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Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Woman in White


Diary of Doctor Watson

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?”

“Sorry, Holmes.”

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…”

“You mean…?”

“Yes. My sister is dead.”

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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A Gloomy Aspect


Diary of Doctor Watson
Monday

As arranged, we caught the 11:36 from Kings Cross this morning and settled ourselves in our compartment with our luggage and a basket of Mrs Hudson’s exceedingly good cakes. I spent some time updating my diary while Holmes buried his nose in The Times, making occasionally comments about this or that news item.

It was a few hours later that the train slowed as we approached Carlisle.

“Not long now,” said Holmes, cheerfully. I guessed he envisioned a warm welcome at our destination, and I felt heartened that he had perked up since our initial conversation about the visit. Even so, I did feel there might be some detail about Mr Usher that Holmes had neglected to mention.

Having endured several irritations in our transfer from the Carlisle train to a branch line locomotive, we duly arrived at a small station which served the community of Clovenhoof. To say that I was not impressed with the service we found there, would be a gross understatement. Holmes had assured me his pal Usher would arrange suitable transportation for the final leg of our journey. In fact, a surly chap in possession of a rough cart had been engaged by that aforementioned gentleman, but on questioning him, we discovered a certain lack of enthusiasm on his part to undertake the task for which he had already been remunerated.

“Oi did tell ‘im Oi weren’t goin ter take yous all the way to the ‘ouse,” said the man, with an air of derision.

“And why not?” demanded Holmes.

“Oi told ‘im. Rum ‘ol place that. Weird goings-on. Ain’t goin nowhere near it, Oi ain’t, less’n there be summat approachin recompensive compensation sort of thing.”

Holmes turned to me. “I do believe the fellow’s taking the piss, Watson.” To the surly cart owner, he said (with a rising inflection which did not bode well if further negotiations proved necessary), “Are you telling us, you dull-witted individual, that you require additional monetary inducement?”

“Summat loike that.” He gave us a sly grin that only confirmed our suspicions.

I could see Holmes might explode if the conversation were to proceed any further, so I dug into my pocket and handed over a few shillings. “If I were you, sir, I should take this and be grateful.”

The man doffed his cap and waved us aboard the shabby cart. Holmes grumbled a bit but quietened down as we got under way.

The journey to the House of Usher (as I had begun to think of it) was a pleasant enough one, but as we progressed along country lanes and leafy byways, the landscape underwent a change. The sky darkened, despite the heat of the day, and seemed to hang low in a manner that suggested a thunderstorm might be on its way, though it was hardly the time of year for such atmospheric manifestations.

At length, we pulled up at what appeared to be the entrance to a long driveway, bordered by rows of lacklustre trees of a type I had not seen before.

“Ere ye go, gents,” said our driver. “Oi goes no further.”

“Excellent,” said Holmes, with only a smidgen of sarcasm.

We hauled our luggage down and watched as the cart turned around and set off back towards the village.

“Up this way, then,” I said, indicating the pitted roadway that stretched out before us.

Passing the line of trees, the landscape opened out into one of fields and scattered hedges, both of which had a burnt, wasted appearance. I assumed some kind of bacterial or fungal pestilence had decimated the plant life, if indeed there were any life at all in the ashen ground.

“I have to say, Watson,” muttered Holmes as we advanced towards the house, “a certain feeling of trepidation has come upon me about this place.”

“The geography does have a sense of gloom about it,” I said, gazing around. “But I expect your chum will make us feel welcome.”

Gradually, the house itself came into view and I discerned a drabness to it that reflected the state of the surrounding area. It may indeed have at one time been a truly grand edifice, but its best days were gone. As we drew nearer, I was able to make out a few details—carved into each of the pillars at the main door, were a series of hideous gargoyles and other mythical creatures, their repugnant features doing nothing to allay the growing feeling of melancholy that seemed to engulf the place.

Eventually, we advanced to the great door and Holmes raised the goblin-like face of its massive iron knocker. Letting the thing go, it made a terrific clatter that gave me a start, and must surely have echoed throughout the house. Nevertheless, if was a minute or two before we heard footsteps approach.

The door opened and standing there before us was a tall man with a face etched in pain. Dark sunken eyes seemed to glow in the increasing darkness and his downturned mouth did little to brighten an unhappy outlook.

“Ah, Holmes,” he said, in a deep baritone voice. “How joyed I am to see you at last.” He grasped my companion’s hand in his and shook it vigorously. Then turning to me, muttered, “And the infamous Doctor Watson. How wonderful to meet you. I am a fervent fan of your fascinating tales.”

I shook the man’s hand, wondering which ‘fascinating tales’ he was talking about.

Our host stepped back and bade us enter. “Please, come into our humble abode.”

We followed him into a vast hall where he took our coats and waved us through into what I found to be a well-stocked library.

Seating myself next to Holmes on one of several dusty sofas, I marvelled at the range of reading matter on display. There were volumes on every subject under the sun, from alchemy and modern science, to vampirism and sexual abnormalities. Usher stood before us, hands clasped, as if waiting to deliver some pre-planned homily.

“Dinner will be served at eight, gentlemen, and then if you will permit, I shall tell you a little of our lives here.”

“Jolly good,” said Holmes with more enthusiasm than I would have expected.

“And will your sister be joining us, Mr Usher?” said I, eager to meet the mysterious sibling.

“Alas, Doctor, Madeline’s condition has deteriorated since my recent missive.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “Perhaps I might examine her?”

“I think not, Doctor,” he said. Then with a forced smile, added, “Perhaps I could interest you in an aperitif?”

We thought this a good idea and Usher disappeared back into the hall.

“Jolly rum place, this,” I said, to Holmes. “I’d rather share a house with Moriarty. At least he has a sense of humour.”

“Yes, Roddy has altered a little since we last met.”

We were sitting on a sofa that looked out onto the front aspect. Though the day had darkened considerably, there was no mistaking the figure of a woman walking past the windows, her pale face and staring eyes turned towards us.

“I say, Holmes,” I whispered, in case Usher happened to be listening at the door, “d’you think that’s the sister?”

“Hardly likely, Watson, not if she’s ill in bed. Probably one of the servants out for a walk.”

This seemed a reasonable assumption, if a little odd, but I couldn’t help thinking Roderick Usher’s sister would prove to be even more of a weirdo than her brother.

Unfortunately, I was right.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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