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Authors: Donald Thomas

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There was far too little time for that. In a few minutes more the flames were leaping and dancing on the interior woodwork. It was as much as the Lord of Kilmorna could do to save himself. He came out on to the terrace of the burning house and confronted ‘Captain Moonlight', a ruffianly figure in cap and gaiters, the commander of the raiders. Thick clouds of smoke were floating across the lawns. Several men followed Sir Arthur as he turned away across the terrace, half hidden by a curtain of smoke. The estate manager lost sight of him but heard shouts and an argument. Sir Arthur said, ‘You may shoot me first, but you won't get the key.' The man in cap and gaiters told him to prepare to meet his God. One of the other bandits began to count, ‘One … two … three …' Sir Arthur said firmly, ‘All right, fire away.' There was a brief silence and then several revolver shots cracked across the smoke-filled garden.

The servants huddled in fear of their lives at one end of the terrace but there was no further sound. It seemed that the raiders melted away behind the smokescreen, empty-handed. The estate manager went forward alone. He found Sir Arthur Vicars lying dead at the foot of the further terrace steps with bullet wounds in his body. Round his neck was a card bearing the legend: ‘spy. informers beware. ira never forgets'.

How absurd it seems! I believe that the card and the legend were far more likely to have been the work of common thieves than of the IRA. Of what use was this death to the republicans when they had already gained the treaty they sought? Sir Arthur was a genealogist and historian, who had once held the office of Ulster King of Arms, presiding over the ceremonial of the Viceroy of Ireland's court at Dublin Castle. But that was fourteen years earlier. He was now an invalid with little interest in the politics of Ireland. In the columns of
The Times
, the senseless murder committed at a time when political differences had been resolved was condemned by the British Prime Minister, Mr David Lloyd George, as a cowardly and brutal crime against a man who had given no cause for offence.

There was, however, another explanation. Only a few of Sir Arthur's friends, including Sherlock Holmes, knew that Kilmorna House boasted a certain ‘strong-room' or vault. ‘Captain Moonlight' and his men had paid a previous visit, when they tried by brute force to smash their way into this strong-room through the ceiling above. Concrete and steel girders defeated the assault. You may be sure that their object was not Sir Arthur's modest collection of English silver or his library of genealogy. The raiders believed that in the vault at Kilmorna lay a treasure-house of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, all set in gold, the regalia of St Patrick and the Crown Jewels of Ireland, which the world had not seen for fourteen years. Such was the prize for which Sir Arthur Vicars died. His murderers were not patriots of any sort, but common robbers.

I could not hear of this outrage without recalling another death in the same family. Seven years earlier, when Sir Arthur's nephew, Peirce Mahony, was shot through the heart in the grounds of his father's house at Grange Con, south of Dublin, Captain Moonlight was nowhere to be found. But like his uncle, the young man had held office in the court of King Edward's Viceroy at Dublin, Lord Aberdeen.

The circumstances of his death were these. On Sunday, 27 July 1914, Peirce Mahony was with a family party at Grange Con. The talk was of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, the mobilisation of the Austrian army on the Russian frontier, of what France and England would do. After lunch, Mahony took his gun and went out to shoot duck. By dusk he had not returned. A search of the grounds revealed the young man's body lying in the lake. Mahony had been shot twice through the heart by his own gun. There was very little spread of shot. The gun had been fired when the mouths of the barrels were more or less touching his chest, perhaps pressed against it.

Suicide was impossible, since Mahony would have been unable to reach the trigger if the muzzle was pressed above his heart. It was assumed that there had been an accident when he climbed over the wire fence to reach the lake. Perhaps he propped his gun against the fence. Perhaps he unwisely reached over to lift it by its muzzle with the mouths of the barrels pointing at his chest. A strand of wire caught in the trigger-guard and pressed the trigger back. The barrels were discharged simultaneously and he was knocked back into the water by the force of the impact.

