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Authors: Donald Thomas

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BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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“The worst I could say before this incident was that during two years he had not been a good mixer. Riley prefers to keep himself to himself. Normal boys do not like that sort of thing. It makes a fellow seem as if he thinks himself better than they. A little more sociability or geniality would have made him popular enough.”

“And was he unpopular?” I asked, “Do I take it that he has been bully-ragged?

“No!” Mr Winter looked startled, “No boy is bullied at St Vincent's, sir. In case you think so, perhaps it is best that you should form your own conclusions of his character when you meet him—for meet him you shall, I promise you that. He is fortunate to have such counsel for his defence!”

Having failed once, he tried a second time to smile us into friendship. Not a muscle in Holmes's face moved.

“I am not here as anyone's counsel, Mr Winter. You have found the boy guilty of theft. The boy denies it and, whatever the pressure put upon him, has not changed his plea. Sir John Fisher has asked me to establish the truth. That is all. Though, of course, there is also the allegation against him of an attempt to kill himself. Attempted suicide is a crime as surely as theft.”

The headmaster shook his head sympathetically. He mistakenly believed he was out of the wood now.

“Even without the matter of theft, it would be difficult to keep him after the second incident. We are not equipped to care for a boy who may attempt anything of that kind. Meanwhile, the others believe that it confirms his guilt. Would an innocent boy behave in such a manner? They naturally think not. Suicide is bound to be regarded as a sign of cowardice in the face of adversity.”

The opinion which Reginald Winter attributed to his boys was surely his own.

“Yes,” said Holmes, languidly arrogant, “the cowardice of the late Captain Lawrence Oates, who deliberately walked out into a South Pole blizzard in order that his companions might have a better chance of survival on their doomed trek homewards.”

Reginald Winter tried to smile, but temper was getting the better of him.

“That was not what I meant, Mr Holmes. It rests on my conscience that a boy in my school should condemn himself twice, as a thief and a coward, by attempting such a dreadful thing. But there is a world of difference …” Then, as he sat on the padded top of his fire-surround, he stopped and smiled down at us, as if he realised that a joke had been practised on him.

“Are you playing games with me, Mr Holmes? They say it is your habit.”

“Do they, Mr Winter? Do they say that indeed? Then let me tell you something for your comfort.”

“Comfort, sir?” There was a mocking curiosity in this query, but I knew from the cold, sardonic tone in my friend's voice that the sparring was over. Holmes had got him and was about to land a decisive blow.

“In order that your conscience may lie quite easily …”

I winced at the savage double meaning of this statement.

“… you may put it from your mind that Patrick Riley tried to commit suicide. He did not.”

The headmaster's smile went out like a light.

“You were not there, Mr Holmes. Several witnesses were. They saw him run at the train. In law, a man must be assumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts. What would those consequences have been if the fireman had not seen him as the train emerged from the tunnel and the driver had not pulled on the brake at once?”

Holmes relaxed, drew a sheet of notepaper from his breast pocket and handed it to Winter. I recalled that he had been compiling this from his shelves the evening before. It had not occurred to me to ask him what it was.

“Mr Winter,” he continued languidly, “you may examine the tables of coroners' courts, not to mention the statistics of alienation. There you will find suicides of every description. Suicide by poison or firearms, by noose or by falling from a height, by drowning or by burning. It is very difficult to stab oneself, of course, which is why defeated generals of the ancient world ordered their servants to hold out a sword that they might run upon it.”

“I have heard of that,” Winter snapped impatiently.

“And to be sure, there are poor souls who have thrown themselves under the wheels of trains.”

“Then you admit it?”

Holmes ignored this.

“You will find from the evidence that they often lingered at the last moment or even waited patiently for a train to appear. Some fell in front of trains, some jumped, some stood or lay upon the rails. But you will search long and hard, Mr Winter—dare I say until hell freezes over?—before you find one who ran to die in front of a train, as if he feared being late for an appointment. Hesitation or uncertainty, procrastination or postponement, not precipitation, is the governing impulse.”

