Having completed our search of the upstairs rooms, we trooped back downstairs.
“Thought you’d already looked into all these ones,” I said, peeping into the music room.
“Indeed,” said Holmes, “but I neglected to thoroughly examine one particular room where a definite odour assailed our nostrils.”
“You mean the seventh room?” I said.
“I do,” said he.
Johnny sniffed. “It did pong a bit, but I’d have described it as musty. Old-peopley.”
“And with a hint of decaying human flesh?” said Holmes.
“I think I’d have noticed the smell of a dead body. I am a doctor, you know.”
Holmes gave him a sardonic smile. “Of course, Watson, but unlike me, you have not adapted your olfactory abilities to the practice of smell assessment and identification.”
“I suppose having a big nose helps,” said Johnny, with a smirk.
We followed Holmes along the passage to the seventh room, where he held up his hand. Turning the handle, he pushed the door open. Inside it looked just as it had before—the deep red velvet of the walls, the lack of furniture and the wooden altar-like table in the middle.
“Unless the walls are false,” I said, “there’s nowhere to hide a stiff.”
Holmes stepped forwards and Johnny and I pushed in behind him. For a moment, we all stood there, gazing at the wooden structure that dominated the room.
“What was it you said about some death-mask thingy?”
Holmes gave me a piercing stare. “What I said, Mary, was that while at college, under the influence of opium, Usher became interested in an ancient ritual known as the Masque of the Red Death.”
“Ah yes. And this mask…” Johnny looked around the room. “Where would that be?”
“I said masque, not mask.”
Leaning towards my husband, I whispered in his ear.
He coughed. “Of course—different spelling.”
“As always,” muttered Holmes, “Mary is the clever one.”
The three of us set about examining the room, tapping walls, knocking on floorboards, checking underneath the table, but the entire room appeared solid. Holmes took out his magnifying glass and began to scrutinise the tabletop, working his way along its length, occasionally picking at the wood with a pair of tweezers.
Eventually, he straightened up, holding out the tweezers. Grasped between the metal tongs was a tiny sliver of paint.
“Is that paint?” said Johnny.
“Alas no,” said Holmes. “Dried blood. Which is suggestive, don’t you think?”
“It doesn’t suggest much without a body, old bean,” said Johnny.
We ruminated on this for a few minutes then went over every inch of the table again. Unfortunately, we found nothing else that might back up the theory of foul play.
When I suggested we ask our host, Holmes snorted. “If Roddy’s killed this woman, he’s hardly likely to admit it, is he?”
I patted his chest and in my best, ‘seductive’ voice, murmured, “But your immense powers of reason and discovery will be able to unearth the truth, won’t they?”
Holmes cleared his throat noisily. “Perhaps, Mary, perhaps. But questioning Roddy should be our last strategy in this affair. Evidence is what we require, Watsons. Evidence.”
And with that, he stalked off along the passage.
“D’you think he’s a bit stuck?” I said to my husband.
Johnny nodded. “I think so.”
Closing the door, we walked back to the main entrance and saw Holmes sitting on the stairs, stuffing a portion of Hard Shag into his Meerschaum.
“Sherlock,” I said, sitting next to him, as he struck a Swan Vesta. “This Masque of the Red Death thing. D’you actually know what it is?”
He drew in a mouthful of smoke and blew it out slowly, a long blue spiral curling up to the ceiling. “In one sense—yes. In another—no. Roddy’s explanation always tended towards vagueness and abstract descriptions.”
“Could it be some sort of ancient ceremony?”
He shrugged. “It could.” He looked at me. “You’re wondering if our friend might possess some kind of guide—an instruction book of some type.”
At that, we both turned to look at the door next to where we sat.
While Holmes and Johnny worked their way along the uppermost shelves of the enormous bookcases, I began at the bottom, pulling out anything with a weird title, old binding or with signs of having been well-thumbed. There were several tomes on witchcraft, vampirism, lycanthropy, and a wide variety of mythological creatures. There was also a selection of books on the topic of erotica, many with hand-coloured plates, depicting scenes of an orgiastic nature. Finding myself becoming rather aroused by these, I hastily put them aside, intending to secrete them away for bedtime reading.
“Think I’ve found something,” said Johnny, moving across to the sofa.
Holmes and I joined him, sitting on either side and peering at the book open on his knees. The binding appeared to be of fine leather with gold edging on the pages and several lithographic plates showing murderous encounters and hideous creatures.
“It’s by that American writer, Poe,” said Johnny, showing us the front of the book.
“Poe?” I said. “Isn’t he the one who died of drink?”
Holmes chuckled. “Actually, the whole ‘demon-drink’ scenario turned out to be a fabrication created by the man himself. I suspect he intended to entertain his many admirers, leaving them a puzzle to keep them guessing for years to come. As Johnny and I discovered during our trip to Baltimore some years ago, Poe is not dead, but living under the assumed name of Mildred Flange in a small town in Pennsylvania.” He shook his head. “However, that is neither here nor there. You were saying, Watson…”
“Thank you, Holmes. Look here…” He flicked back to the page he’d been looking at.
Leaning over, I gawked at the story’s title, but my eyes were drawn to the image on the opposite page. It portrayed a crowd of people gathered in a great hall, all wearing creepy Commedia dell’Arte-type masks and long flowing cloaks.
“What’s it about?” I said.
“Oh, tish tosh,” said Holmes, dismissively. “Read it years ago. A stupid prince tries to avoid a plague known as the Red Death. He gives a masquerade ball for his pals in seven rooms and they all have a raucous time until some bloke disguised as a victim of the Red Death comes in and everybody dies.”
“Sounds fascinating,” I said, trying not to sound sarcastic.
“The point is,” said Holmes, “it bears no resemblance to the situation we have here. There’s no plague, no masquerade, no mysterious stranger.”
“Unless you call the missing French cook a mysterious stranger,” I murmured, looking out of the window. As I gazed across the dreary landscape, the late afternoon sun seemed to sink into the horizon and a mass of dark clouds slid across the sky, creating the impression of twilight. I shivered involuntarily. “Boys,” I muttered, my eyes fixed on the strange figure gliding past the window. “There’s someone outside…”