Readers unfamiliar with Rodney Stone may prefer to read these notes only after reading the novel.
Rodney Stone (1896) is the first Conan Doyle novel I have read that is not about one of his series characters. Conan Doyle's short fiction and mystery novels have been my fellow travelers since I was thirteen.
As of today I reached chapter four. Like Dickens, Conan Doyle is busy planting seeds amidst half-understood events that mystify his teenage protagonist Roddy Stone of "Friar's Oak, a little Sussex village to the north of Brighton...."
But in chapter two, perhaps just to give the reader a breather, Conan Doyle gives us a night action: Roddy and his friend Boy Jim from the smithy investigate Cliffe Royal house:
"Roddy," said he, "have you heard that Cliffe Royal is haunted?"
Had I heard it? Of course I had heard it. Who was there in all the Down country who had not heard of the Walker of Cliffe Royal?
"Do you know the story of it, Roddy?"
"Why," said I, with some pride, "I ought to know it, seeing that my mother's brother, Sir Charles Tregellis, was the nearest friend of Lord Avon, and was at this card-party when the thing happened. I heard the vicar and my mother talking about it last week, and it was all so clear to me that I might have been there when the murder was done."
"It is a strange story," said Jim, thoughtfully; "but when I asked my aunt about it, she would give me no answer; and as to my uncle, he cut me short at the very mention of it."
"There is a good reason for that," said I, "for Lord Avon was, as I have heard, your uncle's best friend; and it is but natural that he would not wish to speak of his disgrace."
"Tell me the story, Roddy."
"It is an old one now—fourteen years old—and yet they have not got to the end of it. There were four of them who had come down from London to spend a few days in Lord Avon's old house. One was his own young brother, Captain Barrington; another was his cousin, Sir Lothian Hume; Sir Charles Tregellis, my uncle, was the third; and Lord Avon the fourth. They are fond of playing cards for money, these great people, and they played and played for two days and a night. Lord Avon lost, and Sir Lothian lost, and my uncle lost, and Captain Barrington won until he could win no more. He won their money, but above all he won papers from his elder brother which meant a great deal to him. It was late on a Monday night that they stopped playing. On the Tuesday morning Captain Barrington was found dead beside his bed with his throat cut.
"And Lord Avon did it?"
"His papers were found burned in the grate, his wristband was clutched in the dead man's hand, and his knife lay beside the body."
"Did they hang him, then?"
"They were too slow in laying hands upon him. He waited until he saw that they had brought it home to him, and then he fled. He has never been seen since, but it is said that he reached America."
"And the ghost walks?"
"There are many who have seen it."
"Why is the house still empty?"
"Because it is in the keeping of the law. Lord Avon had no children, and Sir Lothian Hume—the same who was at the card-party—is his nephew and heir. But he can touch nothing until he can prove Lord Avon to be dead."
Jim lay silent for a bit, plucking at the short grass with his fingers.
"Roddy," said he at last, "will you come with me to-night and look for the ghost?"
It turned me cold, the very thought of it.
"My mother would not let me."
"Slip out when she's abed. I'll wait for you at the smithy."
"Cliffe Royal is locked."
"I'll open a window easy enough."
"I'm afraid, Jim."
"But you are not afraid if you are with me, Roddy. I'll promise you that no ghost shall hurt you."
So I gave him my word that I would come, and then all the rest of the day I went about the most sad-faced lad in Sussex. It was all very well for Boy Jim! It was that pride of his which was taking him there. He would go because there was no one else on the country side that would dare. But I had no pride of that sort. I was quite of the same way of thinking as the others, and would as soon have thought of passing my night at Jacob's gibbet on Ditchling Common as in the haunted house of Cliffe Royal. Still, I could not bring myself to desert Jim; and so, as I say, I slunk about the house with so pale and peaky a face that my dear mother would have it that I had been at the green apples, and sent me to bed early with a dish of camomile tea for my supper.
