We sprang into the night-mail. It was in the old Grocer Square days, when springing into night mails came all in the day’s work to us.
We had the carriage to ourselves. A glance had shown Rose that the guard of the train had at one period of his life been a cannibal, and, thinking it a pity to conceal the fact, he had mentioned it to him casually, at the same time expressing a desire for an empty carriage. The guard was kindness itself. He bundled two Bishops, an elderly professor, and three prize fighters out of a compartment in record time, and motioned us to be seated.
The train sped on its way.
“A curious case, Wotsing,” said Rose, at last.
“Which is that?” I asked.
“This St. Asterisk’s murder.”
“Buxton-Smythe, do you mean? I—I mean we solved that long ago.”
“No, no,” said Rose, irritably. Somehow the mention of that case always irritates him. “This is a different thing altogether. Wotsing”—he broke off suddenly—“why did you shave in cold water this morning?”
“I didn’t. Why did you drink only one lemon squash when you went out this afternoon?”
“My dear Wotsing, how—?”
“Tut, tut. I cannot explain these little things, Rose. What is this about St. Asterisk’s?”
Rose drew from his pocket a newspaper cutting. “I will not read this to you,” he said, “the style is really too painful. Not that there is not some excuse for the reporter in the present case. He was suffering from ear-ache when he wrote, and, from his curious partiality for quotations from Juvenal, I should judge that he had only recently recovered from an attack of gout. The gist of what he says is this. Smith, the School porter at St. Asterisk’s, going his rounds last Friday morning, discovered—to his horror—that a ghastly crime had been committed in the Sixth Form-room. The victim was an infinitive. It has been split, probably, Smith asserts, by some blunt weapon such as a bad pen. The body was on a scrap of paper, and several drops of ink on the paper, together with a general crumpled appearance, showed that the victim had not succumbed without a struggle. Smith, with an intelligence which some of these Scotland yard bunglers would do well to imitate, left everything exactly as he had found it.”
“Anyone suspected?” I asked.
“I was coming to that. One of the Form, Vanderpoop by name, under whose desk the corpse was discovered, has already been arrested.”
“Did he make any statement?”
“Well, he hit the policeman under the jaw, if that could be called making a statement. He is now in the local police-station awaiting trial. Popular opinion is, I should say, strongly against him.”
“That I should think is in itself almost enough to clear him. Popular opinion is always wrong.”
“Well, well, we shall see,” said Rose. “At any rate the problem is one that presents many attractive features.”
“And,” I interrupted, “it has saved me from a black re-action.”
Rose glared at me. He had been meaning to say that himself.
“Well, here we are again,’’ said I, as we stepped into the Form-room on the following day. “This Form-room, Rose, has been the scene of some exiting episodes. Where is the corpse?”
Smith, the porter, produced it, and left the room. Instantly Rose dropped on all fours, whipped out a microscope, and, in short, commenced his usual operations. I made my investigations more quietly.
At last Rose got up.
“Wotsing,” he said, “the case is plain. Vanderpoop did it.”
“Did you see the local paper this morning, Rose?”
“Ah. If you had, you would have read that Vanderpoop has been released without a stain on his character.”
“Fools, fools! Oh, these Scotland Yard—”
“But he proved an alibi, a most convincing alibi. The murder must have been committed some time on Thursday. That, I think, is plain. Vanderpoop was in the Infirmary on Wednesday and Thursday. But, Rose,—”
“I have discovered the real man.”
Rose gasped with astonishment.
“And he is—?”
“The Head Master, Sir,” said Smith, suddenly opening the door.
“Good morning, Sir,” I said as he entered. “Pray take a chair. Ah, but there are no chairs. Take a desk.”
He sat down on the window-sill, a curiously mournful figure. A day before he had been stout. Now he was thin.
“I got your note, Dr. Wotsing,” he said, in a low voice. “But who is this?” He pointed to Rose, who was still on all fours.
“That,” I replied, “is my friend Mr. Burdock Rose. You can speak as freely before him as you would before me. Indeed, strictly speaking, he is supposed to be bossing this show on his own account. But proceed, Sir, I beg.”
“I got your note,” repeated the Head Master. “How you found out all you have found out, I do not know.”
“My system. Perfectly simple. Yes, you were saying—?”
“You are right in every detail, Dr. Wotsing. I and no other, split that infinitive. Pity the sorrows of a poor old man.” He looked as if he were about to collapse.
“If you are thinking of fainting,” I said, “I will do my best to revive you with ink. There is no water. But, take the advice of a medical man, Sir, and don’t.” He did not.
“You might explain,” I said.
“I will,” said he. “Born of rich but honest parents, Dr. Wotsing, I was sent at an early age to a Public School.”
“Excuse my interrupting,” I said, courteously, “but if you could cut it fairly short I should be very much obliged. I have a train to catch. Condense your ideas.”
“Very well. Public School. Latin. Greek. Greek. Latin. No English. English no good. University. Latin. Greek. Greek. Latin. English no good. So here I am. You take me?”
“I understand you to say that your English education was neglected in favour of Latin and Greek. Am I right?”
“Absolutely on the bull’s-eye.”
“Sir,” I said, “I acquit you of all blame. You are more sinned against than sinning. Run away and reform.”
He ran away, and I hope, reformed.
“I really am glad you are going to be married, Wotsing,” said Rose to me on the way back to town. “When is it to be?”
“In another month.”
And the first thing he did on getting out of the train was to buy a calendar. He keeps it in his desk, and every day he erases a date, and smiles.