Authors: Donald Thomas
“All of which does not put Reginald Winter here on Sunday afternoon.”
“Quite true. It is John Fisher who does that, without knowing it. Before he left us yesterday I asked him to supply me with a copy of Admiralty weather station reports for the past week from coastal stations between Plymouth and Dover. They arrived by first post this morning. Dame Fortune has placed a coastal station at Osborne Royal Naval College. It is about a dozen miles north of here as the crow flies. The weather last week produced light but constant rain. A force five wind from the Western Approaches picked up at noon on Sunday and blew until the small hours of Monday morning. Since then the reports record dry and mild weather with a light southwest wind.”
“In other words, the usual climate for May.”
“I daresay. But if that evidence is to be trusted, it restricts our smoker's occupation of this place to Sunday afternoon or evening. The boys are permitted to walk across the field on Sunday afternoon but you may be sure they and their headmaster are at chapel on Sunday evening. If Winter was here, I have no doubt he was spying on them. Perhaps to catch them meeting or talking to those whom they should not meet or talk to. I have scanned the regulations that Fisher was also good enough to supply. Any word spoken to a female of whatever age or station during these strolls is a grievous offence. So is breaking bounds beyond the limits set for a walk. I imagine it gladdens Winter's heart to catch a handful of culprits for his delectation.”
Having met the man, I had no difficulty in accepting this analysis of his character.
“Yet if he was here when Riley made his famous run,” I said, “why has he never mentioned it?”
“Precisely. Unless my instincts deceive me, he was not spying on his boysâjust one boy. It was Patrick Riley, who had ventured out of the sanatorium for some reason of his own. I am entirely satisfied that the lad was not contemplating suicide. Far more likely he was attempting to meet someone. Winter would give a good deal to know whoâand for what purpose. And so would I.”
I thought about this for scarcely a moment before saying,
“It can't see it, Holmes. Whether Riley was hoping to meet someoneâor even commit suicideâhow could Reginald Winter know in advance? As I understand it, the boy was incommunicado and he would hardly tell Winter himself. Unless he was there by pure fluke, Winter would not know what time to take up watch or even where.”
“Winter does not strike me as a man who does anything by a fluke.”
“Well, there you are. Even if he knew Riley had slipped away from the sanatorium and was running across the field, it would be far too late and much too obvious to start running after him. Winter could only spy on him at the railway bank by being in place here before him. And he could not do that unless he knew which way he was going to run and when he was going to do it. There is a hopeless inconsistency.”
“No, my dear fellow, what lies at the heart of this is a mystery. It is an article of faith in our detective agency that all mysteries have a solution.”
He was looking back towards the stretch of line running on its embankment. If anyone was going to spy, I thought, this was certainly the place from which to do it.
“We had best be getting back,” I said.
But he was still looking about him in this little enclosure. I had no idea what else he expected to find, nor, I think, did he. Presently he chuckled, relaxed and took out his pocket-knife. He was staring at an elder branch, or rather what remained of it. Someone had cut through it at a point where it was the thickness of a large thumb. The cut was recent, to judge by the light colour of the exposed wood. It suggested to me that a walker had improvised a stick for himself, perhaps in the muddy weather. The absence of wood shavings indicated that the stick had been cut to size from the bush without any immediate need for trimming or shaping.
“Goodness knows how many boys cut sticks and whittle them,” I said sceptically.
He opened his pocket-knife and cut a further length of the sapling, no more than three inches, for what good that would do. He slipped the cutting into his pocket, closed his knife and we began to walk back. Perhaps evidence of a kind against Winter had begun to accumulate in that cold rational brain. But evidence of what?
I thought we were going to walk back the way we had come, but Holmes set off on a path behind the hedge. This was parallel to the School Field though concealed from it. At the far end, a small iron gate opened into a domestic “chicken field” where St Vincent's grew its vegetables. A further gate let us into an enclosed lawn whose door was evidently the headmaster's direct entrance to his own quarters. A hand-bell had rung and it seemed that the “cadets” were now released from their classes. They were curiously dressed, like child sailors in their blue uniforms. A few wore a grey, braided edging to the lapels and the hems of their “Engineer” jackets.
