‘No, I have never believed in ghosts,’ said the doctor, `but I have always been afraid of them.’
‘Have you ever seen one?’ asked one of the other men.
The doctor took the cigar from his mouth and looked at it for a moment before replying. `I have had some rather strange and surprising experiences,’ he said. `Do you want to hear about one of them? It gives me the shivers just speaking about it.’
We all nodded. The doctor took a sip of his drink, shook his shoulders, and began:
`Do you remember George Carson who played for the University some years ago; a big chap with a light moustache? Well, I saw a lot of him before he got married. It was just after he got engaged to Miss Stonor, who is now Miss Carson, and he asked me to go down to a place that his people owned in the country. Miss Stonor was going to be there and I was to meet her. I could not go down on Christmas day because I wanted to be with my own family that day. However, I wanted a bit of a rest, and some time in the country sounded good, so I decided to go and see George for a couple of days around New Year.’
‘Well one day, Jennie and her boyfriend came to my home,’ Mr Coombes told Tom. `We had a terrible row and after that, I came out here for a walk – it was a day just like this. I thought about what to do. Then I went back to the house and had another row!’
`Really?’ asked his brother Tom.
`Yes. I threw Jennie’s boyfriend out the house and smashed things about.’
`What did Mrs Coombes do?’
`Well, she ran up the stairs and locked herself in the bedroom.’
`Well, I just told her. Now you know what I am like when I’m angry. And I never had to say one word more again.’
`And you have been happy ever after, eh?’
Mr Coombes thought for a second. `Yes,’ he said. ‘It has been better. If it hadn’t been for that afternoon…I’d be walking the roads right now. There’s nothing like putting your foot down. Now we’re alright and the business is doing well.’
`Good,’ said Tom. ‘I’m glad.’
They walked on together. But then Tom stopped. `What a lot of strange fungi there are here!’ he said, looking at the ground.
Mr Coombes looked down too. `I think they must be for some wise purpose,’ he said.
And that was the only thanks that the Purple Pileus ever got for waking up this absurd little man and changing his life forever.
Five years passed. Again it was a Sunday afternoon in October and again Mr Coombes was out walking by the canal. He was still the same man as before, and yet there was something different about him. He was thinner and he walked straighter, his overcoat was new as was his hat and gloves. He looked like a man who was happy with himself. Beside him, walked his brother Tom, just back from Australia.
`You have a very nice little business, Jim,’ said brother Tom. `In these hard days you have done well. And you are lucky to have a wife who is so happy to help you.’
`Between you and me,’ said Mr Coombes, `it wasn’t always like this. To begin with, she was not keen to help at all.’
Mr Coombes continued. `You would not think it, but at first she was very extravagant and always angry at me. I was a bit too loving, too gentle. She did what she wanted, always having her relations over and her girlfriends and their chaps. Comic songs on a Sunday, too. It was all getting too much and driving business away. I tell you Tom, the place wasn’t my own.’
`Dear, oh dear,’ said Tom, `I’m surprised.’
‘I tried to bargain with her. But she wouldn’t listen to me…She wouldn’t listen to my warnings.’
`So what happened?’ asked brother Tom.
The young man, Clarence, was a coward. He would not meet the fury in Mr Coombes’s eyes. Coombes rushed at him, fungi in hand. Jennie gave a shriek like a ghost and ran for the door, trying to escape. Mr Coombes followed her, but Clarence got in the way. With a crash, the tea table fell over as Coombes grabbed Clarence by the collar and tried to push the fungus into Clarence’s mouth. Clarence struggled free, happy to leave his collar in Mr Coombes’s hand as he escaped into the hall.
‘Run!’ Mrs Coombes cried. She wanted to shut the living room door, but her legs would not move. Jennie saw the shop door open at the back of the house. She ran in there and locked the door behind her. At the same time, Clarence ran into the kitchen, and Mrs Coombes ran upstairs and locked herself in the spare bedroom.
