The Baskerville Tales (Short Stories)

The Baskerville Tales
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

2014 Del Rey eBook Edition

Copyright © 2014 by Naomi Lester

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

D
EL
R
EY
is a registered trademark and the H
OUSE
colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.

eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-8084-9

www.delreybooks.com

v3.1_r1

The Adventure of the Wollaston Ritual

A hole gaped in the graveyard, leaking the gut-churning smell of one freshly—but not too freshly—dead. Just a few weeks ago, the Reverend Dr. Amory Larch, Rector of Wollaston, had performed the burial service himself for the mourners shivering in the November drizzle.

Now the grave was an expletive of mud and roots. Bits of coffin wood lay scattered among the remains of the wilted flowers the bereaved had left. Something had exploded from inside the earth.

That was never a good sign. Nor was the fact that the shimmering, predawn gloom was utterly still. Even the usual chorus of waking birds was silent as … well, as the tomb.

It hadn’t been that way a quarter hour ago. In his comfortable house on the other side of the churchyard, where he had a good cellar and a cozy library and a workshop for the manufacture of clockwork toys—every child of the parish got one as a birthday present sooner or later—Larch had awakened to what sounded like the boom of a howitzer. He’d scrambled out of bed in a panic, sure Bonaparte was back from the dead. If he’d taken the time to wake up first, he would have realized that Old Boney was long gone, right along with Larch’s youth.

Now he stood in the graveyard in his nightshirt and carpet slippers, staring into the hole. Behind him, Wollaston Church overlooked the scene, its modest spire barely visible against the predawn sky.

The hole had been the final resting place of a well-bred scapegrace named Tom Cannon, aged three and twenty, who had bashed in his head while jumping his horse. He’d been on the way home in the early hours from the Tub and Tinker, stinking of brandy and with his clothes half buttoned. No question about how he’d spent the night. His taste ran to heiresses, but women of all stripes had fallen for his blue eyes and broad shoulders. An interesting scrap of gossip said he’d lost his heart to some young miss, but Larch wasn’t sure Tom had possessed one to give away.

Yet whoever Tom Cannon had been, he was no more—a sad but everyday bit of mortality. The one comfort to the women of Wollaston was that—due to the fact his fall had only affected the posterior of his skull—he’d made as good-looking a corpse as he had a man.

But now he was missing. Larch gave an un-reverendlike curse under his breath and pulled the worn robe he’d grabbed just a bit tighter. Grave robbing wasn’t as common as it used to be, since cadavers had become easier for the medical schools to obtain, but Larch still remembered the bad old days when it had been prudent to put an iron grill over the graves until the bodies were properly rotted. Back then, the coffins were smashed at the top and the body pulled out with a rope—all very efficient and reasonably tidy. This was not.

The only explanations Larch’s imagination could devise chilled him worse than the crawling damp of the graveyard’s silent dawn. So did the three pigeons just to the left, their necks twisted at impossible angles, feet together and wings outspread. The carefully arranged corpses made an obscene, pale flower. Whatever had happened here, it had been deliberate.

He shifted, the dewy grass tickling his bare ankles. The air seemed to be getting thicker, the musty smell congealing unpleasantly around him. Larch looked from left to right, not sure what had suddenly grabbed his attention. Nothing was there. Still, an animal fear swept through
his bowels, jamming a fist of terror all the way up to his throat. He tried to move, to step away from the grave, but his spine had gone tight as an iron rod. He shuffled backward, stumbling over his slippers.

He could swear he heard something. Or maybe he had felt it, like an invisible hand on his shoulder. Whatever it was brought all the atavistic terror of the cave dweller cowering before his fire, feeding it so that the shadows wouldn’t feed on him. His brain blanked, sure whatever was behind him was very, very hungry.

Larch bolted for the church, leaving his slippers behind.

Three days later

The stately stone edifice of the Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies stood pale against frost-tipped Devon hills; veils of cloud streaked the blue winter sky. At first glance the setting was idyllic—a timeless scene of tradition and gentility—unless one looked to the southwest. There, slashes of bare earth marked where Keating Utility was laying underground pipes all through the Wollaston neighborhood, ready to pump in the steam-driven revolution transmogrifying the rest of the Empire. The trenches forked and divided like nerves and veins, as if the quiet village were being absorbed into an ever-expanding body. The school, like the smallest toe, was at the very end of the line of progress.

And oblivious to it. For the majority of the academy’s students, change was something that happened to one’s wardrobe when the fashion papers arrived from Paris. Indeed, a handful of warmly wrapped young ladies were taking the air, dotting the school’s front lawn like decorative personifications of idleness, sloth, and vanity. Some were practicing carols, their
voices weaving with angelic sweetness.

Classes were done, Christmas was a whisper away, and all that kept them at Wollaston was a final dance on Saturday night. Most of the senior girls would travel to London after the holidays to prepare for their first Season on the marriage mart.

Evelina Cooper, on the other hand, sat on a bench where the sun warmed a sheltered nook in the academy’s stone wall. It was quiet there, free from the chatter of the other girls. As usual, she read a book. While passing muster in the ornamental arts, Evelina excelled in science and mathematics. And as a young gentlewoman with an uncertain future, she meant to leave school with every corner of her brain filled to capacity.