Mr Winter had ignored the sheet of paper and stared hard at Sherlock Holmes during this recital. Now he blinked at the paper in his hand and then looked up again.

“And so …” he began.

“And so, Mr Winter, every statistic and every scrap of medical experience is against you on this. It is even less likely that Patrick Riley tried to commit suicide, which I do not hear that he has admitted, than that he stole the postal order. You have—to use a common expression—not a leg to stand on.”

The headmaster swallowed gently and continued to stare. Holmes continued.

“Now, sir, I fear we must put suicide out of the question. What remains is the testimony of Miss Henslowe, who attended the identification parade, and the opinion of Mr Thomas Gurrin on the handwriting. None of this evidence has been subject to challenge or examination. My task is therefore to let a little light into dark corners. Unless we are to be governed by the jurisprudence of the late Tomas de Torquemada, Patrick Riley's protest of innocence stands firm unless—and until—proved otherwise. Why should anyone want to undermine it?”

“Not I, Mr Holmes.” Like so many of our opponents who started out in bluff self-confidence, Reginald Winter was beginning to lose his nerve in the face of my friend's meticulous rationality. The headmaster's smooth face creased carefully to suggest a sincere alarm at being misunderstood. “I should be only too happy to find him innocent, if the evidence were not all the other way! Believe me, it does a school no good if an offence of this sort becomes public gossip. For Riley's own sake the best course is to note the facts, not all of which are known to you yet, and to leave us quietly to do what must be done.”

“The facts? Yes, Mr Winter. I hoped we should come to the facts. Pray let us hear them.”

“You are a man who judges by evidence, are you not, Mr Holmes? I believe you are well known for it. Very good. Listen to this. First of all, unknown to my colleagues and me, Riley and other boys sometimes played games in their leisure time which involved practising one another's signatures. They admit it. Riley and Porson were in the same class. They sat next to one another. As I am told, they became proficient at writing each other's names. Riley was one of our Engineer Cadets and had the hand of a draughtsman.”

“And so, Mr Winter, when Porson's postal order was cashed on that Saturday week with a forged signature, Riley the Engineer was suspected as the copyist simply because he was a draughtsman? From what document did he copy when he was in the post office? He could hardly carry in his head a perfect image of John Learmount Porson's signature, for that is what draughtsmanship would suggest.”

“Very far from it, sir. Were you not told that the
exeat
permit for that afternoon, with Porson's signature and that of the duty master, was in the locker with the postal order? Both of them were stolen, Mr Sherlock Holmes.”

I confess this was a blow. Why had we—or Fisher—not been told of the additional theft of this permit? The headmaster had unexpectedly scored a point and was at ease again. Winter went over to his desk and came back with a small pad of yellow paper, whose pages might be torn off in succession. Printed at the top of each was the school name, followed by a space for the name of the boy and another for the signature of the master on duty. He handed it to Holmes, who riffled through the flimsy yellow leaves and handed it back. Reginald Winter resumed his fire-guard perch and smiled down at us once more.

“Each boy is given a small pad of forms at the start of term. Should he wish to leave the school grounds to visit the village on Saturday afternoon, he fills in his name, signature and the date. He then tears off this
exeat
permit and at one-thirty he goes to the master-on-duty that day, who signs in the space at the bottom—or sometimes simply puts his initials on it.”

“How do the boys draw money?” I asked.

Winter looked pleased to have been asked.

“As to cashing postal orders, doctor, we are careful to prevent boys having too much money in their hands. It leads to borrowing and lending or buying items which are not permitted in the school. Each boy is allowed to draw two shillings a week from a sum deposited with his house master at the beginning of term. If there is a special reason, he may draw more on a single occasion. Within the same rules, he may cash a postal order, provided it is sent from his parents. To go to the post office he must have an
exeat
permit and also use this to identify himself at the post office.”

“And Riley had such an
exeat
permit signed for him on Saturday week, did he?”