Standing in the hall, Mr Coombes hesitated. With a hat full of fungus under his arm, he considered where to go first. He decided on the kitchen. Clarence was still trying to lock the door. He heard Mr Coombes coming and ran for the back door. Mr Coombes caught Clarence before he could open the door to the yard. Mr Coombes told him that his face was a mess and dragged him to the kitchen sink and scrubbed his head under the tap with a hard black brush. After this, he gave Clarence his coat and Clarence was allowed to leave. Jennie was still locked in the shop, and she stayed there the rest of the evening.
Mr Coombes returned to the kitchen and drank the five bottles of beer that Mrs Coombes kept for ‘medical’ purposes. Then Mr Coombes ended that Sunday evening by having a long and peaceful sleep in the coal shed.
Something fell over in the shop; it sounded like a chair. Then there was the noise of steps, careful and deliberate, outside in the hall. A moment later, the living room door opened, and Mr Coombes appeared. But he looked different. His usually neat collar was undone, his velvet hat was upside down and was filled with strange fungi, and his coat was inside out and marked with grass. But it was his face that had changed the most. It was white as a sheet, his eyes were wild, and he was grinning from ear to ear.
‘A merry hello!’ Mr Coombes said, danced three steps into the room, and bowed.
‘Jim!’ cried Mrs Coombes, her mouth open wide in surprise.
`Tea!’ said Mr Coombes, `and toadstools too. A jolly thing!’
‘He’s drunk,’ said Jennie.
Mr Coombes held out a handful of the fungi to Mr Clarence, `Have some,’ he said. ‘It’s jolly good stuff,’ Mr Coombes said, sounding happy and relaxed. But a moment later, when he saw their shocked faces, his mood changed completely. `It is my house!’ he yelled furiously, ‘I am master here and you will eat what I give you!’
He stood in the middle of the room and stared at them. In his outstretched hand, the red and yellow fungi lay.
Mr Coombes laughed at the sudden happiness he felt. Was he dull? If so, he would not be dull any longer! Unsteadily, he stood up and looked at the world around him with a smile on his face. He began to remember. He had been disagreeable at home earlier because they wanted to be happy. But they were right and I was wrong; life should be as happy as possible. I’ll go home and be less grumpy, he thought. And I’ll take some of this fungus. In fact, I’ll fill my hat with it! So he did. And when his hat was full, he walked off, singing and looking forward to a happy evening…
The three of them – Mr Clarence, Mrs Coombes, and Jenny – were sitting around the fire, looking miserable.
‘You see what I have to put up with, Mr Clarence,’ said Mrs Coombes angrily.
‘He is a bit hasty,’ replied Mr Clarence.
‘All he cares about is his old shop. And if I buy myself something to make myself look nice or spend some of the housekeeping money or have a bit of company, there is an argument. He lies awake at night worrying about money and how to make me do without.’
‘If a man appreciates a woman,’ Mr Clarence said, ‘he must make sacrifices for her.’
‘I agree,’ said Jennie.
‘I should not have married him,’ said Mrs Coombes. A silence fell. Eventually Mrs Coombes got up and made some tea. When she came back, she heard a key turn in the door. Mr Coombes had returned.
‘Here is my Lord and master,’ said Mrs Coombes, sarcastically. ‘He went out like a lion but comes back like a lamb. Just you wait and see.’
The odour was strong – but not disgusting. He broke off a piece of the fungus. The smooth surface was creamy white. It changed like magic in about ten seconds to a yellowish–green colour. He broke off another two pieces and the same thing happened. They were wonderful things these fungi, thought Mr Coombes and all of them the deadliest of poisons. His father had told him this often. Deadly poison!
Why not try a little, here and now? thought Mr Coombes. He put a little piece, a very little piece – a crumb – in his mouth. It tasted so strong that he nearly spat it out. It tasted hot and full-flavoured, like hot mustard with a touch of horseradish and…mushroom. In the excitement of the moment, he swallowed it. Did he like it, or did he not? He tried another bit. It really wasn’t bad. In that moment, he forgot all his troubles. He was playing with death. He took another bite, deliberately taking a mouthful. A strange feeling, a tingling, started in his finger tips and his toes. His pulse began to beat faster. The blood in his ears pounded. He turned around and looked about himself. He struggled towards a little patch of purple fungi about twelve feet away. “Jolly good stuff,” he said out loud and fell on his face, his hands outstretched towards the fungi. But he did not eat any more of it. He just lay there, in the grass.
