The International Writers Magazine: Original Fiction

The Hungerton Dungeon
(A Sherlock Holmes Adventure)
Gerald Grant

t is with a heavy heart and no little reluctance that I place this particular account of Sherlock Holmes into public circulation; for it was an enquiry that dredged the very darkest depths of the human soul. Holmes forbade me from publishing it until the individuals concerned had left this earth. However, in truth, the sheer awfulness of many of the details and the tragic outcome of the enquiry, in which I played no small part, would have kept me from releasing it even without his stern embargo.

It is an enquiry unparalleled in my accounts of Holmes for revealing the savage, base cruelty that lies at the heart of the worst of men; and the outcome has, I am certain, long haunted the dreams of those of us unfortunate enough to be caught in the midst of it. Perhaps now, by releasing the truth that has remained hidden for so long, I can lay some of those unfortunate ghosts to rest.

Before I proceed any further, I must preface the account with one or two opening remarks, concerning the peculiar circumstances of Cashmore Adams and his family history. To readers of a certain age the name will, perhaps, ring some distant bell; for at the time of his disappearance, his name was in the headline of every newspaper, on the mind of every policeman, and discussed over the dinner tables of every household in the country; such was the notoriety of his story and his circumstances. The Adams clan claimed ancient Scottish heritage, once farming land across a large area north of Inverness until they were driven from the country in the Highland Clearances. Instead of emigrating, and perhaps in defiance of English participation in the Clearances, they settled in southern England and the family prospered, driven by that hardy Scots spirit that rose, effortless and tirelessly, above adversity. And yet something of the cussedness of their heritage remained, and as the centuries passed it seemed as if a curse had been placed upon the family, as countless members died in bizarre or tragic circumstances.

Cashmore Adams was the last generation of the family and an only child. He had reached the tender age of four when the family curse made a sudden, shocking reappearance. His parents, Clayton Adams and his beautiful wife Maria, were drowned with two hundred others in the sinking of the Madagascar in the Mediterranean Sea, returning from a diplomatic mission to Persia on which little Cashmore had been judged too young to accompany them. He inherited the family estate and business, and was left under the care of Clayton’s two younger brothers, Marcus and Cowan, who took immediate guardianship of their nephew and charge of his affairs. But then the second blow fell, for less than two months after his parents’ deaths Cashmore Adams himself was kidnapped. A ransom note was received, the money was offered, but then the kidnappers fell silent, and nothing was heard of the little boy again. The public was outraged and there was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy. The young orphan’s plight captured the public’s imagination, a lengthy and widespread police investigation was conducted, and the two Adams brothers made an emotional appeal through the papers for the young boy’s release. However, it was all to no avail. No sign of the boy was ever found and no further ransom notes were received. As time passed, six months and then a year or more, he passed completely from public attention.

Had he been in the country, Holmes would, I am certain, have participated in the investigation; perhaps the outcome would have been different. But at that time he was in Schlesvig-Holstein for many months, at the service of one of the most prominent families in Europe; and although he followed closely the story of Cashmore Adams in the newspapers, he was powerless to act.

That is by way of being the background to this enquiry. However, the events that I am going to relate occurred a full six years after Cashmore Adams disappeared, by which time he had long departed from the minds of most men. I had left the Baker Street rooms that Holmes and I had previously shared, and was well established with a small but busy medical practice in …. So busy was I, with my practice and with married life, that I saw Holmes infrequently; although I often read of the solving of criminal cases in the newspapers where I could detect his hand at work, even though his name was rarely, if ever, mentioned, as was his preference. It was late in the morning on a sunny weekday in early May when, enjoying a cup of tea and a short break between patients, I received a telegram from Holmes asking if I would care to join him for lunch. As it was several months since our last conversation, I seized the opportunity and dealt with my remaining patients a trifle more brusquely than they were, perhaps, accustomed to.

