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Authors: Donald Thomas

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BOOK: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly
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He looked surprised.

“Oh, I never thought we'd hit him, doctor. Not where he was. He'd only to step aside. A hundred yards nearer would have been a different matter, but he could never have got that close. We came right up to him before she was at rest, but he couldn't have done himself any harm.”

“And then?”

“He got off the line, sir. I think he went after another boy I didn't see. Down behind the bank, most like. He shouted at someone. I never saw the other. Arthur thought there was one in the linesman's hut at first.”

“Did you think that the boy who had been on the railway line was afraid of the other boy you never saw?”

Samuel Wesley thought this amusing and shook his head.

“I did not, Mr Holmes! Your young chap was smallish but in a mood to knock seven bells out of someone. A terrier! Don't ask me what it was about, though. I got down from the footplate to give 'im a piece of my mind but he ran off. I shouted after 'im and asked what the damnation he thought he was doing. I couldn't go and leave the engine standing there, but the whole thing was reported as soon as we got to Ryde. Now I'm told they're going to do what they should have done long ago. Put a proper barbed-wire fence from the linesman's hut to the tunnel mouth. They'll care too much about their skins to try getting over that.”

“Whoever they were,” said Holmes thoughtfully, “one might have expected them to run down the bank towards the school. But they did not, did they? The first one ran down the bank away from the school, did he not? And your terrier followed him.”

“How could you tell which way they ran?” Mr Wesley asked with a laugh. “You was never there, sir.”

“No,” said Holmes in the same thoughtful tone, “but someone else was.”

Samuel Wesley's evidence, which seemed to have been sought by no one but Holmes and me, altered the story of the drama.

To a more distant observer on higher ground, the sight of Patrick Riley running out on to the track in front of an oncoming train might look like an attempt at suicide. At least, it might be conveniently described as that. This more distant observer, perhaps smoking his pipe among the elders and ash saplings by the pond, might not see the second boy with the train blocking his view. After hearing Mr Wesley, however, I could not help feeling that our young client had indeed gone out with a rage to murder rather than an impulse to destroy himself.

As we walked back to St Vincent's, I said, “Tell me, Holmes, how could you know which way they ran? I should have thought it most likely that they would have gone down the near side of the embankment and back to the school.”

“Across Reginald Winter's field of vision,” he said sceptically. “Unless my brains have turned to sawdust, the unknown boy was one who had determined that he would not be seen during this little drama, while making certain that Patrick Riley should. I can prove that in the next half-hour. If not, on our return to town I shall stand you the most expensive dinner on the menu of the Langham Hotel.”

7

O
ur second interview with Patrick Riley was one of the most difficult that Holmes and I had ever undertaken. I was reminded of nothing so much as the occasion when an injured sparrow stumbled on to our window-sill in Baker Street. It had damaged a wing, and, for my part, I should have thought it best put out of its misery. Nothing would do for Sherlock Holmes, however, but it must be caught. Then it must be installed in a cage with a makeshift splint and fed on bread and cheese until the frail little thing had mended. It was duly released among the trees of the Regent's Park.

I shall never forget the pantomime of catching it to begin with, the twin dangers of letting it fall off the sill to certain death or doing it some terrible damage by snatching at its elusive little body. Cadet Riley was a case in point. One wrong word, one ill-chosen nuance, and we should lose him. As we sat once again at the table in the school sanatorium with its empty beds and sunlight through a mullioned window, Holmes asked, “May we count upon you to tell us the truth this time, Patrick Riley?”

The young face looked startled, first at Holmes and then at me.

“I don't know what you mean, sir.”

“I suggest you know perfectly well. You were not going out on that Sunday afternoon to kill yourself, were you? I think we have established that.”

“Was I not?” There was such confusion in the response.

“You know you were not. You told us you were far more likely to kill someone else!”

The fourteen-year-old sat and stared at us. Was it that he did not understand the point of the question? Or did he understand it pretty well and not know what to say?

