“It is so good to see you again, Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson,” said Reverend Venables. “Isn’t it, Gotobed?”
“It certainly is,” said the sexton, but I noted that his smile did not reach his eyes.
“I am sorry it has been so long,” said Holmes. “This is the first time our work has brought us near the village of Fenchurch Saint Paul on Januarius Day. It has been, dear me, eight long years since the horrible affair of Thorley was cleared up, but when I heard that the day had been turned into a local celebration, well, I convinced my colleague here,” he clapped a hand on my shoulder, “that we must stop and see how you were getting on.”
Of course, in reality, the roles were reversed, and I was the one doing the convincing, and Holmes demurring the very idea of breaking our return journey in so remote a setting, but the good reverend needn’t know that.
“And I’m so glad you did,” said Reverend Venables. “Sometimes I fear it’s a bit macabre, celebrating the day in which a tragedy was discovered, but then again Saint Januarius predates our little drama, and so much good comes of it. People gather from far and wide, villagers sell their wares, and, would you believe it, I collect more for the church restoration fund than I ever do at Easter or Christmas!”
“They come to hear the ghost bell,” said Henry Gotobed stiffly.
The rector sighed. “True.” Then he turned to Holmes. “I suppose you’ve heard about our little phenomenon.”
“We shared our dog cart with one of your flock, and she told us all about it,” I said. “Does it really ring differently on this day as compared to other days?”
“It does,” conceded the rector. He raised both hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I have no explanation for it. We have had three sets of experts conduct evaluations of the bell itself, and no one can find a reason for the unusual peal on this day.”
“You are welcome, of course, to add your name to the list of our investigators.”
I watched the war of emotions on Holmes’s face.
“Very well,” he said at last. “But I warn you that I am staunchly of the opinion that the world is enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
“You and I are of one mind, Mister Holmes,” said the rector cheerfully. Then he added, again with a certain resigned helplessness, “Nevertheless… “
Holmes and I attended the church fair, bought a token of esteem for our landlady, then had a hearty supper at the local public house. This last establishment was packed to bursting with ghost seekers like ourselves. Indeed, there were no rooms at the inn, and Holmes and I were obliged to take the rector up on his offer of accommodation at his own residence if we wanted to avoid sleeping in someone’s manger.
As Holmes and I finished our meal and enjoyed a frothy pint, we chatted about the first time we’d visited the village of Fenchurch Saint Paul.
The whole business had begun with Lestrade and his lost gibbet.
A gibbet, for the unfamiliar, was a wooden structure from which the body of an executed person was hung for public view after the execution. They were no longer used, but the instruments themselves were still around, in some cases, rusting and decaying in forgotten corners of the empire.
In his spare time, Inspector Lestrade ran an informal museum where he showcased objects involved in famous criminal cases. Among the museum’s inventory was the gibbet that was used to display the body of the Rye Cannibal, Ezra Wilderspin, after his execution. One fine November morning, Inspector Lestrade had arrived at 221B Baker Street announcing that the gibbet had been stolen from his collection.
Holmes tracked the gibbet to this village of Fenchurch Saint Paul when it was discovered to have been filled with the body of a singer and shoved inside the bell so that when the bell rang at midnight, it was said to make a horrible, gurgling peal.
The day of the toll happened to be the feast day of Saint Januarius.
Holmes had been instrumental in bringing the killer Samuel Thorley, an itinerant gardener found doing odd jobs in the area, to justice, and Lestrade had recovered a relic that now had two gruesome deaths attached to it.
If our dog cart companion were to be believed, every Januarius Day at midnight the bell of the churc of Fenchurch Saint Paul pealed as it had when the clapper had been swaddled with a corpse in its macabre scaffold. The bell was said to be haunted by the ghost of the poor murdered singer.
Some villagers believed that her spirit clung to the clapper, lamenting her violent end and protesting a life cut far too short.
I was surprised that Holmes did not want to visit the bell before midnight, but he seemed to be of the opinion that since that had been the strategy of the previous experts, it would not provide anything useful and that he should wait until after midnight to ascend and make his examination.
“After all, if it peals as normal, then we will have nothing to do,” he offered.
It did not peal as any normal church bell might. It gurgled horribly, and those of us gathered outside the church were much amazed for we had heard it earlier in the day pealing loud and clear.
After a few minutes, the murmuring crowd began to disperse, many heading for the makeshift stalls selling mulled wine and winter cakes and other local delicacies.
Holmes and I followed the rector and the sexton around the side of the church.
To be more precise, I attempted to follow them, but as I turned the corner, I felt a blow to the back of the head and my body being seized and hurled downwards.
All was blackness.
Then there was another horrible ghost toll.
And then a light.
It was impossible to tell just how much time elapsed between the events.
“Mister Gotobed.” Holmes’s voice was as menacing as I’d ever heard. “If any lasting harm has come to my companion, you will suffer more than the indignity of having your scheme exposed.”
“Please, Mister Holmes, I just wanted you distracted.”
The lantern’s glow became stronger, and I realised I was in a crypt. Believe me or believe me not, it was not the first time I have awakened in a crypt, so I was less alarmed than some might have been.
“You wanted me distracted so that I would not notice how you conceal the rope ladder you use to mount and descend from the belfry, the ladder which was hung cleverly along the lone blind spot of the edifice. I must also commend you on the ingenious contraption you use to fabricate the noise of the ghost bell. I think you’ll find my own attempt matched your own in every particular.”
Gotobed looked miserable.
“I’m all right, Holmes.”
“You’ll forgive me for delaying your rescue to prove a point.”
“As I always do. Our ghost toller?”
“Indeed, ‘tis he,” said Holmes. “But no one else but us knows the truth, and I am not inclined to say anything, even to the rector, as long as Mister Gotobed never again adds assault to his crimes.”
“I did it the first anniversary as a lark, but then the second year, well, it got attention, didn’t it? People coming to our little village, making things better for us, well, I just wanted it to keep going. The rector, he ain’t so young, and he ought to live his years as soft as he can. I just did it for Fenchurch.”
Despite the lump on the back of my head, I felt pity for the man.
We left the rector sleeping soundly in his bed the following morning. We left before dawn, departing on what amounted to the milk train.
The sexton was there to see us off.
“Thank you, Mister Holmes. I know you and the Doctor are men of your word.”
“Your secret is safe with us, Mister Gotobed, but I would advise caution.”
Just then, just as the first puffs of the arriving train could be viewed against the dark firmament, we heard it.
The ghost toll.
It was fainter, owing to the distance, but unmistakable.
I gripped Holmes’s arm, and he covered my gloved hand with his own and squeezed.
Harry Gotobed went white as a sheet. “What, what, what is that?” He stared in the direction of the church. “How can that be?”
“Maybe someone else has discovered you secret,” Holmes suggested.
“Or maybe, just maybe…”
I let my thought hang unspoken in the cold morning air.
“Regardless,” said Holmes, taking a deep breath and eyeing the train with no little approbation.
“Watson and I are returning to London. That bell, that bell tolls for thee.”