Introduction by Sir Sherrinford Holmes, Baronet
This, my brother Sherlock's second case, is included because it explains one of the many other small matters in his life which his 'fandom' (he so hates that word, as did Watson) sometimes questioned. In 'Seventy-Two Sherlock entered Christ Church College in Oxford, yet two years later and halfway through his course he suddenly transferred to Caius College in Cambridge. No explanation was forthcoming for this change at the time. Sherlock left Oxford because of a small matter involving murder most foul – a murder that was covered up by those who should have known better, and who soon paid a high price for their actions.
Narration by Mr. William Sherlock Scott Holmes, Esquire
Friend Watson often chided me for being a total cynic when it came to humanity, although even he later conceded that I had a lot more regard for it than Mycroft. My reply to my friend was a simple one; I had had long experience of the often so-called humanity of people, and I knew that thinking the worst ensured a much higher chance of being proved right. In few other cases was this more clearly shown than my second investigation, the one which I once mentioned in passing to Watson as 'the Tarleton murders' and the sorry sequence of events that was responsible for my abandoning Oxford and heading to its rival Cambridge to complete my studies.
It was, upon reflection, sheer chance that led to my involvement in this case, although of course upon my mentioning it to Sherry, he immediately said that it had to be the workings of Divine Providence. I have mixed views on such things; I do concede however that it was somewhat unlikely that I just chanced to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending how one views subsequent events.
One of the things visitors to our country (and quite a few of the natives, for that matter) tend not to comprehend is that there is no actual building called 'Oxford University'. The institution functions as a whole group of collective colleges under that name, of which the one I had chosen for my studies, Christ Church, was the fourteenth to be established back in 1517. At the time of this story there were twenty-two University Colleges, Keble having been the most recent at the start of the decade. There were of course several smaller institutions vying to be the twenty-third member, one of which was Tarleton Hall which lay just beyond the two railway stations to the west of the city. Against it was a perception, however unjust, that the area was 'not really Oxford' although as with London, if the city kept expanding the way it was then they soon might be. Tarleton did have one advantage; Mr. Jacob Tarleton, who as his name suggested was a descendant of the Hall's original owners, happened to be Vice-Chancellor of Christ Church and therefore a man of some influence over the potential admission of any new college. There were at least two other institutions who wished to beat Tarleton to the prize, and for such a reward a man might go a long way indeed.
Even to murder.
I mentioned in my first case one of the few people whom I considered worthy of my friendship at college, a Mr. Peter Goodfellow. He was an amiable giant of a fellow with an untidy mop of blond hair that seemed impervious to any hair-brush, but he had a genial nature that even I found soothing. He was it might be said not the luckiest person in the world, and it was he who incurred my involvement in the case that led to my quitting the city of dreaming spires. I bear him no ill-will for that; it is I have always thought better to see people for what they really are that to live in some dream world. Although it was unusual to have a room-mate on a different course, the fellow I had roomed with in my first year had been quite unsupportable and I had been relieved when he had quitted after only one term, so Peter had moved in in his stead.
My friend was training to be a doctor and as such worked as a 'relief' at the clinic which served the various colleges. I knew that he was on duty that fatal weekend so I expected to have our rooms to myself in order to read a rare book that Sherry had so kindly sent me (not of course his choice; his new acquaintance Mr. Hardland had the most excellent taste in literature). However I was not out of the first chapter before I received a telegram from my room-mate, beseeching me to join him at Tarleton as a matter of urgency. I did not immediately worry; Peter had a tendency to make a drama out of any crisis, although to be fair he was expert when it came to generating crises in the first place. I left our rooms and went back with the messenger who, I noted, had been sent for me in a carriage.
Tarleton College had, I knew, been set up about twenty years ago in the once copious grounds of the Hall of the same name. The Tarletons had lost it at the Glorious Revolution some two centuries back and it had passed through several different owners before the last of them had sold most of their lands to an adjoining small grammar school that wished to expand. I wondered precisely what fine mess Peter had gotten himself into this time
The Hall was clearly of some age, at least part-Elizabethan although clearly there had been significant rebuilding of the eastern wing, mercifully not in the fashionable and horrendous 'Gothic' style I had seen in some places around the city. I was ushered in and did not fail to notice the sharp look I got when the manservant who admitted me was bidden to take me to see Peter. The young fellow looked far more miserable than I had ever seen him in our short acquaintance, and I soon found out why.
“They think that I murdered her!”
I collected my wits and sat down beside him. He was shaking, I noted.
“We had better start with some facts”, I said. “First, I think that you should tell me everything that has brought you to this sorry state.”
He took a deep sigh and began.