A little after midday I hurried up the familiar steps and found Holmes seated at his bench, a steaming beaker before him the testament to his latest chemical experiments. He waved me towards an armchair without looking up or speaking, and ten minutes later threw himself down into the opposite chair.
‘Well Watson,’ said he, reaching for his pipe. ‘And how is life in the medical world?’
‘Full of gout, rheumatism and the common cold,’ said I, ‘and surely no match for the intrigues of the criminal one. Tell me, Holmes, have you been busy?’
‘Tolerably so, and no more than I prefer. For you know me well, Watson: I am easily bored and rely upon a regular supply of criminal activity to both stimulate and occupy the mind. But it would be wrong of me to complain, when this year has already yielded the Robbens-Greer murder and the robbery of the Borough Counties Bank, both of which were most unusual and which I presume you read about?’
‘And inferred your presence in their resolution,’ said I. ‘My only regret is that I was not there by your side to record them.’
‘Yes, Watson, your presence was sorely missed,’ said Holmes, sadly; and it was one of the few occasions in his life when I ever witnessed the man express even the slightest hint of sentimentality. ‘But you are here now, that is the main thing. I propose that we take lunch together and I will relate to you certain details of the two cases, if that would interest you.’
‘You know that it would!’
‘Yes, I suspected as much. I am afraid we will be slightly delayed, for I have a visitor calling first, who is late.’ He looked at the clock. ‘However, his case does not seem to be a serious one and should not detain me long.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Nothing, really. A rather eccentric man who does not like his neighbours; and after all, England is full of such men. But I think that I hear him now on the stairs…’

The door opened and a most curious looking man entered. He was probably in his early seventies, a tiny, immaculately dressed old man with short white hair, revealed as he lifted his hat from his head, and a trailing white beard. He carried a stout cane, which he did not appear to actually need, and an unusual canvas satchel over his shoulder, such as soldiers normally take into the field. These he placed on the floor beside the chair that Holmes ushered him towards.
‘Mr. Holmes?’ he said, in a high but strong voice.
‘Indeed, sir,’ said Holmes. ‘And this is my colleague, Dr. Watson.’
‘It is a pleasure to meet you both,’ said our visitor. ‘I apologise for the delay in my arrival, and I am grateful that you were able to spare the time to assist me.’
‘If, indeed, we can assist you. Now what is the problem?’
The little old man cleared his throat and looked at Holmes and myself with a steady gaze.
‘My name is Sir Walter Percival,’ he began.
‘The astronomer!’ I interrupted.
‘The very same.’ He bowed his head, slightly. ‘Until lately, Director of the Royal Observatory. However I have recently retired and moved from Greenwich to Berkshire, where I have purchased a small cottage about five miles from the village of Wyvern Sands. I deliberately chose the most secluded place that I could find, from where I could visit London with ease when necessary, but where I would not be disturbed by neighbours, nor by the lights of a town or city at night. For you know my interest, gentlemen; it would not be inaccurate to call it my obsession. It is my intention to spend the remainder of my days sleeping and my nights alone with my telescope trained upon the heavens, where I am endeavouring to map the cluster of stars that comprise a highly unusual formation which I have named the Novus Andromodae. Most men would call it a foolish undertaking, but it will be the culmination of my life and work.’
‘I can think of few things more noble,’ said Holmes. ‘And I am convinced that the true value to society of your endeavours will be more fully recognised at some future date.’
‘I do not seek recognition,’ said Sir Walter, nodding faintly. ‘I am a man of modest means and have all I need to live by. The pleasure of observing the stars each night is reward enough. But that is why I have come to see you. I have been frequently disturbed, Mr. Holmes. So much so that it has been impossible for me to work at night and maintain the necessary levels of concentration. That is why I have come to seek your help. I mentioned that I chose an isolated spot in which to live the rest of my days. My property is an old cottage on the very edge of the Hungerton estate, so that the manor house is approximately one mile distant, across a small valley, so that I can just make out the house between the trees. My neighbours are Mr. Marcus Adams and Mr. Cowan Adams, whose names I believe will be familiar to you?’
‘Why surely,’ said I, ‘they were the two men, the brothers, who took charge of young Cashmore Adams after his parents drowned and before he was kidnapped?’

‘The very same,’ said Holmes.

‘I thought that you would recognise them,’ said our visitor. ‘They are solitary men, similar in nature to myself. It is said that they took the losses of their elder brother, his wife and their young nephew heavily to heart, and now have nothing more to do with the world. Again, their reputation was one of the factors that influenced my choice of location; it seemed that an old man in search of solitude could find no better neighbours. And so it is that I never see them during the day, or hear anything from the estate. They keep a tiny retinue of servants: only a cook, a butler, and a single gardener, who can undertake only the most basic upkeep of such a large estate. Apparently, all three live in the village, rather than in the house. The brothers themselves I have glimpsed only once, walking together on a sunny morning. It would appear that they keep themselves to the house at all other times. Their shopping is done by the cook, in the village, and once a week they receive a delivery from a grocer’s in London. My only contact has been with the gardener, who I encountered clearing a ditch near my property. I introduced myself and expressed my sympathies for his masters’ sad losses, to which his reply most surprised me. He had no sympathy for them and stated his belief that there could not be two worse men in England to work for. He is, apparently, meanly paid and meanly treated. However, my interest lies in the stars, not the affairs of men; so I dismissed this, attributing the brothers’ meanness and bitterness solely to the devastating circumstances of their family. Grief works as a powerful tool on the hearts of men.’

Holmes nodded gently and waited for his guest to continue.

‘What I cannot dismiss, however, is the disturbances that I have encountered at night. It is my habit to work from a small wooden shed that I have had erected in the back garden, which houses my telescope and charts, and is located on the side of the house that overlooks the valley to the manor house. I retire there soon after it has become dark and work through to three or four o’clock in the morning, until I tire or until the encroaching light of dawn makes viewing impossible. The first few weeks of my life in Wyvern Sands passed in this way, so that I settled into a most comfortable routine and found myself working at a steady rate. But of all that has been ruined by the incidents that I will now describe. I did not record exactly which night it occurred, but I had not long been seated in my little shed when I became aware of a strange noise, a high-pitched crying sound, quite unearthly in tone and character, and the like of which I have never heard before and can imagine no human could make. I may be in advancing in years, but I still enjoy exceptional hearing, and I could hear the noise quite clearly, and trace its provenance; for it appeared to be coming from the manor house across the valley. I supposed it to be the whine of some kind of machine, or perhaps a fox or a badger caught in some trap. But when this continued for several nights running, I found it quite impossible to work. The unearthly noise was so pitiful, so plaintive, that it quite pierced my soul, and every night when it commenced I was forced to abandon my work.

‘This continued for four nights. On the fifth night, the noise ceased and silence returned. I was grateful and resumed my work. At my age, I feel even the loss of a single night to be a significant blow. I returned to my shed straightaway and spent a most profitably night tracing the arc of a planet that I suspect to be new and as yet unnamed.’

I observed that Holmes’ demeanour had changed completely in response to this narrative. He now leant forward eagerly, his hands joined before him and his attention focussed completely on our visitor.
‘I now come to the second event,’ Sir Walter continued. ‘This occurred approximately two weeks after the strange noise that I have just described. It was a magnificent clear night, the heavens spread out above me like a wonderful banquet of jewels. I had been in my shed no more than an hour or so, when I fancied that I heard a noise in my garden. Due to the rural nature of my location, and my presence in the shed each night, I am able to observe much of the wonder of nature at first hand as well. My garden is regularly visited by deer, foxes, badgers and rabbits, and I welcome them. I therefore turned to my small window and parted the curtain that conceals it to block out any unnecessary light. I then recoiled in fright, for I am not a superstitious man, Mr. Holmes, but I am convinced that night that I saw a ghost! When I drew back the curtain, I saw a pale white figure, floating outside my door, which flew upon my drawing back the curtain. Although I was so surprised, and recoiled so violently, that I could not tell you whether it fled across my lawn, whatever it was, or simply vanished into the night air. As you can well imagine, I was most unsettled by this event. It occurred on Monday night; I have not been able to work in my shed since, haunted by the memory of that sepulchral figure.’

Holmes eyes were fixed upon those of our visitor, and I cannot remember in my life ever having seen a more serious expression upon his face, which was pale and drawn, as if imitation of the apparition that our guest had described.
‘My dear Sir Walter,’ said Holmes. ‘This is a most extraordinary and worrying narrative. May I ask if you have contacted the police?’
‘I have not, Mr. Holmes. I am well aware of the strangeness of what I have described, and the view that the local police are likely to take of it.’
‘That is true. However, on this occasion it was not the local police of which I was thinking.’ His face darkened with anger. ‘I fear that a tremendous crime has either taken place, or is about to occur. I am afraid, Watson, that our lunch appointment will have to wait. Can your practice spare you for the afternoon, to accompany me to Wyvern Sands?’
‘It can. I would not miss this opportunity, Holmes, you know that.’
Holmes stood and turned to our visitor.
‘Then, Sir Walter, I propose that we return with you immediately by the next train. I cannot understate the importance of prompt action.’
‘I am happy to assist, of course.’
‘But Holmes,’ said I. ‘What is it that is so serious and so urgent?’
‘I prefer not to say at this moment in time, Watson. It so fantastic and so unprecedented that I fear, indeed I hope, that on this occasion my instincts will be proved wrong. But if they are not, then we have not a moment to lose.’