Without warning, the peaceful tableau shattered. A servant girl scrambled up the rise toward the academy, her sturdy boots churning as if a wolf were snapping at her heels.

“Where is Mrs. Roberts?” she cried, her breath misting in the chill air. “I must see Headmistress Roberts! Please, please!”

Evelina started as her thoughts jerked from a review of Fresnel’s classic theories on luminiferous aether.

“Mrs. Roberts, please!”

Evelina blinked rapidly, pulling the world around her back into focus. The washed-out blue of the servant’s cotton skirts were pallid against the lawn—a sketch in ink-and-wash amid a landscape of oils.

“I need Mrs. Roberts!”

The frantic tone of the servant’s voice tightened the muscles along the back of Evelina’s neck. She stood, abandoning her sunny bench and sliding Fresnel back into the pocket of her coat.

“Miss—misses—please, I must find the headmistress at once! The Reverend Dr. Larch said so!” The young girl had reached the path to the school steps and was now scampering up the walkway, picking up speed like an engine at full steam. Evelina was closest, and the girl began moving in her direction.

At the mention of Dr. Larch’s name, Evelina remembered her. The servant worked at the rectory. “Mary, whatever is the matter?”

“I need Mrs. Roberts, miss, please!”

“Why?” Evelina hurried forward to meet her. Servants never addressed their betters like this. If they were caught in the hallways, they were to turn their faces to the walls until the gentry passed. From what she could recall, Mary was a little slow witted, but knew her place. Her need had to be monumental.

“I’ve got to bring her this, Miss Cooper!” Mary stumbled to a stop, panting like a winded horse.

The girl carried a huge bundle wrapped in white cloth. String trailed from its ends, as if the knots had come undone during the cross-country jog. Mary was a big lass, but the thing looked enormous in her arms. And it was heavy, by the way the girl’s arms trembled. As Evelina approached, she noticed something soaking through the cloth and filling the air with a noxious stink. The other young ladies who had surged forward, alight with curiosity, were now fading backward, fluttering perfumed handkerchiefs toward their noses.

“Please, miss,” the girl gasped, addressing them all at once. “I need the headmistress. Dr. Larch said she’d stop calling him an addled old fool when she saw this. He said this is proof!”

Evelina stopped, wondering what on earth could smell so ghastly. “Pardon me?”

The desperate maid teared up, obviously overcome with frustration. “The headmistress
says he’s an addled old superstitious fool fit for the public stocks, but now she has to believe him!”

The insult did sound like Mrs. Roberts, especially when she thought no one was listening. Still, Evelina hesitated. The bundle stunk like a rotten ham, and there was no way it was going inside the school—not while Evelina slept there.

“What is in that parcel?” she asked.

“It’s ever so heavy, but I couldn’t tell you, miss. It’s not my job to know.”

Evelina glanced at the confused faces of her classmates. No one said a word, as if afraid that would make them responsible for the situation. There was only the shuffling of dainty boots on the paving stones as they shifted irritably, their cheeks and noses pink with the cold.

Mary was looking around wildly, dismay writ plain on her face. Pity tugged at Evelina, and she patted the girl’s shoulder. “Wait here. Let me call someone to go fetch the headmistress. Perhaps she’ll agree to come outside.”

But just as Evelina started for the academy’s stately doors, the Honorable Violet Asterley-Henderson surged around the corner of the building. Her petite figure was draped in full riding gear—top hat, boots, and riding crop as glossy as Mary was drab. Violet was pretty, with hair the russet of autumn leaves, but she had the personality of a well-used guillotine.

And she was having a bad day. She walked with quick, darting steps, her head bent like one in deep and angry thought. Evelina grabbed Mary to drag her out of harm’s way, feeling Violet’s mood like a gust of cold rain.

It was too late. Violet’s nose scrunched in disgust, her lips pulling back from tiny white teeth. “Ugh!” she exclaimed, bringing a hand to her face. “What is that evil stench?”

Violet took one look at Mary, her sharp hazel eyes going from the girl to the bundle. She
whisked the air with her gloved hand. “What are you doing here, girl? Get that disgusting thing away. It stinks like the grave.”

Mary had evidently lost every grain of common sense on the run over and ventured a protest. “But, miss, Dr. Larch said I was to bring it to Mrs. Roberts!”

The other students stirred, alert to danger as Violet’s eyes flared. “Are you arguing with me, girl?”

Evelina’s skin prickled with alarm, and she tried to step between them. Violet was too quick. The riding crop flew up, whacking the bundle and catching Mary’s arm with its stinging tip. The girl squeaked in pain and dropped the bundle to the ground.

Violet kept walking, not even turning when Mary burst into tears. It was typical Violet and, after so many years together at Wollaston, Evelina had endured enough. White anger blanked her sight. She grabbed Violet’s arm. “Wait one moment!”

The redhead wheeled, suddenly putting herself inches from Evelina, her eyes hot with contempt. “Do you have something to say, Cooper?” Violet leaned on the common-as-dirt name, making it an insult.

Other books

Too Hot to Hold by Stephanie Tyler
Candy Apple by Tielle St. Clare
Riding Irish by Angelica Siren
Dark Screams, Volume 1 by Brian James Freeman
Burn Out by Cheryl Douglas
All's Fair in Love and Lion by Bethany Averie
Ten Crescent Moons (Moonquest) by Haddrill, Marilyn