“The dead lady is Miss Elizabeth Bessborough”, he said, “co-owner of this stately pile. She returned here from a meeting in town at a quarter to nine – the footman who admitted her remembered the clock striking shortly before she entered – and after talking briefly to the gentlemen in the lounge, she went to the sitting-room.”
I thought that a little odd. Most ladies on returning to their houses surely went to their own room as swiftly as possibly, to effect a change of clothes.
“What was your connection to the victim?” I inquired. He blushed fiercely.
“Miss Bessborough and I..... we had an Understanding. And..... Mr. Tarleton did not like it, because he wished her to become his wife.”
Privately I thought that Peter managing anything like that ranked up there alongside that miracle with the loaves and fishes. The boy was not so much averse to emotions as to finding them completely incomprehensible. That he could have gotten out the words to express his feelings for any lady had been remarkable, let alone someone of such a high social class. Still, now was not the time to raise such issues.
“You were with her?” I asked gently. He nodded.
“She asked me to escort her to the suffrage meeting being held in town”, he said. “I brought her back here, then I talked with the gentlemen whilst she went off. I had assumed that she had gone to her room, but just moments later we heard the shot coming from the sitting-room, which is across the hall and the other side of the grand stairway from the lounge.”
I just looked at him. He was going to have to learn a better poker face than that if he wished to become a doctor. He sighed unhappily.
“I had just gone to say my farewells when the shot came”, he admitted. “I was at the bottom of the stairs so naturally I reached the door first about a minute before the others; they had to come from their room and go right around the staircase. I burst into the room – and there she was, dead!”
I continued to look at him.
“I may have sort of picked up the gun I found there”, he admitted glumly. “Just as the others arrived.”
And the poor fellow's luck continued as bad as ever, I thought.
“Tell me about these other gentlemen”, I said.
“There were two – no, three of them”, he said. “James Bessborough, her brother and co-owner of the place. He was the only one not there when the shot went off; he had gone to the smoking-room to fetch cigars for everyone.”
I thought that was also rather strange.
“Why not smoke in the smoking-room?” I asked.
“It is rather cold in there”, he said. “One of the windows is broken and although it has been covered up the wind still gets in, especially on rough nights like this. I suppose as it is his house, Mr. Bessborough can smoke where he pleases.”
I did not like that broken window at all, but did not push it.
“The other gentlemen?” I pressed.
“Jacob Tarleton, whose family used to own this pile”, he said. “And as we both know, the rather bad-tempered Vice-Chancellor of our own institution; he does not like me at all. And Edward Welland the family doctor. He is a good sort if a little set in his ways. He was the one who came through the door and found me holding the gun.”
I thought for a moment.
“Did Miss Bessborough seem her normal self during the evening?” I asked.
“She was concerned over this effort on the college's part to become part of the University”, he said. “It is all rather complicated. Her father sold the Hall grounds to the college on the proviso that his children would be allowed to live there as long as they wished. Her brother wished to move somewhere smaller as he is not fond of the place, but she was firmly against such an idea.”
And she can object no more, I thought.
“You said that Miss Bessborough went into the sitting-room upon her return”, I said. “Do you know why?”
He shook his head.
“I thought that she had gone upstairs to her room”, he said. “I was actually on the first step when I saw the light on in the sitting-room. I went over to the door and was about to knock when I heard the sound of a gunshot.”
This case got stranger by the minute, I thought but did not say. My friend needed his full attention to the matter in hand.
“I knocked – stupid I know, but habit – and went in almost immediately. She was lying there, on the Turkish rug, her blue dress spread out as she had fallen. It was horrible!”
“Does that room lead anywhere?” I asked.
“Not in the house”, he said. “The smoking-room is one side of it, but there is no door. There is a cupboard in the wall along the other side, and of course the large French doors that open out onto the balcony.”
“And the doors out were shut?” I asked.
“They must have been at the time”, he said. “I could hear the wind still blowing, and had the doors been open then the curtains would have billowed in. Mr. Tarleton drew them back once he had entered, although there was no light from outside.”
I did not like this case at all. There seemed to be far too many inconsistencies and strange happenings, and I was beginning to foment an uneasy impression of what might have actually occurred here. And if I was right, poor Peter was in more trouble than even he knew.
We were interrupted at that moment by the arrival of a footman who informed us that the police constable from the town was here and wished to question him. Giving me a resigned look my friend left. I thought for a few more moments then went to talk to the other two men in the house.
Mr. Tarleton had just returned from taking Mr. James Bessborough to his room, and insisted that he be allowed some time to recover from the shock of his sister's death. I noted but put aside the fact that this meant he could not be questioned immediately and concentrated on the two other gentlemen. The doctor was an affable enough fellow, grey-haired and in his mid-fifties. Mr. Jacob Tarleton, my own Vice-Chancellor and a person I had never liked, was in his early forties and dapper in a way that reminded me of a snake-oil salesman. He clearly thought equally little of me, and when I asked if it was possible to look at the scene of the crime he became outright hostile.
