It was in the freezing cold winter of 1899 that Holmes and I were summoned to Carlisle by our old ally and occasional adversary, Inspector Lestrade. In his telegram he stated that he’d appreciate our assistance with a most unusual case that was baffling the local police. Scotland Yard had been called in to investigate the mysterious death of a guest of Lord Tollington. We arrived late in the afternoon absolutely chilled to the bone.
Lestrade was at the door to greet us. ‘Ah there you are, Mr Holmes. So good of you to come. And Doctor Watson.’
‘Yes, Inspector,’ Holmes said. ‘What is it that makes you need my services so urgently this stark winter’s day in the middle of nowhere?’
Lestrade led us over to the warm fire in the great hall and said, ‘What I have to tell you, Mr Holmes, is impossible! I must say I can’t make head nor tail of it.’
Holmes looked down his nose and said, ‘Please try, for all our sakes.’
‘Well, yes. The facts unfold like this… For his entertainment, Lord Tollington had a houseful of guests over Christmas and during the jollifications, there was talk about the ghost that haunts the house… you will probably have heard of it, the Tollington Ghost… probably the most famous ghost in the world!’
Holmes looked into the man’s eyes and said, ‘My agency is founded on rationality, Lestrade.’
I had to intervene. ‘I wouldn’t be so dismissive, Holmes. I’ve heard of it. It is well documented.’
‘Remember my motto, Watson,’ Holmes said. ‘No ghosts need apply at 221B. Please continue, Lestrade.’
‘Well, for a bet, a man well-known for his eccentricities, Wellington Pinchbeck by name, declared that he didn’t believe ghosts existed and to prove it, he bet his lordship a hundred guineas that, not only would he spend the night in the room where the ghost was supposed to appear, but that, if he could find a corpse, any corpse, he would do it in the company of that corpse in an open coffin.’
I was utterly astonished at the idea. Holmes raised his eyebrows and waited for Lestrade to continue.
‘Mr Pinchbeck was quite a one for his outrageous eccentricities. I had known him slightly. I’ve been in his company several times at the giant August Bank Holiday parties for police orphans he supported in Hyde Park these past few years.’
‘From your use of the past tense, I take it all did not end well for Mr Pinchbeck. Please go on, Inspector. You have my full attention.’
‘Well, by private arrangement with the local undertaker, the body of a local vagrant, who was to have been buried the following day, was delivered into the room in an open coffin. Then Wellington Pinchbeck, apparently with much hilarity, was locked in the room at ten o’clock that night. Some of the guests took it in turns to stay outside the door and make sure he didn’t attempt to pick the lock or find another way of escape. Then at nine o’clock the following morning, his lordship, the undertaker and his lordship’s butler unlocked the room in company with many of the guests to discover that the corpse of the vagrant had disappeared and in the coffin in its place was the dead body of Wellington Pinchbeck!’
I am afraid that I found it most grotesque. Holmes, in his most businesslike manner said, ‘Well, Lestrade, our first step is clear: we must see the room.’
‘Indeed,’ Lestrade said. ‘His lordship has given me possession of the key. Please follow me, gentlemen.’
The entrance to the room was by the front door of the hall and only twenty yards away from where we had been standing.
Lestrade inserted the key in the lock and turned it. The solid oak door opened noisily. Lestrade led the way. It was a large room with only one door and one huge window. Our footsteps clattered noisily on the marble-like floor. There was not much in the way of comfort and I immediately noticed how cold it was. Our breath showed up white, like steam from a kettle.
Holmes’ eyes were everywhere, although there was very little to see. Just a make-shift bed, a chair, a table and two trestles on which the coffin had rested.
Lestrade said, ‘You’ll note, gentlemen, that the trestles were positioned next to the bed. A great joker was Wellington Pinchbeck!’
Beyond the primitive furniture were twelve stone statues like pillars purporting to hold up the roof. ‘Who are these fellows, Lestrade?’ I asked.
‘Figures of all the previous Lord Tollingtons. The present holder of the title is the thirteenth.’
‘The thirteenth!’ I said. ‘Huh. An ominous number.’
