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THE fresh beauty of the following morning did something to efface from our minds the grim and gray impression which had been left upon both of us by our first experience of Baskerville Hall. As Sir Henry and I sat at breakfast the sunlight flooded in through the high mullioned windows, throwing watery patches of colour from the coats of arms which covered them. The dark panelling glowed like bronze in the golden rays, and it was hard to realize that this was indeed the chamber which had struck such a gloom into our souls upon the evening before.
“I guess it is ourselves and not the house that we have to blame!” said the baronet. “We were tired with our journey and chilled by our drive, so we took a gray view of the place. Now we are fresh and well, so it is all cheerful once more.”
“And yet it was not entirely a question of imagination,” I answered. “Did you, for example, happen to hear someone, a woman I think, sobbing in the night?”
“That is curious, for I did when I was half asleep fancy that I heard something of the sort. I waited quite a time, but there was no more of it, so I concluded that it was all a dream.”
“I heard it distinctly, and I am sure that it was really the sob of a woman.”
“We must ask about this right away.” He rang the bell and asked Barrymore whether he could account for our experience. It seemed to me that the pallid features of the butler turned a shade paler still as he listened to his master’s question.
“There are only two women in the house, Sir Henry,” he answered. “One is the scullery-maid, who sleeps in the other wing. The other is my wife, and I can answer for it that the sound could not have come from her.”
And yet he lied as he said it, for it chanced that after breakfast I met Mrs. Barrymore in the long corridor with the sun full upon her face. She was a large, impassive, heavy-featured woman with a stern set expression of mouth. But her telltale eyes were red and glanced at me from between swollen lids. It was she, then, who wept in the night, and if she did so her husband must know it. Yet he had taken the obvious risk of discovery in declaring that it was not so. Why had he done this? And why did she weep so bitterly? Already round this pale-faced, handsome, black-bearded man there was gathering an atmosphere of mystery and of gloom. It was he who had been the first to discover the body of Sir Charles, and we had only his word for all the circumstances which led up to the old man’s death. Was it possible that it was Barrymore, after all, whom we had seen in the cab in Regent Street? The beard might well have been the same. The cabman had described a somewhat shorter man, but such an impression might easily have been erroneous. How could I settle the point forever? Obviously the first thing to do was to see the Grimpen postmaster and find whether the test telegram had really been placed in Barrymore’s own hands. Be the answer what it might, I should at least have something to report to Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Henry had numerous papers to examine after breakfast, so that the time was propitious for my excursion. It was a pleasant walk of four miles along the edge of the moor, leading me at last to a small gray hamlet, in which two larger buildings, which proved to be the inn and the house of Dr. Mortimer, stood high above the rest. The postmaster, who was also the village grocer, had a clear recollection of the telegram.
“Certainly, sir,” said he, “I had the telegram delivered to Mr. Barrymore exactly as directed.”
“Who delivered it?”
“My boy here. James, you delivered that telegram to Mr. Barrymore at the Hall last week, did you not?”
“Yes, father, I delivered it.”
“Into his own hands?” I asked.
“Well, he was up in the loft at the time, so that I could not put it into his own hands, but I gave it into Mrs. Barrymore’s hands, and she promised to deliver it at once.”
“Did you see Mr. Barrymore?”
“No, sir; I tell you he was in the loft.”
“If you didn’t see him, how do you know he was in the loft?”
“Well, surely his own wife ought to know where he is,” said the postmaster testily. “Didn’t he get the telegram? If there is any mistake it is for Mr. Barrymore himself to complain.”
It seemed hopeless to pursue the inquiry any farther, but it was clear that in spite of Holmes’s ruse we had no proof that Barrymore had not been in London all the time. Suppose that it were so–suppose that the same man had been the last who had seen Sir Charles alive, and the first to dog the new heir when he returned to England. What then? Was he the agent of others or had he some sinister design of his own? What interest could he have in persecuting the Baskerville family? I thought of the strange warning clipped out of the leading article of the Times. Was that his work or was it possibly the doing of someone who was bent upon counteracting his schemes? The only conceivable motive was that which had been suggested by Sir Henry, that if the family could be scared away a comfortable and permanent home would be secured for the Barrymores. But surely such an explanation as that would be quite inadequate to account for the deep and subtle scheming which seemed to be weaving an invisible net round the young baronet. Holmes himself had said that no more complex case had come to him in all the long series of his sensational investigations. I prayed, as I walked back along the gray, lonely road, that my friend might soon be freed from his preoccupations and able to come down to take this heavy burden of responsibility from my shoulders.
Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of running feet behind me and by a voice which called me by name. I turned, expecting to see Dr. Mortimer, but to my surprise it was a stranger who was pursuing me. He was a small, slim, clean-shaven, prim-faced man, flaxen-haired and lean-jawed, between thirty and forty years of age, dressed in a gray suit and wearing a straw hat. A tin box for botanical specimens hung over his shoulder and he carried a green butterfly-net in one of his hands.
“You will, I am sure, excuse my presumption, Dr. Watson,” said he as he came panting up to where I stood. “Here on the moor we are homely folk and do not wait for formal introductions. You may possibly have heard my name from our mutual friend, Mortimer. I am Stapleton, of Merripit House.”