So it was that an hour later we were seated in a first class carriage, making the pleasant journey out through the western suburbs of London and into the level countryside of the Thames Valley floodplains, which spread out in that direction. It was a fine, spring day and the countryside proffered a tranquil innocence that was in stark contrast to our mood within the carriage. Holmes sat silent and brooding, as remote as I have ever known him, whilst Sir Walter and I conversed quietly about astronomy, in which I have occasionally taken an amateur interest myself.

It was a little after three o’clock when we descended from the train at Kintbury Station and hired a trap to take us on to Wyvern Sands, from where a further journey brought us finally to Sir Walter’s residence, which was an old stone farm-worker’s cottage surrounded by beautiful rolling Berkshire countryside. Holmes requested that we immediately be shown the shed and the window at which Sir Walter had viewed the strange figure, and fell upon his knees on the grass with his lens. He examined the area minutely, tracking from the side of the shed across to the low fence that provided a boundary between the garden and the fields beyond. He then straddled the fence and inspected several areas of the fields, disappearing from view completely at one point.
When he returned to us, twenty minutes later, his expression had not lightened.
‘It has not rained for some time?’ he asked Sir Walter.
‘No, it has not.’
‘As I feared; the ground is too hard and dry to yield any decisive evidence. May I inspect the shed?’
‘Of course.’
The astronomer unlocked it and Holmes examined it closely, even stepping inside and closing the curtain so that he could judge for himself the effect of drawing it back.
‘Watson, would you be so good as to stand outside whilst I draw the curtain back?’ he requested.

I readily obliged. He then asked me to repeat the exercise, but this time kneeling on the grass, for the door to the shed was not high and the small window was in its centre.
‘Thank you Watson, that was most helpful.’
Holmes then stood gazing into the distance, across the peaceful valley where the manor house, known simply as Hungerton, was visible amongst the trees. One could not have thought anything could be wrong in England at that moment, if one judged it from the impression of that tranquil green valley.
‘Watson, I shall not be returning to London tonight. It is imperative that I remain here.’
‘Then I shall stay also.’
‘Thank you. I had hoped that you might say that, but did not wish to intrude upon your married life by asking so directly.’
‘There is no fear in that direction, Holmes,’ I said, laughing. ‘I sent a message to my wife that I was passing the afternoon with you. I doubt that she will be surprised by my non-appearance this evening.’
‘Then you have found a tolerant wife, Watson. However I believe it would be for the best if you go to the village and send a telegram. There must not be the slightest suspicion of our presence here. And whilst you are there, engage a carriage for the morning. Ask the driver to be here for nine o’clock, but instruct him not to come right up to the cottage. Instead, he must wait in the shelter of those trees, just down the lane. Make sure he understands that. I repeat that it is imperative that we do nothing that will alert anyone to our presence here.’ He turned to the old astronomer. ‘Sir Walter, I fear that we are going to intrude upon both your solitude and your hospitality for the night. In mitigation, I can only say that you will be assisting us in the prevention of a severe miscarriage of justice.’
‘Then I will assist you in any way that I can, and you are most welcome,’ said the old man gamely.
‘Then let us move inside,’ said Holmes. ‘For even out here I am worried that our presence may be noticed.’

I ran my errand to the village as instructed, and located a coach and driver who understood my strange instructions. I then returned to Sir Walter’s cottage, where he furnished us with a simple dinner, based on what he cooked himself and some food left by a woman from the village, who he had engaged to cook and clean three mornings a week. I greatly enjoyed the company of so distinguished and unpretentious a mind, but Holmes was distracted, eating nothing and moving constantly from window to window, his attention channelled towards the manor house between the distant trees.