Holmes said, ‘Only to the superstitious, Watson. And I credit you with more sense than that.’ He turned to Lestrade. ‘Who made the discovery in the morning?’
‘First at the door were Lord Tollington, the butler, Cramphorn – an entirely dependable man if you ask me – and the undertaker, Josiah Deep. But they were also in company with many of the other guests. Cramphorn had a breakfast tray for Mr Pinchbeck, and was prepared to assist Josiah Deep to remove the coffin containing the vagrant to the hearse, which was waiting to go straight to the church for the funeral.’
‘I see,’ Holmes said. ‘They searched this room, of course?’
I looked round . I thought that there really wasn’t anywhere to search.
‘They found nothing,’ Lestrade said. ‘So his lordship summoned the Carlisle police. They came immediately, but they also found nothing.’
‘And has the vagrant’s body turned up anywhere?’
‘No. That’s the mystery. That, and who killed Wellington Pinchbeck. And why.’
‘And how,’ Holmes added. He pursed his lips briefly. ‘And where is the body of Wellington Pinchbeck now?’
‘In Josiah Deep’s funeral parlour.’
Holmes looked up. ‘We need dally here no longer. We must visit Josiah Deep’s funeral parlour immediately.’
I was pleased to leave that cold hall and return to the main hall and the comforting fire. We waited there until his lordship’s carriage arrived at the front door then made our way to it and suffered the two mile journey to a sombre looking building on the perimeter of Tollington village. It chilled me even more to read the sign fixed to the entrance of the yard. It said: “Josiah Deep and Son. Funeral Parlour, Coffin Maker to the Gentry.”
We came down the steps of the carriage to see a man coming out of the door. He saw us and walked towards us. It was clear from his apparel that he was a man of the cloth.
‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ he said.
‘Good evening, rector,’ Holmes said.
The man briefly removed his hat and said, ‘Not yet “rector.” Just a humble curate, I fear, in the service of the Lord. Excuse me, gentlemen, I have not seen you around these parts. Have you recently moved here? Should I be calling on you and welcoming you and your families to the parish of Little Tollington and hopefully counting you among my congregation at the church of Saint Peter?’
Holmes said, ‘I think not, curate. But thank you. We are guests of Lord Tollington, staying for a day or two at Tollington Hall.’
‘Oh? Ah yes, you must be the policemen investigating the death of the unfortunate Mr. Wellington Pinchbeck. Strange business. Hmmm,’ he said and shook his bowed head. Then he said, ‘My name is Striker. I wonder if you could assist me? I am trying to construct an appropriate service of burial for the poor man. I have chosen the Psalms … the twenty-third… “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” is always appropriate, and perhaps the hundred and fifty-fourth… “Let them come forth with cymbal, drum and fife.” Hymns are easier to choose. I let Mr Moffat the organist have the last word there. But the mourners will expect an eulogy… and I don’t know the first thing about the poor man.’
‘I should speak with Lord Tollington,’ Holmes said. ‘What he doesn’t know about Wellington Pinchbeck, I am sure he would be able to glean from Pinchbeck’s acquaintances.’
‘A good idea, Mr Holmes,’ the rector said. ‘I will contact him forthwith. Thank you.’
‘Please excuse us. We must press on.’
‘Delighted to have met you, gentlemen. Good night.’
He made for the yard gate and disappeared into the night.’
Lestrade stepped up to the undertaker’s front door. ‘Let’s hope Josiah Deep hasn’t retired to bed.’
‘Funeral Directors are expected to keep odd hours, Lestrade,’ Holmes said. ‘People often choose the most inconvenient time to die.’
Before Lestrade could lower the knocker, the door was snatched open and a thin, tall man stared out at him and said, ‘Ah! Josiah Deep at your service, gentlemen. What can I do for ye? Are ye looking for a coffin? Have ye need of a funeral? I am very sorry about your sad loss.’
Lestrade introduced himself, then Holmes and myself.
Deep stared at my friend and said, ‘Not the Sherlock Holmes?’
‘The very one,’ I said.
‘And the Doctor Watson,’ Holmes added.
‘Thank you, Holmes,’ I said.
