"But if you saw him so seldom and wrote so seldom, how did he know enough about your affairs to be able to help you, as you say that he has done?"
She met my difficulty with the utmost readiness.
"There were several gentlemen who knew my sad history and united to help me. One was Mr. Stapleton, a neighbour and intimate friend of Sir Charles's. He was exceedingly kind, and it was through him that Sir Charles learned about my affairs."
I knew already that Sir Charles Baskerville had made Stapleton his almoner upon several occasions, so the lady's statement bore the impress of truth upon it.
"Did you ever write to Sir Charles asking him to meet you?" I continued.
Mrs. Lyons flushed with anger again.
"Really, sir, this is a very extraordinary question."
"I am sorry, madam, but I must repeat it."
"Then I answer, certainly not."
"Not on the very day of Sir Charles's death?"
The flush had faded in an instant, and a deathly face was before me. Her dry lips could not speak the "No" which I saw rather than heard.
"Surely your memory deceives you," said I. "I could even quote a passage of your letter. It ran 'Please, please, as you are a gentleman, burn this letter, and be at the gate by ten o'clock.' "
I thought that she had fainted, but she recovered herself by a supreme effort.
"Is there no such thing as a gentleman?" she gasped.
"You do Sir Charles an injustice. He did burn the letter. But sometimes a letter may be legible even when burned. You acknowledge now that you wrote it?"
"Yes, I did write it," she cried, pouring out her soul in a torrent of words. "I did write it. Why should I deny it? I have no reason to be ashamed of it. I wished him to help me. I believed that if I had an interview I could gain his help, so I asked him to meet me."
"But why at such an hour?"
"Because I had only just learned that he was going to London next day and might be away for months. There were reasons why I could not get there earlier."
"But why a rendezvous in the garden instead of a visit to the house?"
"Do you think a woman could go alone at that hour to a bachelor's house?"
"Well, what happened when you did get there?"
"I never went."
"No, I swear it to you on all I hold sacred. I never went. Something intervened to prevent my going."
"What was that?"
"That is a private matter. I cannot tell it."
"You acknowledge then that you made an appointment with Sir Charles at the very hour and place at which he met his death, but you deny that you kept the appointment."
"That is the truth."
Again and again I cross-questioned her, but I could never get past that point.
"Mrs. Lyons," said I as I rose from this long and inconclu– sive interview, "you are taking a very great responsibility and putting yourself in a very false position by not making an absolutely clean breast of all that you know. If I have to call in the aid of the police you will find how seriously you are compro– mised. If your position is innocent, why did you in the first instance deny having written to Sir Charles upon that date?"
"Because I feared that some false conclusion might be drawn from it and that I might find myself involved in a scandal."
"And why were you so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy your letter?"
"If you have read the letter you will know."
"I did not say that I had read all the letter."
"You quoted some of it."
"I quoted the postscript. The letter had, as I said, been burned and it was not all legible. I ask you once again why it was that you were so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy this letter which he received on the day of his death."
"The matter is a very private one."
"The more reason why you should avoid a public investigation."
"I will tell you, then. If you have heard anything of my unhappy history you will know that I made a rash marriage and had reason to regret it."
"I have heard so much."
"My life has been one incessant persecution from a husband whom I abhor. The law is upon his side, and every day I am faced by the possibility that he may force me to live with him. At the time that I wrote this letter to Sir Charles I had learned that there was a prospect of my regaining my freedom if certain expenses could be met. It meant everything to me – peace of mind, happiness, self-respect – everything. I knew Sir Charles's generosity, and I thought that if he heard the story from my own lips he would help me."
"Then how is it that you did not go?"
"Because I received help in the interval from another source."
"Why then, did you not write to Sir Charles and explain this?"
"So I should have done had I not seen his death in the paper next morning."
The woman's story hung coherently together, and all my questions were unable to shake it. I could only check it by finding if she had, indeed, instituted divorce proceedings against her husband at or about the time of the tragedy.