When it grew dark he announced his intention to pass the night in the shed, where he could train the telescope on the manor house and watch it unobserved, or wait for the ghostly apparition, should it re-appear. Sir Walter made up a bed for me on his couch and apologised for its rudeness, although I assured him that I had slept in far less comfortable circumstances in both Afghanistan and India.
I slept soundly and heard nothing in the night, and was sitting down with Sir Walter to an early cup of coffee when Holmes quietly entered the house. It was clear that he had not slept a wink in the night, but he was as alert and tense as ever I had seen him.
‘Well?’ said I. ‘Did you see it?’
‘No,’ said he. ‘I watched the house all night but I saw nothing, other than the servants arriving not long ago. Do you mark that, Watson? I saw nothing; no lights, no movement, no sign of any life at all. Is that not strange for a house in which we know two men are living?’
‘We can only see the eastern side and part of the front,’ I objected. ‘Perhaps they live at the rear of the house?’
‘In the servants’ quarters…? I hardly think it likely.’
‘What will you do now?’ the old astronomer asked.
‘I must return to London immediately,’ said Holmes. ‘It is for that purpose that I asked you to engage the carriage yesterday, Watson. However, I am afraid I must ask you to remain here for the day. Someone must watch the house at all times. I will return tonight.’
‘Very well,’ said I. ‘But can you not tell me what it is that I am watching for?’
‘No,’ said Holmes, carefully. ‘Other than that you should pay attention to anything that strikes you as unusual; anything. And to note down if there is any coming and going from the house. I want you to record any movement at all.’

And so at Holmes’ request, I passed the day in the astronomer’s little shed. Holmes had so organised it the night before that the telescope was trained on the house, although hidden slightly behind a curtain. So powerful was it that upon putting one’s eye to the scope the house across the valley seemed to jump almost into one’s lap, so that I could examine the windows and features of the house as if I was standing directly outside. There was little activity for me to record. The cook appeared at the rear several times, and the butler could be glimpsed occasionally inside the rooms. Of the gardener, there was no sign. The hours dragged slowly, and had it not been for the expression of deadly earnest on Holmes’ face, I would have resented the assignment.
Holmes returned at six o’clock, walking quietly up the lane and carrying a small canvas bag. He crossed the lawn and joined me inside the little shed.
‘Well?’ said he. ‘Has anything happened?’
‘Not a thing, Holmes. The servants were busy this morning but left at two o’clock. No one else visited all day, and the gardener does not seem to have come. Of the two brothers, I have seen no sign.’
He bent down and directed his troubled gaze across at the house.
‘In truth, I expected nothing more,’ said he. ‘However, I had to be sure. Come inside, Watson. Nothing will happen for the moment. We will start as soon as it is dark.’

We ate a light supper with Sir Walter, who was now, I recognised, beginning to tire of our presence, although he too seemed to be affected by the serious intent evident in Holmes’ manner. Holmes then unpacked the rucksack that he had brought with him, which contained a change of clothes for myself, a small bundle of tools, and two revolvers, one of which I recognised.
‘Yes, Watson,’ said he, noting my gaze. ‘I was able to pay a brief visit to your dear wife to assure her you were helping me with an investigation of the utmost severity and that she should not worry. I also took the liberty of locating your old service revolver, which I was pleased to discover you still keep wrapped at the bottom of your socks.’
‘I shall need it tonight?’
‘Yes, I fear so. And yet still I pray that I may be mistaken in some way.’
In all of the years that I have known him, I cannot say that I ever saw a bleaker expression on my friend’s face than at that moment. Indeed, had I anticipated the full horror of what lay ahead of us, I would have understood it greater. As it was, something of Holmes’ mood was communicated to all of us, so that neither Sir Walter nor myself had any real appetite that evening. Aafter dinner, Holmes continued his silent vigil on the manor house, as though reluctant to remove his eye from it for even a minute.
He returned to the cottage as soon as it was dark and we prepared ourselves. I must admit that of all the adventures in which I accompanied Holmes, it was this was one, as we neared what seemed to be its conclusion, that caused me most trepidation.
‘No, Sir Walter, I cannot allow it,’ said Holmes, as the old astronomer donned his coat as if to accompany us.
‘But I can be of assistance?’
‘It is too dangerous. However, I would be grateful if you would station yourself in the shed and watch the house from a distance. Should anything go wrong, it may be most useful to us later on to have had someone who witnessed everything.’
‘I shall not move from my post until you return,’ said Sir Walter, revealing a little of the determined will that lay at the foundation of his nature. He shook our hands briefly; then we left the cottage.

