Someone was walking in the chapel above. It was the firm, rapid step of one who came with a definite purpose and knew well the ground upon which he walked. A light streamed down the stairs, and an instant later the man who bore it was framed in the Gothic archway. He was a terrible figure, huge in stature and fierce in manner. A large stable-lantern which he held in front of him shone upward upon a strong, heavily moustached face and angry eyes, which glared round him into every recess of the vault, finally fixing themselves with a deadly stare upon my companion and myself.
“Who the devil are you?” he thundered. “And what are you doing upon my property?” Then, as Holmes returned no answer he took a couple of steps forward and raised a heavy stick which he carried. “Do you hear me?” he cried. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” His cudgel quivered in the air.
But instead of shrinking Holmes advanced to meet him.
“I also have a question to ask you, Sir Robert,” he said in his sternest tone. “Who is this? And what is it doing here?”
He turned and tore open the coffin-lid behind him. In the glare of the lantern I saw a body swathed in a sheet from head to foot with dreadful, witch-like features, all nose and chin, projecting at one end, the dim, glazed eyes staring from a discoloured and crumbling face.
The baronet had staggered back with a cry and supported himself against a stone sarcophagus.
“How came you to know of this?” he cried. And then, with some return of his truculent manner: “What business is it of yours?”
“My name is Sherlock Holmes,” said my companion. “Possibly it is familiar to you. In any case, my business is that of every other good citizen–to uphold the law. It seems to me that you have much to answer for.”
Sir Robert glared for a moment, but Holmes’s quiet voice and cool, assured manner had their effect.
“‘Fore God, Mr. Holmes, it’s all right,” said he. “Appearances are against me, I’ll admit, but I could act no otherwise.”
“I should be happy to think so, but I fear your explanations must be before the police.”
Sir Robert shrugged his broad shoulders.
“Well, if it must be, it must. Come up to the house and you can judge for yourself how the matter stands.”
A quarter of an hour later we found ourselves in what I judge, from the lines of polished barrels behind glass covers, to be the gun-room of the old house. It was comfortably furnished, and here Sir Robert left us for a few moments. When he returned he had two companions with him; the one, the florid young woman whom we had seen in the carriage; the other, a small rat-faced man with a disagreeably furtive manner. These two wore an appearance of utter bewilderment, which showed that the baronet had not yet had time to explain to them the turn events had taken.
“There,” said Sir Robert with a wave of his hand, “are Mr. and Mrs. Norlett. Mrs. Norlett, under her maiden name of Evans, has for some years been my sister’s confidential maid. I have brought them here because I feel that my best course is to explain the true position to you, and they are the two people upon earth who can substantiate what I say.”
“Is this necessary, Sir Robert? Have you thought what you are doing?” cried the woman.
“As to me, I entirely disclaim all responsibility,” said her husband.
Sir Robert gave him a glance of contempt. “I will take all responsibility,” said he. “Now, Mr. Holmes, listen to a plain statement of the facts.
“You have clearly gone pretty deeply into my affairs or I should not have found you where I did. Therefore, you know already, in all probability, that I am running a dark horse for the Derby and that everything depends upon my success. If I win, all is easy. If I lose– well, I dare not think of that!”
“I understand the position,” said Holmes.
“I am dependent upon my sister, Lady Beatrice, for everything. But it is well known that her interest in the estate is for her own life only. For myself, I am deeply in the hands of the Jews. I have always known that if my sister were to die my creditors would be on to my estate like a flock of vultures. Everything would be seized–my stables, my horses–everything. Well, Mr. Holmes, my sister did die just a week ago.”
“And you told no one!”
“What could I do? Absolute ruin faced me. If I could stave things off for three weeks all would be well. Her maid’s husband–this man here –is an actor. It came into our heads–it came into my head–that he could for that short period personate my sister. It was but a case of appearing daily in the carriage, for no one need enter her room save the maid. It was not difficult to arrange. My sister died of the dropsy which had long afflicted her.”
“That will be for a coroner to decide.”
“Her doctor would certify that for months her symptoms have threatened such an end.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“The body could not remain there. On the first night Norlett and I carried it out to the old well-house, which is now never used. We were followed, however, by her pet spaniel, which yapped continually at the door, so I felt some safer place was needed. I got rid of the spaniel, and we carried the body to the crypt of the church. There was no indignity or irreverence, Mr. Holmes. I do not feel that I have wronged the dead.”
“Your conduct seems to me inexcusable, Sir Robert.”
The baronet shook his head impatiently. “It is easy to preach,” said he. “Perhaps you would have felt differently if you had been in my position. One cannot see all one’s hopes and all one’s plans shattered at the last moment and make no effort to save them. It seemed to me that it would be no unworthy resting-place if we put her for the time in one of the coffins of her husband’s ancestors lying in what is still consecrated ground. We opened such a coffin, removed the contents, and placed her as you have seen her. As to the old relics which we took out, we could not leave them on the floor of the crypt. Norlett and I removed them, and he descended at night and burned them in the central furnace. There is my story, Mr. Holmes, though how you forced my hand so that I have to tell it is more than I can say.”
Holmes sat for some time lost in thought.
“There is one flaw in your narrative, Sir Robert,” he said at last. “Your bets on the race, and therefore your hopes for the future, would hold good even if your creditors seized your estate.”
“The horse would be part of the estate. What do they care for my bets? As likely as not they would not run him at all. My chief creditor is, unhappily, my most bitter enemy–a rascally fellow, Sam Brewer, whom I was once compelled to horsewhip on Newmarket Heath. Do you suppose that he would try to save me?”
“Well, Sir Robert,” said Holmes, rising, “this matter must, of course, be referred to the police. It was my duty to bring the facts to light, and there I must leave it. As to the morality or decency of your conduct, it is not for me to express an opinion. It is nearly midnight, Watson, and I think we may make our way back to our humble abode.”
It is generally known now that this singular episode ended upon a happier note than Sir Robert’s actions deserved. Shoscombe Prince did win the Derby, the sporting owner did net eighty thousand pounds in bets, and the creditors did hold their hand until the race was over, when they were paid in full, and enough was left to reestablish Sir Robert in a fair position in life. Both police and coroner took a lenient view of the transaction, and beyond a mild censure for the delay in registering the lady’s decease, the lucky owner got away scatheless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and promises to end in an honoured old age.