'Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
Not always at this time of year...
The inn was an old one, and small. So small that, when I requested accommodation, the landlord, at first reluctant to agree to our tenancy until he saw the state of us, apologetically asked if we would mind sharing a room. The only other was occupied by a young woman, but she would be leaving in a day or two - in the meantime it was requested that she be left quite alone. As Holmes and I would never dream of intruding upon a lady, we readily agreed, and repaired to a tiny room under in the eaves in which there was barely enough space for two single beds and a washstand.
It had not been my first choice, being so ancient and out of the way, but the other, larger hostelry in the centre of the village was full and Holmes needed to rest after such a strenuous case. I was not willing to allow him to make the long journey back to London until he had recovered some of the strength of which his injuries had robbed him. He grumbled and protested, as was his wont, but when he needed my assistance to climb the rickety stairs to our room he had to agree that I was right.
Despite the lack of space, the beds were comfortable and on the first night Holmes fell quickly into a much needed sleep, his rest for once undisturbed by bad dreams. I lay awake for some time, unable to concentrate upon the book I was reading and instead mulling over the conclusion of the case, which had involved our chasing two grave robbers across the darkened moor. We had been lucky not to lose our lives in the pursuit, for the terrain was hazardous enough in broad daylight, and the criminals knew that we had little local knowledge. Had it not been for the timely action of the local police, we would have been forced to spend a night exposed to the elements, and Holmes, with his broken bones and blood loss, would probably not have survived.
It was midnight before I felt myself dropping into sleep. I was on the edge of consciousness, that pleasant state where one can feel the outside world receding and the welcoming arms of Morpheus gathering them in, when I was startled by a scream, followed by the distinctive pattering of feet on the stairs outside. I sat bolt upright, the wisps of slumber snatched forcibly from my mind, staring blindly about the room. My eyes becoming used to the darkness, I could make out the supine form of Holmes beside me, apparently still sleeping soundly. Listening, I could hear nothing beyond the sound of my friend's steady breathing and the hoot of an owl outside the window. My heart was racing, and I tried to calm it, realising that I must have half-dreamt the scream - it was not impossible, for we had heard enough of them of late. There was certainly no movement below which would indicate the residents of the inn being up and about. I listened for a little longer, but there was no further noise, and I settled back down beneath the blankets with the thought that I would ask the landlord about it in the morning.
Holmes did not feel equal to descending the stairs for breakfast, so I made my way down to the bar alone. I still felt unsettled by the disturbance in the night, and was thankful that Mr Gently was polishing tankards and happy to engage me in conversation while I waited for his wife to prepare the food. I mentioned the sounds I had heard and added that I hoped the young lady in the room across the landing was quite all right.
To my surprise he looked a little uncomfortable for a moment, but swiftly covered it with a smile. "Oh, don't you mind Lucy, Doctor. Always playing her games, so she is. If you hear her again, just you think nothing of it; she's a naughty lass, that one."
I could not help frowning for it seemed more than a little odd for a guest to behave in such a way, making such a noise in the middle of the night and be condoned by the landlord, but I decided not to continue the topic and we discussed the weather until Mrs Gently emerged from the kitchen with a tray for me to take upstairs. As I made my way to the back of the bar I stopped when I heard her husband say,
"The gentleman heard our Lucy last night, Tess. She's up to her old tricks again."
"Well, she would be," Mrs Gently replied. "Think of the date. She always comes back round this time, don't she?"
Curious about this exchange, but disinclined to outstay my welcome for they realised I was still standing by the door and immediately fell to talking about something inconsequential. I climbed the stairs, noticing for the first time how they creaked, and broached the matter with Holmes while we ate our breakfast.
"Interesting, though inconclusive," was his analysis. "You say that it was definitely a woman's scream you heard?"
"It certainly seemed so to me, though I could have been mistaken. At first I thought that you might be having one of your nightmares, but when I saw you were still asleep I realised that it had come from outside our room. I thought that someone ran down the stairs but I must have imagined it - the wood is so old that I would have heard them groaning."
Holmes nodded. "That is true. However, there is something else: have you noticed how much colder it is up here than in the rest of the building?"
"I had not, but now that you mention it…" I felt gooseflesh rise, unbidden, on my arms despite my shirt and jacket. "It is particularly cold on the landing."
"Of course it is." He smiled slightly, but held up a hand when I tried to ask him what he meant. "We can do nothing in the daytime. I believe we shall see if I am correct in my surmises tonight, Watson. I hope that you will not object to delaying your rest until the small hours?"
"I am not sure I like where you appear to be heading with this, Holmes, but I will be ready should you wish it," I told him.
"Excellent. In the meantime, would you be so kind as to try the little bookseller we passed on our way to this congenial establishment and ask him if he has any information on local legends?"
I did as Holmes requested, and returned with a slim volume upon which he pounced with enthusiasm. After I had checked his injuries and changed the dressings, he suggested that I take myself off for a walk as he was likely to be buried in some research for a while. Bemused, but not keen on spending the day within the walls of our little chamber, I duly left him with his book and went for a leisurely stroll around the village.
By the time I returned, he was looking rather more himself, the gleam back in his tired eyes as always when in the midst of an investigation. He would not speak of his suspicions or divulge any information he may have gathered, however, preferring to steer the conversation onto a stream of apparently random topics. At dinner time he sent me down to the bar, insisting that while it was relatively easy to consume breakfast in the confines of our room, eating a full meal would prove more of a challenge. Promising to accept anything I asked Mrs Gently to prepare for him, he suggested that when I had finished gorging myself I might try to snatch a few hours sleep as he doubted either of us would get much rest that night. I was still tired after my broken slumber, and quite ready to agree.