“Your net and box would have told me as much,” said I, “for I knew that Mr. Stapleton was a naturalist. But how did you know me?”
“I have been calling on Mortimer, and he pointed you out to me from the window of his surgery as you passed. As our road lay the same way I thought that I would overtake you and introduce myself. I trust that Sir Henry is none the worse for his journey?”
“He is very well, thank you.”
“We were all rather afraid that after the sad death of Sir Charles the new baronet might refuse to live here. It is asking much of a wealthy man to come down and bury himself in a place of this kind, but I need not tell you that it means a very great deal to the countryside. Sir Henry has, I suppose, no superstitious fears in the matter?”
“I do not think that it is likely.”
“Of course you know the legend of the fiend dog which haunts the family?”
“I have heard it.”
“It is extraordinary how credulous the peasants are about here! Any number of them are ready to swear that they have seen such a creature upon the moor.” He spoke with a smile, but I seemed to read in his eyes that he took the matter more seriously. “The story took a great hold upon the imagination of Sir Charles, and I have no doubt that it led to his tragic end.”
“His nerves were so worked up that the appearance of any dog might have had a fatal effect upon his diseased heart. I fancy that he really did see something of the kind upon that last night in the yew alley. I feared that some disaster might occur, for I was very fond of the old man, and I knew that his heart was weak.”
“How did you know that?”
“My friend Mortimer told me.”
“You think, then, that some dog pursued Sir Charles, and that he died of fright in consequence?”
“Have you any better explanation?”
“I have not come to any conclusion.”
“Has Mr. Sherlock Holmes?”
The words took away my breath for an instant, but a glance at the placid face and steadfast eyes of my companion showed that no surprise was intended.
“It is useless for us to pretend that we do not know you, Dr. Watson,” said he. “The records of your detective have reached us here, and you could not celebrate him without being known yourself. When Mortimer told me your name he could not deny your identity. If you are here, then it follows that Mr. Sherlock Holmes is interesting himself in the matter, and I am naturally curious to know what view he may take.”
“I am afraid that I cannot answer that question.”
“May I ask if he is going to honour us with a visit himself?”
“He cannot leave town at present. He has other cases which engage his attention.”
“What a pity! He might throw some light on that which is so dark to us. But as to your own researches, if there is any possible way in which I can be of service to you I trust that you will command me. If I had any indication of the nature of your suspicions or how you propose to investigate the case, I might perhaps even now give you some aid or advice.”
“I assure you that I am simply here upon a visit to my friend, Sir Henry, and that I need no help of any kind.”
“Excellent!” said Stapleton. “You are perfectly right to be wary and discreet. I am justly reproved for what I feel was an unjustifiable intrusion, and I promise you that I will not mention the matter again.”
We had come to a point where a narrow grassy path struck off from the road and wound away across the moor. A steep, boulder-sprinkled hill lay upon the right which had in bygone days been cut into a granite quarry. The face which was turned towards us formed a dark cliff, with ferns and brambles growing in its niches. From over a distant rise there floated a gray plume of smoke.
“A moderate walk along this moor-path brings us to Merripit House,” said he. “Perhaps you will spare an hour that I may have the pleasure of introducing you to my sister.”
My first thought was that I should be by Sir Henry’s side. But then I remembered the pile of papers and bills with which his study table was littered. It was certain that I could not help with those. And Holmes had expressly said that I should study the neighbours upon the moor. I accepted Stapleton’s invitation, and we turned together down the path.
“It is a wonderful place, the moor,” said he, looking round over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges. “You never tire of the moor. You cannot think the wonderful secrets which it contains. It is so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious.”
“You know it well, then?”
“I have only been here two years. The residents would call me a newcomer. We came shortly after Sir Charles settled. But my tastes led me to explore every part of the country round, and I should think that there are few men who know it better than I do.”
“Is it hard to know?”
“Very hard. You see, for example, this great plain to the north here with the queer hills breaking out of it. Do you observe anything remarkable about that?”
“It would be a rare place for a gallop.”
“You would naturally think so and the thought has cost several their lives before now. You notice those bright green spots scattered thickly over it?”
“Yes, they seem more fertile than the rest.”
“That is the great Grimpen Mire,” said he. “A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of the bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place. And yet I can find my way to the very heart of it and return alive. By George, there is another of those miserable ponies!”
Something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upward and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror, but my companion’s nerves seemed to be stronger than mine.
“It’s gone!” said he. “The mire has him. Two in two days, and many more, perhaps, for they get in the way of going there in the dry weather and never know the difference until the mire has them in its clutches. It’s a bad place, the great Grimpen Mire.”
“And you say you can penetrate it?”
“Yes, there are one or two paths which a very active man can take. I have found them out.”
“But why should you wish to go into so horrible a place?”
“Well, you see the hills beyond? They are really islands cut off on all sides by the impassable mire, which has crawled round them in the course of years. That is where the rare plants and the butterflies are, if you have the wit to reach them.”
“I shall try my luck some day.”
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