Carrying the tools that he had brought, wrapped in a piece of cloth, Holmes led the way along the lane for a short distance, to where a gateway allowed access to the fields, and beside which a hedgerow would conceal our progress.
‘For my plan to work, Watson, we must observe complete silence. Please follow me in everything I do. I know that there is much that you do not understand, old friend, and I regret that I cannot tell you more. But I must ask you not to doubt me now.’
‘I will not!’ I said, grasping Holmes’ arm.

Moving from hedgerow to hedgerow, we advanced slowly across the fields towards the manor house. It was a clear, still night, and the light of a half-moon illuminated our way perfectly. The manor house moved in and out of our vision amongst the trees that screened it so well from the outside world. Although it was only a mile and a quarter across the valley to the manor house, our progress was hesitant due to the need for secrecy; and I am not exaggerating if I say that it was one of the longest miles I have ever walked in my life. It seemed like hours had passed before we crossed a ditch, followed a hedgerow to its end, and found ourselves advancing on the silent house, from which we were only separated now by a stretch of lawn, grey and flat in the moonlight. I followed Holmes’ closely and we took up a position behind a large rhodedendron bush, at the edge of the lawn. Holmes parted the leaves to look across at the house, but it was completely silent. He turned his pocket watch slightly to catch the moonlight and then motioned to me that we must wait.

If the walk across the fields had been long, then it seemed like we waited behind that bush for an eternity. Holmes’ attention remained focussed rigidly on the house and he sat completely still, not making the slightest movement, as if he had turned into one of the stone statues that guarded the bottom of the wide steps that led from the side of the house down to a low, ornamental garden to our right.
Eventually I became aware of a distant noise, and this became steadily louder until I realised that a carriage was approaching the house, advancing quickly up the long drive. Holmes turned to me.
‘When I give the signal,’ he whispered, ‘you must follow me immediately. Is that clear?’
I nodded my assent.
We both watched the carriage come closer, until it turned in a circle and pulled up in front of the grand entrance to the manor house. The driver said something and two figures descended from the carriage. I almost exclaimed aloud, for in the moonlight I recognised one of them as Lestrade, from Scotland Yard, and the other wore a policeman’s uniform. They stepped up to the door and rapped loudly upon it. Holmes watched intently.

Lestrade knocked again, and it was some time before the door was finally opened and a man stepped out. He was of average height and appearance, and from the descriptions that I had read in previous years I had no doubt that it was the older of the two brothers, Marcus Adams. He asked what the meaning was of this intrusion, in a most unfriendly manner, but Lestrade’s answer was too low for me to hear. A moment later, a second man appeared in the doorway, taller and thinner than the first, and undoubtedly Cowan Adams, the youngest of the brothers. A small argument ensued.

But I had little time to observe it, for at this moment Holmes grasped my arm and we took off, moving silently and briskly behind the line of shrubs and around to the back of the house. As soon as we had cleared the angle of the front, Holmes broke from the cover and we ran across the lawn. I followed him up to the side of the house and round to the rear, where an archway in the wall led into a courtyard, enclosed by the kitchens on one side and the stables, long disused, on the other.

As we approached the door, Holmes had already removed an iron jemmy from his bundle of tools and handed the rest to me. It was a moment’s work for him to lever the door open and then we were inside the silent house. He turned to me, urging me to caution and silence, and producing his revolver. I will never forget the blank expression om his face, so intent was he on whatever purpose he had been planning. He led the way through the kitchens into a large passageway, with several doors leading off it. He hurriedly tried all of these. The first two were merely cupboards, but the third was locked, and he immediately applied the jemmy again, levering it open. This made a loud cracking sound, but Holmes did not hesitate, plunging into the darkness, with myself following close behind.

On the other side of the door were stone stairs, leading down into the cellars of the house, in which the air was stale and damp. As we reached the bottom of the steps, I perceived a faint glow as from a candle, coming from a distant chamber of the cellars, and Holmes made straight for this.

