"The Strange Disappearance of Mr. Buxton-Smythe" is a short story first published in Public School Magazine (UK) in December 1901. Collected in Tales of Wrykyn and Elsewhere.
IN looking over the notes I have made from time to-time of the cases unravelled by the peculiar methods of my friend, Mr. Burdock Rose, I find mention of what I have called “The Disappearance of Mr. Buxton-Smythe.” It is a curious case. This Buxton-Smythe was a schoolmaster—but I will begin at the beginning.
It was in our old Grocer Square days, before my marriage. We had finished breakfast and were sitting smoking at the window.
“Look at that man there, Wotsing,” said my friend, suddenly.
“Where? Which one?” I replied. “I see so many men. Do you mean the elderly sergeant of marines, who retired, as far as I can judge from a hasty glance, in the summer of eighty-six, or the stockbroker, who seems to me unable to make up his mind whether to invest in Eries or South Africans, and who, I am sorry to say, sat up last night past his usual hour drinking black coffee while trying to decide on the best course, or—”
At this point Rose interrupted. I had noticed lately that my success in studying his methods had not been altogether to his taste. His disapproval had been especially marked during the last week, notably on the occasion when the King of Fiji had called to consult him, and I had solved the case from my armchair before he could speak, thereby losing him a handsome fee.
“Wotsing,” he said, quietly.
“In a household of two I am inclined to think that one detective is ample, a pair excessive.” I apologised. After all, he had the prior claim in the matter of deductions.
“The man I mean,” said he, “is the schoolmaster in the frockcoat.”
A year before I should have exclaimed “My dear Rose! How—?” but now I merely endorsed his opinion.
“I see the man you mean. He is a Fifth Form Master, I should be inclined to say.”
“Sixth,” said Rose, sharply.
“Well, the point will not be long in doubt. I deduced from his movements that he was coming here. That, if I mistake not, is his knock.”
That my surmise was correct was proved a moment later by the landlady, who ushered in a tall, good-looking man in a frockcoat with the curt but lucid observation, “ Mr. Theopilus Wright.”
“Sit down, Mr. Wright,” said Rose, genially. “That basket-chair will be your fancy, I think. I trust you left your form in good health?”
“Very good, thank you. But how—?”
“Tut, tut, my dear sir, these are trifles. Wotsing, how did I know that Mr. Wright was a schoolmaster?”
“Why,” I said, with a laugh, “when we see a man with a—”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Rose, quickly, “that was how it was done, of course. You are a Sixth Form Master, Mr. Wright, I think?”
“No, Mr. Rose; I take the Fifth.”
When Rose asked me at this point why I smiled, I said that I was thinking of something.
“It was, however, about the Sixth Form Master that I came to consult you. My school, Mr. Rose, is St. Asterisk’s.”
“Wotsing,” said Rose, without moving from his position (closed eyes and touching finger-tips), “look up St Asterisk’s in my scrap-book.”
I replied that as Rose was himself able to reach the book without rising whereas I should be obliged to get up and come round the table, the best and wisest course would be for him to get it himself. He did so.
The information concerning St. Asterisk’s was wedged in between a statement (extracted from “Useful Bits”) to the effect that Mr. Joseph Chamberlain never eats mushrooms, and a letter to the “Daily Telegraph” on the question “Are Hairpins Hygienic?”
“Ha!” said Rose, “H’m! St. Asterisk’s, I see, is the school which lost a Sixth Form Master in 1884.”
“Quite so; that brings me to my point. Our present Sixth Form Master, Mr. Buxton-Smythe, has also disappeared.”
“‘How old was he?”
“About twenty-four. He had just come down from Oxford.”
“Young for a Sixth Form Master, I imagine.”
“Very much so; but a fine scholar.”
“Ah! What colour was his hair?”
“Ah, yes, quite so, quite so. So I had expected. Well, let me hear the particulars.”
“They may be given very shortly,” said our visitor. “Buxton-Smythe was seen to enter his form room at two o’clock last Tuesday. He was never seen to come out.”
“What do the form say on the subject?”
“Nothing, except that they do not know where he is. Their manner, I may add, seems to me suspicious.”
I could see from Rose’s eyes that the case interested him.
“Proceed,” he said.
“The Head Master is, of course, prostrated with grief. He fainted on hearing the news, and is now on a sofa in the library gradually recovering. The junior school masters are feeding him with gruel from a spoon. Somebody advised me, as senior surviving master, to ask you to look into the case.”
“I shall be very happy to do so. Wotsing, can you leave your practice for a couple of days?”