‘Come in. Come in,’ Deep said busily and led us into a dark workshop illuminated by two candles on a stand.
‘Mr Deep,’ Holmes said. ‘I understand that you delivered a corpse to Tollington Hall for an overnight stay, intending to collect it the following morning.’
The undertaker’s eyes shone reflecting the candlelight. They looked as if they were illuminated from behind.
‘Aye. That is correct,’ Deep said. ‘It’s not against the law, is it? He was a vagrant. He was to have been buried on the parish. It was a charity case. The cost would have been borne by the ratepayers of Lower Tollington if Lord Tollington had not offered – out of the goodness of his heart – to pay for a brand new shroud, a secondhand coffin with four reconditioned brass handles with sixteen brass screws, a sprig of holly, the hire of two horses with re-fluffed plumes, the hire and washing and polishing and use of my brand new glass sided hearse recently imported from Bohemia…’
Lestrade said, ‘Losing a body is a serious offence.’
‘With respect, Inspector,’ Deep said. ‘I didn’t lose him. You must talk to his lordship about that.’
‘Where is the body now?’ Holmes said.
‘I don’t know,’ Deep replied. ‘Nobody knows. All that I know is that I delivered the body in a pine coffin to Tollington Hall at nine o’clock that evening and when I came the following morning, prepared to take the vagrant straight to the church for the curate to bury him, the body in the coffin was not him at all, but that of the gentleman, Wellington Pinchbeck.’
‘Well, where are the last remains of Wellington Pinchbeck now?’ Holmes said.
Deep pointed to a coffin leaning against the wall. ‘He’s there. Behind the good doctor.’
I moved swiftly to one side.
Holmes said, ‘Calm yourself, Watson. He cannot harm you.’
Holmes never missed an opportunity to poke fun at me. ‘I’ve seen many a corpse,’ I replied.
‘Deep said, ‘Aye. He stands in there. In one of our finest caskets. The fine inlaid gold lettering in copper-plate on the lid was engraved by my own fair hand. Aye.’
Lestrade picked up the candlestick, took it to the coffin and read the brass plaque. ‘Wellington Pinchbeck, 1842 to 1899. R.I.P.’
Deep looked at Lestrade and said, ‘It’s a work of art, isn’t it?’
Lestrade didn’t know what to answer. I came to his rescue.
‘Mr Deep,’ I said. ‘I would very much like to see the corpse.’
‘Of course. Of course,’ he said, and he came over to the coffin and removed the lid. He turned back for the candlestick and said, ‘He looks quite respectable now.’
I was the nearest and so I peered in at the body. The eyes were closed, the face was pale. It was in a white shroud in a neat white silk lined coffin and in every way appeared normal.
Lestrade came forward and so did Holmes.
Holmes said, ‘Lestrade, you knew Wellington Pinchbeck? Would you say that that is his body?’
‘Without doubt, Mr Holmes. Without any doubt at all. That’s Wellington Pinchbeck all right.’
‘Mr Deep,’ Holmes said. ‘Do you have the death certificate ?’
‘Indeed I do,’ Deep said, blowing wood dust and shavings off it.
‘Would you be good enough to let Doctor Watson peruse it?’
‘Of course,’ Deep said and he passed it to me.
I went to the candlestick and read it quickly.
‘What does it say, Watson?’
I finished reading every word for my own benefit, then I read aloud the pertinent words: ‘Wellington Pinchbeck … December 28th 1899 … Heart failure …Broncho pneumonia … signed by Septimus Flynn, DM Dubin, 112 London Road.’
Holmes sniffed and then said, ‘Are you satisfied, Watson?’
‘Looks all right to me, Holmes,’ I said passing the certificate back to Josiah Deep.
‘Well, what would cause heart failure?’
‘Almost anything, Holmes. If he already had a weak heart, almost anything. I’m not surprised he caught pneumonia. This last few nights, in that room without heating it would be perishingly cold at night.’
‘Watson, are you saying he died of natural causes?’
‘I’m saying it’s possible, Holmes. Only possible.’
‘Very well. If it were so, who removed the vagrant’s body from the coffin?’
‘Good question, Mr Holmes,’ Lestrade said.