It was unlikely that she would dare to say that she had not been to Baskerville Hall if she really had been, for a trap would be necessary to take her there, and could not have returned to Coombe Tracey until the early hours of the morning. Such an excursion could not be kept secret. The probability was, there– fore, that she was telling the truth, or, at least, a part of the truth. I came away baffled and disheartened. Once again I had reached that dead wall which seemed to be built across every path by which I tried to get at the object of my mission. And yet the more I thought of the lady's face and of her manner the more I felt that something was being held back from me. Why should she turn so pale? Why should she fight against every admission until it was forced from her? Why should she have been so reticent at the time of the tragedy? Surely the explanation of all this could not be as innocent as she would have me believe. For the moment I could proceed no farther in that direction, but must turn back to that other clue which was to be sought for among the stone huts upon the moor.
And that was a most vague direction. I realized it as I drove back and noted how hill after hill showed traces of the ancient people. Barrymore's only indication had been that the stranger lived in one of these abandoned huts, and many hundreds of them are scattered throughout the length and breadth of the moor. But I had my own experience for a guide since it had shown me the man himself standing upon the summit of the Black Tor. That, then, should be the centre of my search. From there I should explore every hut upon the moor until I lighted upon the right one. If this man were inside it I should find out from his own lips, at the point of my revolver if necessary, who he was and why he had dogged us so long. He might slip away from us in the crowd of Regent Street, but it would puzzle him to do so upon the lonely moor. On the other hand, if I should find the hut and its tenant should not be within it I must remain there, however long the vigil, until he returned. Holmes had missed him in London. It would indeed be a triumph for me if I could run him to earth where my master had failed.
Luck had been against us again and again in this inquiry, but now at last it came to my aid. And the messenger of good fortune was none other than Mr. Frankland, who was standing, gray-whiskered and red-faced, outside the gate of bis garden, which opened on to the highroad along which I travelled.
"Good-day, Dr. Watson," cried he with unwonted good humour, "you must really give your horses a rest and come in to have a glass of wine and to congratulate me."
My feelings towards him were very far from being friendly after what I had heard of his treatment of his daughter, but I was anxious to send Perkins and the wagonette home, and the oppor– tunity was a good one. I alighted and sent a message to Sir Henry that I should walk over in time for dinner. Then I fol– lowed Frankland into his dining-room.
"It is a great day for me, sir – one of the red-letter days of my life," he cried with many chuckles. "I have brought off a double event. I mean to teach them in these parts that law is law, and that there is a man here who does not fear to invoke it. I have established a right of way through the centre of old Middleton's park, slap across it, sir, within a hundred yards of his own front door. What do you think of that? We'll teach these magnates that they cannot ride roughshod over the rights of the commoners, confound them! And I've closed the wood where the Fernworthy folk used to picnic. These infernal people seem to think that there are no rights of property, and that they can swarm where they like with their papers and their bottles. Both cases decided Dr. Watson, and both in my favour. I haven't had such a day since I had Sir John Morland for trespass because he shot in his own warren."
"How on earth did you do that?"
"Look it up in the books, sir. It will repay reading – Frankland v. Morland, Court of Queen's Bench. It cost me 200 pounds, but I got my verdict."
"Did it do you any good?"
"None, sir, none. I am proud to say that I had no interest in the matter. I act entirely from a sense of public duty. I have no doubt, for example, that the Fernworthy people will burn me in effigy to-night. I told the police last time they did it that they should stop these disgraceful exhibitions. The County Constabu– lary is in a scandalous state, sir, and it has not afforded me the protection to which I am entitled. The case of Frankland v. Regina will bring the matter before the attention of the public. I told them that they would have occasion to regret their treatment of me, and already my words have come true."
"How so?" I asked.
The oId man put on a very knowing expression.
"Because I could tell them what they are dying to know; but nothing would induce me to help the rascals in any way."
I had been casting round for some excuse by which I could get away from his gossip, but now I began to wish to hear more of it. I had seen enough of the contrary nature of the old sinner to understand that any strong sign of interest would be the surest way to stop his confidences.
"Some poaching case, no doubt?" said I with an indifferent manner~
"Ha, ha, my boy, a very much more important matter than that! What about the convict on the moor?"
I stared. "You don't mean that you know where he is?" said I.
"I may not know exactly where he is, but I am quite sure that I could help the police to lay their hands on him. Has it never struck you that the way to catch that man was to find out where he got his food and so trace it to him?"
