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THE extract from my private diary which forms the last chapter has brought my narrative up to the eighteenth of October, a time when these strange events began to move swiftly towards their terrible conclusion. The incidents of the next few days are indelibly graven upon my recollection, and I can tell them without reference to the notes made at the time. I start them from the day which succeeded that upon which I had established two facts of great importance, the one that Mrs. Laura Lyons of Coombe Tracey had written to Sir Charles Baskerville and made an appointment with him at the very place and hour that he met his death, the other that the lurking man upon the moor was to be found among the stone huts upon the hillside. With these two facts in my possession I felt that either my intelligence or my courage must be deficient if I could not throw some further light upon these dark places.
I had no opportunity to tell the baronet what I had learned about Mrs. Lyons upon the evening before, for Dr. Mortimer remained with him at cards until it was very late. At breakfast, however, I informed him about my discovery and asked him whether he would care to accompany me to Coombe Tracey. At first he was very eager to come, but on second thoughts it seemed to both of us that if I went alone the results might be better. The more formal we made the visit the less information we might obtain. I left Sir Henry behind, therefore, not without some prickings of conscience, and drove off upon my new quest.
When I reached Coombe Tracey I told Perkins to put up the horses, and I made inquiries for the lady whom I had come to interrogate. I had no difficulty in finding her rooms, which were central and well appointed. A maid showed me in without ceremony, and as I entered the sitting-room a lady, who was sitting before a Remington typewriter, sprang up with a pleasant smile of welcome. Her face fell, however, when she saw that I was a stranger, and she sat down again and asked me the object of my visit.
The first impression left by Mrs. Lyons was one of extreme beauty. Her eyes and hair were of the same rich hazel colour, and her cheeks, though considerably freckled, were flushed with the exquisite bloom of the brunette, the dainty pink which lurks at the heart of the sulphur rose. Admiration was, I repeat, the first impression. But the second was criticism. There was something subtly wrong with the face, some coarseness of expression, some hardness, perhaps, of eye, some looseness of lip which marred its perfect beauty. But these, of course, are after-thoughts. At the moment I was simply conscious that I was in the presence of a very handsome woman, and that she was asking me the reasons for my visit. I had not quite understood until that instant how delicate my mission was.
“I have the pleasure,” said I, “of knowing your father.”
It was a clumsy introduction, and the lady made me feel it.
“There is nothing in common between my father and me,” she said. “I owe him nothing, and his friends are not mine. If it were not for the late Sir Charles Baskerville and some other kind hearts I might have starved for all that my father cared.”
“It was about the late Sir Charles Baskerville that I have come here to see you.”
The freckles started out on the lady’s face.
“What can I tell you about him?” she asked, and her fingers played nervously over the stops of her typewriter.
“You knew him, did you not?”
“I have already said that I owe a great deal to his kindness. If I am able to support myself it is largely due to the interest which he took in my unhappy situation.”
“Did you correspond with him?”
The lady looked quickly up with an angry gleam in her hazel eyes.
“What is the object of these questions?” she asked sharply.
“The object is to avoid a public scandal. It is better that I should ask them here than that the matter should pass outside our control.”
She was silent and her face was still very pale. At last she looked up with something reckless and defiant in her manner.
“Well, I’ll answer,” she said. “What are your questions?”
“Did you correspond with Sir Charles?”
“I certainly wrote to him once or twice to acknowledge his delicacy and his generosity.”
“Have you the dates of those letters?”
“Have you ever met him?”
“Yes, once or twice, when he came into Coombe Tracey. He was a very retiring man, and he preferred to do good by stealth.”
“But if you saw him so seldom and wrote so seldom, how did he know enough about your affairs to be able to help you, as you say that he has done?”
She met my difficulty with the utmost readiness.
“There were several gentlemen who knew my sad history and united to help me. One was Mr. Stapleton, a neighbour and intimate friend of Sir Charles’s. He was exceedingly kind, and it was through him that Sir Charles learned about my affairs.”
I knew already that Sir Charles Baskerville had made Stapleton his almoner upon several occasions, so the lady’s statement bore the impress of truth upon it.
“Did you ever write to Sir Charles asking him to meet you?” I continued.
Mrs. Lyon flushed with anger again.
“Really, sir, this is a very extraordinary question.”
“I am sorry, madam, but I must repeat it.”
“Then I answer, certainly not.”
“Not on the very day of Sir Charles’s death?”
The flush had faded in an instant, and a deathly face was before me. Her dry lips could not speak the “No” which I saw rather than heard.