After a while, he sat up with a look of astonishment. He brushed off his silk hat. He put his hand to his forehead. Something had happened. He was no longer feeling dull – quite the opposite. Now, he was feeling bright and cheerful!
His money was all in his business. ‘If I leave my wife,’ he thought, ‘I will lose all my money. She can make me homeless!’ No. He could not afford a divorce. He thought about the marriage vows. He was married – ‘for better, or worse.’
But sometimes, tragic things happened. Sometimes, marriages ended very badly indeed. Bricklayers kicked their wives to death and small clerks and shopkeepers cut their wives’ throats….
Mr Coombes thought about such terrible things for a long time. He thought about razors and breadknives and pistols; he thought about going to jail and praying for forgiveness. But eventually he grew bored. His anger lessened, and he became sad. He looked down at himself, at his overcoat. When he married his wife, he had worn it. He looked at the path. In the early days of their marriage, they had walked along it, hand in hand. What had happened? Why had it all worked out so badly?
He looked at the canal’s water. Should he just stand in the middle of it with his arms out stretched and…?
While he was thinking of drowning himself, he saw the purple pileus for the first time. At first, he thought it was a leather purse. Then he saw it was a strange, poisonous-looking purple fungus. He touched it. It was slimy. It smelt bad too. He stared at the purple fungus as the thought of poisoning crossed his mind.
They all started to talk at once. The guest said he was going to marry Jenny and would protect her. Mr Coombes told him he could protect her anywhere, but not in his house. Mrs Coombes told him he should be ashamed for insulting her guests. She told him he really was an annoying little grub.
It all ended with Mr Coombes telling the guests to leave his house. But they wouldn’t go. In the end, Mr Coombes left. With his face burning red and tears in his eyes with anger, he went into the hall, put on his overcoat, and brushed his silk hat. Jenny began to play the piano again, over and over again: the same little, silly tune. Mr Coombes slammed the door shut and walked away, angry and frustrated.
He walked along the muddy path among the fir trees. It was October; the ground was soft with pine needles and lots of fungi were growing. Mr Coombes thought about his marriage and its history. He now saw that his wife had married him because she had had an uncertain, hard life and wanted a better one with him.
She was supposed to help him with his business, but she was too stupid. And they argued about money all the time. ‘You spend too much,’ he would say. She didn’t like to hear that. ‘Why can’t you be nice to me?’ she would ask. She also had a family that annoyed him. They caused trouble for his business and helped his wife to spend his money. It was not the first time he had run from his house in anger and frustration. But never before had he felt like this, so sick of life. So he walked along the path, his head down, breathing in the thick-smelling air. The evil-smelling fungi grew to his left and to his right.
A wife that did not really love him and a business that was in trouble. Perhaps that was his destiny, perhaps it was meant to be this way.
Jenny had kept on playing. His wife sat behind the piano and watched him. `What’s wrong now?’ she asked. `Can’t people enjoy themselves?’
`I don’t mind people enjoying themselves,’ said an angry Mr Coombes, `but I am not going to accept such noise on a Sunday!’
`What is wrong with my playing now?’ asked Jenny, stopping and twirling around on the music stool.
Mr Coombes couldn’t stop himself; he was angry and he opened his mouth without thinking. `Be careful with that music stool,’ he said. ‘It isn’t made for heavy-weights.’
`Never you mind about my weight,’ said Jenny angrily. ‘What did you say about my playing?’
`Surely you don’t mind a bit of music on a Sunday, Mr Coombes?’ asked Jenny’s male guest, leaning back in Mr Coombes’s armchair and smiling.
‘Never mind him,’ said Mrs Coombes, addressing Jenny but staring at her husband. ‘Just you keep on playing.’
`I do mind,’ said Mr Coombes to Jenny’s guest.
`May I ask why?’ asked the guest. He was enjoying himself and Mr Coombes saw that he wanted an argument. He was a thin young man, dressed in a bright clothes and a white cravat with a silver pin.
