Authors: Donald Thomas
“Excellent,” said Holmes encouragingly. “Now, imitate that, if you please, as closely as you can. Do not correct it to your normal signature. Imitate it as if it was another person's signature on a postal order.”
The boy began. He drew quite accurately the down stroke of the “P” and the loop. Lifting the pen he then began the “u.” He paused and lifted it again where it dropped down to join the “t.” At the end of his first name, he paused to check his progress, though without lifting the pen. The copy of his surname appeared in a more rounded script than the original and only the last three letters were joined.
Holmes unfolded his magnifying glass and there was silence for a long two minutes, an eternity as it must have seemed to the poor boy, before my friend looked up.
“Capital!” he said enthusiastically, “If it will bring you any consolation, Patrick Riley, you would make a very poor forger.”
The relief on the poor young fellow's face was almost inexpressible.
“Unfortunately,” Holmes added, “whoever signed the postal orderâwhich I have seen, of courseâwas probably also a poor copyist. But we have made a good beginning. Very well. Whoever endorsed that order produced a so-called feathering effect of the pen, as most of us do when we write something familiar like our names. That is to say, the pen is moving almost before it touches the paper. I observe that you started with the nib already on the paper, as a copyist might.”
He held up the page at a slant to the light from the window.
“Twice at least in the copy you have lifted the nib clear of the paper, though you did not do so in the original. Through my glass, though not with the naked eye, it is also possible to see three places at which you have rested the nib on your work while checking your progress. This lack of flow appears only in the crudest freehand forgeries. The signature on the counterfoil of the postal order was skilled enough to avoid anything of that kind. It was not crude copying. This is copied. That was tracedâor possibly written on an indentation.”
“But can you prove it, Mr Holmes?” The earnestness in the young face was painful to behold. “Can you show them I never did it?”
“My dear young fellow, a negative is hard to prove. I cannot demonstrate to the world that you never traced it. But I do say that on the basis of this experiment there is no evidence that you could have produced the forgery on that postal orderâwhich is a good long way towards the same thing.”
During this exchange, I had got up and walked slowly across to the window. It looked out over the downland towards the channel. A late afternoon sun cast a burnish upon the lavender blue of the Western Approaches.
“Now,” said Holmes, “please tell me exactly how you first heard about the theft.”
Riley's answer was commendably simple.
“Porson came up to me about half-past five on that Saturday afternoon. He said, âI say, isn't it rotten? Someone's stolen my money from my locker.' It wasn't real money, of course, just the order. They don't let us keep money in our lockers.”
“And you replied to John Porson?”
“I said he should have another look to make sure it had gone. If it had, he should tell the housemaster or one of the two petty officers on duty. Petty Officer Carter was on that day. I said not to waste time, the sooner he reported it, the better his chances of getting it back.”
“Admirable,” said Holmes, “Then you spoke as a good sensible friend, not as a frightened thief.”
“I hope I did, sir. I knew nothing about it until Porson told me then, in the locker room.”
As I listened, I was standing by a table on which his toiletries and other articles were set out in regulation order. Among them was a rather expensive clothes-brush, with black bristles and a polished walnut back, evidently brought from home. On this varnished back someone at home had very precisely cut the name “Riley” and his school number, “178.” Next to this there were several words lightly scratched, as if to deface the varnish. They in turn had been scraped over, as neatly as possible, to obliterate them. Even under these neater scratches it was just possible to see that an unknown hand had cut four words next to Riley's name. The effect was to make the whole lettering read “Riley Is an Oily Hog.”
There was also a cheap hair-brush which had been similarly treated. Once again, whatever had defaced it was scratched over in its turn but I could still make out an ominous jingle.
Your tongue shall be split
And all the little dicky-birds
Shall have a little bit
The old-fashioned clothes-brush might have been an heirloom of some kind. The hair-brush seemed a cheap replacement, perhaps for one that had already been defaced in this way.
Several more pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I picked up the clothes-brush and turned round.
“Who carved your name and number so neatly on the back of this?”
Riley glanced up.
“It was my uncle, sir, before I came for my first term. I was in Collingwood Term.”
“And who scratched these other words?”
He bit his lip and shook his head.
“Don't know, sir.”
I would have bet a hundred pounds that he did.
“Very well, then tell me at least who scratched them outâdid you do it?”
He shook his head again. “My mother did it, when I went home for the first holidays. There were so many things to be bought for school that we couldn't throw away the brush. And it belonged to my father.”
Holmes gave a murmur of approval.
“And what are Oily Hogs? I regret having to ask that. Please tell me.”
The boy stared at the table-top and hesitated. To my astonishment, with his deliverance now a possibility, he was close to tears. Then he pulled himself together and said, “We are. The Engineers. The Executive Cadetsâthe Deck Officersâare the Ocean Swells. There are far more of them. One or two of us at a time have to go to be bully-ragged. The rest of us keep quiet because we're glad it's someone else. They gang round and rag us for half an hour or so, thirty or forty of them sometimes. There's no reasonâthey get excited and it just happens. Everything is quiet one minute and then they're singing “Oily Hogs, Oily Togs, Dirty Dogs and Frenchie Frogs,” throwing things, punching, spitting. Once or twice they pushed the same chap's head into the wash-room latrine and flushed it. He ran away from school in the end. He got home on the railway somehow and never came back. Most get caught before they get very far. Then they cop it from old Winter for being out of bounds.”
“Do they never complain?”
“We're not allowed to sneak or split. That only makes it worse.”
“And what of the Ocean Swells?” Holmes inquired.
“They say they'll own the decks one day and we'll be the hogs down in the grease pit.”
Again I thought he might weep, but I underestimated him.