In the corridor on which Winter's study was located Holmes stopped again, as if to check his appearance in the hall-stand mirror, a vanity he seldom indulged. No one who saw him would have thought twice about what he was doing. Unobtrusively, he slipped his left hand into his pocket and withdrew the three-inch cutting of the elder branch. His right hand moved cautiously over the umbrella stand. Presently he relaxed and drew out a freshly-cut stick.
“I must confess that I noticed this when we came out, Watson. I have been looking for its partner ever since.”
He turned it over and joined to its end the three-inch cutting he had taken from his pocket.
It was, of course, a perfect fit.
omething of a change had come over Reginald Winter in the past half-hour. It was so abrupt that I wonder to this day whether he had not received a peremptory telegram or even a telephone call from Sir John Fisher. No more obstacles were put in our path. He went so far as to hint that if an interview with Cadet Porson should be necessary, he would bend the rules to allow it. Far more important, for the time being, was our first meeting with young Patrick Riley.
The sanatorium lay at the top of a winding stone staircase just above the study. It was little more than a well-lit, high-ceilinged room with a wash-room to one side. There were four beds, three of them unoccupied, and a central table with upright chairs. It appeared to be the domain of a grey-haired nurse, Sister Elliston. She seemed admirably untroubled by having as her patient one who was a condemned thief and an attempted suicide.
As we entered, Patrick Riley was sitting on his bed turning the pages of a picture magazine. His situation was not to be envied. For ten days he had been almost entirely isolated and with no idea of what was going on or what might happen to him. He was forbidden to speak to or associate with any other boy. Frankly, if he were not an attempted suicide an environment like this might go far to make him one. He got to his feet and stood at attention in his blue uniform with its tell-tale grey braiding of the Engineer Cadets.
He was indeed the lightly-built but nimble fourteen-year-old of Holmes's description. His appearance was hardly memorable, the soft features yet to be defined by manhood. An unruly flop of fair hair was perhaps the most prominent characteristic, through not while wearing his cap. His expression was downcast, as it well might be, but he appeared and sounded apathetic rather than distressed. No doubt he believed that the worst had happened and that no one would trust his explanations. He had little emotional energy left for histrionics.
“Patrick Riley?” Holmes spoke quietly as he stepped forward and held out his hand, “I am Sherlock Holmes. It is possible you may have heard of me.”
Riley nodded and said, “Yes, sir,” only because he felt he must say something rather than nothing.
“May we sit round the table and talk?” Holmes continued courteously. “I am here at Admiral Fisher's request to ensure that justice is done, and I fear it may not have been so far. That is all. You have nothing to fear so long as you speak the truth.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy repeated, still as if he did not care much either way. “They said you were coming.”
“I propose to see if truth is not on your side,” Holmes said more firmly, obliging Patrick Riley to recognise his presence.
“I don't see how you can ensure anything, when all their minds are made up. How can you?”
“Because, my boy, I am Sherlock Holmes and there is very little I cannot do once I put my mind to itâand once those for whom I fight supply me with a little ammunition.”
He smiled, lifted his arm and laid it on the boy's shoulder, shepherding him towards the table. He was not at his best with the very young, but so far he had not made an irretrievable mistake with Patrick Riley. The miniature cadet stared at him and then, to my very great relief, returned the smile, albeit half-heartedly.
So the ice was broken. I guessed there had been few smiles in the boy's life recently. But Riley was now encouraged to see himself as the hero of his own adventure story with Sherlock Holmes at his side.
“Sit here,” said Holmes politely, drawing out a chair.
So the interview began. Riley now looked up at us with a helpless appeal.
“It was just a joke, Mr Holmes! A bit of fun!”