`Because,’ began Mr Coombes, `it doesn’t suit me. I am a businessman; I have to consider my connections.’
`His connections,’ said Mrs Coombes with scorn. `He is always saying that.’
`Then why did you marry me?’ Mr Coombes asked.
Jenny started to play the piano. The same little tune over and over again.
‘STOP IT,’ cried Mr Coombes and stood up.
`No violence now,’ said the guest.
Mr Coombes was sick of life. He walked out his front door and away from his unhappy home. He did not want to see anyone, so he took a quiet path. The path led to a canal and a wooden bridge. He crossed the wooden bridge. Soon, he was alone in damp, pine woods. He was out of sight and sound of all humans. He stopped and thought about his wife. That made him angry. ‘I won’t stand it any longer,’ he repeated over and over.
He was a pale-faced little man, with dark eyes and a very fine, black moustache. He wore a very stiff upright collar. It gave him a double chin. He wore an untidy, grey overcoat. His gloves were brown with stripes and split at the finger ends. His appearance, his wife once said – in the days before they were married – was military. But now she called him her `little grub`. And it wasn’t the only thing she called him!
The row between Mr Coombes and his wife happened about an hour ago. It was about that horrible Jenny, again! Jenny was his wife’s friend and every Sunday she came to dinner. Of course, Mr Coombes did not invite her. She was a big, noisy girl. She liked bright colours and had a very loud laugh. This time, Jenny went too far. She brought a male friend to dinner. He was as loud and showy as her. All through Sunday dinner, Mr Coombes sat quiet and angry at his own table. But his wife and her guests talked foolishly and laughed loudly all afternoon. Then Jenny got up and sat at his piano. His piano! She played loudly and sang even louder! They would hear next door; they would hear out in the street!
Had great fun writing this. Enjoyed doing the research and learning how to spell our main
‘How did you work it out Holmes?’ I asked.
‘I’ll explain my dear Watson,’ he said. `I have spent the whole day over at Lloyds – the registers of old papers and files. I followed the sailing history of every ship that sailed into Pondicherry in January and February in 1883. In total, 36 ships reported there during those months. Of those ships, one, the “Lone Star”, instantly caught my attention. It is the name given to one of the states in America.’
`Texas, I think,’ I said.
`I was not sure, but I knew the ship must have American origins.’
`What then?’ I asked.
`I searched the Dundee records. When I found that the “Lone Star” was there in January `83, my suspicion became a certainty. I then asked for a list of ships now presently docked at London.’
‘And the “Lone Star” arrived here last week. I went to the Albert docks and found that the ship had sailed on the morning tide. She is homebound for Savannah. I called Gravesend and found that she had sailed past a while ago and the wind was easterly. I have no doubt that she will be past The Isle Of Wight by now.’
`What will you do?’
`Oh I have my hand upon him! I know that he was not on the ship last night. The stevedore that loaded his cargo told me so. By the time his boat reaches Savannah the mail boat will have carried this letter. That and my call to the Savannah police telling them that this man is badly wanted over here on the charge of murder!’
But there is a twist of fate in all of this. The murderer of John Openshaw was never to receive the letter with the five orange pips sent by the cunning and resolute Sherlock Holmes. Very long and very severe were the winds and storms that year. We waited a long time for news from the “Lone Star” but none ever reached us. At last we heard that – somewhere far out in the Atlantic sea – a shattered stern post was found floating on top of a wave. The letters “L.S” was carved into the wood and that is all we will ever know of the fate of the “Lone Star”.
`That hurt my pride,’ said Holmes. `It is now a personal matter with me. John Openshaw came to me for help, and I sent him away… to his death.’ Holmes got up quickly from his chair and paced around the room angrily. The cheeks on his face were red and he opened and closed his long, thin hands nervously.
`They are cunning devils,’ he said at last. `How could they have killed him at the pier? The Embankment is not the direct railway line to the station and the bridge would be too crowded for them. Someone would have seen something. Well, Watson, we shall see who will win in the end. I am going out now!’