“No, Mr Holmes he did not. That is the whole point. He denies leaving the school grounds.”

Holmes looked at him as Winter was about to continue.

“Where was Patrick Riley at two-thirty?”

The headmaster summoned up an indulgent smile.

“Of course he insists that he did not leave the grounds, let alone with a permit in Porson's name. How could he do otherwise? He claims that he spent an hour alone in the art room, between two and three o'clock. It is an alibi which a thief might choose because no one other than a type like Riley would skulk off there, for whatever purpose. He could be sure of being alone. His story would not be disproved.”

“Why not, Mr Winter?”

“Strictly speaking, the art room is out of bounds outside teaching hours. In practice we would take a lenient view of a boy found there, but Riley was not so found. What normal healthy boy would shut himself in there on a Saturday afternoon, when he might be pulling at the boats or roller-skating with his classmates? As for witnesses, a few boys might pass the art room, but none would be likely to look in. They would certainly not be surprised to find it locked. Possibly Riley bolted the door on the inside, stepped out of the casement window, closed it after him and walked off to the village. No one could then be positive that he was not there during twenty minutes or so. It falls far short of a positive alibi, Mr Holmes.”

“Indeed,” said Holmes coldly. “So far short that a true thief would not consider it.”

“How many ways were there to the post office?” I asked.

“As many as you like, Dr Watson. A boy might walk along the road from the main entrance. He might follow that same route inside the field-hedge. He might even go through the trees at any angle he chose. It would not be difficult to remain concealed until he was within twenty yards of the post office.”

“And then Riley and Porson were friends,” I added. “Why should Riley rob his class-mate?”

“We may be sure that Porson did not falsely complain of theft. He gained nothing—he had only to go and get his money from the post office at four o'clock. Yet you are quite right, though, that the thief's motive and identity remained a puzzle. Very well. For that reason I invited Miss Henslowe, the assistant postmistress, in an attempt to identify the boy whom she served at the office.”

“And so?” I persisted.

“The good lady came here, looked at them, and picked out Riley as the only possible suspect. Now then, what would you have me do, gentlemen? I informed the chairman of the governors, Commander Portman, and with his knowledge sought the advice of the Admiralty. The Judge Advocate to the Fleet requested the opinion of the principal Home Office forensic advisor on handwriting, Mr Thomas Gurrin. Mr Gurrin had no doubt that the signature on the counterfoil of the postal order and the samples written by Patrick Riley were from the same hand.”

He turned to my friend.

“Whatever your allegiances, Mr Holmes, you cannot say we have not behaved properly.”

“My allegiance is to the truth, sir, and to justice. I have no other clients. I am here at the request of Admiral Sir John Fisher.”

Mr Winter did not like this last reminder, but he said, “So I understand,” and battled on.

“I then recommended to the chairman of the governors that Mrs Riley should be asked to remove her son from the school. How could the boy go back and mingle with his comrades after such a finding against him?”

“I should like to interview Master Patrick Riley,” said Holmes casually, “and, indeed, his friend Porson.”

There was a breathless geniality about Winter which suggested an ace up his sleeve.

“You shall certainly talk to Riley, Mr Holmes.” The geniality vanished as the ace appeared. “I cannot, however, order other boys to submit to interrogation by an outsider, even one who comes at the request of an Admiral of the Fleet. We are licenced by the Admiralty, Mr Holmes, we are not owned nor governed by it.”

I could see that this was as far as we should get with him. He had put on a show of easy courtesy, but I should not have cared to be a pupil at St Vincent's. A crook-handled cane stood in a corner of the room. I noticed that Holmes's mouth had tightened a little as he caught sight of it. I recalled a comment of his on those who demonstrated their manhood by beating children.

In a voice like thin ice breaking, Sherlock Holmes said, “We have occupied too much of your time, Mr Winter, and our own. Perhaps before we talk to Patrick Riley, Dr Watson and I may take a walk across the field towards the railway line.”

BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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