He certainly seemed to be getting uncomfortably near the truth. "No doubt," said I; "but how do you know that he is anywhere upon the moor?"
"I know it because I have seen with my own eyes the messenger who takes him his food."
My heart sank for Barrymore. It was a serious thing to be in the power of this spiteful old busybody. But his next remark took a weight from my mind.
"You'll be surprised to hear that his food is taken to him by a child. I see him every day through my telescope upon the roof. He passes along the same path at the same hour, and to whom should he be going except to the convict?"
Here was luck indeed! And yet I suppressed all appearance of interest. A child! Barrymore had said that our unknown was supplied by a boy. It was on his track, and not upon the convict's, that Frankland had stumbled. If I could get his knowl– edge it might save me a long and weary hunt. But incredulity and indifference were evidently my strongest cards.
"I should say that it was much more likely that it was the son of one of the moorland shepherds taking out his father's dinner."
The least appearance of opposition struck fire out of the old autocrat. His eyes looked malignantly at me, and his gray whis– kers bristled like those of an angry cat.
"Indeed, sir!" said he, pointing out over the wide-stretching moor. "Do you see that Black Tor over yonder? Well, do you see the low hill beyond with the thornbush upon it? It is the stoniest part of the whole moor. Is that a place where a shepherd would be likely to take his station? Your suggestion, sir, is a most absurd one."
I meekly answered that I had spoken without knowing all the facts. My submission pleased him and led him to further confidences.
"You may be sure, sir, that I have very good grounds before I come to an opinion. I have seen the boy again and again with his bundle. Every day, and sometimes twice a day, I have been able – but wait a moment, Dr. Watson. Do my eyes deceive me, or is there at the present moment something moving upon that hillside?"
It was several miles off, but I could distinctly see a small dark dot against the dull green and gray.
"Come, sir, come!" cried Frankland, rushing upstairs. "You will see with your own eyes and judge for yourself."
The telescope, a formidable instrument mounted upon a tri– pod, stood upon the flat leads of the house. Frankland clapped his eye to it and gave a cry of satisfaction.
"Quick, Dr. Watson, quick, before he passes over the hill!"
There he was, sure enough, a small urchin with a little bundle upon his shoulder, toiling slowly up the hill. When he reached the crest I saw the ragged uncouth figure outlined for an instant against the cold blue sky. He looked round him with a furtive and stealthy air, as one who dreads pursuit. Then he vanished over the hill.
"Well! Am I right?"
"Certainly, there is a boy who seems to have some secret errand."
"And what the errand is even a county constable could guess. But not one word shall they have from me, and I bind you to secrecy also, Dr. Watson. Not a word! You understand!"
"Just as you wish."
"They have treated me shamefully – shamefully. When the facts come out in Frankland v. Regina I venture to think that a thrill of indignation will run through the country. Nothing would induce me to help the police in any way. For all they cared it might have been me, instead of my effigy, which these rascals burned at the stake. Surely you are not going! You will help me to empty the decanter in honour of this great occasion!"
But I resisted all his solicitations and succeeded in dissuading him from his announced intention of walking home with me. I kept the road as long as his eye was on me, and then I struck off across the moor and made for the stony hill over which the boy had disappeared. Everything was working in my favour, and I swore that it should not be through lack of energy or persever– ance that I should miss the chance which fortune had thrown in my way.
The sun was already sinking when I reached the summit of the hill, and the long slopes beneath me were all golden-green on one side and gray shadow on the other. A haze lay low upon the farthest sky-line, out of which jutted the fantastic shapes of Belliver and Vixen Tor. Over the wide expanse there was no sound and no movement. One great gray bird, a gull or curlew, soared aloft in the blue heaven. He and I seemed to be the only living things between the huge arch of the sky and the desert beneath it. The barren scene, the sense of loneliness, and the mystery and urgency of my task all struck a chill into my heart. The boy was nowhere to be seen. But down beneath me in a cleft of the hills there was a circle of the old stone huts, and in the middle of them there was one which retained sufficient roof to act as a screen against the weather. My heart leaped within me as I saw it. This must be the burrow where the stranger lurked. At last my foot was on the threshold of his hiding place – his secret was within my grasp.