I will never forget the sight that greeted us as we entered this final, dreadful chamber. It was small and oppressive, the stone walls damp with mould and the floor soiled and grimy. It was lit by a single flickering candle and the walls were covered in a strange, illegible writing up to the height of a man’s chest. The chamber contained nothing more than a bare wooden bench in place of a bed, with only a filthy blanket and one pillow, and a metal pail that obviously served as a toilet. Cowering from us on the bed was a young boy, pale and white and emaciated, barefoot and dressed in rags, and chained by both ankles to a large bolt fastened to the wall. It was a pitiful sight. The young boy moved as far away from us as his chains would allow, the terror evident in his grey eyes and a low whimpering sound emanating from his throat, like that of a wounded animal. Holmes stared at him and I realised that his worst expectations had been realised. The wretched sight before us was none other than Cashmore Adams, the young boy who had been missing for six years.

I started forward and the boy recoiled again, his terror growing. But at that moment there was a cry of anger from behind us and we turned as Cowan and Marcus Adams ran into the chamber, their faces twisted into fearful expressions.
‘You shall regret this, sir!’ shouted Cowan Adams ferociously.
There was a long knife in his hand and he threw himself towards Holmes. I believe Holmes would have met his attack gladly, but he had not the chance, for I reacted out of instinct to save my friend and fired twice. The explosions echoed around us in the chamber, deafening in the confined space. The man fell back, clutching his chest as he collapsed against the wall. The knife dropped from his hand. I turned immediately to his brother, but Lestrade and his accomplice had not been far behind them and jumped on the man and forced him to the ground. Silence returned to the chamber, broken only by the breathing of Marcus Adams as two men pinned him to the stones and the low crying of the child in the corner.
‘Thank you, Watson,’ said Holmes, bending over the man on the ground.
‘Is he dead?’ I asked, the revolver now shaking slightly in my hand.
‘He is. But you should have no regret and feel no pity. You have killed a monster.’ He turned to Marcus Adams, who looked up at him with hatred in his eyes. ‘You have committed a terrible crime, Mr. Adams. You may come to wish that my friend had fired upon you as well.’

He turned to the young boy and advanced slowly towards him. I have never seen a look of such despair in his eyes as I did then, and something of this humanity must surely have communicated itself to the boy, for he ceased crying and allowed Holmes to remove the shackles from his feet and wrap him in a blanket. After some time, he allowed Lestrade to lead him upstairs, away from that terrible dungeon. I studied the strange writing that covered the walls, before we left the grim dungeon and stood in the hallway of the silent house, where Lestrade was now waiting. A second carriage had arrived and the living Adams brother was being led towards it. Lestrade watched this and when he turned to us his face, too, was pale and serious.
‘I can only commend you Holmes,’ said he. ‘Without your intervention, I do not like to think what the outcome of this might have been.’
Holmes nodded, wearily, and I became aware of the massive effort that the last few days had cost him.
‘How did you know?’ I asked him.
‘I did not,’ he said. ‘I could not be sure. It seemed too terrible to be real, and yet I could think of no other explanation for the sounds that Sir Walter heard, which were cries for help, and then the pale figure that he saw at his window.’
‘The boy escaped?’
‘Yes, although he did not get far, and I am sure that they were close behind him. And when Sir Walter drew back the curtain, I daresay the boy was more surprised and scared than he was. For let us remember that for six years he has seen neither daylight nor kindness nor any other human face save those of his two uncles.’
‘But why, Holmes, why?’ I asked, in despair. ‘Why imprison a harmless boy, what could he possibly do to them?’
‘Of that I was unsure until yesterday morning. When I left you observing the house, I returned to London and first of all visited my brother, Mycroft, and then went to the firm of Garibald & Stock, Solicitors. I had to speak to Mycroft as he was the only man in whom I could confide my suspicions, to confirm whether they were correct or not, and without being thought mad for speaking such fantastic thoughts. But like me, he could see no other explanation, and he acted immediately. Through his influence I was able to examine Clayton Adams’ will at the solicitors’ office, and it was as I had suspected: the entire family estate was left in trust for his son, Cashmore, until he came of age and could claim it.’
‘Then why imprison him, why not kill him and be done with it?’
‘Because of a most unusual clause in the will, Watson. This stated that should anything happen to Cashmore, as the only child of Clayton Adams and therefore last in the first branch of the family line, that the house and the estate and all businesses should be sold off and the proceeds used to create a benevolent foundation for the care of orphans. Is that not dreadful irony, Watson? Should that happen, then the two brothers, Cowan and Marcus, would receive nothing. You must remember that these were young men who were used to wealth and privilege; they were unaccustomed with work. I am sure that Clayton Adams had been more aware of that than anyone else, and took steps in his will to prevent the family fortune falling into their hands.
‘Mr. Stock, the solicitor, was most helpful and told me that they had been bitterly jealous of their elder brother and resented his complete control of the family fortune. So they pretended to kidnap their own nephew and imprisoned him. Whilst he was missing and could not be confirmed dead, they would be able to stay in the house and manage the estate and the business, as executors of the trust. But the moment that he was found alive, dead, or turned eighteen, they would lose everything. I have no doubt that they imprisoned him in a moment of anger, or should I say Cowan did, for as the youngest he was the most bitter of his elder brother and his beautiful wife. It was him that forced Marcus into this dreadful plot. For having put the boy down here what else could they do but continue to confine him? That is why the servants were not allowed to live in the house and all visitors were discouraged.
‘You see, Watson, why I could give you no possible hint of my suspicions? I know your great kindness and that I would not have been able to restrain you from coming here immediately. The brothers would of course have intervened and we would have found nothing, and my suspicions would have been unproved. I am certain they would have killed the boy and disposed of the body immediately.’
‘But Lestrade?’
‘Was briefed by Mycroft and myself before I left London and returned last night. Lestrade refused to believe my suspicions but agreed to play his part. As instructed, he arrived with a local policeman to report a spate of burglaries in the area and to inspect the security of the property. Of course, the brothers could not allow that, and I was counting on this distracting them long enough to enable us to gain entry to the house and locate the boy.’
‘But Holmes, what a risk!’
‘And if I had told you of the risk, would you not have gone through with it anyway, to save the boy? Yes, I thought so, and I could see no other way for us to proceed. But even I did not anticipate the strength of feeling, the madness even, in the mind of the younger Adams brother. For even when it was clear that the game was up, he could not stop himself and I, naturally, was the target of his anger. You acted well, Watson.’
‘I have never killed a man in cold blood before, Holmes,’ said I. ‘and I never wish to do so again. But you are correct; I can find little sympathy for the man.’
‘And I even less, Watson.’