Holmes let a long silence pass. Then he said, very gently, “You must trust me again before I can trust you.”

“Yes …” His head was down and even sitting at the same table I could barely hear the soft whisper of that single syllable.

“Good!” said Holmes enthusiastically, clapping him lightly on the shoulder. “Now why did you go out on that Sunday afternoon?”

Riley still hesitated and then gave up the game.

“To meet John Porson.”

“The boy who lost the postal order? He who had been your friend?”

“Yes, Mr Holmes. They would never have let me go to him, at least on my own.”

“Whose idea was it? Porson's?”

“I thought so.”

“If they would not let you go out for a walk, do you ask us to believe that they would let you exchange messages with Porson? How could you communicate with him?”

Riley shook his head and then pushed his chair back. Beside his bed was a tin tray, a dark brown thing of the kind familiar in hospital wards. He brought it back to us and sat down.

“Two days before, Mr Holmes, on the Friday, the headmaster's maid—‘Mitzi,' we call her—brought my lunch in here. I wasn't allowed to mix with the other boys, so I had all my meals here. When I lifted the plate, there was chalk writing on the tray. The plate had hidden it. Just a message. ‘Linesman's hut. Sun 3.30. JLP. RSVP.' That was all.”

“John Learmount Porson,” said Holmes quietly, “You were to meet him by the railway line on Sunday afternoon at half-past three. What happened then?”

He looked at us as if we should have known better.

“I knew he would help me if he could. If he'd bothered to smuggle a message to me, he must be on my side. Even if he only went to Mr Winter and told him that we were friends and I would never have robbed him.”

“And how did you reply?”

“I had nothing that would do for writing on the tray. But with my forefinger I rubbed out the ‘JLP RSVP.' I collected the chalk on my fingertip and just managed to make a smudgy ‘PR' so that it read, ‘Linesman's hut. Sun. 3.30 PR' If it came from Porson, he would be on the look-out for the maid taking back the tray to the scullery. They pile them up there and wipe them over. He must have been able to get at the tray or he couldn't have sent the message in the first place. As for Mitzi, she would never take any notice of a chalk mark like that, even if she saw it. I covered the writing with the plate when she took it away.”

To those who knew Holmes well, there was a look of satisfaction on that sharp profile which had not been there since Sir John Fisher first told us his story.

“Good,” he said soothingly. “I believe we have got somewhere at last.”

“It was my one chance,” the boy insisted. “For two days I thought that at last I could talk to someone who would listen to me. Porson would trust me.”

“And then?”

Riley looked at us uncertainly, living through all his difficulties again.

“I thought I should never get to the linesman's hut, sir. Any master who saw me leaving the building would stop me. There might not be many boys crossing the field at that moment, but I could still get stopped. It was my one chance, Mr Holmes. You do see that, don't you?”

“I see that, Patrick Riley, plainly enough.”

“I could have watched for Porson, but I hadn't got a view from this window of anyone walking across the field. I decided the best thing was to leave it till the last minute and then run. I'd be there before they could stop me. About twenty past three I crept down the sanatorium stairs, always looking ahead and round corners first. There's almost no one about in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I moved round the edge of the lawn below this window and through the little gate into the main school grounds. Then I ran across the corner of the cricket pitch and into the School Field, as they call it. Even if they came after me and caught me, I might have a minute or two with Porson first. At least long enough to swear to him that I never stole his postal order and knew nothing about it.”

“You looked back several times, did you not?” I inquired, “Particularly as you got closer to the embankment.”

“Yes, sir,” he said uncertainly, and Sherlock Holmes frowned me into silence, “Yes, I did. I wanted to see if anyone was coming after me, but they weren't. I got across the field, then under the wire and up the embankment. I stood by the linesman's hut and looked round, but—”

“But Porson was not there,” Holmes said, as if it was the only logical conclusion.

Riley nodded.

