.”
He refused to be drawn further on the topic, so I decided to probe him in relation to one of the more obscure titles on his bookshelves.
“I see you have a copy of Vampirism in the Middle Ages, by Horst Wolverton.” Crossing to extract that precise volume, I flicked through its yellowed pages, noting several facsimile woodcuts featuring our old friend Count Dracula. It was odd to see his likeness portrayed in an image, the original of which had to be at least three hundred years old. “Not sure if you’re aware,” I said, “but Holmes and I actually met—”
“Wolverton himself,” burst in Holmes, giving me a stern look. “At a party given by the old queen.”
“The Duke of Clarence?” said Roderick.
“I meant Victoria, actually,” said Holmes. “Though the duke was also present.”
“Also known as Bendover Eddy,” I put in, smirking, “due to his alleged nocturnal activities.”
“Really, Watson, must you lower the tone?”
At that point, our host excused himself, claiming a headache. “Feel free to plunder my wine stock,” he said, on his way out.
I glared at Holmes. “What was all that about? I was merely referring to—”
“Yes, yes, I know precisely what you were referring to,” said Holmes, “and I should be obliged if you would refrain from mentioning anything that might put ideas into Roddy’s head.” He rubbed a hand over his lean features. “Aside from his sister’s illness, there’s clearly some disturbing issue troubling him. I have no wish to muddle his head with additional fanciful ideas.”
“Hardly a fanciful idea, Holmes,” I said, feeling a little miffed. “After all, we did meet the count and—”
Holmes held up a hand. “Enough, Watson. Now, be a good fellow and pour me one more glass of that rather fruity little Chablis before bed.”
I did as he asked, then, settling back into my seat, recalled a subject I’d been meaning to question him about. “That business in Massachusetts…you never did tell me what the outcome was…”
Holmes grimaced. “Ah. The Lizzie Borden case.” He chewed his lower lip for a moment. “Very odd state of affairs with one thing and another. Acquitted, in the end, though only due to the stupidity of the local police.” He gazed into the fire and gave a small nod.
“So she did it, then?”
“Oh, no,” he said, “but it was she who ordered the killing.”
“What, you mean she got someone else to do it for her?”
“Yes.” He smiled to himself. “Never would’ve occurred to me if I hadn’t happened to hear the family maid, one Miss Sullivan, chatting outside the courthouse.”
“Something she said?”
“Not what she said, Watson, but the way she said it.” He contorted his mouth and muttered, “I haf been ze maid wiz ze family for only a short time, but I vould like to continue wiz my employment if zat iz at all pozzible.”
“Klopp! Then she’s alive?”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t be sure, and without the benefit of our old friend Lestrade and the necessary records to prove her identity, there was nothing I could do. However, I did take the precaution of alerting the relevant authorities to the woman’s immigration status. If she is Klopp, I’m certain we shall hear from her again.”
We sat in silence for a moment, then Holmes nodded towards the window. “Our friend has returned.”
Following his gaze, I saw the figure in white glide past the window in the opposite direction to earlier.
“Damn it all,” I muttered, “I’m going to find out who she is.” With that, I jumped up and went out into the hall, yanking open the front door. Though it could not have taken more than three of four seconds to reach the door, there was no sign of anyone near the house. “That’s damnably strange,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Holmes, behind me. “Mostly likely she’s a vampire and climbed the wall back to her bedroom.” Looking up at the windows, he chuckled. “I think perhaps we’ve imbibed a little too much vino, John.”
I took a few steps forwards and peered into the darkness. “Glad you think it’s funny, Holmes,” I said, “but if that was Usher’s sister, she may well be in need of medical attention.”
“Or a bite on the neck,” said Holmes, sardonically.
Following him back inside, I closed the door. Then, a footstep caused me to glance up at the staircase, where I caught sight of something white. Taking the stairs three at a time, I tore up to the first landing, in time to see a sliver of silvery-white material disappear along the corridor. Hurrying after the lady Madelaine, if it were indeed she, I pushed open the door at the end of the passage and found myself in a semi-darkened bedroom.
Directly in front of me, lying in an ancient four poster bed, her eyes closed, lay the woman I had seen only a few seconds before. On the floor beside her, Roderick Usher knelt, clasping her pale white hand, whispering words that sounded like a prayer.
I must have made some movement, for Roderick turned and saw me. I waved a hand and murmured an apology, but he merely stared at me.
In a low voice, replete with pain, he said, “Perhaps I should have taken your advice and allowed you to examine her, Doctor. Alas, it is too late now…”
“Yes. My sister is dead.”