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Authors: Donald Thomas

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BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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Holmes inclined his head in acknowledgement and then glanced at his brother.

“Very well, Sir John, I understand your concern and the reason for your visit. I am not at all clear how it involves Mycroft or what his interest may be.”

Mycroft Holmes turned his large head slowly upon his sibling, the firm heavy features and the deep-set grey eyes rather suggesting a battleship's gun-platform bringing a target into its trajectory.

“It is not I, Brother Sherlock, who hold an interest. What is it to me? It is the Prime Minister who is concerned.”

“About Patrick Riley? Quite absurd.”

“Not Patrick Riley! Mr Asquith sees clearly that it was a grave error for the Admiralty ever to become associated with a cramming-factory like St Vincent's. Such institutions carry the reputation of the Royal Navy, yet they are ill-regulated and a likely cause of scandal and demoralisation. Will that do for you?”

“Amply,” said Sherlock Holmes with an ill-judged insouciance. “What would the good Mr Asquith have me do?”

I knew privately that Holmes abominated the current Prime Minister, and his tone was, to say the least, ill-judged. Mycroft looked at him coldly and said, “To carry out an inquiry of your own. What else?”

“And where shall I find Master Patrick Riley in this mare's nest?”

Sir John Fisher dropped his voice, as if he still feared an ear at the keyhole.

“Riley has been at St Vincent's for almost two years as an Engineer Cadet. At first he seemed exceptionally gifted in that direction, but I cannot think he has been happy there. Ten days ago there was a most distasteful incident. It is charged that this boy stole a postal order from the locker of a fellow pupil in the so-called reading room on Saturday week. Cadet John Learmount Porson was the other boy. He was also an Engineering Cadet in the same class as Riley.”

“A friend?” Holmes asked.

“Riley says so. Porson had received the postal order for ten shillings and sixpence from his parents by first post on the Wednesday, I believe. He had mentioned this to others in his mess because he was going to use the money to buy a model engine. The order was clearly visible upon his desk that evening, while he wrote a letter to his parents thanking them for it. They have old-fashioned double desks and Riley shared with Porson.”

“Was the order cashed?”

“It was, but not at the school, of course. With permission, the boys are allowed into the village of Bradstone St Lawrence on Saturday afternoons, usually to visit the post office or the local shop. My information is that it is alleged Riley stole the postal order from the unlocked locker and forged Porson's signature to it. He is further alleged to have cashed the order at the village post office for a ten-shilling note and a sixpence piece at about two-thirty. Porson had intended to cash it himself later that day. At four o'clock he discovered it was missing.”

Holmes relaxed, almost as if he found such a commonplace crime soothing. He looked Fisher in the eye.

“Since you have bothered to tell me about this, I assume that Riley denies the theft?”

“At first. Now he refuses to discuss it. He had a permit but claims he was in school bounds until three o'clock. I fear there is more to come.”

“His silence is taken as an admission of guilt?”

Fisher lifted a hand.

“One moment. What has followed is far more important than any stolen postal order, but let us deal with that first. The headmaster confronted him with the accusation. Riley denied it. The matter then rested with Reginald Winter as head. He quite properly began by dealing with it himself. The only witness of importance was the assistant postmistress, Miss Henslowe, who cashed the order at the village post office.”

“She identified Riley?”

“Not quite. On Saturday evening Mr Winter sent Petty Officer Carter down to question her. She first told him that all the cadets in their uniforms looked the same to her but that she had certainly cashed the order at about half-past two. She had given the boy who presented it a ten-shilling note and a sixpenny coin. He had counter-signed the receipt on the order while in the post office. She was standing at the counter but was busy with telegrams to be sent out and did not pay particular attention to him. The telegraph boy was also present but he was in the back office and apparently saw nothing.”

“Did she offer no identification of the suspect?”

“Not much. She persisted in saying that the cadets in their uniforms looked much the same to everyone in the village. They are all roughly the same age, much the same size and in the same uniform. However, she recalled that this boy had a blue-grey braid or edging to the lapels and hem of his navy blue jacket. She did not know the significance of this. In fact it meant that he was one of the Engineer Cadets, who make up about thirty-five of the two hundred boys at St Vincent's.”