England went to rest betimes in those days, for there were few who could afford the price of candles. When I looked out of my window just after the clock had gone ten, there was not a light in the village save only at the inn. It was but a few feet from the ground, so I slipped out, and there was Jim waiting for me at the smithy corner. We crossed John's Common together, and so past Ridden's Farm, meeting only one or two riding officers upon the way. There was a brisk wind blowing, and the moon kept peeping through the rifts of the scud, so that our road was sometimes silver-clear, and sometimes so black that we found ourselves among the brambles and gorse-bushes which lined it. We came at last to the wooden gate with the high stone pillars by the roadside, and, looking through between the rails, we saw the long avenue of oaks, and at the end of this ill-boding tunnel, the pale face of the house glimmered in the moonshine.
That would have been enough for me, that one glimpse of it, and the sound of the night wind sighing and groaning among the branches. But Jim swung the gate open, and up we went, the gravel squeaking beneath our tread. It towered high, the old house, with many little windows in which the moon glinted, and with a strip of water running round three sides of it. The arched door stood right in the face of us, and on one side a lattice hung open upon its hinges.
"We're in luck, Roddy," whispered Jim. "Here's one of the windows open."
"Don't you think we've gone far enough, Jim?" said I, with my teeth chattering.
"I'll lift you in first."
"No, no, I'll not go first."
"Then I will. "He gripped the sill, and had his knee on it in an instant. "Now, Roddy, give me your hands. "With a pull he had me up beside him, and a moment later we were both in the haunted house.
How hollow it sounded when we jumped down on to the wooden floor! There was such a sudden boom and reverberation that we both stood silent for a moment. Then Jim burst out laughing.
"What an old drum of a place it is!" he cried; "we'll strike a light, Roddy, and see where we are."
He had brought a candle and a tinder-box in his pocket. When the flame burned up, we saw an arched stone roof above our heads, and broad deal shelves all round us covered with dusty dishes. It was the pantry.
"I'll show you round," said Jim, merrily; and, pushing the door open, he led the way into the hall. I remember the high, oak-panelled walls, with the heads of deer jutting out, and a single white bust, which sent my heart into my mouth, in the corner. Many rooms opened out of this, and we wandered from one to the other—the kitchens, the still-room, the morning-room, the dining-room, all filled with the same choking smell of dust and of mildew.
"This is where they played the cards, Jim," said I, in a hushed voice. "It was on that very table."
"Why, here are the cards themselves!" cried he; and he pulled a brown towel from something in the centre of the sideboard. Sure enough it was a pile of playing-cards—forty packs, I should think, at the least —which had lain there ever since that tragic game which was played before I was born.
"I wonder whence that stair leads?" said Jim.
"Don't go up there, Jim!" I cried, clutching at his arm. "That must lead to the room of the murder."
"How do you know that?"
"The vicar said that they saw on the ceiling—Oh, Jim, you can see it even now!"
He held up his candle, and there was a great, dark smudge upon the white plaster above us.
"I believe you're right," said he; "but anyhow I'm going to have a look at it."
"Don't, Jim, don't!" I cried.
"Tut, Roddy! you can stay here if you are afraid. I won't be more than a minute. There's no use going on a ghost hunt unless—Great Lord, there's something coming down the stairs!"
* * *
After completing Rodney Stone, I posted this Amazon review:
Conan Doyle's 1896 novel is a coming-of-age, hidden crime, bare knuckle boxing, Regency society, pre-Trafalgar epic of fops and bruisers and old salts.
More than anything, it is Conan Doyle's peroration on the varieties of English manliness, and a compelling social x-ray of men thrilled by the manliness of other men, notwithstanding class distinctions.
Rodney Stone owes some of its enthusiasm to several preceding generations of English novelists going back to Scott. Doyle is consciously standing on the shoulders of giants: he is having a fine time with the world-building required of his subject, and does not stint.
1 December 2022