‘In the middle of the night, did the dead vagrant obligingly remove himself from it and assist Wellington Pinchbeck to take his place? And then disappear into thin air? I think not.’
Holmes then took one look round the candlelit undertaker’s workroom and said, ‘Come along, gentlemen. Our work is finished here. Goodnight, Mr Deep.’
We left the undertaker’s premises and took the carriage back to Tollington Hall. I was tired, cold and hungry. Holmes was irritable. He was always like that when he had a difficult case. He enjoyed the challenge, but he could be somewhat tetchy when he was making no progress. As for me, I couldn’t make any sense of the case at all.
Lestrade introduced us to Lord Tollington, then took his leave as he had been called back to London on some other urgent business. Lord Tollington was very kindly providing us with rooms in Tollington Hall and what was even more welcome, he had invited Holmes and me to have dinner with him, just the three of us, and soon we were enjoying the most delightful roast pheasant with parsnips and potatoes in the big dining room.
‘You are both most welcome,’ Tollington said. ‘I have your company to enjoy, and if you can solve the mystery, and find the murderer, I shall be obliged to you.’
He turned to his butler, Cramphorn and said, ‘A bottle of the ’84, and put another two on ice.’
‘Very good, my lord,’ Cramphorn said and he left the room.
‘This a grand meal, your lordship,’ I said. ‘I give you thanks.’
Holmes held up his glass and said, ‘Hear, hear.’
Holmes said, ‘Watson has been telling me about the Tollington Ghost. How long have you been aware of its presence?’
‘It has always been here,’ his lordship said. ‘Even before I was born… my father spoke of it… it appears from the porter’s pantry by the front door. That’s why we always keep the room locked. I don’t know if you can stop a ghost by locking a door, but anyway… It is the ghost of a Scottish piper, a friend of the fourth lord, who was passing through Carlisle on his way to Glasgow and was invited to stay the night. However, during the early hours, the night porter caught the man searching through his belongings in the pantry. Assuming he was an intruder, he hit him on the head with a lantern stand. The blow killed the soldier, and it subsequently turned out that he was searching through his own trunk looking possibly for some clothes, bagpipes or some whisky, for those were the sole contents of his luggage. I’ve never seen the ghost myself, but I have seen things move in response to its antics. And I’ve heard it traversing the hall and I have heard the pipes. You can sometimes most unexpectedly hear them played in the grounds, from the island in the loch or even further away than that.’
‘Most interesting,’ Holmes said, chewing thoughtfully.
‘Ah, good,’ Tollington said. ‘Cramphorn is back with the wine.’
There was the pop of a cork and the welcome sound of champagne fizzing in the glasses.
‘Tell me, your lordship,’ Holmes said. ‘Was this man, Wellington Pinchbeck a friend of yours?’
‘I didn’t know him at all, but I had heard he was excellent company, so I invited him to lighten our Christmas and entertain us, as we hoped to entertain each other. I didn’t expect him to push me into making a silly wager of a hundred guineas – which I couldn’t get out of – that he would spend the night in the porter’s pantry, as he did.’
I tasted the champagne. It was delightful. I held up my glass to his lordship and to Holmes and took a sip. They nodded and joined me.
‘Ah,’ I said. It was both enjoyable and refreshing. ‘The ’84 is unmistakeable.’
Holmes resumed the questioning of his lordship.
‘And what can you tell us about the poor vagrant, whose remains have so mysteriously vanished?’
‘Nothing, Mr Holmes. Absolutely nothing. Josiah Deep was given the task of providing Wellington Pinchbeck with a corpse and that he did. I saw the remains of the poor man in a shroud in the coffin, on its arrival at about nine o’clock that night. I have not seen anything of the corpse since.’
‘Nor has anybody else. When I have finished this entirely delightful repast, your lordship, I will retire to the porter’s pantry. I will lock myself in, and I will take my pipe. I will need to beg a full box of matches from you, Watson.’
The idea filled me with horror. ‘Oh no, Holmes,’ I said. ‘No.’
Tollington’s face went pale. ‘I would strongly advise against it, Mr Holmes,’ he said, ‘considering what happened to Wellington Pinchbeck. It could be very dangerous.’