`To the police?’ I asked.
`No, I shall be my own police,’ he said and I wondered what he meant.
I was busy all day with professional work and it was late before I returned to Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes had not come back yet. It was nearly ten o’clock before he entered. He looked pale and tired. He walked up to the table and took a large piece of bread. He ate this quickly.
`You are hungry,’ I said.
`Starving,’ he replied. `I forgot to eat. I have had nothing since breakfast.’
`Not a bite.’
`And how did you get on?’
`You have an idea, a clue?’
`I have them in my hand,’ said Holmes. `It won’t be long before young Openshaw is avenged! Why Watson, let us put their own devil’s trademark on them.’
`What do you mean?’ I asked.
Holmes took an orange from the cupboard, tore it into pieces and squeezed the pips onto the table. From these he picked up five and put them in an envelope. On the envelope he wrote, “S.H. for J.O.” Then he addressed the envelope to “Captain James Calhoun, Barque Lone Star, Savannah, Georgia.“
“This will await him when he reaches port,’ Holmes chuckled.
`Who is this Captain Calhoun?’ I asked.
`The leader of the gang! I’ll have others but he first!’
In the morning, the weather was nice. The sun was shining and I saw Holmes at the breakfast table when I came down the stairs.
`I am sorry I did not wait for you,’ said Holmes. `But I have a very busy day. I want to start early on young Openshaw’s case. `
`What will you do first?’ I asked.
`I’m not sure. I may have to go to Horsham later.’
`You are not going there first?’
`No. I shall start in the City. Ring the bell and the maid will bring you coffee.’
I rang and waited for the maid. I lifted the unopened newspaper and started to read it. I saw something that made my heart stop. `Holmes!’ I cried. `You are too late.’
`Oh,’ Holmes said, putting down his cup. `I feared this. How was it done?’ He said this calmly, but his face told a different story.
The headline in the newspaper was: “Tragedy near Waterloo Bridge”. I read aloud the story below it.
‘Between the times of nine and ten last night, Police Constable Cook was on duty near Waterloo bridge. PC Cook heard a cry for help and then a splash in the water. It was very dark and stormy. Even with the help of some people it was impossible to start a rescue. The alarm was raised and with the help of the Water Police the body was recovered. An envelope was found in the young man’s pocket. It had a name on it – John Openshaw, from Horsham. It is believed he was hurrying to catch the last train from Waterloo station. It was a dark night, and, because he was hurrying, he walked over the edge of the pier and fell into the water. There was no sign of violence. It appears to have been an unfortunate accident…’
We sat in silence for some time. Holmes was upset. The most upset I have ever seen.
‘The Klu Klux Klan,’ said Holmes, `is a secret society. It was started by some ex-Confederate soldiers in the Southern States of America just after the Civil War there. Many joined it from the states of Tennessee, Louisiana, the Carolina’s, Georgia, and Florida. It was used to frighten and terrorise people. People were often murdered or made to leave the country in fear. The man who was threatened would be sent a warning. An oak leaf in some parts of the country, melon seeds in others, or…’ Holmes paused for a second, ‘orange pips!’
‘And if someone stood against them and did not run?’ I asked.
`If they did not leave the country, they were murdered.’ Holmes said gravely. `For years, the Klu Klux Klan grew in numbers. But in 1869, it suddenly collapsed.’ Holmes sat back in his chair.
`So you can see,’ said Holmes, dropping his voice to a quieter tone, `that the sudden breaking up of the Klan happened at the same time as the disappearance of Openshaw from America with their papers. And I believe that these papers had names written on them. Names of men who were involved with the K.K.K! And these men do not want their names to be known.’
`And the paper that we saw…’ I did not finish my sentence.
`Is a record of people who were chased from the country or dealt with in a deadly manner. But there is nothing more we can do tonight…’ Holmes said and reached down and picked up his violin at the side of his chair. ‘So for half an hour, let us not think about the terrible weather or the terrible behaviour of our fellow men.’
