Hi, guys. This is something that has rattled around my vacant cranium for several years now, a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story in which the Great Detective is shown to have a weak spot for you-know-what. Now, be advised that there is no explicit sex in this story...
Hello? HELLO?! Where did everybody go?
Oh well. If anyone is left reading I hope you enjoy "The Mystery of the Fair-Haired Boys". It is offered with apologies to the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the sincere hope to avoid litigation. Comments are especially welcome, and can be posted here or addressed to email@example.com.
I had been attending to my medical practice since early in the morning, arriving home only in time to rush back out again in response to an urgent and cryptic message from my friend Sherlock Holmes. I had not seen him in some time, having settled into a domestic routine as might any man married more than a year. Still I found myself quite keen to become embroiled again in the sort of baffling adventure such as I have previously had the good fortune to chronicle in these pages. I had not a clue as I stepped from the cab before my old lodgings in Baker Street, but I knew that Holmes was already deeply into the puzzle, as I spied his distinctive silhouette moving across the drawn window shades as he paced, smoked and pondered.
I ascended the 17 familiar steps and was about to rap at the door when it burst open and I was ushered into the room with nary a word from my old friend. Holmes was never effusive when caught up in a mystery, and so I took my old accustomed place in the armchair across from the fire and waited for him to see fit to explain. He paused by the mantle to relight his clay pipe, contemplated the air for a long bit, then sat facing me with a smile in sudden acknowledgment of my presence.
"Watson, my old friend!" he exclaimed. "It is always a comfort to have the assistance of one on whom I can thoroughly rely."
Assuring him I would do my best, I prayed he continue.
"I trust that the day's travels across the breadth of London have not tired you too much for yet another foray tonight. The varying color and texture of the mud on your boots could only have come from opposite ends of the city, and I observed from the window that you paid the driver considerably more than the fare from your surgery to Baker Street. Obviously, your stop at home was only long enough to leave your medical bag and change greatcoats, and you left the cab waiting while doing so."
"Indeed," I admitted, having long since given up surprise at Holmes' astounding powers of observation. "But how did you know I had changed overcoats?"
He spared me the condescending term elementary. "It is apparent, my friend, from the relative lack of dust on the coat as compared to the trousers. Also, this coat is much too heavy for the mild temperatures of this afternoon, but quite appropriate for the chill of the evening."
"As always your deductions are flawless," said I. "Now, how may I be of assistance in the matter at hand?"
Holmes leapt to his feet and went to the table, sweeping up a newspaper and thrusting it at me. "Third column, halfway down," he said.
At the appointed spot I found the heading "Mystery of School Boy's Disappearance". Here is the account:
At nine o'clock last night Dr. W. T. Bascombe, Headmaster of the Bainbridge Public School, informed the local police of the mysterious disappearance of Peter Driscoll, eldest son of Mr. Harold Driscoll, a merchant in Wembley Street. After a thorough search of the school grounds by police constables, assisted by members of the school staff and older students, young Driscoll was pronounced not upon the premises. Dr. Bascombe said that, while it is not inconceivable that a troubled boy might run away, he thought it unlikely that this particular child would do such a thing, being a bright lad well-liked by students and masters alike and doing very well indeed in his studies.
Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard would not entirely dismiss the possibility of foul play, but said the lad very likely ran off for some childish reason and would turn up at his father's house soon enough. Meanwhile, citizens are asked to watch for an 11-year-old boy of average height and athletic build, with blonde hair and green eyes, last seen wearing the Bainbridge uniform of blue blazer with white piping, short blue trousers and socks, and white linen shirt.
I folded the newspaper and set it back on the table. "Unless I am very much mistaken," I said, "dozens of such children disappear each year in England, most of whom turn up again in short order, just as Lestrade says."
"Quite true, Watson," Holmes said impatiently. "Nevertheless, I am convinced there is sinister work afoot. Consider this--" He indicated a pile of newspapers strewn across the carpet. "Four other accounts, very similar to this one, in the past two years. In each case a boy between 9 and 11 years old disappears from a public school without a trace. Each child fits the general description you just read, with minor variations, but always with light-colored hair and eyes. In every case the lad comes from a middle-class merchant family with some small amount of money but hardly enough for a motive of ransom. In any event, there has yet to be a ransom note, or any contact whatever from kidnappers. The boys simply vanish, never to be heard of again! Thus far Scotland Yard has not discerned the pattern, but then Lestrade and his cronies have never been renowned for their quick wit."
Even I could see that five such disappearances may be more than random coincidence, and was myself becoming interested in the case, yet I was much surprised at Holmes' obvious passion for it. In all the time I had known him I could recall no display of emotion, save the sheer joy of the chase. Criminology to him had always been an intellectual pursuit, the outwitting of adversaries a reward unto itself. In this case, though, he seemed genuinely anguished for the victims, and while this would be expected in a typical detective faced with crimes against defenseless children, it was unheard of in Holmes.
"Then, you have been retained by the latest victim's parent, Mr. Driscoll?"
Holmes let out a cloud of blue-gray smoke and softly said, "I have no client in this affair, Watson. Or rather, I suppose those five boys are my clients. I enter into this investigation upon my own initiative." He forced a laugh. "I certainly cannot leave it to Lestrade. Those boys would be grandfathers before they were found."