“We may take it that the jacket was his own?”

“Who knows? In any case that was not quite the end of the matter. Miss Henslowe also recalled that this boy wore glasses, at least when signing the counterfoil for payment of the order.”

“And that was all?”

“She agreed to visit the school with Petty Officer Carter and attend what I suppose must be called an identification parade. There are about eight Engineer Cadets and forty or more Executive Cadets, future Deck Officers, in the same term as Riley. For many classes, they are together. Otherwise, Riley and his group join the other engineering terms for instruction in the workshops or for lessons in algebra and trigonometry.”

“And the result of the parade?”

“One moment,” said Fisher fastidiously. “While the parade was being arranged, Reginald Winter questioned Patrick Riley, in the presence of the Cadet Gunner, as that petty officer is known. When Riley continued to deny that he had been to the post office on Saturday, Mr Winter gave him pen and paper and told him to write Porson's name. Riley wrote it as Porson usually signed it, ‘J. L. Porson.' He was then told to write the name in full, as it had been written on the postal order. He wrote ‘John L. Porson.' The headmaster remarked that this looked similar to Porson's own signature. Riley was told to go and sit across the corridor in what is known as the Parents' Waiting Room.”

Holmes stared into the fireplace and said quietly, “It seems a capital error to leave a fourteen-year-old boy alone against the forensic powers of the adult world.”

Fisher put his tea-cup down.

“Perhaps. Riley was then summoned back. He was again given pen and paper and told to write half-a-dozen times, ‘Parson Jones adored the unselfishness of his son Luke.'”

“In which sentence,” said Holmes delightedly, “there lie concealed all the letter combinations of ‘John L. Porson.' Mr Winter's knowledge of calligraphy and interrogation is not the most subtle but I daresay effective in its way. Clever enough to outwit a confused and anxious fourteen-year-old.”

“More effective and more clever than you may suppose, Mr Holmes. The calligraphy, as you call it, was at once passed by the Admiralty to Mr Thomas Gurrin at the Home Office. Within two days, he gave his opinion that the signature upon the postal order and the specimen writing done in the headmaster's study were by the same hand. That is to say, two different scripts by one hand. Mr Gurrin is an expert.”

“Whose evidence ensured that Adolf Beck went to penal servitude for seven years in 1896 for a crime we now know he could not have committed.”

Mycroft Holmes had been uncharacteristically silent during all this. He reached for another muffin and said, “Unfortunately, dear brother, the fact that Tom Gurrin was wrong in that case alone does not mean that he cannot be right in any other. I fear your defence will be built upon sand. And what of the identification parade, Sir John?”

“A dozen boys or so from Riley's mess were paraded in the waiting room. They included all the Engineers and several Executive Cadets. Riley was allowed to remove his glasses. Miss Henslowe again complained that the cadets looked alike to her. She could not be sure. She looked into each face and studied each physique. In the end, she said that if it was any of them, it was the boy we now know to be Riley. Indeed, with glasses on it would probably be him. It was certainly none of the others.”

“And what was the outcome?” I asked.

Sir John shook his head.

“In the first place, doctor, Mr Winter quite properly communicated his findings to the seven school governors, two of whom are retired naval officers. Under the agreement by which St Vincent's is licenced by the Admiralty, he also forwarded those findings to us. Having examined the boy face-to-face, he considered Riley was guilty of the theft. He had previously noted what he called certain defects of character in this cadet.”

“That last remark is a grotesque distortion of the evidential process!” Holmes snapped.

Fisher held up his hand.

“Mr Winter assured us that he mentioned it only to confirm that he had made allowance for this so that there should be no prejudice on that account during questioning.”

Holmes emitted a gasping guffaw of exasperation.

“The oldest trick in a barrister's brief! The name of it in Cicero's time was ‘
mitto
,' I believe. You list every moral failing under the sun—fixing them well in the minds of your hearers—and then promise not to prejudice the accused by introducing them into evidence against him. His chances are nil.”

