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Authors: Donald Thomas

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BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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“Morning Prayers?”

As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I tried to imagine how Morning Prayers could have any bearing on our case.

“That is when Reginald Winter, in his scarlet M.A. hood and his Oxford gown, will be officiating in chapel. We shall have the main building to ourselves.”

“It may be,” I said, pulling myself upright, “but there is still a good deal to be resolved before we close this matter.”

“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. “I shall tell them downstairs to have our breakfast ready in quarter of an hour.”

“Quarter of an hour? The place is only twenty minutes' walk from here!”

“There is a call to make on the way.”

“Where?”

But he had closed the door and gone.

It was almost eight o'clock when we left the King Charles Hotel for St Vincent's. We walked leisurely up the picturesque village street of Bradstone St Lawrence with its thatched and tiled dwellings. Ahead of us I noticed a bright scarlet post-box with Her Majesty's insignia embossed upon it. The post office itself was a picture-book cottage which really did have a rambling rose round its door, as well as Sweet William and jessamine in a narrow border. A notice in the glass panel of the door informed us that the office was open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on every day from Monday to Saturday.

A bell jangled as Holmes pushed open the door, and we stepped into what might have been the large front room of a cottage or village house, with a smaller room behind it. The lath-and-plaster wall had been taken down, so that the near side of the wooden counter was open to the public and the far side reserved for official business. A middle-aged woman stood at the counter, sorting through pages of postage stamps. Her companion, to judge from her appearance, was surely a younger sister. She sat on a high stool in the back room, entering figures in a business ledger. To one side of her, a telegraph boy in a peaked cap and short jacket was perched on a bench with a copy of a penny-dreadful, “Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood,” open on his knee.

Holmes introduced us, and Mrs Franklin at the counter summoned Miss Henslowe, who was indeed her younger sister. Miss Henslowe was a maiden lady of forty or so with a fine-boned beauty, what the weekly magazines describe as features of “a tea-cup delicacy.” The telegraph boy stopped reading and gaped at us.

“I shall not interrupt you for more than a moment,” said Holmes politely. “I have been asked to review the case of Patrick Riley on behalf of the Admiralty. I merely need to confirm with you what you have said and done already.”

“There was little enough,” said Miss Henslowe, responding to him with a half-smile. With such a charming smile, I wondered why she was still a maiden lady.

“Just so,” said Holmes courteously. “Tell me, were you alone in the post office on the Saturday afternoon in question?”

“Alone at the counter,” she said readily. “My sister and her husband had gone into town. Freddie who takes the telegrams was sitting on his stool.”

Freddie, whose mouth had been gaping at the sight of us, closed it at the mention of his name and pretended to read his comic.

Holmes continued to question his witness.

“A boy came in, signed his postal order form at the counter and then handed it in? You saw that?”

“I was busy with telegram forms, Mr Holmes, so I did not watch his every movement. But he certainly did as you say.”

“Very well. You took the order, then counted out the money for him—a ten-shilling note and a sixpence, I imagine. You handed it to him and he left. Was that all?”

“Not quite, Mr Holmes. I noticed that he had signed the order as ‘John Porson,' when it was made out to ‘J. L. Porson.' I asked him to insert the ‘L.,' which he did.”

“And that was all?”

“He showed me his
exeat
permit. St Vincent's won't allow the boys to have more than a certain amount in their pockets. The rest must be banked with their housemasters when they come back from holidays. To stop them getting more through the post, they have to show their permits for being out of the school grounds when they bring the orders here. We check the name and the amount. That's a school rule, nothing to do with the Royal Mail.”

“Most interesting,” said Holmes thoughtfully. “And you were subsequently asked to go to the school and see if you could identify the boy who cashed the postal order?”

“Petty Officer Carter came down and asked me. I went up on the Monday, two days later. Very upset he was, Mr Carter.”

“In what way?”

“For the honour of the service, Mr Holmes. Twice he said something like, ‘This is the sort of boy the Royal Navy can do without.'”