“I looked back across the field again, but I couldn't see him coming. It was almost exactly half-past three by then. I even opened the door of the linesman's hut—that's not difficult—to make sure he wasn't waiting inside. That was the only place he could be. His message could have meant that. He wasn't there. Then in the distance I could hear the rumble of a train coming from the tunnel. I was wondering whether to hide, and then—”

“Sovran-Phillips,” said Holmes with an air of impatience.

Riley looked at him.

“How could you know?”

“Do not waste my time, young man. It is my business to know such things. Pray, continue.”

“He was there on the far side of the line, laughing at me. Or perhaps not laughing, more like sneering. Then I knew of course that the message on the tray had come from him. But if it was a trap, I couldn't think what.”

“He would hardly push you under a railway train,” I said humorously as Holmes glared at me again.

“No, sir. That's what I would have done to him. I thought he was going to fight but he just stood there, just by the line, talking like Petty Officer Carter. He said people of my type were starvelings and they had no business putting themselves up for Dartmouth or Osborne. Especially if we were no better than grease-monkeys in the engine-room. I hadn't even had a proper father.”

Starvelings! If the boy was right, Sovran-Phillips and Winter spoke the same language in every sense of the phrase.

“Tell me,” I asked, “what was your father's profession?”

This time Holmes did not glare at me.

“He was a senior cashier, sir, to the Royal Bank of Ireland. After he died, there was only money to keep me here for a year or two. I've always known that the only way I could get to Dartmouth or Osborne would be with a Nomination. That's why I've worked for it.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Phillips said he could prove my mother was never married to my father—and he would. I'd never get entrance to Osborne or Dartmouth after that, let alone a Nomination. I'd better take my punishment and go home. If not, his brothers could see that I never got to midshipman. And if ever he saw an announcement of my sister marrying, he'd make sure the man would hear how her brother was the boy who stole the postal order at St Vincent's.”

“Indeed?” said Holmes gently.

“There was no one else to hear him. He was careful about that. I've got no proof of anything he said. But I decided I'd fight him there and I'd fight my case in court. I'd repeat every word of what he said, whether they believed me or not. He said he'd break my head—”

“But he did not?”

“No, sir. Sovran-Phillips is stronger than I am, but I suppose I was angrier than him. We were on top of the bank, by the line, but he tried to pull away. I could see the train coming from the tunnel. He was hitting at me but I just wouldn't let him go. I was on the track and he was trying to pull away. I said something like, ‘I'll fight you here, in front of the train. If I'm killed, I'll hold on tight enough to make sure you go down as well.' I had him by his coat, trying to pull him on to the track. Then he broke clear. I don't think I wanted to kill him exactly—and I didn't want to die. But I was desperate, sir, and I was going to give him a fright he would never forget. I wanted him to know that if ever he hurt my family, I'd kill him by fair means or foul.”

It was something of a wild story, but to hear Patrick Riley was to know that he meant it. As he was describing the incident, I calculated that the stationary engine of the train would have hidden the two boys from Reginald Winter's observation soon after it came out from the tunnel.

“And then?” Holmes prompted him.

“I shouted after him as he went down the bank on the other side. By then the train was slowing down and he was out of sight somewhere among the bushes on the other side. That's all I saw, Mr Holmes. I was so mad with hate, I think I could have held him until the engine killed us both.”

With a chill down the spine at these last words, I thought of Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Such impulses of mutual destruction are no fantasy, even in children. Holmes, perhaps with the same image in mind, said nothing for a moment. The boy blinked a tear or two from his eyes. Then my friend steered us into calmer waters.

“So far we have talked very little about your work. Are you good at it?”

“I was first of my term for engineering and navigation, sir. Only second in mathematics but first in trigonometry again. I like history, but I can't do languages well. If I could get to Dartmouth or Osborne, I should like most of all to be on a training cruiser. They teach torpedo and electrics, gunnery as well as engineering.”

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