The Addleton Tragedy and the Mystery of the Ancient British Barrow
Chapter One: The Strange Events at Addleton
In recalling the events at Yoxley Old Place in that singular episode of The Golden Pince-Nez, I fear I have been guilty of tantalising my readers with reference to the sheer wealth of material at my disposal when choosing to recount certain of the cases in which Mr Sherlock Holmes has been involved.
I find myself often inundated with kind inquiries and interest in particular cases which I may have mentioned in passing, if only to indicate the extreme variety in the nature of the affairs brought before my friend's attention. The majority of these must remain buried until such time as the principal players are far removed from hint of scandal; others are rejected on the grounds of Mr Holmes's own preference as being slight in their worth.
Where we are of a similar mind is in the recounting of the Addleton Tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow, which caused so much speculation at the time. Quite assuredly it was one of the more memorable cases in which I had the pleasure of assisting Holmes and not solely because of the undoubtedly personal nature of the business which brought the case to our door.
That year of Holmes's return to London was a particularly busy one. At times, it seemed to me as though the country had breathed a collective sigh and had promptly began to unburden itself of those problems which had accumulated in his absence. Often he was spoilt for choice for cases and I found myself called upon frequently to assist him in the pursuance of some minor detail.
The completion of such an errand was the cause of my returning early that blustery September morning to Baker Street, in high spirits at what I considered a job well done. By this time, I had sold my practice and returned to our rooms, an arrangement which I found suited me well enough. Some places resonate too loudly with grief for the deceased, and Kensington then spoke as keenly of my recent loss had once Baker Street.
Time was when I could not bear to pass our old rooms without my eyes being drawn upwards to those curtained windows and feeling the tug of old memories and the sadness for a friend lost. Now, however, I was glad to be in harness once again, and happier still to be returning home with all due haste, eager to regale Holmes with the information I had gleaned.
Turning into our road, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lean, familiar figure at our door – a sight, which after so long an absence, is never likely to pall – and I called out his name, hoping to arrest his entrance so that we might take coffee in Martin's. I fear my voice did not carry above the rattle of the cabs and the noise of the workmen, for the door opened and he vanished inside.
I hurried after him as quickly as the throng of children playing on the street would allow, and very shortly was through the front door. Mrs Hudson took my things, and I was disconcerted to note her somewhat distracted manner and wide-eyed appearance.
"Mrs Hudson, are you quite well?" I asked.
"Quite well, Doctor, thank you."
"Are you sure? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Quite possibly," said she, shaking her head. "Indeed, most probably."
Leaving the perplexed Mrs Hudson, I proceeded up the stairs. The sitting room door was closed and through it drifted the muted sound of voices. Holmes's rich tones I could clearly identify, even as muffled as they were, and then spoke another voice, so similar in disposition that I was convinced he was talking to himself. If so, the conversation was fraught and distressing, for the second voice conveyed an edge of panic bordering on the hysterical, which was quite unlike the measured timbre of my friend.
Clearly then, he had a client, and I was torn between making my presence known and quietly creeping upstairs to my room to await a more convenient moment. The decision was snatched from my hands when a languid voice rose up loud and clear.
"There's no need for you skulk outside like a scullery maid, Watson," came Holmes's voice. "Do come in and join us."
I was quite appalled that my attempt at consideration should have been thus misconstrued and entered without hesitation and full of apologetic explanation. Whatever I had intended to say, however, flew from my head the moment I stepped over the threshold, for the sight that met my eyes was quite extraordinary.
Holmes sat in his usual chair beside the fireplace, his old clay pipe clamped between his teeth and wreath of grey smoke drifting above his head. Opposite him was what for one moment I thought was another of those life-like wax effigies created by Monsieur Oscar Meunier of Grenoble. My shock was absolute when this vision turned its head in my direction and offered an affable, albeit anxious, smile of greeting.
