Following the events of last night, Holmes and I slept late. As Usher has no servants, we made our own breakfast, tucking into porridge, toast and strawberry preserve—the only options in a kitchen stocked mainly with dry goods and vegetables.
Half an hour later, and assuming our host to be still in his bed, we took the opportunity to explore the ground floor of the house. In the east wing, aside from the library, there were five other rooms, consisting of a dining room, a music room (filled with an array of strange and exotic instruments) and a sort of parlour that looked as if it hadn’t been opened for several years. On the west side of the house we found the morning room with a view of the mausoleum, and next to that, the study. This last proved the most interesting as it highlighted Roderick Usher’s poor grasp of household management. A wood-wormed desk bore the fruits of his labours, being untidily piled with personal papers and bills representing the last few years of the siblings’ expenditures. Musing on the source of their revenue, I questioned Holmes on the topic.
“Ah yes,” he said, gazing out of the window. “As I recall, the parents had business interests in China, which generated enough income to keep their offspring in relative luxury. Or what passes for luxury in this part of the world.” His eyes flicked around the room, taking in the dusty shelves, unwashed curtains and general atmosphere of grime that clung to the place as dirty underpants cling to the filthy torsos of the working class. “It would appear Roddy has let things slide somewhat.”
Moving back into the corridor, we found another door I hadn’t noticed before.
“Wonder what’s in here,” I said, moving to open it.
“Hold it, Watson,” said Holmes, grabbing my arm. Looking back along the corridor, he muttered something under his breath, then gazing at the door, said, “The seventh room.”
“Is that significant?” I said, staring into his piggy-like eyes.
“I hope not, Watson. I hope not.”
He nodded to me and I stepped forward, grasping the doorknob.
The room lay in near-darkness and as I opened the door, an odour of mouldering decay flooded over me, causing me to step back. Taking out my Swan Vestas, I struck a match and held it up. The first thing I noticed was a lack of windows and how the walls had been lined with a deep red velvety material. Not a stick of furniture decorated the chamber, save a single wooden slab-like table in the middle. Attached to the sides, top and foot of this were leather straps, bolted into place. A small red silk cushion lay at one end.
“Oh dear,” muttered Holmes, pushing past me.
“What on earth is it?” I said, stepping forward to examine the table. “Some sort of altar, d’you think?”
“I’m afraid, Watson, it is exactly that.” He rubbed his chin and gazed at the bizarre structure. “I’d hoped our beleaguered host might’ve given up such deviant practices, but…”
“What sort of deviant practices?”
“At college, while under the influence of opium, he became interested in an ancient ritual known as the Masque of the Red Death.”
“What on earth is that?”
Holmes turned towards me, his face ashen. “Sex and murder, Watson. Sex and murder.”
As we stood there just inside the doorway, something cold touched my hand.
“Well,” said a familiar voice, “that’s a novel way to welcome your dear wife.”
“Mary,” I gasped, grasping her arms. “What the devil..?”
“No-one answered the door, so I let myself in. What’s going on? You boys look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” She laughed gaily, then seeing the grim look in Sherlock’s eyes, curtailed her amusement.
“Not a ghost, Mary,” said Holmes. “At least, not yet…”
Taking Mary aside, I hugged her, then said, “How on earth did you get here?”
“Your pal Lestrade suggested I come over.” She leaned in to whisper in my ear. “I think he’s worried you two might get into bother.”
“No, I meant, how did you get here? We had terrible trouble arranging a lift from the train station.”
“Oh, that bit was easy—I engaged the services of a surly old chap with a cart.”
“Did he have a wart on his nose and a droopy moustache?”
“He did—d’you know him?”
“Yes, though he refused to bring us to the door. We had to walk the last mile.”
“Ah. You should’ve offered to tickle his testicles. Worked a treat for me.”
“Really, darling, I do wish you wouldn’t—”
She laughed and I realised I’d been had.
“Poor Johnny—you’re so easy to wind up. No, I simply offered him one of those forged ten-pound notes you showed me last year.” She peered into the red room. “So, what’s going on in here?”
Holmes emerged from the room and stuck his hand out. “Best not, Mary. This may be a crime scene.”
“Really? How exciting.”
“Not exciting, my dear—dangerous.” He looked at me. “We must examine Madelaine’s body again and look for indications.”
“Indications of what, Holmes?”
“Of murder Watson.”