Sir John looked grim for the first time that afternoon.

“You fail to appreciate that a headmaster's study is not a court of law!”

“And yet he seems to have behaved as though it were!”

Fisher relented at this and said unhappily, “In the circumstances, for the sake of the boy as well as the school, Mr Winter recommended that the mother should be asked to remove him. A few days later, Mr Gurrin's opinion on the handwriting seemed to vindicate his decision.”

“Why the boy's mother?” I asked before Holmes could get in again.

“It is an unfortunate case, doctor. That is why I am here. There is no father. Mrs Riley is a widow and lives in Dublin. I know little more than that. My impression is of a bright boy with very little money behind him. He has not been in trouble before. I should guess that his family has scraped everything together to pay his way through St Vincent's in the hope of an Admiral's Nomination for Dartmouth or Osborne. He seems to have the mental ability.”

“Meaning what?” Holmes asked suspiciously.

Sir John took a long breath.

“When they take their exams at fourteen or sixteen for the senior Royal Naval Academies, there is usually one Nomination for each school. It is rather the same as a scholarship to a college at Oxford or Cambridge. It pays the fees, of course, but there is also a good deal of prestige and it will carry a young man a fair way in his career. Of course, the admirals do not know all the boys personally and the headmaster's advice carries great weight. Even if the present accusation proves no more than suspicion, Riley is no longer a likely candidate for such preferment. Unfortunately, he will always be known as the boy who stole the postal order, unless the contrary can be proved. I have come to you, Mr Holmes, because you are the one man I know who may be able to prove him innocent rather than not guilty.”

At last the two friends were on common ground, to my very great relief.

“And where is he now?” Holmes demanded.

“He was suspended as soon as the charge was brought, and kept apart from the other boys in the school sanatorium. Once his punishment is confirmed, arrangements will be made to return him home.”

“We must lose no time.”

“You had better hear the rest, Mr Holmes.” Fisher looked as if he did not quite know how to continue. However, he resumed.

“Riley has been quarantined in the sanatorium, but, of course, he could hardly be kept a prisoner there. Last Sunday he slipped out on his own. The boys are permitted to walk in the surrounding countryside on Sunday afternoons between lunch and tea. No one seems to have thought of forbidding him to do so.”

Our friend looked more uncomfortable than I had ever known him. Even Mycroft Holmes was studying his own toecaps. I felt that some catastrophe was about to be announced.

“Last Sunday afternoon,” Sir John continued, “it seems that Patrick Riley tried to kill himself by running towards the railway line beyond the school field and throwing himself in the path of a train that was just coming out of Bradstone St Lawrence tunnel. I think that says everything.”

Sherlock Holmes's attitude and manner changed at once. His dark eyes glittered as he said quietly, “I think you had better give us the details, Sir John.”

“Very well. As I understand it, Riley ran across a field adjoining the school grounds. It is sometimes called the School Field and is commonly used by the boys on their Sunday walks. There were still several of them around, walking back to the main building for tea. At the far side, where the railway line runs on an embankment, there is hardly a fence at all, merely a strand or two of wire between a row of posts. Anyone of moderate agility could scramble up to the track and the linesman's hut in a few seconds. A train had just emerged from Bradstone St Lawrence tunnel, when the boy stepped out from behind the hut and stood directly in the path of the locomotive. He showed no intention of moving.”

“How far distant is the hut from the tunnel?”

“Two or three hundreds yards, I believe. That would not have saved him. However, by the grace of God, the young fireman in the engine cab had seen him running just before he reached dead ground below the line and was lost to view for a moment. Perhaps sensing something was wrong, the fireman shouted a warning to the driver. In a split second more, Riley appeared from behind the hut. The driver threw the brakes on even as the boy came into view. Riley stood there, staring at the train which was slowing to a crawl. But for the fireman, he would have been hit. As it was, he saw the train losing speed and knew that he would more probably be injured or maimed than killed. Thereupon he ran down the far side. Afterwards he turned back and was identified by several witnesses, crossing the field towards the school.”

BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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