"Ah, Doctor," said Holmes; "allow me to introduce someone. Dr Watson, my cousin, Mr Peregrine Holmes. Perry, my friend, the estimable Dr Watson."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," said Peregrine Holmes, rising from his chair to shake my hand. "I have read your accounts of my cousin's cases with great interest."
"Cousin?" I echoed numbly.
"In particular, I found the case of the Musgrave Ritual most instructive indeed, although, Doctor, I must say that my enjoyment was somewhat marred by the appearance of a split infinite, which I felt quite jarred the flow of the paragraph. And there was the use of the gerundive in one instance, which I felt quite unwarranted, for the statement would have been better conveyed by –"
"Perry, absit iniuria verbis," said Holmes flatly. "Such matters are beyond the Doctor's control. He is entirely in the hands of his publishers and the illiterate editors they employ. You must forgive my cousin, Watson, for he is something of a pedant when it comes to the ways of the literary world."
"Well, it is a great pity," continued Peregrine Holmes, "because for me it greatly spoilt what was for me a most intriguing business. I have some acquaintance with historical curiosities, you understand, and so the details were naturally of a deeply fascinating nature to myself. If you still retain those relics, Sherlock, I would be greatly obliged if you would permit me to inspect them. I did mean to ask you some time ago, but then you died and the matter quite slipped my mind."
I do not know of any other context where such a statement could have been made in such a blunt manner and not been possessed of an aspect of the absurd. Normal conversations between family members do not generally range into discussions concerning the demise of one or other the party and the fact that it was here, and treated with a noble sense of practicality too, was greatly disarming.
"Perhaps another time," said Holmes, registering my reaction with a favoured smile. "First, I think we must hear of this business which has brought you untimely to my door. But, Watson, you have become quite pale, my dear fellow. Would you care for a brandy?"
"No, thank you," I mumbled. "Cousin, you say?"
"Quite so, and a very troubled one at that. Now, Perry, please continue with your most interesting narrative. Watson, if you would be so kind as to take notes."
It was all I could to marshal my thoughts in the direction of pen and paper. It truly was the most remarkable sight I could ever hope to witness. The similarities between the two were considerable, except that I was struck by the most inordinate impression of viewing a blurred mirror image. In age and general appearance, they were largely the same, with that severe patrician countenance and thin, hawk-like nose that so distinguishes Holmes's profile.
In the case of Peregrine Holmes, however, there was a little more weight about the jowl, whilst the eyes, though singularly and deeply grey in colour, had lesser of that penetration of gaze which my friend often employs to marked effect. His hair, equal in shade and luxuriance, was worn with a careless elegance, which went someway to masking the receding hairline. The nervous hands that played with the travelling cap upon his lap too betrayed him, not only in the dirtiness of their nails, but also in that they were broader and squarer at the tips, unlike those long white fingers of my friend that were oft to be found drawing music from his violin.
All this I was able to observe given a little time. I could, however, quite comprehend Mrs Hudson's reaction of earlier. A fleeing glance would disquieten any soul enough to believe they were seeing double, so superficially marked was the resemblance, and I had to wonder whether the familial similarities ran deeper than features alone.
"I should explain, Dr Watson, that I am in my own small way a historian and antiquarian of some standing in certain learned circles," began Peregrine Holmes. "I am something of an authority on the customs and social structures of the pre-Roman world. My last monograph on 'The Highways and Byways of the Ancient Britons and the Implications for Early Trade Routes' was well enough received and garnered considerable academic acclaim. Perhaps you have read it?"
"I'm afraid not," I confessed.
He looked a little crestfallen. "Well, it had a rather limited circulation, so that is to be expected. The upshot of this publication was that I received an invitation from Professor Horace Moncrieff, fellow of archaeology at Oxford University, to join him in the excavation of a round barrow at Addleton, some six miles to the west of Avebury in Wiltshire. I was naturally delighted and accepted without delay."
