Read Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly Online
Authors: Donald Thomas
AND OTHER NEW ADVENTURES
OF THE GREAT DETECTIVE
For Gwendoline Monica Serrell
13 Februaryâ19 April 1911
“White flowers their mourners are, Nature their passing bell.”
Graves of Infants
The Case of a
hose of my readers who have followed Holmes and me through our investigations of “The Case of the Greek Key” and “The Case of the Zimmermann Telegram” will know of our friendship with Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher. At a glance, he and Holmes were quite unlike. Holmes was a private man with a fame he would gladly have avoided. Fisher was a public figure. He was in the limelight as the creator of a modern Royal Navy in the years preceding the war of 1914â1918. Before that, he had supported the building of HMS
and her sister battleships when Germany had not laid a single keel of such a titan. His foresight ensured Britain's supremacy at sea during the dangerous decade to come.
Not everyone admired Sir John Fisher. A man cannot uproot and reform the Committee for Imperial Defence without making enemies. Government officials do not like abrupt demands for “a modern navy in a modern world.” Few are comfortable with a naval policy of “Hit first, hit hard, and keep on hitting.” To Mr Asquith's cabinet this was very close to Fisher's advice to King Edward, that the Royal Navy should sink the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet at its moorings in Kiel Harbour without a declaration of warâand offer generous terms among the ruins.
Holmes and Fisher certainly shared the character of a troublemaker. Each was unconventional and unpredictable. Fisher vexed and irritated the politicians and Admiralty officials as surely as Holmes got under the skin of Scotland Yard. The two men recognised this quality in one another and built a comradeship upon it.
On a May morning in 1913 my friend opened an envelope at breakfast and informed me that his elder brother Mycroft was bringing Jackie Fisher to tea that afternoon at three o'clock.
“I daresay, Watson, it is a friendly call at short notice. It is not necessary that you should stay in if you have already made other arrangements. Needless to say, you would confer a favour upon me by being here.”
When Fisher and Mycroft Holmes came to Baker Street together at short notice, you could be sure that it was something more than a friendly call.
“I should not miss it for the world,” I said cheerfully.
He seemed relieved.
“There must be buttered muffins,” he said presently, dangling a pipe spill absent-mindedly, “I shall go and inform Mrs Hudson. Brother Mycroft is partial to muffins, especially when served with strawberry jam.”
As he went out, I returned to the county cricket in
. The May weather in England had been atrocious. On several days the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten on our windows from breakfast until supper. “Rain stopped play” appeared against almost two-thirds of the batting scores. I had no idea as I scanned the list of abandoned matches how important this recent weather would be to us during the next few days. Happily, since the previous evening, an improvement had set in. A strong morning sun now warmed the pedestrians and shopkeepers in the street below us. Surely we might hope for something better at last.
A few minutes after three o'clock that afternoon the hollow hoof-beats of a carriage, from the direction of the Regent's Park, slowed and stopped.
“Every eighth hoof-beat cries for a new shoe,” said Holmes, sitting with his eyelids closed and the tips of his fingers touching lightly together. “Therefore it is a carriage and pair. Mycroft does not care to be seen driving in a single-horse cab. No other visitor to these premises would go to the expense of a pair. I deduce that our guests have arrived.”
I got up, pulled aside the lace curtain and glanced down into the street. The black polish of the coachwork was immaculate. The two greys had been brushed and combed as if for the Trooping of the Colour on Horseguards Parade. Presently there was a pull at the bell and then laughter on the stairs as Fisher exchanged some pleasantry or other with Mrs Hudson.
Sir John had come to tea in mufti, a black swallow-tail coat, cravat and striped trousers. The humorous line of the mouth in that sallow complexion, plus a quiet resolve behind pale grey eyes, summed up his character. In his left hand he was carrying a slim black attachÃ© case. It was hardly the mark of a man who has just dropped in for a cup of tea. Behind him, Mycroft Holmes seemed like a shambling bear in a grey flannel suit. Yet, as Sherlock Holmes never tired of assuring me, Brother Mycroft was not only the British government's Senior Advisor on Inter-Departmental Affairsâat certain times of crisis he became the British government.
We took four armchairs within range of the fireplace, where the kettle sang on the hob. Mycroft and Sir John were on one side, Sherlock Holmes and I on the other. Between us stretched a low tea-table laid with a white cloth of Irish lace. The polished dome of a muffin-dish reposed among Georgian silverware and Minton china. Of course, we served ourselves. No parlour-maid was permitted to enter on these occasions and, perhaps, overhear part of our conversation. While we looked on, Sherlock Holmes performed the ritual of pouring hot water from the fireside kettle into the tea-pot, his brows drawn down, intent upon this task as though it were an intricate forensic experiment. His voice remained at our disposal as the cups were filled.