“I do not see that it is any business of yours, Mr. Holmes”, he said haughtily.
“We looked round afterwards”, the doctor said, “and saw nothing of import. Except Jacob here nearly fell over that damn candle!”
“What candle?” I asked.
“Bess had one of those lavender-scented horrors that she insisted made her sleep better”, Mr. Tarleton said, sounding cross at the revelation of his carelessness. “Stank the place out, in my opinion.”
“She had the candle lit in the sitting-room?” I asked, surprised. Why would she light a candle used in her bedroom in another room?
“She sometimes read in there of an evening”, Mr. Tarleton said. “It must have been lit and got knocked over when we all entered. There was a small table turned over just inside the door; presumably it had been on that. As I said, the room stank!”
He very clearly did not wish me to see the crime scene (which in itself was interesting) but the doctor was prepared to accompany me so the two of us left.
The sitting-room at Tarleton Hall was very much as I imagined it. Constable Johab Huntingdon of the local city station met us outside it and said that he had just had the body moved to another room. That was a pity, but at least I could check to see if the hypothesis that I had slowly been formulating was correct. And if it was, I would then have the tricky task of sorting matters out afterwards.
I went first to the fireplace and started searching around it.
“What are you looking for?” the constable asked dubiously.
I reached down and carefully picked up the object that, unhappily, I had expected to find there.
“Some sort of seed?” the doctor asked. “What is that doing in the hearth?”
“I rather feared that it might be there”, I said. “There was the possibility of a second object, but I have an alternative explanation for its absence from this room.”
“I do not see why the young buck did it”, Mr. Tarleton said plaintively (unfortunately he had joined us after all, presumably thinking that I might somehow plant or destroy evidence). ”Bess viewed him as a friend and nothing more. Unless he tried, she said no, and...”
“I can assure you that nothing of the sort happened”, I said, crossing to the French doors. As I had suspected they were fitted with the most simple locking mechanism. The horrible thick red curtains that had been pulled back yielded nothing, so I turned my attentions to the wall opposite the fireplace.”
“Now what are you looking for?” Mr. Tarleton complained.
I stared glumly at the grille in the wall.
“Proof”, I said quietly.
“Proof of what?” the doctor asked.
“Proof that the gentleman upstairs, Mr. James Bessborough, killed his sister.”
It is an old canard, but it really is true that there are moments when the ticking of a nearby clock seem absurdly loud.
“The constable has gone back to the station to file his report”, I said to the Vice-Chancellor. “I suggest that you go and retrieve Mr. Bessborough from his 'recuperations' and bring him down to meet with us.”
There were five of us sat down in the lounge; myself, Peter, Mr. Tarleton, Mr. Bessborough, and Doctor Welland.
“I would be very careful what you say, Mr. Holmes”, Mr. Tarleton cautioned. “Remember that you are speaking to your elders and betters, let alone someone who can quite easily have you removed from Christ Church.”
I stared at him coldly.
“I would not wish to sully the Holmes name by remaining under an institution that would employ someone of your lack of morals!” I countered. “Do not worry, Mr. Tarleton. I shall be transferring to another college as of tomorrow morning.”
“Not in Oxford you will not!” he said firmly.
“Then I will do as they did in the Middle Ages and decamp to your rival Cambridge”, I said easily. “Let us begin.”
I took a deep breath.
“This crime revolved around the fact, unusual in this day and age, that Tarleton Hall was the joint property of Mr. and Miss Bessborough. That is all right and proper, but the laws of this fair country are lacking in many areas, and one such is that a lady's property still becomes that of her husband upon her marriage. You, Mr. Bessborough, knew that full well. It was not a problem whilst Mr. Tarleton here was on the scene, as he was wooing your sister to bring the lands back into his family. But when she then developed a friendship with an affable young medical student, you both became alarmed.”
“I do not know of course whether anything would have come of that relationship, but unfortunately other events conspired to bring things to a head. Tarleton College came into consideration for becoming part of the University. That offered you, Mr. Tarleton, a most dazzling prospect. Our own chancellor is both younger than you and has a nephew whom we all know is determined to follow him into the post, but you could easily become Chancellor of the college that still bears your name. And that post is most prestigious – except there was a problem. Tarleton College is still relatively small, and its only way to expand was to buy out the Hall and its lands. And Miss Bessborough would not sell.”
“That, coupled with her friendship with Peter, sealed the poor lady's fate. This was no crime of passion; the two of you planned this down to the last detail. Your sister attended fortnightly suffrage meetings, and lately had taken to allowing Peter to escort her to and from them. This provided you an excellent opportunity to frame him as the perpetrator of the crime.”