I found cause for alarm in my friend's manner. He clearly had individual motives for taking on this mystery, though he had discoursed many times on the folly of a detective becoming personally involved in his case. Emotion in the delicate mechanism of his observing and reasoning machine, he himself said, would cast doubt upon all his mental results by introducing a distracting factor beyond his control. However, knowing Holmes as I do and trusting his judgment implicitly, I resisted the impulse to anticipate his motives and simply prepared myself to do his bidding. His was an amazing record of success, and though he had been outwitted more than once, even then he always knew precisely how it was that he had been beaten!
Holmes was singularly uncommunicative in the coach to Bainbridge School. It was past seven o'clock and the lamps were lit, but I had seen him pocket one of his better magnifying lenses, and so I was left to wonder what sort of clues my friend expected to find in the dark.
We disturbed Dr. Bascombe's dinner with our ill-timed arrival, though upon hearing the famous name Sherlock Holmes he suddenly became effusively polite. We were invited into his study for brandy, but Holmes insisted upon going directly to the missing lad's bedchamber.
"The boys are at dinner at present," the Headmaster said, "as was I until a few moments ago. But please, don't let that concern you, Mr. Holmes. I rather enjoy cold beef."
"You are most kind, Dr. Bascombe," said Holmes as we entered a long room with three rows of short, low beds set only a few feet apart. "If you will show me the place recently occupied by the Driscoll boy you may then return to your meal, as I shall not require further assistance for several minutes."
"Of course, sir, of course," the portly Headmaster said, gesturing to the middle of three identical beds in the approximate center of the room. "I only wonder why the school trustees failed to inform me that they had retained the services of such an eminent detective in this trifling matter."
Holmes was already examining the area and seemed all but oblivious to our host, so I ventured to interject, "Mr. Holmes is not retained by the school, and, I might add, the matter may not be trifling at all."
Holmes cut me off. "Thank you very much, Dr. Bascombe. I shall be sure to mention your kind cooperation to Scotland Yard. I would appreciate it if the boys could be kept in the dining room until I am ready to interview them."
"Certainly, Mr. Holmes," the Headmaster said with a small bow, quite aware that he was being dismissed.
When he was gone, Holmes more closely examined the Driscoll boy's bed and those of several fellows in the vicinity, gently admonishing me for my interjection of a moment before. "We might expect greater cooperation from Dr. Bascombe if he believes our investigation to be officially sanctioned, Watson. Unless I miss my guess the Headmaster knows more of this affair than he is telling, and I think the weight of my good name will diminish the closer he believes we are to the scent."
Properly chastised, I was mumbling an apology when Holmes motioned me to silence.
"No time for humility, Watson," said he. "I am convinced the boy did not leave of his own will, or at the very least without forethought or planning. Observe the locker of personal belongings and clothing. Each boy has the same three suits of Bainbridge uniform, plus two complete sets of athletic togs, identical underclothing, rain slicker, and so forth. Each locker is missing only those clothes the boy is wearing at this moment, including the Driscoll boy's locker. There is no disarray, no indication of hurried packing, indeed the arrangement of personal belongings would indicate that all are present that ever were. In short, the boy left with only the clothes on his back."
"But might not a boy in emotional distress run away on the spur of the moment, seizing his chance?"
"Unlikely, Watson. It has been more than 24 hours since the disappearance, more than enough time for a healthy boy to travel the 9 miles from here to Wembley Street. I've considered the possibility of his being lost, but the way to London proper is clearly marked, and by all accounts young Peter is an intelligent and resourceful lad. One remaining possibility is that he left school on his own, but met with foul play quickly thereafter. Doubtful, I think, given the similarity to the four other disappearances. No, Watson, I believe there is dreadful business going on, and it reaches directly into this school!"
It took a moment for this disturbing thought to impress itself upon me. It seemed impossible that a man like Bascombe, entrusted with the education and well-being of more than a hundred British lads of good families, could lower himself to be involved with such nefarious doings. I found myself fervently hoping that Holmes' enviable intellect would be entirely wrong just this once.
Just then a tall, ruddy-faced man of middle years appeared at the door, by his dress a servant but by his bearing born to higher station. Nose wrinkled in antipathy for his current role, he announced, "Gentlemen, Dr. Bascombe requests that you join him in the main dining room. Follow me, please." He turned on his heel and strode quickly away, forcing us to hurry behind or risk being left.
Holmes took the opportunity of this short walk to briefly interrogate the man, whose name we learned was Hobbes.
"You are Dr. Bascombe's personal servant, then, Hobbes?" The way the detective said it was more statement than question.
Hobbes answered without turning to face us. "At present, yes sir, I am."
"Did you see young Driscoll last night?"
"No, sir," Hobbes said coldly, as though he had been expecting the question. "Not, that is, past the dinner hour, when I saw all the boys."
"I see," said Holmes with a finality that caused me to think this interview was at an end. Then suddenly he snapped, "And what exactly was your offense, Hobbes, that saw you drummed out of the Royal Lancers?"