“Deck officersâchildren of twelve or fourteen!” I said angrily, “Look, my boy, remember this. So far as names go, sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
“It was my mother's name,” he said sadly, and then indeed, he began to weep. “Sovran-Phillips is one of the Ocean Swells. He found out that her name was Clemency. They thought it was a funny name. Phillips and the others went ganging round the school after me, shouting it, shouting that my father never died because I never had a father. My mother never had a husband. They ganged round me shouting lies about her. The more I begged them to stop, the more they did it. Now it doesn't matter, because I shan't ever go back or see them again.”
I stood there. For the first time in my life the word “dumbfounded” meant something to me. When our case began I had never imagined such juvenile evil would be unearthed. Forging a postal order was nothing compared with this! But now that Patrick Riley had begun it was hard to stop him going on. What had he to lose? His eyes were dry again, reddened but angry.
“The worst of it is that I thought some of them were my friends. When it happened, even the ones I thought were friends â¦ I could see them standing on the edge of the gang smiling and laughing at me. I'll never forget who they were.”
Sherlock Holmes had listened very quietly to all this.
“And Mr Winter?” he inquired, “What does he have to say?”
Patrick Riley looked up miserably and blew his nose.
“He won't have sneaking or splitting. If a boy won't stand up for himself but goes sneaking on the others, Mr Winter sends him away or beats him for it. That's what I was warned.”
The eyes of Sherlock Holmes were dark, glittering ice. His fury, on the few occasions when it overtook him, was terrifyingly quiet and cold. I was more angry than I had been for a very long time. If half of this was true, then the sooner Sir John Fisher had all such places as this closed down the better. Patrick Riley ended his pause.
“John Porson is my friend, on the same side in the same class. We share the same desk. Still we daren't fight Sovran-Phillips and his gang. But Porson is the last person I would steal from.”
Listening to him, I thought that was the most persuasive argument we had heard in our young client's favour.
Holmes nodded and said, “You mention Sovran-Phillips. Tell me about him.”
“He's Captain of Boats and prefect of the Deck Swells in the Upper Middle. The new boys act as servants to the captains and they get beaten if they don't. He knows how to fight, that's half the trouble. His step-brother's a lot older, a cruiser captain. Phillips never lets us forget it. His real brother was here a few years ago and at Dartmouth now. He says his grandfather was an admiral, but I don't know if that's true. I don't care now anyway. He says all the maids in the kitchen are spoony on him and he goes with them. Winter's maid mostly. That's a lie, I should say.”
Holmes let it rest there for a moment. I tried to imagine the shame and humiliation of Patrick Riley, defeated at every resistance to the smug and superior Phillips. I might have doubted the truth of it all but for the sincerity and grief in our young informant's manner.
“Very well,” said Holmes at length. “If I have my way, you will find on your side an Admiral of the Fleet, who will outrank a cruiser captain two or three times over. In the next holidays, Dr Watson and I will find a room for you with Mrs Hudson. I am not inexpert in boxing and single-stick combat. After a fortnight's instruction, I think I may promise that you shall return to St Vincent's and give young Phillips the thrashing of his life. It is not a matter of sizeâfor I suspect you are smaller than he isâbut of skill.”
“I don't care if I never go back, sir. I don't mind not going back, but I won't be called a thief. Could you teach me to fight, Mr Holmes?”
“I have complete confidence in my own abilitiesâand yours. Now, if you please, we will set aside the matter of the postal order, for I see the way we must go. Let us turn to your attempted suicide. Was it anything of the kind?”
The poor young fellow shook his head yet again.
“They say it proved I could not bear to face my mother, knowing I was a thief. But what I could not bear, Mr Holmes, would be to leave her for ever. She knows I am no thief.”
“Unfortunately what she knows you to be is not evidence, although to me it is proof. Why did you go to the field on Sunday afternoon?”
“I was in this sanatorium room for eight days. Alone, except for Sister Elliston and Mr Winter when he came to question me with two other masters. First of all I heard I was going to be expelled. Then they said there might be some sort of tribunal where I could appeal. There was even talk of a lawyer coming to see me, but I heard no more of that.”
“And your mother and your uncle?”
“I don't know what they've been told or what they think. But last Sunday I had just had enough. No one would believe a word I spoke. There was no one here to stop me, and, surely, so long as I'm at St Vincent's, I may walk over the field on Sunday afternoons as the others do. I have friends, sir. I'm forbidden to talk to them, but I thought if I could get to them, tell them the truth, they might be able to help me.”
“But you did not go out with the intention of killing yourself? That is what I need to know.”
He looked at us strangely, as I thought.
“I'd gone as far as I could go. I might have done anything. But murder, rather than suicide, if I could choose.”
I thought he was about to weep again. Instead he slumped dry-eyed in his chair and would say no more.
“You have done enough, Patrick Riley,” said Holmes after a pause, “and by this time tomorrow justice shall be done to you.”
“How can you say?” It was no more than a low murmur to himself.
“You must remember who I am,” said my friend quietly.
herlock Holmes was seldom an early riser. Even though the next morning revealed a sun sparkling like cut glass on an emerald sea, he would have been more likely to stir himself for a dismal winter landscape where felony oozed from every leaf and twig. However, I woke to a sharp knock on my door at the King Charles Hotel. It was surely an early morning cup of tea or a steaming jug of shaving water.
At quarter to seven it was Holmes, fully dressed.
“We must look lively, Watson. I reviewed the evidence before falling asleep last night and I fully intend to close our case today. Therefore, I am most anxious to be in good time for Morning Prayers at St Vincent's. If the notice pinned on the headmaster's board in his corridor is correct, early prep is at six forty-five. With their appetites sharpened by intensive study, the boys are then fed at seven-thirty. Morning Prayers follow at eight-thirty and the first period of instruction is at nine. We should arrive no earlier than eight-thirty and certainly no more than five minutes later.”