The story could never reach the newspapers, and so until now the public has been ignorant of the true plight of poor Cashmore Adams. Only a few people ever knew the truth of this case and it is a secret that has weighted heavily upon all of us.

Holmes informed Sir Walter Percival that it had all been a great misunderstanding, sparing him any details of what had really occurred in the house across the valley, and this enabled the astronomer to spend the remaining years of life in his shed, plotting the stars each night. I believe that his was the only positive outcome.

The shock and torture of those six years in the dungeon scarred Cashmore Adams permanently. He was never able to grow up and lead a normal life and was placed in the care of a secure sanatorium in Hampshire. Although his health recovered slowly, he never learned to speak and would never trust a single adult individual. The director of the sanatorium, with whom I am acquainted, believed his case to be unique; although in recent years other stories of children kept in appalling conditions have come to light in Europe. The writing on the walls of his cell beneath Hungerton Manor seems to have been his only communication with the world. Their meaning was never deciphered, despite receiving the attention of some of the finest psychologists in Europe. All they could suggest was that he had developed his own words for how he felt in the long years of solitary, airless confinement, a conclusion I came to for myself. Cashmore Adams died a few months before his fourteenth birthday, for no reason that they could find other than that his heart simply expired. He had no wish, apparently, to go on living. A benevolent foundation bearing his name has since been established.

He was survived by almost a decade by his remaining uncle, Marcus Adams, who was tried in court for murder immediately following his arrest by Lestrade on that fateful night. Unpleasant though it was, murder was deemed at the time to be a more suitable story for public release than the ghastly reality of the boy’s imprisonment. Adams was sentenced to life and removed to Dartmoor Prison, where he kept his own counsel for fear, I believe, of the reprisals he would incur were the real nature of his crimes known to his fellow inmates. It is only now that I can reveal the truth of what happened, after the death of Marcus Adams from natural causes was reported in The Times last week. His final words were a plea that God would forgive him for his crimes; I can only presume that he died with this matter unresolved.

© Gerald Grant April 2006
Gerald Grant is a reclusive writer who sometimes resides in Surrey and othertimes tarries in Cornwall.

The Old 88
Gerald Grant - a Sherlock Holmes adventure

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