The servant whirled around with fire in his eyes, and I readied myself to intervene in case of a violent attack. Hobbes clenched his fists repeatedly, then seemed to regain some control. His formerly cool voice was now full of bitterness years in the brewing, and he glared at Holmes with unconcealed hatred. "You people never let a man forget, do you? One mistake and I pay the rest of my life for it, is that the way it is Mr. Almighty Sherlock Holmes? One o' these little twits goes and gets himself lost and the first thing the Yard is diggin' up records from more than ten years past. So, you've seen the reports. You don't need me to tell you what I done."
Holmes was perfectly composed in the face of this angry outburst, smiling as he answered. "Quite the contrary, Mr. Hobbes. I had never heard of you in my life until five minutes ago when you came to fetch us. I have seen no reports."
Hobbes appeared totally bewildered, but I confess no more than I. The servant stammered, "Then how on earth--?"
"By your military bearing and obvious distaste for butlering I deduced that you have suffered a fall from grace which placed you in the service of Dr. Bascombe. The slightly open-toed nature of your stride suggests a great deal of riding, thus your regiment was cavalry. Indeed, your boots are worn on the inner and outer edges by the stirrups, from which I gather that you still ride often, even in your livery dress."
Hobbes was impressed, and no small bit frightened of my friend's gift, a common enough first reaction to the apparent magic of his deductive powers. "Correct, Mr. Holmes," he said. "One small benefit of my current position is the chance to take a quick ride when the pressure of my duty permits. But how did you know of the Lancers, and of my--my expulsion?"
"Many indications present themselves, any single one of which could be explained in other ways, but taken together they led to but one conclusion. You were very proud once, that is evident. The roughness of your complexion suggests a long period in a hot climate, such as with the Lancers in India. And finally, there is the worn link on your watch chain, where for a good many years you carried the medallion of the Royal Lancers. "
"Nearly twenty years," Hobbes said quietly as he turned and resumed walking toward the dining room, considerably more slowly and with no trace of arrogance remaining in his step. "Only it was the Afghan, not India, and five years also as Sergeant of the Honor Guard to the Shah of Persia." This last he said with great pride.
By virtue of my long association with Holmes I detected the slight impression that registered on his lean features at the mention of the Shah of Persia, though I am sure that Hobbes did not. My friend clearly considered this a clue, though I myself could see nothing in it. His features underwent another, more obvious distortion as we entered the large, simply-appointed dining room, where more than a hundred boys aged seven to sixteen sat fidgeting impatiently over their long-finished place settings. Something like a glow came into the detective's sharp eyes as they roamed over the assemblage, and his chiseled visage softened into a smile of adoration like a favorite uncle gathering a hundred beloved nephews onto his lap. I had never seen the usually businesslike Holmes in such rapture except when under the influence of his tincture of cocaine, the odious effects of which I have previously described in some detail. Holmes was in no drugged stupor, though. He seemed to react out of some deep-seated mental condition that he has never seen fit to discuss with me either as friend or physician, before this adventure or since. I understood to a certain extent, being rather enamored of the boys myself, epitomizing as they did the pride and strength of British boyhood and the glory of the Empire's tomorrow. This was not Eton or Sandhurst, true enough, but these lads would grow up to become the backbone of English society, if not its cranium.
With more gentleness than I thought possible in my old friend, he addressed the hushed and curious boys. "Now my lads," he said, "I am here to help find your friend, Peter Driscoll. My name is Sherlock Holmes." A number of the older boys' eyes widened in recognition, and astonished whispers coursed around the room like a gentle wind.
"I am accompanied by my finest and dearest friend, Dr. John Watson, who has been invaluable to me throughout my public career as well as my private life. Everyone has their special friend, haven't they? Their very best mate? Who among you is Peter's mate? Come on, don't be shy."
Boys looked to one another, and around the room at large, until a small, thin lad of 10 or 11 nervously stood. "I am, sir," the boy said in a soft, high voice, his head slightly bowed so that a tumble of voluminous, coal-black hair came down over his eyes.
Holmes beamed. "Would you please come here?" he said, "There's a good lad." When the boy began making his way forward, he addressed the group again. "And who are the two boys whose beds are next to Peter's, on either side?"
"That would be Chatsworth and Dean, sir," offered a thin young man in wire-rimmed spectacles and a rough woolen suit with frayed cuffs.
"And you are the house master?" Holmes asked him, receiving a nod in reply.
"Yes, this is our Mr. Carson," said the Headmaster, inserting himself between Holmes and the young man. "Though he has only been with us since the beginning of the term, he is already a valued member of the faculty and very well-liked by his charges. Chatsworth! Dean! Come here, boys, and see Mr. Holmes."
"I should also like a word with a few others," Holmes said. "Dr. Bascombe, would you please have the boys file out singly, so that I may detain those with whom I wish to speak?"
"Certainly, Mr. Holmes," the Headmaster said, and bustled about with his staff arranging it so. My friend intercepted five boys from the line, seemingly at random until I noticed that all of them matched the general description of the missing children, between 9 and 11 years old with light hair and eyes, and with the additional attribute of being quite pleasantly attractive of face and fit of body.
