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.