“Hardly surprising under the circumstances,” I suggested.

“The identification was in what they call the Parents' Waiting Room, near the head's study. I was asked to look at eight of the cadets as they stood in a row. I remembered that the boy I served definitely had a grey edging to his jacket, like one of the Engineer Cadets. From what I see, not many of them is an engineer, which made it easier. Also, the one I served wore glasses, and he was about so high.”

She raised her hand to indicate a height of five feet and six or seven inches.

“And what made you pick out the boy in question?”

Miss Henslowe withdrew again to her defensive line.

“To be honest, people round here always say that they all look alike in those uniforms. I suppose that's the idea. And even two days is a long time to wait when you didn't think at the time there was any reason to remember someone.”

“But even so, you picked one out?”

She huffed a sigh at the difficulty of it all.

“There's a difference, isn't there, Mr Holmes? If someone shows you eight cadets and says it's definitely one of them, then you can pick whichever one looks most like. That's how it seemed to be. If they'd shown me two hundred cadets, I might have picked another.”

“Or you could have picked no one.”

She shook her head.

“From everything that was said, they knew who did it and he was there. Even Mr Carter on Saturday seemed to know which boy it was the navy could do without. I thought the fairest thing was to say I couldn't be sure, but if it was one of those eight, he was the one I picked out. That was fair, wasn't it? At least I got the others out of trouble, didn't I? The headmaster didn't say anything. And on the way out, Mr Carter said that it couldn't have been any of the other seven. They were all at the boats until after three.”

“And the boy you picked was Patrick Riley?”

“I told Mr Winter exactly the same as I told you. I was busy at the counter, but this one was wearing glasses and had the grey edging to his jacket.”

“Both of which could have been borrowed.”

“I suppose they could. But Mr Winter was fair about that. He told me to take no notice of whether they had the grey braid or not. Three had and five hadn't. Then, to begin with, all of them had to stand in line without glasses and afterwards with glasses on. I suppose they borrowed spectacles for the ones that never wore them. Most boys don't.”

My heart sank at the prospect of Miss Henslowe in the witness-box telling the world how fairly Reginald Winter had conducted his identification parade. But Holmes seemed entirely satisfied with her and merely asked, “Miss Henslowe, would you do me a very great favour?”

“If I can, sir.”

“Would you come to the school now and look at a photograph? I promise that we shall have you back here in no time, but it is of the very greatest importance and urgency.”

Miss Henslowe looked at Mrs Franklin. The older sister shrugged.

“Of course she will. Go on, Violet!”

Holmes had timed it to perfection. We arrived in the headmaster's corridor a minute after 8.30. It was the one time of day when Reginald Winter was guaranteed to be absent. I caught an organ groan drifting from the chapel as we passed and then two hundred voices at full volume.

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life
,

When the winds unveil their wings of strife
?

When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain
,

Will your anchor drift, or firm remain
?

Somewhat to my surprise Holmes was humming this Evangelical refrain as a tune long familiar to him. I had sometimes pondered over his childhood religion. A tin-roofed sailors' chapel had not been among my imaginings until now.

The main building was silent, and we reached the headmaster's corridor without a challenge. The assistant postmistress was quiet and apprehensive until Holmes stopped before a recent school photograph on the wall.

“Now, Miss Henslowe, have the goodness to examine this. Disregard the importance of spectacles and of uniforms. Taking away those things and suppose that one of these boys, as Mr Winter suggested, must be he who visited you on that Saturday afternoon, which one would it be?”

“I already picked Mr Riley.”

“Ignore him. Try again.”

She ran her eye along the rows and pointed to another, still bespectacled. Holmes made a note in his pocket-book.

“And just one more.”

She repeated the scrutiny and touched the glass where a boy of about fourteen, better-built than the previous one, stood without spectacles or Engineer braiding.