“Surely your memory deceives you,” said I. “I could even quote a passage of your letter. It ran ‘Please, please, as you are a gentleman, burn this letter, and be at the gate by ten o’clock.' "
I thought that she had fainted, but she recovered herself by a supreme effort.
“Is there no such thing as a gentleman?” she gasped.
“You do Sir Charles an injustice. He did burn the letter. But sometimes a letter may be legible even when burned. You acknowledge now that you wrote it?”
“Yes, I did write it,” she cried, pouring out her soul in a torrent of words. “I did write it. Why should I deny it? I have no reason to be ashamed of it. I wished him to help me. I believed that if I had an interview I could gain his help, so I asked him to meet me.”
“But why at such an hour?”
“Because I had only just learned that he was going to London next day and might be away for months. There were reasons why I could not get there earlier.”
“But why a rendezvous in the garden instead of a visit to the house?”
“Do you think a woman could go alone at that hour to a bachelor’s house?”
“Well, what happened when you did get there?”
“I never went.”
“No, I swear it to you on all I hold sacred. I never went. Something intervened to prevent my going.”
“What was that?”
“That is a private matter. I cannot tell it.”
“You acknowledge then that you made an appointment with Sir Charles at the very hour and place at which he met his death, but you deny that you kept the appointment.”
“That is the truth.”
Again and again I cross-questioned her, but I could never get past that point.
“Mrs. Lyons,” said I as I rose from this long and inconclusive interview, “you are taking a very great responsibility and putting yourself in a very false position by not making an absolutely clean breast of all that you know. If I have to call in the aid of the police you will find how seriously you are compromised. If your position is innocent, why did you in the first instance deny having written to Sir Charles upon that date?”
“Because I feared that some false conclusion might be drawn from it and that I might find myself involved in a scandal.”
“And why were you so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy your letter?”
“If you have read the letter you will know.”
“I did not say that I had read all the letter.”
“You quoted some of it.”
“I quoted the postscript. The letter had, as I said, been burned and it was not all legible. I ask you once again why it was that you were so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy this letter which he received on the day of his death.”
“The matter is a very private one.”
“The more reason why you should avoid a public investigation.”
“I will tell you, then. If you have heard anything of my unhappy history you will know that I made a rash marriage and had reason to regret it.”
“I have heard so much.”
“My life has been one incessant persecution from a husband whom I abhor. The law is upon his side, and every day I am faced by the possibility that he may force me to live with him. At the time that I wrote this letter to Sir Charles I had learned that there was a prospect of my regaining my freedom if certain expenses could be met. It meant everything to me–peace of mind, happiness, self-respect–everything. I knew Sir Charles’s generosity, and I thought that if he heard the story from my own lips he would help me.”
“Then how is it that you did not go?”
“Because I received help in the interval from another source.”
“Why, then, did you not write to Sir Charles and explain this?”
“So I should have done had I not seen his death in the paper next morning.”
The woman’s story hung coherently together, and all my questions were unable to shake it. I could only check it by finding if she had, indeed, instituted divorce proceedings against her husband at or about the time of the tragedy.
It was unlikely that she would dare to say that she had not been to Baskerville Hall if she really had been, for a trap would be necessary to take her there, and could not have returned to Coombe Tracey until the early hours of the morning. Such an excursion could not be kept secret. The probability was, therefore, that she was telling the truth, or, at least, a part of the truth. I came away baffled and disheartened. Once again I had reached that dead wall which seemed to be built across every path by which I tried to get at the object of my mission. And yet the more I thought of the lady’s face and of her manner the more I felt that something was being held back from me. Why should she turn so pale? Why should she fight against every admission until it was forced from her? Why should she have been so reticent at the time of the tragedy? Surely the explanation of all this could not be as innocent as she would have me believe. For the moment I could proceed no farther in that direction, but must turn back to that other clue which was to be sought for among the stone huts upon the moor.
And that was a most vague direction. I realized it as I drove back and noted how hill after hill showed traces of the ancient people. Barrymore’s only indication had been that the stranger lived in one of these abandoned huts, and many hundreds of them are scattered throughout the length and breadth of the moor. But I had my own experience for a guide since it had shown me the man himself standing upon the summit of the Black Tor. That, then, should be the centre of my search. From there I should explore every hut upon the moor until I lighted upon the right one. If this man were inside it I should find out from his own lips, at the point of my revolver if necessary, who he was and why he had dogged us so long. He might slip away from us in the crowd of Regent Street, but it would puzzle him to do so upon the lonely moor. On the other hand, if I should find the hut and its tenant should not be within it I must remain there, however long the vigil, until he returned. Holmes had missed him in London. It would indeed be a triumph for me if I could run him to earth where my master had failed.
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