“My what?—Oh, yes, I remember. Why, my dear Rose, I have no practice now I found I had no time to spare from observing your methods. I will accompany you with pleasure. To St. Asterisk’s?”
“Precisely. To St. Asterisk’s. By the way, Mr. Wright, was the first disappearance at the school ever cleared up?”
“Well, no,” admitted our visitor, with some reluctance, “not absolutely. The name of that master was Wotherspoon. I believe it is almost certain that the boys of his House murdered him and concealed the body. You see he was in the habit of reciting extracts from Shakespeare to them on Saturday nights, and attendance was compulsory. Well, he disappeared one day, and a month afterwards some workmen digging in the grounds came upon a mouldering skelton. You see the inference?”
“Perfectly. I suppose there was nothing of that sort in this case?”
“Oh, no. Poor Buxton-Smythe was a most inoffensive man.”
“Very good. Well, Mr. Wright, this appears to be a very pretty little problem. I always shut the windows and doors and smoke a pound of shag over cases of this sort. Wotsing generally goes out to see a friend of his about a canary. Perhaps you would care to join him? Then good morning. Expect me at St. Asterisk’s to-morrow at one.”
“It is a case that presents many attractive points, Wotsing,” said Rose, as we left the form room on the following day. “Did you observe anything just now? Have you formed any theory?”
I replied that I never formed theories. I found that they were fatal, for one involuntarily attempted to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.
“Very sensible,” said he. “By the way, Wotsing, didn’t I make a remark very like that to you once?”
“Did you? I don’t remember. Very possibly,” I replied, off-handedly.
“Of course,” he continued, after a pause, “one thing is obvious. Mr. Theopilus Wright has made away with Buxton-Smythe. The question is, how?”
“My dear Rose!”
“My dear Wotsing, it is surely perfectly plain. Do you ask for motive? Ambition. The chance of getting the vacant place. Clues? Millions of them. To begin with—”
“One moment, Rose. You remember that Sixth Form boy I attended this morning?”
“He was suffering from indigestion. He had eaten something that had disagreed with him. Now, Sixth Form boys do not eat sweets or green apples or buns or anything else of that sort. A chance question put me on the right track, and by dint of severe examination, aided by remorse and indigestion, I extracted the truth. He had eaten a considerable portion of the late Buxton-Smythe raw! No,” I went on, seeing his look of amazement, “I am not romancing. I have his written confession in my pocket. He told me the whole story. Buxton-Smythe appears to have been a perfectly harmless man, but with one flaw in his character. He set essays. Now, there are many ways of setting essays. Buxton-Smythe’s was the worst. His subjects ran in series of six. The facts in connection with his death are briefly as follows: On the first Monday of term he gave out as his subject ‘David.’ This suited the form very well, for they knew nothing of the flaw in their master’s character, which, as I said, made him set series of six. They showed up excellent essays on David. David’s character was the next subject. The form were not so pleased at this, but there was, so far, little inclination to take justice into their own hands. ‘David’s character and it’s influence upon his people’ on the third week altered this frame of mind for the worse. There were ominous growls and whispers. Anybody might have been expected to notice this, but Buxton-Smythe was either incredibly dense or outrageously rash. Of course, he was an enthusiast, which may explain it. But the fact remains that on the fourth Monday, whether from innocence or sheer bravado, he announced, as the week’s essay subject, ‘David’s character, and it’s influence upon himself.’ Upon this portion of the proceedings my informant does not dwell. He merely states baldly that the form rose as one man from their seats, tore him to pieces, and ate him. You remember, when we were examining the form room, that I directed your attention to a shirt-stud and a spot of blood on the floor by the master’s desk, but you said it was only red ink, and that you had dropped the stud yourself. As a matter of fact, they were Buxton-Smythe. The local coroner sat on them before they went to Woking, and brought in what I considered a very sensible verdict of suicide. He said that a master who could act as Buxton-Smythe had done had, to all intents and purposes, committed suicide. He added a rider to the effect that the form had behaved in a most conscientious and praiseworthy manner. I am sorry to interfere with any little deduction you may have made, Rose, but those are the true facts.”
Rose said nothing. I think he was a little disappointed.
He did not speak again until we had reached our lodgings and were retiring for the night. Then he put his head in at my door.
“Wotsing,” he said, “I suppose I shall see very little of you when you’re married?”
“Not quite so much as you do now, Rose, I fear.”
He was silent for a moment. Then a soft smile lit up his sharp features.
“I’m glad you’re going to be married, Wotsing,” said he, pensively.