I am not sure for how long I slept, but it must have been some time as the room was in darkness when Holmes shook me by the shoulder. Weak moonlight trickled through the tiny window, falling on my friend's face and giving him an strange, unearthly aspect as he put his finger to his lips and motioned for me to rise and follow him.
"I heard the first evidence of her presence a moment ago," he whispered, gathering his dressing gown around him and limping to the door.
"Who's presence?" I asked, lowering my voice when he frowned at me. "The lady in the room opposite?"
He nodded, and we went out onto the landing. I crossed the threshold and immediately started from the sudden chill – the temperature had inexplicably dropped within a few feet to a spot barely above freezing. The hairs rose on the back of my neck, and my throat constricted with a strange sensation of fear. My mouth was dry; I tried to speak to Holmes but no words would come. Apparently sensing my discomfort, he raised a long finger and pointed to the closed door across from ours. To my surprise there was a glimmer of light beneath it for the first time – I could quite clearly hear the sound of someone walking back and forth across the room, but no shadow passed the door. Just on the edge of my hearing I thought that I might be able to make out voices, murmuring together.
"I have been watching that door all day," Holmes confided sotto voce. "No one has entered or left the room. If there is truly a woman staying there then she has remarkable control for she has not eaten in over twelve hours, nor apparently moved about until now."
"Perhaps she is bedridden – an invalid," I suggested.
"An invalid still needs to eat, Watson. I noticed when we arrived last night that there is dust outside that door – evidently no one uses the chamber behind for it had not been disturbed in quite some time."
"Holmes," I said, not liking the suggestion in his words, "What are you saying?"
"I am saying that there are more things in heaven and earth, Watson, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," he replied.
I stared at him, barely able to discern his features in the gloom. "Are you trying to tell me that you believe this place to be…haunted?"
He shrugged. "No other explanation fits the facts."
"This is ludicrous!" I exclaimed. "How many times have you told me - "
I was cut off by a piercing scream which sliced through the air, startling us both. Almost immediately afterwards, something brushed past us, something cold and much more substantial than a gust of wind from an open window; a presence is the only way I can describe it, a presence which caused me to shiver and grasp Holmes's sleeve as I was almost enveloped by its icy chill. I heard him gasp and knew that he felt it too, felt the dread which churned in the pit of my stomach, felt the terror which took hold of the base of my spine and turned my heart to water.
It seemed that we would be caught there forever in this horrible moment, but quite suddenly whatever it was that had us in its grip was gone and I could hear the footsteps I thought I had imagined moving down the stairs without touching the ancient boards. Though it was quite dark, I am certain that when the steps reached the bottom I could see a figure standing there, the delicate, doll-like shape of a young woman in a flowing gown, her hair loose down her back. It was pale and indistinct, surrounded by a haze like that of the sun on morning dew, but as I watched she turned her head and looked straight at me before vanishing into the shadows.
As she disappeared, all the strength left my body and I sagged against the wall, breathing heavily. Holmes looked no better than I, but his recovery was quicker despite his injuries. He straightened, pulling his dressing gown tighter, and turned back into our room.
I scrambled upright and followed him. "Holmes, was that really…was it really…"
"A ghost?" He flicked an eyebrow at me. "Oh, yes."
"About a hundred years ago, a crime of passion was committed in this establishment – to be precise, in the room opposite," Holmes said ten minutes later when he had lit up a cigarette and offered me some brandy from his hip flask. I was still trembling from our experience. "The then landlord murdered his young wife when he discovered that she was in love with another man – he strangled her and buried the body in the cellar. Since then, around the anniversary of her death, she has been heard screaming and her spirit seen attempting to flee the house and run to her lover. Her name was Lucy Moore."
"Lucy! Of course, that is the name Mr Gently mentioned. 'Our Lucy' he called her."
"I spoke to Mrs Gently while you were asleep this evening, and she confirmed the tale I read in the compendium of local folklore you kindly procured for me. She and her husband have lived here for twenty years, and are quite familiar with their insubstantial resident. During that time they have had profitable guests leave in the early hours, terrified by Mistress Lucy's presence, and so they now lock her room and avoid letting the other when she is likely to appear. It was only because I was obviously unable to travel further last night that Mr Gently agreed to our taking this chamber."
"Holmes," I said, grateful for the fiery liquor warming my chilled body, "do you really believe that what we experienced was the work of something supernatural?"
He exhaled a cloud of blue smoke, leaning back against the bedstead. "I am loath to admit as much, but it is the only logical explanation."
"I did not think you believed in ghosts."
"I have an open mind, Watson. It is a necessity in my profession, and had I not it would make me no better than our friend Lestrade and his ilk. To doubt my senses and the conclusions I drew from the evidence in hand purely because both appear to point towards the impossible would be a capital mistake."
"But ghosts, Holmes - " I began, but he shook his head.
"Can you create a rational explanation for our experience?" he asked, and in truth, I could not.
I would have been happy to remove to the other inn when it became apparent the following morning that they now had rooms available. Holmes, however, preferred to remain where he was, treating the phenomenon of the resident spirit much as he would any of his investigations. We did not see Lucy Moore again, for which I was grateful, but I could not rest easy until we were able to leave the hostelry and its tale of fatal jealousy behind us.
Though it took place some time ago I am not likely to forget our encounter, and I can only hope that someday the poor young woman may find some peace, and wander this mortal earth no more.