"Now, Dr. Bascombe," Holmes said, "if I might have the use of a private room nearby, where I may conduct individual interviews?"
"Yes, yes of course," said the Headmaster, true to my friend's prediction seeming more and more agitated as time went on. A small parlor adjacent to the dining room was pressed into service, and Holmes ushered the first of the boys and myself inside, closing the door in the face of the surprised and chagrined Headmaster.
Once alone, Holmes smiled easily, offering the child a seat and taking one himself immediately next to him. The boy looked miniature in the overstuffed chair, and his feet did not reach the floor.
"What is your name, lad?" he asked gently, his relaxed manner helping to put the boy at his ease.
"William Cooper, sir," the boy said from under his mass of dark curls. His was not an especially handsome face, thin as a wedge and with deep-set eyes blacker than pitch, but Holmes seemed to regard it beatifically.
"Now William -- do they call you Willie?" the detective asked.
"Some do, sir. My friends, that is."
"Then I should be pleased to be counted among them, if that would be to your liking."
The boy broke into an astonished grin and his narrow chest swelled in pride to be considered worthy of friendship by the famous Sherlock Holmes. "Oh, of course, sir!"
"Good!" Holmes said in what I took to be genuine pleasure. "Then Willie it shall be. Now Willie, you know Peter better than anyone, don't you?"
"I suppose I do, sir."
"But you do not sleep in the same room?"
"No sir," the boy said. "Peter is a year older than me, but we were neighbors in Wembley Street before going off to school."
"Do you think he ran away?"
"Oh, no sir," the boy said. "Peter would never have done. He was to wrestle tomorrow for the championship of the form! He wouldn't miss that."
"Do you know Dr. Bascombe's man Hobbes, Willie?" Holmes asked.
Holmes put his face near the boy's and said in a reassuring tone, "Now this is important, Willie. Did you see Hobbes and Peter together at any time yesterday, or in recent days?"
The boy scrunched up his tiny brow in thought. "Now that you bring it up, sir, there was something rather odd the night before last. Peter and I were in the bath, and Mr. Hobbes came in and began rummaging through the lavatory linens. He kept staring at us, as if we had done something wrong, but he never said anything and went about inspecting the linens."
Holmes stroked his chin and mused for a moment, his eyes intense with thought. "How long did he stay there, in the lavatory?"
"I don't rightly know, sir," said Willie. "Peter and I finished bathing and left. Perhaps Matron knows how much longer he stayed."
"So then, Willie," Holmes said, "Hobbes was still in the room when you and Peter climbed out of the bath to dry off, and the whole time you dressed."
"And did his sidelong glances continue during this time?"
"Oh, yes," Willie said emphatically. "Indeed, he looked at us all the more."
A faraway look came into my friend's eye, and a smile played around his lips for a moment before his face returned to the immobile mask of reason I was accustomed to seeing.
"Try to recall, Willie," he said, "if Hobbes might have looked more at Peter than yourself?"
"I couldn't say, sir," the boy said. "We were standing right together."
"All right, Willie, thank you," Holmes said, affectionately touching the boy's thin shoulder. "You've been very helpful."
The boy rose and started for the door, then turned back suddenly. "Are you going to find him, Mr. Holmes?"
"I shall not rest until I do," he said. "You have my word."
Holmes then asked for the five boys he had selected from the crowd and herded them all into the small parlor at once. I had not witnessed such a congregation of fair hair since the adventure of the Red-Headed League. The interview consisted of but one question: Did any of them notice the servant Hobbes paying undue or inappropriate attention to them, especially in any condition of undress? Three of the five recalled recent incidents that had seemed odd to them at the time, but certainly not sinister, such as Hobbes looking into their sleeping rooms just before bed-time, or, like Willie, coming into the lav, always with some strange excuse such as inspecting the linens, or the woodwork around the windows.
We sent the five on their way and brought in Peter's two room-mates, Chatsworth and Dean. The two could have been brothers to look at them, similar in height, build and facial structure, and both with mouse-brown hair over their collars. The 11-year-olds were small enough to share a single armchair.
"Now, fellows," Holmes began with an indulgent smile. "I want you to know that my only interest in this line of questioning is to determine what became of Peter. Dr. Watson and myself are both men of impeccable honor, and we give you our word that we will not carry anything you tell us out of this room. It is very important that you answer my questions honestly and without evasion, and I assure you there will be no repercussions visited upon you or anyone else except as directly relates to the recovery of your unfortunate friend."
The boys looked at each other in bewilderment and no small amount of unease, and I must confess that apprehension grew in my own stomach at the weight of his words. It should also be noted that this chronicle of what is perhaps the most shocking tale in the whole of Sherlock Holmes' casebook is not an abrogation of that promise. The names of the school and the boys involved have all been altered to ensure their privacy.
"As an alumnus of one of Britain's fine public schools," Holmes said, "I am well aware that more goes on in a dormitory after dark than merely sleeping."
Both boys, and myself if I am to be honest, let out a gasp of surprise. The existence of such practices is common knowledge among those who have boarded at school, but I had never in my life heard it mentioned in polite company. This, of course, was a matter of emergency, and so I steeled myself to the distasteful topic.
