It was pitch-dark and without a moon, but Mason led us over the grass-lands until a dark mass loomed up in front of us which proved to be the ancient chapel. We entered the broken gap which was once the porch, and our guide, stumbling among heaps of loose masonry, picked his way to the corner of the building, where a steep stair led down into the crypt. Striking a match, he illuminated the melancholy place — dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads. Holmes had lit his lantern, which shot a tiny tunnel of vivid yellow light upon the mournful scene. Its rays were reflected back from the coffin-plates, many of them adorned with the griffin and coronet of this old family which carried its honours even to the gate of Death.
“You spoke of some bones, Mr. Mason. Could you show them before you go?”
“They are here in this corner.” The trainer strode across and then stood in silent surprise as our light was turned upon the place. “They are gone,” said he.
“So I expected,” said Holmes, chuckling. “I fancy the ashes of them might even now be found in that oven which had already consumed a part.”
“But why in the world would anyone want to burn the bones of a man who has been dead a thousand years?” asked John Mason.
“That is what we are here to find out,” said Holmes. “It may mean a long search, and we need not detain you. I fancy that we shall get our solution before morning.”
When John Mason had left us, Holmes set to work making a very careful examination of the graves, ranging from a very ancient one, which appeared to be Saxon, in the centre, through a long line of Norman Hugos and Odos, until we reached the Sir William and Sir Denis Falder of the eighteenth century. It was an hour or more before Holmes came to a leaden coffin standing on end before the entrance to the vault. I heard his little cry of satisfaction and was aware from his hurried but purposeful movements that he had reached a goal. With his lens he was eagerly examining the edges of the heavy lid. Then he drew from his pocket a short jemmy, a box-opener, which he thrust into a chink, levering back the whole front, which seemed to be secured by only a couple of clamps. There was a rending, tearing sound as it gave way, but it had hardly hinged back and partly revealed the contents before we had an unforeseen interruption.
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.”