"Why you?" asked Holmes. "Archaeology is not your usual field of interest."
"There was an ancient route in association with the barrow."
"Ah, quite so. Thus you went down to Addleton and so began your problems."
"Almost immediately that we arrived in fact," said his cousin gloomily. "The local people were hostile, despite the fact that we had been given the blessing of the landowner, Mr Enoch Pearce. No sooner did the excavation begin than monstrous omens and warnings started to appear."
Holmes opened his eyes and fixed his cousin with a steely gaze. "Describe the nature of these omens."
"There was some talk initially of a ghost. Apparently people had sighted a man with a long, shaggy beard and a spear in furs on pony in the vicinity of the barrow."
Holmes snorted. "How very amusing."
"It was, until these warnings took on a more serious aspect. Let me show you."
From the carpet bag he had deposited by the side of his chair, he produced several effigies, crudely fashioned from straw in the shape of human beings. Grotesque they were indeed, for in each case the head was missing and the traces of a rust-coloured staining indicated that these figures had been daubed in blood.
Holmes turned them over in his hands before passing them to me. "Did the Professor read anything into these 'warnings'?" he asked.
"He dismissed them, as did we all, as being silly, childish pranks, designed to scare us off."
"Why? And why the hostility of the local people?"
Peregrine Holmes shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "There is some superstition attached to these barrows. The locals believe that our excavations will unleash evil forces. Pure nonsense of course – this is a nothing more than burial mound, believed to be of a king or some such important personage. Oh, I have heard many legends connected with the Addleton barrow, and depending on whom one talks to, the people buried within are either witches or the knights of King Arthur, both of which are equally absurd notion as I'm sure you'll agree."
Holmes shook his head. "It is not a question of what we may think, Perry, but of what the people of Addleton believe. If they sincerely deem that your excavations are about to unleash the forces of chaos onto their sleepy hamlet, then they would have an excellent reason for wanting your meddling brought to an end. But, pray, do continue," said he. "And tell us to what degree these warnings have escalated to have driven you from the charming Wiltshire countryside to London so early in the morning."
"Escalated as you say, cousin," said Peregrine Holmes, wringing his hands in a most disconsolate fashion. "Two days ago, we returned to the barrow in the morning to find the severed head of a goat in the centre of our diggings."
"Remarkable!" said I. "Someone has gone to great deal of trouble to scare you and your fellow barrow-diggers away."
"I'm not sure that scare is the correct word, Doctor. Terrify would be more accurate. You are aware of ancient man's veneration of the Cult of the Head?"
Holmes's expression was verging on exasperation at the circuitous route his cousin was taking in the telling of his tale, and it fell to me to suggest that an explanation might be in order.
"It was believed that the head, in particular the human head, had magical powers. Several of those structures now identified as temples had niches where the heads of enemies or sacrificial victims were displayed."
"My dear Perry," interjected Holmes. "As interesting as this history lesson undoubtedly is, it tells us little of the problem that has occasioned your visit. Do get to the point."
"Well, some members of the expedition took the goat's head to be a warning of what might happen to us, that our heads might be intended for some pagan ritual."
"That was undeniably the purpose of the exercise."
"I'll not deny the discovery did shake me somewhat. To find it there, mounted on a bank of earth, with no indication of where it came from or how it arrived, was most ghastly."
"Where it came from was most likely a dead goat," observed Holmes dryly. "As to its appearance, did no one think to check for footprints? Unless the goat was obliging enough to deposit its own head there and then have the rest of the body go on its merry way, we must assume a human agent."
"Naturally we did. Knowing something of your methods of old, I instructed the others to conduct a search. But the ground was hard and dry and there was little to be found. It hardened the impression in several of our fellow diggers' minds that sinister forces were at work, even those of Satan himself."
Holmes smiled. "I take it then that this particular ruse had the desired effect."
"Indeed. Five left that day, but the Professor was determined not to be dissuaded. We pressed on, though our forces had been depleted by half."