One of the children began to protest his innocence, but the other shouted him down. "But it might help Peter!" he said. "If Mr. Holmes thinks it's important, and he promises never to tell, then I think we have to own up. Mr. Holmes would never go back on his promise!"
"That is quite right, my lad, quite right," Holmes said earnestly. "And it may be of vital importance to this case!"
"All right, then," the first boy grudgingly said. "But you first."
"I will," the second boy said. "What do you want to know, Mr. Holmes?"
"Were the boys in your room involved in those sort of night-time activities?" the detective asked.
"Yes sir," the boy said, avoiding our eyes. "Me and Dean-o mainly," he said, indicating his friend, which identified the confessor as Chatsworth. "But Peter came in for it as well, after a bit."
"Were there any others with whom you shared these activities?"
The first boy, Dean, spoke up. "Most of the lads do at one time or another."
"What about adults?" Holmes asked. "The house master, Carson, perhaps?"
The boys looked at each other in fright, and Chatsworth turned to Holmes with eyes begging to be released from the question.
"I've told you, there is nothing to fear," he said. "No one will know of this."
"Well," Chatsworth said uneasily, looking down at the floor. "Mr. Carson sometimes invites a boy into his room, for private tutoring."
Holmes lifted the boy's chin with a finger, and smiled forgivingly. "Think nothing of it, Chatty. That's what they call you, isn't it? Short for Chatsworth? I know how it is at school. Sometimes a boy just needs extra tutoring to get through the term, and a friendly young master is just the thing. It's quite traditional."
Chatsworth looked up at Holmes and smiled weakly.
"What I'm coming 'round to is, did Peter ever go for these night-time lessons?"
"Yes, Mr. Holmes," piped in Dean, quite unexpectedly. "All of us did, alone mostly but sometimes together."
"Very good," Holmes said with a gentle smile. "Thank you, Dean-o. Now, this question is quite indelicate, but I'm afraid I must ask, for it is a point upon which this entire mystery may hang. Did Peter allow himself to be buggered?"
Even the forthright Chatsworth hesitated. It was the first question in such explicit language, leaving no euphemism behind which to hide. But the boy screwed up his courage and met Holmes' eye.
"Oh, Mr. Holmes," he said. "You do cut directly to the heart of things! Yes, Peter was the only one of us three who allowed it. He fancied it, truth be told, and was often after Dean-o and me to oblige him. And then when Mr. Carson arrived at the start of the term Peter was the very first to receive his affections, and was a frequent visitor to his room."
"I've--I've let him, too, Mr. Holmes," Dean confessed, avoiding Chatsworth's astonished eyes. "Mr. Carson is very gentle and considerate, and he doesn't hurt a boy."
"I'm sure he doesn't," Holmes said, mussing the boy's hair. "Nevertheless, I believe you have only your parents' genetic legacy of mouse-brown hair to thank that it isn't you who has gone missing. Thank you very much, boys. You have been extremely helpful. And don't worry, no one will ever hear your story from my lips, or those of Dr. Watson."
Upon dismissal the two boys scampered for the safety of their room, and Holmes brought in the house master himself, Mr. Carson.
"When did you last see the Driscoll boy, Mr. Carson?" Holmes asked.
"As I told the police, he and a few of the other lads passed me on the stairs on their way into the dormitory," he said. "That was shortly after dinner, about half-past seven."
"And when did you realize he was gone?"
"When I performed my nightly bed-check at eight o'clock," Carson said.
"And what did you do then?" Holmes asked.
"I went to the Headmaster, straight away," he said. "Dr. Bascombe was very agitated at the news, and roused the whole of the school to begin an immediate search."
"Was the servant Hobbes involved in the search?"
Carson's eyes opened wide. "Why, no, he wasn't! Now that you mention it, I did not see him at all until this morning!"
"Now Mr. Carson," Holmes said, "think carefully. Did this Hobbes person ever engage you in conversation about any of the boys in your charge? Driscoll in particular?"
Carson's eyes dropped to his lap, and for the first time in the interview he took on a secretive air. "Not that I recall, no sir."
"Come on, man!" Holmes insisted. "A child's life may hang in the balance! And I already know of the nocturnal visits boys make to your chambers, so let us not waste time with parry and thrust! When was it that Hobbes saw Peter enter or leave your room in the middle of the night? And what information did he wrench from you by threatening to expose that rendezvous?"
The young master put his head in his hands and began to weep. "My God, Mr. Holmes! To think that I should come to this! To be responsible for sending a wonderful boy to such a fate! You are right, of course. Three nights ago Hobbes came to my door and said he knew of my relations with the boys, and that he would expose me unless I told him what he wanted to know. He is a crude man, Mr. Holmes, a brute, and quite capable of carrying out any threat he may make. He promised I would end up in the dock, my life ruined, and my career destroyed! And now it has come to pass, anyway, so I did not even save myself by sacrificing Peter. Oh, I despise the day I set eyes on that Hobbes! But you must believe me, Mr. Holmes, that I did not know what was in store for the poor boy! I would never have had a part in that, not to save a career or avoid a life in prison! I--I thought he himself had designs on the lad. He wanted to know what Peter allowed, what his demeanor was when he visited my chambers. He asked if the boy was a willing participant and -- well -- in the crudest possible terms, how I would characterize the experience of his bum."
"And how did you characterize it, Carson?" Holmes asked in smoldering fury. "What superlative did you employ to describe the act of love with a boy you call wonderful?"
Carson looked at the floor. "Most excellent," he said. "The best I've had."
"And thereby sealed his fate," Holmes said. "I do not believe you were a willing part of this, acting under duress as you were, but I cannot promise that you will escape all culpability in this business. I believe this Hobbes would have abducted some boy with or without your assistance. You merely helped him choose a particular victim. I'll tell you this, though, and make no mistake. If your withholding of information compromises the safe recovery of young Peter, I will see to it that the full weight of the law comes down upon you."
Carson hung his head even lower. "It is no more than I deserve," he said.
Holmes paced around the abject school master, then turned and said, "You've helped in Peter's abduction. Will you help in his recovery?"
Carson brightened immediately. "Oh, yes, Mr. Holmes! I'll do anything you ask!"
"Right then," the detective said. "You must compose yourself and act as if this were a routine interview, much like you had with Inspector Lestrade. This Hobbes will look to you to see if the net is closing, and we do not want to put him on the run just yet. If he speaks to you, you must convince him that you were asked general questions about Peter's friends, his feelings in recent days, his relationship with his family, etcetera. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir, I think so," the young master said.
"Good. Now if you are ready, let us face the others."
Dr. Bascombe again offered brandy in his study, and this time we accepted. The Headmaster poured, betraying his nervousness by spilling and hurrying too much to mop up the serving tray with a napkin. Holmes said nothing of this, and took the snifter without drinking from it. He carried it around the room as he casually inspected, noticing the myriad of details lost to the rest of us. He asked basic questions of Dr. Bascombe, such as had already been answered by the newspaper account, in order to keep Bascombe occupied while he examined the study without appearing to. Holmes paid particular attention to the sill of the room's only window, and to the side table nearby. He seemed to gaze for some time at the moon, apparently absently, though I well knew that Sherlock Holmes did nothing without purpose.
When the Headmaster finished retelling the facts we already knew, Holmes turned away from the window. "Your man Hobbes," he said. "How long has he been in your service?"
Bascombe's nervousness reasserted itself as he spilled brandy down his shirt front. Finally he stammered an answer. "Only about half a year, Mr. Holmes. I really don't understand what this has to do with--"
"And have you any idea where Hobbes was employed prior to that time?"
The Headmaster was perspiring profusely, though the fire was low and the room was cool. "He came with recommendations from another public school."
"The Meddoes School in Kent, was it not?" Holmes said. I gathered that this was the site of the most recent earlier disappearance.
The Headmaster was nearly weeping, deep sighs welling out of his lips and his breathing coming rapidly. His chin went to his chest and his shoulders slumped, a defeated man. "Yes, yes," he said. "It was the Meddoes School."
Holmes stepped directly in front of the woeful educator, forcing him to confront his stare. "There is no use in denying it, Bascombe," Holmes declared heatedly. "You summoned the boy to this very study and passed him through the window to Hobbes, when he finally arrived on horseback. You waited quite some time for him, entertaining the boy with historical tales and serving him cocoa. That much is plain from the evidence: a candle severely guttered on the side away from the window, indicating that this window was open for a long time, letting in the wind; here I find an edition of stories of daring-do from the age of the Crusades, something I cannot imagine arousing the interest of an educated professional man, but sure to captivate and delight an 11-year-old boy; and finally, the stain on the serving table which is certainly not brandy, nor the sherry also to be expected, but instead clearly shown in my magnifying glass to be the dark and crusty remains of a drop of cocoa. That, taken with the horse droppings on the lawn which can be seen even in the moonlight, tells the tale with clarity and precision. Now, Dr. Bascombe, I ask you. What is your involvement in this dastardly plot, and why do you protect Hobbes? What hold has he over you?"
The portly, middle-aged object of Holmes' derision then broke into genuine tears. "Every man has his past, Mr. Holmes," he sobbed. "I am too old to embark upon a new career, and this man Hobbes -- if indeed the word man is applicable to the likes of him -- this Hobbes was able and willing to ruin me."
Bascombe swallowed the last of his brandy and composed himself somewhat. "You see, many years ago when I was at university I knew a woman who, you might say, monopolized a disproportionate amount of my time. When it became clear that I would likely fail my second year I arranged with an acquaintance to dishonestly obtain the answers to an important examination. If this ever became known the trustees of the school would surely sack me immediately. I would be an outcast in the field of education, the only profession I know. I cannot fathom how Hobbes came to know of this, my only indiscretion in fifty-four years of life, which occurred more than thirty years ago, but he announced this knowledge at tea three nights ago, promising to ruin me if I did not help him. I swear, gentlemen, I didn't know Hobbes intended to kidnap the lad. He said he only wanted to talk with him privately, something about the Driscoll business in London. I assumed he planned to rob it and needed information. I swear I've never harmed a child before in my life."
"Before!" Holmes snapped. "Do you mean to say the boy was harmed last night?"