I turned to Peter.
“Did you hear anything unusual from the sitting-room before you entered?” I asked.
“I thought I heard her sneeze just after she had gone in”, he said, “but I was almost in the lounge at that point.”
“Let us reconstruct what actually happened”, I said. “Knowing his sister's regular habits, Mr. James Bessborough here goes to the smoking-room just moments before his sister's arrival home. Servants do not come to that room unless specifically requested, so he cannot be disturbed. The room adjoins the sitting-room – and it too has a door leading to the outside.”
I was probably a little more gratified than was appropriate at Mr. Bessborough's sudden gasp. I turned to him.
“You take your gun and go outside”, I said. “You have doubtless already left the doors out from the sitting-room unlatched, so you can go in and await your sister's return – from just behind the door where she entered to meet you as you arranged. Doubtless you also told her that it was a private family matter so that she would not discuss it with her gentleman friend. The 'sneeze' was in fact her brief expression of shock when someone placed a gun into her back and fired at point blank range. Naturally the sound of the gunshot would have been minimal, and following on from the cough would not have been noted.”
Mr. Tarleton had gone pale now.
“But she was shot in the front”, the doctor objected.
“I shall explain that shortly”, I said. “The most important thing, from the point of view of those perpetrating this abominable crime, was to frame poor Peter here. And that means removing any suspicion of someone coming in from the outside. It was, I concede, most cleverly done. The method was the lavender candle that belonged to Miss Bessborough. Her brother throws a handful of lavender stalks onto the fire, and leaves the candle lying sideways on the table just inside the door. It would be presumed that it had been knocked over by those entering the room, hence the implication was that the strong lavender smell meant that it had to have been lit. This in turn meant that the door leading out could not have been opened, otherwise the smell would have quickly dissipated.”
Both men were pale now. The doctor looked hard at me.
“Go on”, he said cautiously.
“Mr. Bessborough returns to the smoking-room”, I said. “I know that people's perceptions of time are unreliable, but Peter said that there was approximately two minutes between his hearing that fatal 'sneeze' and the gunshot he did hear. Mr. Bessborough goes back into the smoking-room, quickly dries himself off and then opens the grille between the two rooms. This was the other advantage of using that room as his base of operations; grilles leading out for ventilation. It is easy for him to fire a second bullet into his sister's dead body.”
“There is no proof!” Mr. Tarleton scoffed. “And I want you out of my college by the morning!”
“Gladly”, I said. “But I have to tell you that there is indeed proof.”
“What?” Mr. Tarleton said scornfully. “A single seed of lavender that you could have planted yourself? Hah!”
“I can offer you three pieces of proof, each one of which will hang the pair of you”, I said coldly. “First, when Mr. Bessborough's boots are examined closely, they will be shown to contain mud from outside the smoking-room. Second, there is a principle you have doubtless not heard of called blowback. When a gun is fired, the expulsion of the bullet causes a short-lived vacuum that sucks nearby particles into the chamber. I examined that grille, and there are several tiny fragments of tobacco leaf in it. I would wager a guinea that some of them will also be in your gun, Mr. Bessborough – where they could not possibly be unless the gun had been fired inside that grille.”
The man had gone pale.
“The third proof is the simplest and yet the most damning of all”, I sid mercilessly. “According to your account, Peter here fired one shot at Miss Bessborough and killed her. According to my hypothesis, you fired two shots and killed her. I examined the room thoroughly for that bullet, but did not find it. If I am right, then an examination of the victim's body will reveal two bullets inside it, not one.”
“I will not allow my sister to be subjected to that!” Mr. Bessborough said, breaking his silence at last.
“Then by God, I will!” the doctor said firmly. “This is an outrage!”
Sadly, the 'outrages' were not done for the night. Peter and I returned to Christ Church, where he tried to talk me out of leaving (to answer the obvious question he came from a poor family and was on a scholarship, so could not afford the principled stand that I myself was taking). I remained firm in my convictions, and the following morning proved me horribly correct. The college authorities had held an early meeting, and Mr. Bessborough and Mr. Tarleton had been 'paid off to leave the country'.
I left Oxford that same morning.
The perpetrators of the murder that they covered up did not live long thereafter. One week later and only four days before they were due to depart England, Mr. Jacob Tarleton and Mr. James Bessborough were shot dead by an intruder who broke into the Hall. I had thought little of it (except perhaps for a small celebration drink I may have had around that time), but some twenty-one years later I received a letter from a Mrs. Edwina Gordon. Her father Doctor Edward Welland had passed recently and had wished a letter to be sent to me. In it, he told me that the two men had first tried to buy his silence and then threatened to kill him when he had insisted on an examination before they could leave the country. He had stopped them. Permanently.
Tarleton College did not become part of Oxford University, and closed in 1905.