Sherlock Holmes was far away from this tragedy but he later examined the trigger-guard of the shotgun with great care. There were no scratches on the metal, such as barbed wire might have made. All the same, why should anyone choose to murder a decent young fellow like Mahony? Holmes guessed that Mahony was a man who had learned some truth about the loss of King Edward's Crown Jewels and was too honest to keep that truth to himself. My friend was of the opinion that the young man boldly threatened to unmask the thief who had stolen the regalia of St Patrick. If so, the thief had now murdered his accuser. If this version of events was correct then the killer, as Holmes judged him, escaped justice only for one more year before being seized after he had shot a policeman dead in a Hampstead street.

Of the three public figures involved in the 1907 scandal of the Crown Jewels, two had met violent deaths. Only one remained alive. Frank Shackleton. He was known to Mayfair society as the younger brother of the famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Sherlock Holmes described him to me more bluntly as ‘a man of the worst reputation and a disgrace to a fine family'.

The deaths of Peirce Mahony and Sir Arthur Vicars were the last acts of the drama that had begun in the early summer of 1907 and involved Sherlock Holmes and myself in one of our most sensational cases. To that drama, I shall now return.

II

A reader of these sketches of the life of Sherlock Holmes would find it remarkable, perhaps incredible, had my friend's talents not been employed by the authorities in the more dangerous world of the new century. The long reign of Her Majesty had come to an end and she had been succeeded by the Prince of Wales as Edward VII. There was greater affluence and freer style at court. All the same, it was a world where political assassination and terrorist outrage had assumed menacing proportions.

Holmes had by now a reputation that stretched back over some decades. He was known to the mightiest in the land and was on close personal terms with men of influence. Among them, as young men, were two future Lord Chancellors, Halsbury and Birkenhead, as well as the great defender, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, KC. Once or twice in the earlier years of our friendship, when Holmes had rendered some private service or other, he would be absent afterwards to keep an engagement for lunch or tea ‘in the neighbourhood of Windsor'. After his success in the matter of the Bruce-Partington plans in 1895, he returned from such a visit with a remarkably fine emerald tie-pin as a token of royal appreciation.

In a few more years, it was in the shadow world of such organisations as the ‘Special Branch' of Scotland Yard or the new department of Military Intelligence at Queen Anne's Gate that Holmes was most often consulted. The ‘Special Branch' of the CID had been created in 1884, in response to Fenian outrages by gun and bomb. Among the targets attacked by the dynamiters were the Houses of Parliament, the offices of
The Times
, the London railway stations, and Scotland Yard itself. From the first, Chief Inspector Littlechild, Assistant Commissioner Monro, and successive commanders of the Branch consulted Holmes in many of their most important cases.

From my notes, I see that it was in February 1907 when I accompanied my friend on a visit to Scotland Yard. At that time, our friend Lestrade had served more than thirty years in the Metropolitan Police. He had risen to the rank of Superintendent and there was no better commander within the higher echelons of the Special Branch.

He received us with that bluff courtesy which is his hallmark. We sat in leather chairs either side of the fireplace in his room, the curtains closed against a fusillade of rain on the windows that winter evening. Our host was plainly bursting with news of some kind and we did not keep him from it long.

‘An announcement of importance will be made in the next few days, gentlemen. His Majesty the King is to pay an official visit to Ireland this summer. This is the year of the Irish National Exhibition in Dublin and it will not do to keep the King away. The world would think that he cannot safely set foot in that part of his dominions. It would never do, Mr Holmes. King Edward himself is determined on the arrangement and his officials are inclined to let him have his way. All the same, it poses a considerable risk.'

The impatient smile-like muscular spasm plucked at Holmes's mouth.

‘Well, Lestrade, if the King will have it so, there is little you or I can do to stop him. In any case, His Majesty is quite right. If it seems that he dare not set foot in part of his dominions, there is an end of royal authority. You had better let the thing go ahead, my dear fellow.'

Lestrade looked uncomfortable at this and stroked his moustache.

‘The King—or, rather, His Majesty's advisers—hoped that you might consent to play a part in the plans, Mr Holmes.'

This suggestion, made with some timidity, broke the tension in the room. Holmes threw back his head and uttered his dry sardonic laugh.

‘My dear Lestrade! I have so many enemies in the world that I should merely draw fire upon the King. With me at his side, His Majesty would be twice as likely to be shot!'

‘Not at his side,' Lestrade said quickly. ‘You would have no objection to a visit beforehand to view the arrangements for his safety? Or to being there as an observer for the two days of the visit?'

Holmes sighed and stretched out his long thin legs towards the fire. ‘I cannot say that I had included Dublin in my summer itinerary.' The superintendent paused and then came out with his trump. ‘It was our late Lord Chancellor who suggested to His Majesty that your assistance might be called upon.'

My friend paused and the aquiline features assumed a look of dejection. His bohemian nature had given him a strong aversion to society and ceremonial, ‘flummery', as he termed it. However, as soon as Lord Halsbury's name was invoked, I knew that the superintendent had won the day. Holmes looked a little despondent, as it seemed to me.

‘You hit below the belt, Lestrade,' he said gloomily. ‘Lord Halsbury knows I can refuse him nothing.'

So it was decided. We talked over a few matters and at length got up to leave. Holmes turned back to Lestrade.

‘One thing, Lestrade. Where is His Majesty to be lodged in Dublin?'

‘The Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park, as I understand.'

‘Impossible.' Holmes brought his hand down flat and hard on the desk. ‘It is the first place that would be made a target. Let him make the crossing on the royal yacht, anchor off Kingstown, and live on board. And let there be a cruiser either side of him. I cannot undertake this business if he multiplies the risks by living ashore.' I confess there had grown about my friend something of the prima donna in such matters. He must have his way. As the world knows, however, King Edward sailed on the
Victoria and Albert
, anchored off Kingstown, and lived aboard. The cruiser
Black Prince
was moored on one side, the
Antrim
on the other.

III

King Edward's visit was to take place on 10 and 11 July but the Irish International Exhibition opened in Herbert Park, Dublin, on 4 May. This was the occasion of our first glimpse. At eleven o'clock that morning, a grand procession set out from Dublin Castle for the official opening.

In the cool spring sunlight, the carriage of Lord Aberdeen, the Viceroy of Ireland, passed out through the triumphal arch of the castle gateway to the salute of sentries on either side. The glossy geldings turned down the short incline of Cork Hill into Dame Street, its cobbles ringing with the hollow hoofbeats of two squadrons of hussars, the upright plumes of their fur shakos stirring a little, their red tunics laced with gold and the sabres bumping against the dark blue thighs of their overalls. Behind the Viceroy and the Countess of Aberdeen came several more carriages, bearing officials of the viceregal household, including Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms. Holmes and I rode in the final carriage as guests of Lord Aberdeen.

Holmes longed to be anywhere but in the middle of such aimless pageantry. The familiar look of ineffable boredom on his sharp features was painful to behold.

‘This will be the death of me, Watson,' he said from the corner of his mouth as we rattled along Dame Street, past the coloured glass arcade of the Empire Music Hall and the pillared elegance of the bank. He looked with complete incomprehension upon those who had turned out to clap and cheer the procession, as the Viceroy lifted the cocked hat of his court-dress in acknowledgement. The women waved and the men stood bareheaded, as if at the passing of a funeral.

Where the carriages and escort swung round College Green, the trams had been drawn up to allow the procession past the grey classical façade of Trinity College. There was a glimpse of lawns and chestnut trees. Then, behind the railings, rose a jeering outburst. The uniformed officers of the Dublin Metropolitan Constabulary moved quickly as clenched fists were raised at the King's Viceroy and his lady. Holmes brightened up at the promise of an affray.

Among the long residential avenues of south Dublin lay the exhibition grounds in Herbert Park with newly erected African villages and Canadian settlements, an Indian theatre and children's amusements. The cold May wind whipped and snapped at the flags of the nations on their poles. Each gust blew clouds of sand like stinging hail from the newly laid paths.

Inside the domed hall, as the procession formed up, rose the soaring chords of the
Tannhäuser
overture for organ and full orchestra. The dignitaries moved forward, led by the Knights of St Patrick in richly jewelled collars and the slim figure of Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms, in his herald's tunic bearing the royal lions in gold, like a figure from a Tudor court.

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