Bascombe again looked at his feet. "Hobbes struck him, once atop the head. Oh, the poor child! He was taken unconscious instantly, bound hand and foot and thrown over the saddle like a sack of skins! Lord help me for allowing this to happen, my position be damned!"
Holmes grabbed up a pen and hurriedly wrote a note on Bascombe's stationary. "Dr. Bascombe, you will send this note at once to the local police, by a courier you completely trust, making certain not to alert our Mr. Hobbes! Watson, we must hurry! I think we are already too late to overtake them in Britain, but at least we have the advantage of knowing where they are going."
I struggled into my coat and tried to catch up to my friend. "We know where they are going?" I exclaimed, then under my breath, "One of us does, perhaps."
In the coach to Charing Cross Station I allowed Holmes silence for cogitation, but finally could contain myself no longer. "What on earth have you struck upon, Holmes? I find myself clear on only one point, that this Hobbes person is responsible for at least two of the disappearances."
Holmes brightened a bit, always ready to display his talents to someone of lesser ability. "I should be very much surprised if all five abductions were not the work of the sinister Mr. Hobbes," he said. "Watson, I presume that you do not have your passport in your pocket?"
"Why, no," I fumbled. "I am not in the habit of carrying it about."
"Quite reasonable, old boy," Holmes said. "In that case, will you ride with me as far as Dover, until I board the boat-train for Paris? In the meantime I shall gather my thoughts for a bit, and then I would be happy to explain the entire puzzle as I see it unfolding."
Holmes said not another word until we had boarded the Dover train and, indeed, were a good bit beyond Canterbury. Content in the knowledge that my companion would eventually satisfy my curiosity, I sat in silence and watched him load and reload his pipe with a strong Cavendish. It was actually startling when he finally spoke.
"In any mystery," he said, "one is presented with an incomplete subset of the facts. The detective's task is to fill in the gaps by reason and, sometimes, intuition. Here, we have a set of circumstances that lead to an unpleasant, but inevitable conclusion. Watson, let us consider these questions:
"If one is not seeking ransom, then why kidnap a child? It could be to bring grief to the parents, to settle a score perhaps, but if that is the case, then why are the victims spirited away rather than murdered? No, Watson, it is the having of the child that matters, not the taking of him. So, then, to what end are these boys abducted? White slavery? Then why take only boys with particular, and might I say attractive, physical attributes? Surely a dark-haired slave would be as useful as a blonde. Fair hair and eyes, then, and a tender age, must bear directly on the purpose of the abductions.
"Now if those were the only considerations, it would surely be easiest and entail the least risk to find physically suitable ragamuffins among the teeming poor. I myself have seen dozens of blonde and red-headed boys in the alleys of London who lack only a bath to be equally as attractive as those we interviewed tonight. Between the street waifs and the residents of orphanages and work houses there must be thousands of candidates suitable for abduction, any one of whom could be stolen away without anyone even taking notice. There must be a compelling reason to invite investigation by taking a child of a good home from a good school.
"It is clear that Hobbes considered many boys before choosing Peter as his victim, and that the deciding factors included the attractiveness of his nude body and his willingness to engage in forbidden acts with adults. Thus it seems that whoever commissioned these kidnappings sought not only intimate contact with fair-haired, beautiful young boys, he wanted them to be willing participants. Where better to find boys experienced in and agreeable to such activities than in a British public school?"
"I can scarcely believe it," said I, "but I cannot deny the logic. What I don't see, though, is what leads you to Paris."
"Paris is not our quarry's ultimate destination, Watson. It is but a gateway to the Orient."
"The Orient? You suspect a Chinaman?"
Holmes allowed a smile. "Without further information that guess would be as good as any," he said. "Consider our disagreeable Mr. Hobbes. He is obviously not acting from his own carnal interest in the boys. He could have them right there in the school if he so desired, as Carson does. Instead he takes them away and returns alone to the school -- the one place where he cannot have a sexual rendezvous with them, because they are no longer there! So, Hobbes must deliver the boys to another party. If they were kept in England I think it unlikely that years would pass without a single one of the victims turning up, thus a foreign destination is indicated. Further, I believe our villain's obsession with fair hair and eyes stems from living in a part of the world where such attributes are extremely rare. China would certainly accomodate this theory, Watson, but we know that Hobbes has connections to another Occidental country that suits it just as well."
"Persia!" I blurted. "Hobbes was once sergeant of the honor guard to the Shah!"
"Now you have it, Watson. Hobbes has never forgotten his moment of glory, or his many years immersed in a culture that has very different ideas from our own. Ancient Persian poetry celebrates the sexuality of boys, and Darius the First was thought to keep the most beautiful young captives of vanquished lands for his personal boy-harem. Now Hobbes is again serving that royal house, providing love-slaves for the Shah, or someone close to him. I would be very surprised if similar kidnappings were not occurring on the Continent, especially in the north of Germany and the Scandinavian region, where blue-eyed blondes crowd the landscape like wildflowers."
"Holmes!" I said. "Do you propose to travel to Persia, by boat-train to Paris, Orient Express to Istanbul, and Lord knows what conveyance beyond that, camel-back perhaps? What hope have you of overtaking them with a full day's lead?"
