Dublin. I know little more than that. My impression is of a bright boy with very little money behind him. He has not been in trouble before. I should guess that his family has scraped everything together to pay his way through St Vincent’s in the hope of an Admiral’s Nomination for Dartmouth or Osborne. He seems to have the mental ability.”

“Meaning what?” Holmes asked suspiciously.

Sir John took a long breath.

“When they take their exams at fourteen or sixteen for the senior Royal Naval Academies, there is usually one Nomination for each school. It is rather the same as a scholarship to a college at Oxford or Cambridge. It pays the fees, of course, but there is also a good deal of prestige and it will carry a young man a fair way in his career. Of course, the admirals do not know all the boys personally and the headmaster’s advice carries great weight. Even if the present accusation proves no more than suspicion, Riley is no longer a likely candidate for such preferment. Unfortunately, he will always be known as the boy who stole the postal order, unless the contrary can be proved. I have come to you, Mr Holmes, because you are the one man I know who may be able to prove him innocent rather than not guilty.”

At last the two friends were on common ground, to my very great relief.

“And where is he now?” Holmes demanded.

“He was suspended as soon as the charge was brought, and kept apart from the other boys in the school sanatorium. Once his punishment is confirmed, arrangements will be made to return him home.”

“We must lose no time.”

“You had better hear the rest, Mr Holmes.” Fisher looked as if he did not quite know how to continue. However, he resumed.

“Riley has been quarantined in the sanatorium, but, of course, he could hardly be kept a prisoner there. Last Sunday he slipped out on his own. The boys are permitted to walk in the surrounding countryside on Sunday afternoons between lunch and tea. No one seems to have thought of forbidding him to do so.”

Our friend looked more uncomfortable than I had ever known him. Even Mycroft Holmes was studying his own toecaps. I felt that some catastrophe was about to be announced.

“Last Sunday afternoon,” Sir John continued, “it seems that Patrick Riley tried to kill himself by running towards the railway line beyond the school field and throwing himself in the path of a train that was just coming out of Bradstone St Lawrence tunnel. I think that says everything.”

Sherlock Holmes’s attitude and manner changed at once. His dark eyes glittered as he said quietly, “I think you had better give us the details, Sir John.”

“Very well. As I understand it, Riley ran across a field adjoining the school grounds. It is sometimes called the School Field and is commonly used by the boys on their Sunday walks. There were still several of them around, walking back to the main building for tea. At the far side, where the railway line runs on an embankment, there is hardly a fence at all, merely a strand or two of wire between a row of posts. Anyone of moderate agility could scramble up to the track and the linesman’s hut in a few seconds. A train had just emerged from Bradstone St Lawrence tunnel, when the boy stepped out from behind the hut and stood directly in the path of the locomotive. He showed no intention of moving.”

“How far distant is the hut from the tunnel?”

“Two or three hundreds yards, I believe. That would not have saved him. However, by the grace of God, the young fireman in the engine cab had seen him running just before he reached dead ground below the line and was lost to view for a moment. Perhaps sensing something was wrong, the fireman shouted a warning to the driver. In a split second more, Riley appeared from behind the hut. The driver threw the brakes on even as the boy came into view. Riley stood there, staring at the train which was slowing to a crawl. But for the fireman, he would have been hit. As it was, he saw the train losing speed and knew that he would more probably be injured or maimed than killed. Thereupon he ran down the far side. Afterwards he turned back and was identified by several witnesses, crossing the field towards the school.”

There was a pause while Holmes gave the matter some thought. Fisher added, unnecessarily as it seemed to me, “Had this attempt succeeded, a sordid schoolboy misdemeanour would have become a newspaper scandal. I understand that the field, which lies beyond the school’s sports pitches, has been put strictly out of bounds to all boys since the incident.”

Holmes murmured approvingly and then asked, “No doubt this so-called suicide attempt was taken at St Vincent’s as confirmation of his guilt as a thief?”

“In the eyes of the world it will be taken as such,” said Fisher coldly, “How can it not be?”

“And has he some right of appeal against Mr Winter’s decision over the curious business of the postal order?”

Sir John put down his cup again.

“My dear Holmes! Nothing has so far been decided, given the boy’s obvious distress of mind and the probable need for legal advice on his mother’s side. He remains in the school sanatorium, but now he is there as a patient rather than a detainee. He will not, of course, be permitted to wander off again.”

Holmes stood up, removed the silver cover and handed round the plate of muffins.

“Sir John, let me be clear. Have you come to persuade me that I should act on the boy’s behalf—presumably not on the headmaster’s behalf—or as a servant of their lordships of the Admiralty?”

“From what I have told you, Mr Holmes, I would have you investigate and see if you can find the truth. Whatever help I can give you, I will. Now of all times, we cannot afford a public scandal involving the Admiralty. Thanks to St Vincent’s, that is what we are threatened with. To use a lawyer’s phrase, I suppose I am empowered to retain you.”

In my friend’s eye, there was the glint of the war-horse sighting or scenting battle. He replaced the muffin- dish and sat down.

“Very well, Sir John. Then perhaps this is the moment when I should have sight of the postal order with its contentious signature. I have no doubt you are carrying it in that black attache case of yours.”

Admiral Fisher said nothing, but he sprang the two locks of the case and drew out a folder containing a single sheet of paper with a form pinned to it. He handed this to Holmes, who glanced over it with his pocket lens.

While Mycroft Holmes and Fisher looked on, my friend held the postal order at one angle and then another, allowing light and shade to play upon it. Finally, he drew out his silver propelling-pencil and made two or three cryptic notes on the white starched cuff of his shirt.

“You will, of course, wish to retain it for a thorough examination,” said Fisher encouragingly.

Holmes looked up as he handed it back.

“You are too kind. However, I believe I have seen all that is necessary to bring the case to a successful conclusion.”

Mycroft Holmes scowled at his sibling.

“You are quite certain, dear brother?”

“When I am certain, Mycroft, I am always quite certain. Now then, if you will allow me full discretion in the matter, I think I shall begin with the so-called attempted suicide.”

“Rather than the theft with which the boy is charged?” Fisher asked uneasily.

“I believe so.”

“But as yet you know nothing of the boy and little of the incident on the railway line.”

“Indeed not. That is precisely my point. I must know. I shall remedy my ignorance at the earliest possible moment. I do not know the boy, of course, but I know a little about self destruction. I have yet to hear any argument from you that would convince me of an attempt at suicide. However, I cannot help reflecting that Patrick Riley’s disappearance from this earth would have the convenient effect at St Vincent’s of confirming the charge against him with no likelihood that anyone else could prove otherwise.” He sat back with his cup of tea in one hand, a muffin in the other, and smiled.

Sir John blinked and said, “Mr Holmes, you are to investigate the evidence of theft, if you please, not theories of suicide. This is not one of your murder mysteries.”

“You would be surprised to know, Sir John, how many inquiries of a quite different kind have turned into one of my murder mysteries, as you are kind enough to call them. As for Patrick Riley, it is of the greatest importance that he should remain where he is until Watson and I have had a chance to examine him. Indeed, you may tell the school that my colleague has been retained by their lordships or the boy’s family as a medical consultant. However

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату