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He looked at me with a surprised face.
“For God’s sake put such an idea out of your mind,” said he. “Your blood would be upon my head. I assure you that there would not be the least chance of your coming back alive. It is only by remembering certain complex landmarks that I am able to do it.”
“Halloa!” I cried. “What is that?”
A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again. Stapleton looked at me with a curious expression in his face.
“Queer place, the moor!” said he.
“But what is it?”
“The peasants say it is the Hound of the Baskervilles calling for its prey. I’ve heard it once or twice before, but never quite so loud.”
I looked round, with a chill of fear in my heart, at the huge swelling plain, mottled with the green patches of rushes. Nothing stirred over the vast expanse save a pair of ravens, which croaked loudly from a tor behind us.
“You are an educated man. You don’t believe such nonsense as that?” said I. “What do you think is the cause of so strange a sound?”
“Bogs make queer noises sometimes. It’s the mud settling, or the water rising, or something.”
“No, no, that was a living voice.”
“Well, perhaps it was. Did you ever hear a bittern booming?”
“No, I never did.”
“It’s a very rare bird–practically extinct–in England now, but all things are possible upon the moor. Yes, I should not be surprised to learn that what we have heard is the cry of the last of the bitterns.”
“It’s the weirdest, strangest thing that ever I heard in my life.”
“Yes, it’s rather an uncanny place altogether. Look at the hillside yonder. What do you make of those?”
The whole steep slope was covered with gray circular rings of stone, a score of them at least.
“What are they? Sheep-pens?”
“No, they are the homes of our worthy ancestors. Prehistoric man lived thickly on the moor, and as no one in particular has lived there since, we find all his little arrangements exactly as he left them. These are his wigwams with the roofs off. You can even see his hearth and his couch if you have the curiosity to go inside.”
“But it is quite a town. When was it inhabited?”
“Neolithic man–no date.”
“What did he do?”
“He grazed his cattle on these slopes, and he learned to dig for tin when the bronze sword began to supersede the stone axe. Look at the great trench in the opposite hill. That is his mark. Yes, you will find some very singular points about the moor, Dr. Watson. Oh, excuse me an instant! It is surely Cyclopides.”
A small fly or moth had fluttered across our path, and in an instant Stapleton was rushing with extraordinary energy and speed in pursuit of it. To my dismay the creature flew straight for the great mire, and my acquaintance never paused for an instant, bounding from tuft to tuft behind it, his green net waving in the air. His gray clothes and jerky, zigzag, irregular progress made him not unlike some huge moth himself. I was standing watching his pursuit with a mixture of admiration for his extraordinary activity and fear lest he should lose his footing in the treacherous mire when I heard the sound of steps and, turning round, found a woman near me upon the path. She had come from the direction in which the plume of smoke indicated the position of Merripit House, but the dip of the moor had hid her until she was quite close.
I could not doubt that this was the Miss Stapleton of whom I had been told, since ladies of any sort must be few upon the moor, and I remembered that I had heard someone describe her as being a beauty. The woman who approached me was certainly that, and of a most uncommon type. There could not have been a greater contrast between brother and sister, for Stapleton was neutral tinted, with light hair and gray eyes, while she was darker than any brunette whom I have seen in England–slim, elegant, and tall. She had a proud, finely cut face, so regular that it might have seemed impassive were it not for the sensitive mouth and the beautiful dark, eager eyes. With her perfect figure and elegant dress she was, indeed, a strange apparition upon a lonely moorland path. Her eyes were on her brother as I turned, and then she quickened her pace towards me. I had raised my hat and was about to make some explanatory remark when her own words turned all my thoughts into a new channel.
“Go back!” she said. “Go straight back to London, instantly.”
I could only stare at her in stupid surprise. Her eyes blazed at me, and she tapped the ground impatiently with her foot.
“Why should I go back?” I asked.
“I cannot explain.” She spoke in a low, eager voice, with a curious lisp in her utterance. “But for God’s sake do what I ask you. Go back and never set foot upon the moor again.”
“But I have only just come.”
“Man, man!” she cried. “Can you not tell when a warning is for your own good? Go back to London! Start to-night! Get away from this place at all costs! Hush, my brother is coming! Not a word of what I have said. Would you mind getting that orchid for me among the mare’s-tails yonder? We are very rich in orchids on the moor, though, of course, you are rather late to see the beauties of the place.”
Stapleton had abandoned the chase and came back to us breathing hard and flushed with his exertions.
“Halloa, Beryl!” said he, and it seemed to me that the tone of his greeting was not altogether a cordial one.
“Well, Jack, you are very hot.”
“Yes, I was chasing a Cyclopides. He is very rare and seldom found in the late autumn. What a pity that I should have missed him!” He spoke unconcernedly, but his small light eyes glanced incessantly from the girl to me.
“You have introduced yourselves, I can see.”
“Yes. I was telling Sir Henry that it was rather late for him to see the true beauties of the moor.”
“Why, who do you think this is?”
“I imagine that it must be Sir Henry Baskerville.”
“No, no,” said I. “Only a humble commoner, but his friend. My name is Dr. Watson.”
A flush of vexation passed over her expressive face. “We have been talking at cross purposes,” said she.
“Why, you had not very much time for talk,” her brother remarked with the same questioning eyes.
“I talked as if Dr. Watson were a resident instead of being merely a visitor,” said she. “It cannot much matter to him whether it is early or late for the orchids. But you will come on, will you not, and see Merripit House?”