‘We already have a strong clue,’ said Holmes. `I think that the writer was on board a ship.’ Holmes held up a finger in the air. `Now think about this. Seven weeks after the letter from Pondicherry arrived, his uncle was killed. After the letter from Dundee, it was only three or four days and then his father was killed. What does that tell you?’
‘A greater distance to travel,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Holmes. ‘I think the seven weeks after the letter arrived tells us this: the men sent the letter by mail boat but followed in a sailing ship, which is slower. From Dundee, a shorter time was taken. Now this letter has been sent from London, which means there is no time. The men always strike after the time it takes to travel each distance.’
`Goodness me, what does it mean? This relentless pursuit of this family?’ I asked.
`The papers that Openshaw has are of great importance to the person or persons on the sailing ship. I think there are two or more persons involved. One man could not have carried out two murders and fooled everyone. There must be determined men involved. And I think the initials K.K.K are no longer the initials of a man, but of a society.’
`But what society?’ I asked.
`Have you ever heard of the Ku Klux Klan?’ Holmes asked me.
`Indeed, I have not,’ I replied.
‘I shall call you in a day or two,’ said Openshaw, `with news of the brass box and papers. I shall do exactly as you told me.’ John Openshaw shook hands with Holmes and myself and then left. Outside, the wind still screamed and the rain still struck against the window. This strange, wild story seemed to have come to us in the storm, blown in like leaves in the wind.
Sherlock Holmes sat in silence for a long time and stared into the red glow of the fire. Then he sat back in his chair, lit his pipe, and blew smoke rings into the air.
`I think, Watson,’ he said after a while, `this is a strange case indeed; possibly the strangest we have ever heard. This John Openshaw is walking in great danger.’
`Who is this K.K.K and why do they go after this unhappy family?’
Sherlock Holmes closed his eyes, placed his elbows on the arms of the chair, and put his fingertips together. `We need to gather all our resources. Kindly give me the letter `K` of the American Encyclopaedia from the shelf behind you. Thank you. Now let us think of the situation and what we can deduce from it. First, we can assume that Colonel Openshaw had a very strong reason for leaving America. Men do not just leave a warm climate like Florida for a lonely life in an English town. His desire to be alone suggests that he was in fear of someone or something and it was this that made him leave America. What was he scared of? We can only deduce that by thinking about the letters that were sent. Do you remember the postmarks?’
`The first was from Pondicherry, the second from Dundee, and the third from London,’ I said.
`From East London,’ said Holmes. `What do you think about that?’
`They are all seaports,’ I said. ‘Perhaps the writer was on a ship!’
`Excellent,’ said Holmes. `We already have a strong clue!’
Holmes moved the lamp and we both looked at the sheet of paper. It was torn from a book. The date on it was March 1869. Beneath the date, were these words…
‘4th Hudson came.’
‘7th Set pips on McAuley, Paramore and John Swain of St Augustine.’
‘9th McAuley cleared.’
‘10th John Swain cleared.’
‘2th visited Paramore. All well.’
`Thank you,’ said Holmes folding up the paper and giving it back to Openshaw. `And now you must not waste any more time. You must go home instantly and act.’
`What shall I do?’ John Openshaw asked.
`There is one thing to do,’ said Holmes. `You must put this piece of paper in the brass box you told us about. You must also put in a note. It must say that all the other papers were burned by your uncle and this is all that is left. When you have done this you must put the box on the sundial. Do you understand?’
`I understand,’ replied Openshaw.
`Do not think of revenge or anything like it. We must stay within the law of the land. We can make plans. But! First we must remove the danger that you are in. Then we can clear up the mystery and punish the guilty.’
`I thank you,’ said Openshaw. He got up and put on his coat. `You have given me new hope. I shall do as you say.’
`Do not waste time,’ warned Holmes. `And, above all, take care of yourself. Without a doubt, you are in real danger. How do you get back?’
`By train from Waterloo.’
`It is not yet nine and it will be crowded. You will be safe, ` said Holmes.
`I have a weapon.’
`Good,’ Holmes told him. `Tomorrow I will start on your case.’
`I will see you in Horsham?’ Openshaw asked.
`No,’ replied Holmes. ‘Your secret lies in London. It is here that I shall look for it.’