‘Dangerous or not,’ Holmes said. ‘It will have to be done if we are to make any progress at all in solving this mystery.’
Well, of course, despite my objections, Holmes got his own way. I was mightily apprehensive about the whole business… spending the night or even part of the night in that cold inhospitable chamber on his own… I offered to join him, but he would not hear of it. He went in with his pipe, tobacco pouch and a full box of matches, just before midnight.
I couldn’t leave him and retire to bed. Cramphorn furnished me with a blanket, a storm lantern and a glass of port, and though very tired, I settled down in the hall porter’s chair facing the door. I was very apprehensive. I was determined to be on hand in case he required assistance. I was prepared, as much as I could be, should the Tollington Ghost decide to show itself.
The next thing I remember I was being gently squeezed at the shoulder. It took me a few moments to realise where I was and what was happening. ‘Are you all right, Doctor?’ Cramphorn was saying. ‘Are you all right, Doctor Watson? You must have fallen asleep, sir.’
My first thought was of Holmes. ‘What’s happening? Where’s Holmes? I said.
‘I’ve brought you a pot of tea, Doctor,’ Cramphorn said. ‘It’s eight o’clock. I thought you would want to be wakened.’
‘Oh! What time? Eight o’clock? Oh yes. Thank you. Where’s Mr Holmes?’
‘I haven’t seen him this morning, Doctor.’
I looked across at the big brown door facing me ‘Oh my goodness, he’s … he must still be in there,’ I said.
‘Where, sir?’ Cramphorn said.
‘In there. The porter’s pantry. I must go in. Holmes said he only intended being in there for a couple of hours or so. Bring that lantern, will you?’
Cramphorn’s face turned white. ‘I don’t think we should go in there, sir. It’s still dark.’
I whisked away the blanket, jumped up and said, ‘Never mind, Cramphorn. I will go in alone.’
Then I noticed the key was in the lock. That was strange. I tried the door. It was locked, so I turned the key. It made a heavy clunking sound.
‘I’m right behind you, Doctor,’ Cramphorn said.
He must have had a change of heart. I have to admit, I was glad of his support.
‘The door was locked,’ I said. ‘Who could have locked Holmes inside? I’ve been out here all night.’
‘You must have slept all though it, sir.’
‘But Holmes had the key… took it in with him… so… who…?’
I opened the door. The hinges squeaked. I ventured inside. It felt a perishing ten degrees cooler. ‘Holmes! Holmes! Are you there?’ I said. ‘Hold up the light, Cramphorn, my dear fellow.
‘Right, sir,’ he replied in a small voice.
I noticed that even a whisper echoed round the chamber.
‘Nobody there,’ I said. We stepped further into the chamber.
‘Hmmm. I’ll just take a look behind all these statues… can’t think what the devil has happened to him… Holmes, my dear friend, where are you?’
We went round the pillars.
Cramphorn said, ‘There’s nobody here, sir.’
It was indeed so, and so very cold. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said.
I was pleased to return to the comparative warmth and electrical illumination of the main hall, but was highly concerned about the disappearance of my dear friend. I wondered if he had found a trapdoor or other means of access to the pantry and had had an accident and was at that very moment at the mercy of some fiend or was sick and suffering from the cold.
Cramphorn said, ‘I’ll lock the door, sir.’
‘By all means,’ I said. ‘I wonder where he could have got to?’
‘Oh look, Doctor,’ Cramphorn said. ‘He’s coming down the staircase now. He looks in fine form.’
My heart warmed. ‘Ah, so he is. Well I’m blessed.’
‘Excuse me, Doctor Watson. I have to attend to his lordship,’ Cramphorn said and rushed away.
‘Thank you,’ I said, but he had gone.
Holmes came up to me as bright as a new pin. ‘Good morning, Watson. I trust you had a comfortable night?’
He was teasing me. I could tell by his eyes and general demeanour that he had not only had a good night, but he had also made some momentous progress in the case.
‘Holmes, you old scallywag, you had me worried. Where on earth have you been?’
‘Where every sober, and intelligent Englishman should be, of course, when the sun is set. In bed.’