A short walk brought us to it, a bleak moorland house, once the farm of some grazier in the old prosperous days, but now put into repair and turned into a modern dwelling. An orchard surrounded it, but the trees, as is usual upon the moor, were stunted and nipped, and the effect of the whole place was mean and melancholy. We were admitted by a strange, wizened, rusty-coated old manservant, who seemed in keeping with the house. Inside, however, there were large rooms furnished with an elegance in which I seemed to recognize the taste of the lady. As I looked from their windows at the interminable granite-flecked moor rolling unbroken to the farthest horizon I could not but marvel at what could have brought this highly educated man and this beautiful woman to live in such a place.
“Queer spot to choose, is it not?” said he as if in answer to my thought. “And yet we manage to make ourselves fairly happy, do we not, Beryl?”
“Quite happy,” said she, but there was no ring of conviction in her words.
“I had a school,” said Stapleton. “It was in the north country. The work to a man of my temperament was mechanical and uninteresting, but the privilege of living with youth, of helping to mould those young minds, and of impressing them with one’s own character and ideals was very dear to me. However, the fates were against us. A serious epidemic broke out in the school and three of the boys died. It never recovered from the blow, and much of my capital was irretrievably swallowed up. And yet, if it were not for the loss of the charming companionship of the boys, I could rejoice over my own misfortune, for, with my strong tastes for botany and zoology, I find an unlimited field of work here, and my sister is as devoted to Nature as I am. All this, Dr. Watson, has been brought upon your head by your expression as you surveyed the moor out of our window.”
“It certainly did cross my mind that it might be a little dull–less for you, perhaps, than for your sister.”
“No, no, I am never dull,” said she quickly.
“We have books, we have our studies, and we have interesting neighbours. Dr. Mortimer is a most learned man in his own line. Poor Sir Charles was also an admirable companion. We knew him well and miss him more than I can tell. Do you think that I should intrude if I were to call this afternoon and make the acquaintance of Sir Henry?”
“I am sure that he would be delighted.”
“Then perhaps you would mention that I propose to do so. We may in our humble way do something to make things more easy for him until he becomes accustomed to his new surroundings. Will you come upstairs, Dr. Watson, and inspect my collection of Lepidoptera? I think it is the most complete one in the south-west of England. By the time that you have looked through them lunch will be almost ready.”
But I was eager to get back to my charge. The melancholy of the moor, the death of the unfortunate pony, the weird sound which had been associated with the grim legend of the Baskervilles, all these things tinged my thoughts with sadness. Then on the top of these more or less vague impressions there had come the definite and distinct warning of Miss Stapleton, delivered with such intense earnestness that I could not doubt that some grave and deep reason lay behind it. I resisted all pressure to stay for lunch, and I set off at once upon my return journey, taking the grass-grown path by which we had come.
It seems, however, that there must have been some short cut for those who knew it, for before I had reached the road I was astounded to see Miss Stapleton sitting upon a rock by the side of the track. Her face was beautifully flushed with her exertions, and she held her hand to her side.
“I have run all the way in order to cut you off, Dr. Watson,” said she. “I had not even time to put on my hat. I must not stop, or my brother may miss me. I wanted to say to you how sorry I am about the stupid mistake I made in thinking that you were Sir Henry. Please forget the words I said, which have no application whatever to you.”
“But I can’t forget them, Miss Stapleton,” said I. “I am Sir Henry’s friend, and his welfare is a very close concern of mine. Tell me why it was that you were so eager that Sir Henry should return to London.”
“A woman’s whim, Dr. Watson. When you know me better you will understand that I cannot always give reasons for what I say or do.”
“No, no. I remember the thrill in your voice. I remember the look in your eyes. Please, please, be frank with me, Miss Stapleton, for ever since I have been here I have been conscious of shadows all round me. Life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track. Tell me then what it was that you meant, and I will promise to convey your warning to Sir Henry.”
An expression of irresolution passed for an instant over her face, but her eyes had hardened again when she answered me.
“You make too much of it, Dr. Watson,” said she. “My brother and I were very much shocked by the death of Sir Charles. We knew him very intimately, for his favourite walk was over the moor to our house. He was deeply impressed with the curse which hung over his family, and when this tragedy came I naturally felt that there must be some grounds for the fears which he had expressed. I was distressed therefore when another member of the family came down to live here, and I felt that he should be warned of the danger which he will run. That was all which I intended to convey.”
“But what is the danger?”
“You know the story of the hound?”
“I do not believe in such nonsense.”
“But I do. If you have any influence with Sir Henry, take him away from a place which has always been fatal to his family. The world is wide. Why should he wish to live at the place of danger?”
“Because it is the place of danger. That is Sir Henry’s nature. I fear that unless you can give me some more definite information than this it would be impossible to get him to move.”
“I cannot say anything definite, for I do not know anything definite.”
“I would ask you one more question, Miss Stapleton. If you meant no more than this when you first spoke to me, why should you not wish your brother to overhear what you said? There is nothing to which he, or anyone else, could object.”
“My brother is very anxious to have the Hall inhabited, for he thinks that it is for the good of the poor folk upon the moor. He would be very angry if he knew that I had said anything which might induce Sir Henry to go away. But I have done my duty now and I will say no more. I must get back, or he will miss me and suspect that I have seen you. Good-bye!” She turned and had disappeared in a few minutes among the scattered boulders, while I, with my soul full of vague fears, pursued my way to Baskerville Hall.
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