"Leaving the school around eight o'clock they would have been to Paris too late for the Express, which leaves at 10 PM," he said. "So they would have to wait for tonight's train. The note I had Bascombe take to the police asked them, in addition to arresting the infamous Hobbes, to wire the French authorities to search the train. I hope to find the kidnappers neatly apprehended by the time I arrive and, when confronted with our knowledge of the truth, amenable to a diplomatic solution that will return the unfortunate children to the safety of their families."
Holmes took my leave at Dover and strode aboard the ferry with fiery determination in his eyes, never turning them away from Calais for even a moment until I lost sight of the vessel in the Channel fog. I did not see or hear from him again for nine days, when I received his wire to meet at Baker Street at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Fortunately the good health of my patients allowed me to do so.
"Ah, Watson, do come in!" he said buoyantly in answer to my knock. The small apartment was crowded with people, none of whom I had laid eyes on before, but whose identities even I could deduce. Five handsome, smiling lads of fair hair and eyes stood with five sets of beaming parents, welcoming me with exuberant cries, handshakes and claps on the back.
"Dr. Watson," said one man. "Mr. Holmes has told us of your indispensable contribution to the happy resolution of this affair, and I am very proud to shake your hand. Nothing means more to me than my son, and there is nothing I wouldn't do for a man who helped to save him. As long as there is a Driscoll Haberdashery in Wembley Street you shall never pay for a tie or handkerchief again!"
Amid much laughter and further declarations of undying gratitude from all the parents, I finally found the voice to ask, "I'm very glad that everything has worked out, but I'm afraid I don't know the end of the story. I imagine the gendarmes found Peter aboard the Orient Express, but beyond that I am quite in the dark."
"All shall be illuminated, Watson," Holmes said, "this very minute. Indeed, the police did search the Orient Express the night I left you at Dover, and discovered young Peter here--" whence Holmes uncharacteristically pulled a grinning boy upon his lap and put both arms affectionately around him, "--in a sleeping compartment, drugged insensible with laudanum. The three soldiers of the Shah's own guard who were holding him were immediately arrested, and though they refused to speak a word under questioning, I managed to obtain some information from them through a small deception."
"Don't be so modest, Mr. Holmes," crowed one of the fathers. "He disguised himself up as a drunken lout and had himself put into the cell next along, then sat and listened to them spilling the beans in conversation amongst themselves!"
"They thought themselves safe speaking their native tongue," said Holmes. "Fortunately some years ago I had occasion to study the Farsi language, in the case of an ancient Persian artifact stolen from the British Museum. I was a bit out of practice, but managed to catch enough. It turned out to be the Shah's brother who was collecting boys like sea-shells, and the soldiers feared the loss of their tongues if they breathed a word of it. Once this was known it became a matter for international diplomacy, the Shah being as aghast as any of us at the behavior of his brother, and anxious to avoid playing out such a scandal upon the world stage. 32 boys from all over Europe were released back to their families, mostly blondes from Scandinavia and red-heads from Ireland. Providence was kind, too, and not a single child was any the worse for wear."
"Everyone was really very nice to us," said one of the boys, who looked to be the oldest at about 13. "We were treated rather more like pets than slaves, given baths with aromatic soaps and rubbed with scented oils, and dressed in fine satins and silks."
"Yes," piped the smallest boy. "These clothes feel all scratchy now," and everyone laughed.
"But I'm still glad to be home," said the older. "We weren't allowed out of doors at all, but kept inside the palace, and of course we had our duties in the night--" His voice trailed off into embarrassed silence, and the adults all avoided each other's gaze.
"What became of Hobbes?" I asked, mostly to break the uncomfortable silence.
"Hobbes," said Holmes, "will not see the light of day for some time, and he will have no fine silks or scented oils. And it will not be his first time in the shadow of the iron bars. Lestrade wired me that he was not only drummed from the Lancers ten years ago, but also prosecuted for the crime of stealing military supplies and selling them to Afghan rebels. At least it was not weapons or ammunition, but only flour and wool and the like, else the dishonorable Sgt. Hobbes might have on his hands the blood of England's brave sons."
"The filthy bounder!" I spat. "May he rot behind those iron bars! What news of Dr. Bascombe?"
"Dr. Bascombe admitted his youthful indiscretion to the Bainbridge trustees before Hobbes had the chance to expose him, and owing to his long distinguished service, and being that he was instrumental in the success of Peter's rescue and Hobbes' capture, he has been retained by the school as Headmaster."
"How on earth did Hobbes ever know of Bascombe's secret in the first place?"
"I think we'll never know the precise answer to that, Watson. Hobbes isn't talking, but if I were to offer any comment it would simply be that the purse of a Persian monarch can afford much information."
"And young Mr. Carson?"
"Carson acquitted himself nicely in deceiving Hobbes, thus facilitating the brigand's capture, and so he, too, remains in excellent graces with the school officials."
"I'm very glad of that," Peter said, grinning up at Holmes. "He's the best master ever!"
My friend smoothed the boy's golden hair and smiled down beatifically into his green eyes. "I'm sure he is as anxious as you, my lad, to resume your special tutoring."