“Very good,” said Holmes. “And now if we may, Miss Henslowe, we shall escort you back. You have no doubt been uneasy at the prospect of involvement in a court case with its examination and cross-examination of your testimony, the attendant publicity in the newspapers. I think I may promise you that you will not be troubled any further.”

She seemed startled rather than relieved.

“How can you be certain of that, Mr Holmes?”

“Dear madam, I have a long experience of giving opinions in such matters. So far, I have been invariably proved right.”

Miss Henslowe moved away and walked ahead of us. Holmes seemed to dawdle. Presently, not far from the door to the courtyard, he tugged at my sleeve, his finger to his lips. I turned and looked at the object of his interest, a far smaller picture framed among several others. It showed a rowing eight from a previous term plus their cox, five boys sitting and four standing behind them, crossed oars mounted on the wall.

At the centre of the front row sat the Captain of Boats, holding a small silver cup. The face might have been the double of the one that Miss Henslowe had pointed out to us a moment before. Yet it could not be the same, for the date on this smaller photograph was five years earlier. Moreover, on a team photograph the names of the members are printed underneath—as they could not be for all two hundred boys.

I recalled the voice of Patrick Riley, talking of his tormentor.

“His step-brother's a cruiser captain and his real brother was here a few years ago. He's at Dartmouth now.”

The name below the double of Miss Henslowe's choice was “H. R. Sovran-Phillips.”

As we stepped out into the sunlight, Holmes remarked, “Perhaps we shall not be quite as late arriving in Baker Street tonight as I had supposed.”

I did not like to suggest that optimism is no substitute for proof.

6

O
ur last inquiry in the village was at mid-morning. Its venue was the old “Rest and Be Thankful” inn, dating from an age when most travellers went on foot—“Shanks Pony” as the term was in my childhood. They toiled up from the foreshore to the height of Boniface Down, where this homely signboard announced a respite.

As we ducked our heads under the low lintel of the bar parlour and stepped down on to its floor of waxed red tiles, our visitor was waiting, in conversation with the landlady. Samuel Wesley, a grey-haired veteran of the South Coast Railway engine drivers, was not a drinking man. His neat, plain Sunday suit, worn out of courtesy to us, had the discreet badge of a Missionary Fellowship in its buttonhole.

We shook hands and sat down with nothing stronger than small beer between us. Introductions were brief. Samuel Wesley was, as he said, a lover of truth and straight talk. Attempted suicide was “a terrible thing to say about a young man.” Unlike Reginald Winter, he was reluctant to say it.

“I suppose you might call it that, Mr Holmes, according to what you saw and how your mind works.”

“Quite true, Mr Wesley. And what did you see?”

“Nothing at first, sir, for there is a curve in that tunnel and you don't see the line ahead until you're almost out of it. It was young Arthur, my fireman. He noticed one of the schoolboys running across close to the embankment, as he might run in a game. Then he was lost sight of as he went under the lee of the bank. I was watching the pressure gauges, which can't be read very easily in the tunnel for want of light.”

“What would your speed be?”

“Oh, thirty miles an hour at the most, and I daresay more like twenty-five just there. It isn't a place for anyone to do away with themselves.”

“But it is accessible to those with suicide in mind.”

Mr Wesley took a modest pull at his small beer and shrugged.

“That's true, sir. But Arthur suddenly shouted to me, ‘Stop! Brake!' I had my hand on the lever, and even before I'd seen the boy, I'd given it a darn good pull. It didn't take half as long to do it as to tell it!”

“And the train stopped?”

“Not at once. They don't stop at once. What you get first, Mr Holmes, is a bit of a jerk. Then she do slide on the rails. And then she do stop with a big jerk and all the passengers is thrown about.”

“And when did you first see the boy?”

Mr Wesley exhaled thoughtfully.

“With the weight of a train behind you it can take the best part of a hundred yards to come to rest. While she was sliding I saw him standing there on the track, looking straight at us.”

“Very disagreeable for you,” I said sympathetically.

BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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