The telegram in my hand read:
RUSSELL NEED YOU IN DEVONSHIRE. IF FREE TAKE EARLIEST TRAIN CORYTON. IF NOT FREE COME ANYWAY. BRING COMPASS.
To say I was irritated would be an understatement. We had only just pulled ourselves from the mire of a difficult and emotionally draining case and now, less than a month later, with my mind firmly turned to the work awaiting me in this, my spiritual home, Oxford, my husband and longtime partner Sherlock Holmes proposed with this peremptory telegram to haul me away into his world once more. With an effort, I gave my landlady’s housemaid a smile, told her there was no reply (Holmes had neglected to send the address for a response—no accident on his part), and shut the door. I refused to speculate on why he wanted me, what purpose a compass would serve, or indeed what he was doing in Devon at all, since when last I had heard he was setting off to look into an interesting little case of burglary from an impregnable vault in Berlin. I squelched all impulse to curiosity, and returned to my desk.
Two hours later the girl interrupted my reading again, with another flimsy envelope. This one read:
ALSO SIX INCH MAPS EXETER TAVISTOCK OKEHAMPTON, CLOSE YOUR BOOKS. LEAVE NOW.
Damn the man, he knew me far too well.
I found my heavy brass pocket compass in the back of a drawer. It had never been quite the same since being first cracked and then drenched in an aqueduct beneath Jerusalem some four years before, but it was an old friend and it seemed still to work reasonably well. I dropped it into a similarly well-travelled rucksack, packed on top of it a variety of clothing to cover the spectrum of possibilities that lay between arctic expedition and tiara-topped dinner with royalty (neither of which, admittedly, were beyond Holmes’ reach), added the book on Judaism in mediaeval Spain that I had been reading, and went out to buy the requested stack of highly detailed six-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey maps of the southwestern portion of England.
At Coryton, in Devon, many hours later, I found the station deserted and dusk fast closing in. I stood there with my rucksack over my shoulder, boots on feet, and hair in cap, listening to the train chuff away towards the next minuscule stop. An elderly married couple had also got off here, climbed laboriously into the sagging farm cart that awaited them, and been driven away. I was alone. It was raining. It was cold.
There was a certain inevitability to the situation, I reflected, and dropped my rucksack to the ground to remove my gloves, my waterproof, and a warmer hat. Straightening up, I happened to turn slightly and noticed a small, light-coloured square tacked up to the post by which I had walked. Had I not turned, or had it been half an hour darker, I should have missed it entirely.
Russell it said on the front. Unfolded, it proved to be a torn-off scrap of paper on which I could just make out the words, in Holmes’s writing:
Lew House is two miles north.
Do you know the words to “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Widdecombe Fair”?
I dug back into the rucksack, this time for a torch. When I had confirmed that the words did indeed say what I had thought, I tucked the note away, excavated clear to the bottom of the rucksack for the compass to check which branch of the track fading into the murk was pointing north, and set out.
I hadn’t the faintest idea what he meant by that note. I had heard the two songs, one a thumping hymn and the other one of those overly precious folk songs, but I did not know their words other than one song’s decidedly ominous (to a Jew) introductory image of Christian soldiers marching behind their “cross of Jesus” and the other’s endless and drearily jolly chorus of “Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.” In the first place, when I took my infidel self into a Christian church it was not usually of the sort wherein such hymns were standard fare, and as for the second, well, thus far none of my friends had succumbed to the artsy allure of sandals, folk songs, and Morris dancing. I had not seen Holmes in nearly three weeks, and it did occur to me that perhaps in the interval my husband had lost his mind.
Two miles is no distance at all on a smooth road on a sunny morning, but in the wet and moonless dark in which I soon found myself, picking my way down a slick, rutted track, following the course of a small river which I could not see, but could hear, smell, and occasionally step in, two miles was a fair trek. And there was something else as well: I felt as if I were being followed, or watched. I am not normally of a nervous disposition, and when I have such feelings I tend to assume that they have some basis in reality, but I could hear nothing more solid than the rain and the wind, and when I stopped there were no echoing splashes of feet behind me. It was simply a sense of Presence in the night; I pushed on, trying to ignore it.