"At this point, may I ask if you had found anything?" I inquired.
Peregrine Holmes gave a small shake of his head. "No, Doctor. In fact, the day before, the Professor had suggested switching our site of investigation to the western side of the barrow, that facing Addleton House. As it proved, it was the correct decision, for almost immediately we began turning up pieces of pottery, which we were using to date the barrow. Then came this morning's discovery."
"Ah, another warning?" said Holmes.
"Not unless you would describe the dead body of Professor Moncrieff as an ill omen."
Holmes sat bolt upright in his chair, his eyes at once bright and gleaming with interest.
"Most cruelly," said Peregrine Holmes with a shiver. "I found him bound and garrotted, Sherlock, in the manner of execution practiced by ancient tribes. It was a terrible thing to see. I took to my heels and came straight down to London to put the whole business before you."
"I appreciate the gesture, cousin, but surely this is a matter for the local police?"
"Indeed it is," said he heavily. "I would have remained, except that I expect to be arrested for Professor Moncrieff's murder."
Holmes let out an impromptu laugh of barely suppressed exultation. "Dear me, Perry, this is a most vexed situation. Do they have good reason to suspect you?"
"I had words with the Professor last night," said he. "Angry words that the other members of the expedition could not have failed to hear and which in the cold light of day I bitterly regret with all my soul."
"What was the reason for this argument?"
From Peregrine Holmes's reaction, I imagined the cause to have its roots in the most desperate of situations. He struggled to speak, shook his head as though trying to force the words free, clasped his forehead and finally sank back into his chair, in the manner of a broken and devastated man.
"Fool that I was!" he declared. "And such rash words to a friend over such a matter!"
"Perry, spare us the melodrama," Holmes said calmly. "Tell us the facts."
He sighed with such drama that I thought I was about to hear something drawn from the darkest regions of his soul.
"It was over the dating of pottery shard," said he, burying his face in his hands. "The Professor would have its dating to the early Bronze Age, whereas I believed most fervently that it was properly placed in the millennium before."
Holmes offered me a fleeing smile. "Grievous indeed," said he, with no small trace of amusement in his tone. "Is the world of archaeology so fraught that colleagues are liable to commit deadly murder over such a trifle?"
"A trifle?" spluttered his cousin. "It would have meant a reworking of the history books, Sherlock. Surely you see how pivotal a point this is?"
"Pivotal, yes, but worth a man's life? No, Perry, this alone will not do. I perceive you have something else to tell us."
Peregrine Holmes's countenance fell. "I will never know how you are aware of these things, but, yes, you are quite correct. In order to win favour with the local people, the Professor and I have been in the habit of giving lectures in the church hall, to engage interest in our activities."
"Most commendable. Have they been well attended?"
"Fairly. The problem is that the lecture I gave might serve to implicate me."
"What was it?"
"The Death Cult of the Ancient Britons."
"Ah, well, in that case you were wise in bringing this matter to me," said Holmes gravely.
His cousin let out a great moan. "Oh, the shame! What have I done to our good name? What will the rest of the family say?"
Holmes rose and positioned himself before the fire. "I would say that that is the least of your worries. As to the family, Miles will no doubt gain standing amongst his equally vacuous friends, Endymion will use it as the basis for one of his interminable sermons, and the rest of us will rally and endeavour to extricate you from this mess in which you have squarely landed yourself. Watson, are you dreadfully busy today?"
"No, not at all."
"Then if you would oblige us with the pleasure of your company into the wilds of Wiltshire, I'm sure the gesture would be greatly appreciated by all concerned."
"I'd be delighted."
"Good. Then we should leave as soon as possible. Let us strike while the iron is hot, gentlemen, lest some flat-footed village bobby blunder all over the evidence. To Wiltshire, then, and the fair, if ill-omened, village of Addleton."
Continued in Chapter Two: The Journey to Addleton
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