‘Lucky you. I waited for you and…’
‘Yes, but when I came out of the porter’s pantry, you were propped up in the chair fast asleep and you looked too comfortable to disturb. So I bid you a passing goodnight and went up to my room.’
‘Never heard a thing. What time was that, pray?’
‘It was eight minutes past two.’
‘So you were in there for over two hours. Did you see the ghost? Was there an appearance?’
‘I did not. I experienced nothing ethereal whatsoever.’
‘Oh. Well, did you discover anything?’
‘I did, Watson, my dear friend. I did indeed.’
‘You found out where the dead body was hidden, and who dressed Wellington Pinchbeck in a shroud and put him in the coffin?’
‘No. I did not discover how that came about.’
‘Well, come along , Holmes, don’t tease me. What did you find out?’
‘I went to look for a concealed cavity, nook, room or passageway, or any place where a body could have been hidden or removed.’
‘Ah yes,’ I said. We were getting to the crux of it at last.
‘Yes, Watson. I knew that the temperature in such a secret place, if one existed, would inevitably be different and would have caused a flow of air… even though it might have been very slight. There, utilising the smoke from my pipe, I checked on all the seams and joints in the panelling, the floor and the décor of the room.’
‘Yes? Yes?’ I said quickly.
‘And I can say categorically, that there are positively no secret places where a body could have been concealed or transported.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘Ah. The window? Access must have been made via the window.’
‘I’ll wager that window has not been opened since Queen Victoria visited the Hall in 1849.’
‘So what do you deduce from all that, Holmes?’
‘It’s obvious, my dear Watson. We have been misled.’
‘Misled? Misled by whom?’
‘Of that I am still in doubt. But the certainty that a body was not hidden or traversed through concealed places raises other trains of thought. Hmmm. Watson, I must make a telephone call. I suggest that you join his lordship in the breakfast room. I must find the telephone.’
Holmes dashed off in the direction of the library, while I wandered down the corridors, following the smell of fried bacon to where his lordship was taking breakfast.
Courtesies were exchanged and Cramphorn assisted me to liberal helpings of fried bacon, tea and toast.
Holmes appeared a few minutes later and joined his lordship and me at the breakfast table.
Lord Tollington said, ‘Ah, Holmes. Cramphorn will attend you.’
Holmes was soon served and then Cramphorn rushed out.
‘Any nearer the truth, Mr Holmes?’ his lordship said.
‘Yes, my lord. But I cannot help but wonder what happened to your last valet. I trust he must have left your employ at very short notice?’
Tollington’s eyebrows shot up. ‘My valet? You are quite right, Mr Holmes. But how could you possibly have known anything about my valet?’
‘And your butler, Cramphorn is filling his place, willingly, nay, conscientiously, but not as efficiently?’
Tollington stared at Holmes, utterly bemused. ‘That’s absolutely right, Mr Holmes. Absolutely correct. But how could you possibly know that?’
‘Last night, my lord, your trousers, if you will forgive me, had two parallel creases in them, when by common agreement among the Knightsbridge fashion gurus of the day, that is one too many.’
‘Really? Hmmm. I didn’t notice. But how did you know Cramphorn had executed the pressing?’
‘Well, who else could it be? It was very likely, wasn’t it? The fact that his eyesight is so weak tended to confirm it.’
It was both pleasing and amusing to see that his lordship was impressed by Holmes’ revelations.
‘What? Well, yes. True, I knew he was having some difficulty with his eyes and recently seen an optician, but how did you know that?’
‘Yes, Holmes,’ I said. ‘Do explain.’
‘The champagne that we had at supper last night was not John de la Vére, 1884, but 1887. You asked Cramphorn for the ’84. I took it that the reason for the error was Cramphorn’s struggle with a dusty champagne label, a candle and his weak eyesight in a dark cellar. I could conceive of no other explanation.’
‘Remarkable!’ Tollington said. ‘I must say, I wouldn’t have known.’
‘Well done, Holmes,’ I said, then I turned to his lordship and said, ‘Well, my lord, what did happen to the valet?’
Holmes answered quickly: ‘I’ll tell you what happened to him, Watson. He was dismissed by his lordship for stealing.’