I stayed to the left when the track divided, and was grateful to find, when time came to cross the stream, that a bridge had been erected across it. Not that wading through the water would have made me much wetter, and admittedly it would have cleared my lower extremities of half a hundredweight of mud, but the bridge as a solid reminder of Civilisation in the form of county councils I found encouraging.
Having crossed the stream, I now left its burble behind me, exchanging the hiss of rain on water for the thicker noises of rain on mud and vegetation, and I was just telling myself that it couldn’t be more than another half mile when I heard a faint thread of sound. Another hundred yards and I could hear it above the suck and plop of my boots; fifty more and I was on top of it.
It was a violin, playing a sweet, plaintive melody, light and slow and shot through with a profound and permanent sadness. I had never, to my knowledge, heard the tune before, although it had the bone-deep familiarity possessed by all things that are very old. I did, however, know the hands that wielded the bow.
“Holmes?” I said into the dark.
He finished the verse, drawing out the long final note, before he allowed the instrument to fall silent.
“Hello, Russell. You took your time.”
“Holmes, I hope there is a good reason for this.”
He did not answer, but I heard the familiar sounds of violin and bow being put into a case. The latches snapped, followed by the vigorous rustle of a waterproof being donned. I turned on the torch in time to see Holmes stepping out of the small shelter of a roofed gate set into a stone wall. He paused, looking thoughtfully at the telltale inundation of mud up my right side to the elbow, the result of a misstep into a pothole.
“Why did you not use the torch, coming up the road?” he asked.
“I, er . . .” I was embarrassed. “I thought there was someone following me. I didn’t want to give him the advantage of a torch-light.”
“Following you?” he said sharply, half-turning to squint down the road.
“Watching me. That back-of-the-neck feeling.”
I saw his face clearly by the light of the torch. “Ah yes. Watching you. That’ll be the moor.”
“The Moor?” I said in astonishment. I knew where I was, of course, but for an instant the book I had been reading on the train was closer to mind than my sense of geography, and I was confronted by the brief mental image of a dark-skinned scimitar-bearing Saracen lurking along a Devonshire country lane.
“Dartmoor. It’s just there.” He nodded over his shoulder. “It rises up in a great wall, four or five miles away, and although you can’t see it from here, it casts a definite presence over the surrounding countryside. You’ll meet it tomorrow. Come,” he said, turning up the road. “Let us take to the warm and dry.”
I left the torch on now. It played across the hedgerow on one side and a stone wall on the other, illuminating for a moment a French road sign (some soldier’s wartime souvenir, no doubt), giving us a brief glimpse of headstones in a churchyard just before we turned off into a smaller drive. A thick layer of rotting leaves from the row of half-bare elms and copper beeches over our heads gave way to a cultivated garden—looking more neglected than even the season and the rain would explain, but nonetheless clearly intended to be a garden—and finally one corner of a two-storey stone house, the small pieced panes of its tall windows reflecting the torch’s beam. The near corner was dark, but farther along, some of the windows glowed behind curtains, and the light from a covered porch spilled its welcome out across the weedy drive and onto a round fountain. We ducked inside the small space, and had begun to divest ourselves of the wettest of our outer garments when the door opened in front of us.
In the first instant I thought it was a butler standing there, the sort of lugubrious aged retainer a manor house of this size would have, as seedy and tired as the house itself, and as faithful and long-serving. It was his face, however, more than the old-fashioned clerical collar and high-buttoned frock coat he wore, that straightened my spine. Stooped with age he might be, but this was no servant.
The tall old man leant on his two walking sticks and took his time looking me over through the wire spectacles he wore. He examined the tendrils of escaped hair that straggled wetly down my face, the slime of mud up my clothing, the muck-encrusted boot I held in my hand, and the sodden stocking on the foot from which I had just removed the boot. Eventually he shifted his gaze to that of my lawfully wedded husband.
“We have been waiting for this person?” he asked.
Holmes turned to look at me, and his long mouth twitched—minutely, but enough. Had it not been that going back into the night would have meant a close flirtation with pneumonia, I should immediately have laced my boot back on and left those two sardonic males to their own company. Instead, I let the boot drop to the stone floor, sending small clots of mud slopping about the porch (some of which, I was pleased to see, ended up on Holmes’ trouser leg), and bent to my rucksack. It was more or less dry, as I had been wearing it underneath the waterproof (a procedure which made me resemble a hunchback and left the coat gaping open in the front, but at least guaranteed that I should have a dry change of clothing when I reached my destination). I snatched at the buckles with half-frozen fingers, jerked out the fat bundle of cloth-mounted, large-scale maps, and threw it in the direction of Holmes. He caught it.