To my dismay, I thought Riley was about to blurt out a confession to the theft and plead that it had been a prank. SoâI am sureâdid my friend, from the expression on his face. “A joke” must be one of the oldest and certainly least successful defences to a charge of fraud.
“What was a joke, Patrick?” Holmes asked quietly, and I held my breath. The use of the boy's Christian name made the question somewhat more sinister because it closed his retreat into a shell of apathy.
“Writing names was a joke, Mr Holmes. I don't remember when we first did it. I sat next to Porson in class. We sat together in the evening too, when we did whatever prep the masters set. If we finished our prep before the bell went we used to mess around, writing, playing battleships on paper, all sorts of things. Porson sometimes wrote my name in my writing and I wrote his. Lots of fellows did things like that. It was a game. It wasn't forgery or theft any more than it's murder when you point your finger and say âBang, you're dead.' It was just fooling about.”
“Very good,” said Holmes approvingly. “And how successful were these imitation signatures?”
“I don't know, sir. How can you tell? They looked a bit the same.”
“Believe me, I can tell. How many other people knew that you were doing this?”
“Anyone could watch us, if they wanted to. They must have seen but they wouldn't think anything. Lots of fellows played games like that.”
“Did they? And how many other fellows' signatures did you copy?”
The young face clouded with uncertainty.
“I don't remember that I did. Perhaps I did. But no one else that I can remember. I played this game with Porson because we sat next to one another. I could see his name written on his prep book and he could see mine.”
“And Porson has always been in the same class with you? He is an Engineer Cadet like you?”
“We're all engineers in our class. That's why we sit together in school prep. Lower Middle Engineers. We're above the junior engineers but below the Upper Middle and the seniors.”
“Have you got a copy of your imitation of Porson's signature that you can show me?”
He shook his head.
“We never kept them, sir. They were thrown away. It was just a game.”
“Could you do one now?”
“Not without one to copy from. Nobody could.”
“It is said that you wrote a signature at the post office as you had copied Porson's for a game. Did you?”
“No! I couldn't do it! I was never at the post office on that afternoon!”
It was a wail of protest and despair, uttered so often in the past ten days. No hawk-nosed cross-examiner in wig and gown could resemble a bird of prey more suggestively than Holmes just then. But Riley had returned the answer of an innocent defendant.
“Very well. Now then, you must help me. Could you, for example, copy your own signature?”
The boy sat back and shook his head slowly, not in refusal but exasperation.
“Any fellow could copy his own!”
“I think you misunderstand me. I do not want you to repeat your signature but to copy it exactly. As a criminal expert it is my business to know about such things. I may tell you that even in the most innocent way, no signature is precisely the same on two successive occasions. And besides, you will please write the first one with your eyes closed. I am offering you a chance to prove your innocence, but you must do this much for me. Write it as you would normally write your signature and do not worry what it will look like.”
The boy nodded. Holmes produced a fountain-pen and a sheet of paper from his pocket, handing them to him.
“You had better put your glasses on,” he said casually. “You will certainly need them for the copying.”
The boy looked as if he was about to ask Holmes how he knew about the glasses, but my friend anticipated him.
“There is a slight mark either side of your nose, evident to a student of physiognomy. That is unusual in one of your age. It is plain that you spend a commendable amount of time in reading and study. You do not wear glasses otherwise, but I believe you should. There is a sluggishness of movement on one side which suggests that you suffer from what is called a lazy eye.”
Riley was visibly disconcerted by this impromptu oculist's diagnosis.
“Have no fear,” said Holmes cheerily. “It is my business to notice such things. I believe, however, it may be of importance in your case.”
The lad's inability to copy a signature without his glasses might be of importance to our inquiry, but for the life of me I could not see how.
Riley laid the paper on the table and closed his eyes. He took the pen and wrote a little uncertainly but quite fluently. It was not a bad effort, though the inconsistencies were clear. Let me just say that his name written with his eyes closed looked to me something like “Put riccc Rileg.”