Tollington smiled broadly. ‘By Jove, that’s right, Mr Holmes. How did you know that?’
Holmes said, ‘And his name was Striker.’
‘And how did you know that, Mr Holmes?’
‘Last night we met a confidence trickster of that name, posing as a curate, coming out of Josiah Deep’s funeral parlour.’
‘You didn’t tell me he was a confidence trickster, Holmes. How did you find that out?’
‘For one thing, he proposed to include Psalm number one hundred and fifty-four at Wellington Pinchbeck’s funeral.
‘And what is that wrong with that, Holmes?’ I said.
‘Watson! Watson! Every self respecting clergyman knows that there are one hundred and fifty Psalms in the book!’
I felt a little foolish but I soon recovered.
Tollington said, ‘You never cease to amaze me, Mr Holmes.’
‘His dress as a curate was no doubt intended as a disguise. He called me, “Mr Holmes,” even though he did not know who we were. He was quizzing us to see how much we knew! A man who dressed up as a curate … with the aid of crude cosmetics and his brother-in -law’s assistance, could just as easily dress up as a corpse.’
‘That’s right,’ Tollington said. ‘He is Josiah Deep’s brother-in-law.’
‘A corpse,’ I said. ‘Oh really, Holmes. I think it is dashed unsporting of you to keep that back.’
‘Watson! Watson! My good friend. I didn’t know for certain … not until five minutes ago… on the telephone, when I accused Josiah Deep and he admitted the whole thing.’
‘Well hadn’t we better send the police off to arrest Striker, before he gets away?’
‘There is no need,’ Holmes said. ‘There is no crime.’
‘No crime, Mr Holmes?’ Tollington said. ‘The man’s dead.’
‘Natural causes,’ Holmes said. ‘Heart failure, no doubt aggravated by the intake of alcohol followed by pneumonia. It would be recorded as “accidental death”.’
Holmes was correct. ‘Yes, I said. ‘That is so.’
Tollington ran his hand through his hair. ‘What happened then, Mr Holmes?’
‘Yes, Holmes,’ I said. ‘Do explain.’
‘After I had assured myself that there were no places to hide in the porter’s pantry, I realise that there never was a dead vagrant. It would have to have been someone living, posing as the dead man. The only person who knew the identity of the corpse was Josiah Deep. So I telephoned him five minutes ago. I told him that he would never bury another soul in England, Scotland or Wales if he did not admit that it was his brother-in-law, Striker, who had been posing as the corpse of a vagrant in the coffin.’
Lord Tollington’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Striker!’ he said.
‘Yes,’ Holmes said. ‘Your ex-valet. Wellington Pinchbeck boasted that he would spend the night in the porter’s pantry in company with a corpse. Josiah Deep was approached to supply a dead body. His brother-in-law, Striker, heard of this, and, out of revenge – saw a golden opportunity to make mischief and get back at his lordship. He knew a substantial wager had been made. So Striker put himself up to be the corpse. Deep made him up to look the part and duly delivered him here in the coffin. During the night, Striker tapped on the coffin or sat up in it or performed some other manifestations and frightened poor Wellington Pinchbeck out of his skin. The shock killed him. Striker was in a predicament. The prank had turned to tragedy. He got out of the coffin… exchanged his shroud for the dead man’s clothes, put Pinchbeck in the coffin and waited until morning… When he heard the door opening, he hid behind one of the statues. All the attention would be on the dead man in the coffin… Striker was thus able to make his way out of the room, while his brother-in-law, Josiah Deep, realising what had happened, held the guests’ attention as Striker sneaked his way out of the house and away.’
I could hardly believe it.
‘You’ve done it again, Holmes,’ I said. ‘You’ve solved the unsolvable.’
Tollington said, ‘Mr Holmes, I am truly amazed.’
Holmes smiled and stood up to leave.
‘What about the ghost then?’ Tollington said. ‘Is there really a Tollington ghost?’
Holmes looked from me to his lordship and said, ‘Who knows? Who knows? There are things in this world that we cannot know… only time itself will reveal to us the absolute truth.’
Roger Silverwood asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work