“The maps you asked for,” I said coldly. “When is the next train out of Coryton?”
Holmes had the grace to look discomfited, if briefly, but the old man in the doorway simply continued to look as if he were smelling something considerably more unpleasant than sodden wool. Neither of them answered me, but Holmes’ next words were in a voice that verged on gentle, tantamount to an apology.
“Come, Russell. There’s a fire and hot soup. You’ll take your death out here.”
Somewhat mollified, I removed my other boot, picked up my rucksack, and followed him into the house, stepping past the cleric, who shut the door behind us. When I was inside and facing the man, Holmes made his tardy introductions.
“Gould, may I present my partner and, er, wife, Mary Russell. Russell, this is the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.”
One would think, I reflected as I shook the old man’s large hand, that with two and a half years of marriage behind him the idea of having a wife would come more easily, at least to his tongue. However, I had to admit that we both normally referred to the other as partner rather than spouse, and the form of our married life was in truth more that of two individuals than that of a bound couple. Aside, of course, from certain activities rendered legal by a bit of paper.
The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould made the minimum polite response and suggested that Holmes show me upstairs. I wondered if I was to be allowed back down afterwards, or if I ought to say good-bye to him now. Holmes caught up a candlestick and lit its taper from a lamp on the table, and I followed him out of the warmth, through a dark-panelled passageway (my stockings squelching on the thin patches in the carpeting), and up what by the wavering light appeared a very nicely proportioned staircase lined with eighteenth-century faces.
“Holmes,” I hissed. “Who on earth is that old goat? And when are you going to tell me what you dragged me down here for?”
“That ‘old goat’ is the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, squire of Lew Trenchard, antiquarian, self-educated expert in half a dozen fields, and author of more books than any other man listed in the British Museum. Hymnist, collector of country music—”
A small light went on in my mind. “‘Onward Christian Soldiers’? ‘Widdecombe Fair’?”
“He wrote the one and collected the other. Rural parson,” he continued, “novelist, theologian”—Yes, I thought, I had heard of him somewhere, connected with dusty tomes of archaic ideas—”amateur architect, amateur archaeologist, amateur of many things. He is one of the foremost living experts on the history and life of Dartmoor. He is a client with a case. He is also,” he added, “a friend.”
While we were talking I had followed the candle up the stairway with its requisite portraits of dim and disapproving ancestors and through a small gallery with a magnificent plaster ceiling, but at this final statement I stopped dead. Fortunately, he did not go much farther, but opened a door and stepped into a room. After a moment, I followed, and found him turning up the lights in a nice-sized bedroom with rose-strewn paper on the walls (peeling up slightly at the seams) and a once-good, rose-strewn carpet on the floor. I put the rucksack on a chair that looked as if it had seen worse usage and sat gingerly on the edge of the room’s soft, high bed.
“Holmes,” I said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you describe anyone other than Watson as a friend.”
“No?” He bent to set a match to the careful arrangement of sticks and logs that had been laid in the fireplace. There was a large radiator in the room, but like all the others we had passed, it stood sullen and cold in its corner. “Well, it is true. I do not have many.”
“How do you know him?”
“Oh, I’ve known Baring-Gould for a long time. I used him on the Baskerville case, of course. I needed a local informant into the life of the natives and his was the name that turned up, a man who knew everything and went everywhere. We correspond on occasion, he came to see me in Baker Street two or three times, and once in Sussex.”
I couldn’t see how this sparse contact qualified the man for friendship, but I didn’t press him.
“I shouldn’t imagine he ‘goes everywhere’ now.”
“No. Time is catching up with him.”
“How old is he?”
“Nearly ninety, I believe. Five years ago you’d have thought him a hearty seventy. Now there are days when he does not get out of bed.”
I studied him closely, hearing a trace of sorrow beneath his matter-of-fact words. Totally unexpected and, having met the object of this affection, quite inexplicable.
“You said he had a case for us?”
“He will review the facts after we’ve eaten. There’s a bath next door, although I don’t know that I would recommend it; there seems to be no hot water at the moment.”