“You have no doubt come to tell us, Sir John, that Admiral von Tirpitz's intelligence officers have broken the Admiralty war-code again. Or perhaps that the plans of the battle-cruiser
with full details of her armour plating and gunnery ranges are missing from Woolwich Arsenal. At this very moment, I daresay they are being scrutinised by Tirpitz and his staff officers on the map-tables of the Wilhelmstrasse.”
Fisher smiled rather faintly, accepted his cup of tea and pulled a face.
“What I have to tell you, Mr Holmes, will sound far more trivial. To me, however, it is more important than codes and gunnery ranges. We may lose a telegraphic code and replace it soon enough. We may lose a battle-cruiser and yet win a war without her. We would still have the most powerful navy in the worldâand the capacity of defending ourselvesâso long as we produce officers and seamen of the calibre and the morale to man the fleet.”
Holmes straightened up, looking puzzled, and handed a cup to Mycroft.
“I fear you have the advantage of me, Sir John. Surely we already have such men.”
Mycroft took his cup and said, “Sir John's concern, dear brother, is with future officers who must be trained to lead by example.”
“Well,” said Sherlock Holmes wonderingly, “I should have thought that I was the last person to come to for advice on naval training!”
He swept his coat-tails round him and sat down. Sir John Fisher gave a sigh.
“Then you have not heard of Patrick Riley, have you, Mr Holmes?”
“I do not think so.”
“I suppose that is something to be thankful for. Just at present, the fewer people who know of him the better! The press are lying quiet at the moment, but that will not last. Riley is a cadet, fourteen years old, at St Vincent's Naval Academy, not far from Ventnor on the Isle of Wight.”
“Then I have certainly not heard of him. Why should this youth be of such importance?”
Fisher put down his cup and saucer.
“St Vincent's is a private academy, but it is licensed by the Admiralty and therefore of consequence to us. Until a few years ago, in the Royal Navy, we used to take cadets for our own naval colleges at twelve years old. That was eventually thought to be too young. The minimum age was raised to fourteen. Unfortunately, this opened the way for private academies like St Vincent's to take younger boys as cadets, during those previous two years. Frankly, these private institutions are a thorn in my side and I would happily make a bonfire of them all. However, they exist, and their sole purpose is to prepare younger boys for entrance to the senior Royal Naval Academies of Osborne and Dartmouth, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen.”
“I confess,” said Holmes, “that such places are a closed book to me. Tell me, how are these younger boys trained? Could they not go to school in the normal way before entering Osborne or Dartmouth?”
“Of course they could, but their parents do not think so. They want them trained as miniature Royal Navy lieutenants. Far the greater number, even at twelve years old, are classed as Executive Officers or âDeck Officers' of the future. Heroes of Captain Marryat's adventure stories, famous names of the fleet who steer the ships to battle and fire the guns. A preparation for a career of death or glory.”
“And what of the smaller number?”
“Precisely,” said Fisher with emphasis. “In the past ten years, that smaller number has been educated rather reluctantly by these same schools as Engineer Cadets. They are less glamorous. They do a good deal of algebra, trigonometry and physics. They come from less wealthy homesâoften by virtue of scholarships. I have beaten my brains out to make some of my colleagues accept that the romantic days of masts and sails have gone for ever. Turbine, coal and oil are here to stay. Without the best engine-room officers, the Royal Navy may as well spend the next war at anchor in Scapa Flow. You understand me?”
“Entirely,” said Holmes placidly, “You are, as always, correct. What has this to do with Patrick Riley? Is he an Engineer? And what is St Vincent's? Who, for example, is its guiding light?”
Sir John raised a forefinger.
“One moment. St Vincent's and its competitors claim to give pupils a head start when they take examinations for cadetships at the senior institutions. At that point their pupils enter the Royal Navy proper as midshipman cadets and pass out as lieutenants at eighteen. The junior schools give them a taste of it. They employ retired petty officers to impart lessons in drill and to keep a form of naval discipline. Such schools are always on the coast so that seamanship may be taught through sailing and rowingââpulling,' as we call it. For the greater part, though, the teachers are what you would find at a fee-paying school for boys of that age.”
“And the guiding light, if I may inquire again?”
“The headmaster? No one of importance, except in the scandal that is now brewing. Reginald Winter is a Master of Arts from Oxford. He has always been a schoolmaster, rather advanced in years by now. He has never served in the navy and nor have most of his colleagues. Previously he was assistant master at St Anselm's College, Canterbury. I am assured that his heart is in the right place. In other words, he talks like a man who has been present at every naval engagement since Trafalgar. But, as the song says, when the breezes blow he generally goes below. A martyr to acute seasickness.”
“So, I believe, was Lord Nelson.”
“Nelson got somewhat further than the Isle of Wight!”