The Gold Bat by P.G. Wodehouse
XIX. The Mayor's Visit.
School prefects at Wrykyn did weekly essays for the headmaster. Those who had got their scholarships at the 'Varsity, or who were going up in the following year, used to take their essays to him after school and read them to him--an unpopular and nerve-destroying practice, akin to suicide. Trevor had got his scholarship in the previous November. He was due at the headmaster's private house at six o'clock on the present Tuesday. He was looking forward to the ordeal not without apprehension. The essay subject this week had been "One man's meat is another man's poison", and Clowes, whose idea of English Essay was that it should be a medium for intempestive frivolity, had insisted on his beginning with, "While I cannot conscientiously go so far as to say that one man's meat is another man's poison, yet I am certainly of opinion that what is highly beneficial to one man may, on the other hand, to another man, differently constituted, be extremely deleterious, and, indeed, absolutely fatal."
Trevor was not at all sure how the headmaster would take it. But Clowes had seemed so cut up at his suggestion that it had better be omitted, that he had allowed it to stand.
He was putting the final polish on this gem of English literature at half-past five, when Milton came in.
"Busy?" said Milton.
Trevor said he would be through in a minute.
Milton took a chair, and waited.
Trevor scratched out two words and substituted two others, made a couple of picturesque blots, and, laying down his pen, announced that he had finished.
"What's up?" he said.
"It's about the League," said Milton.
"Found out anything?"
"Not anything much. But I've been making inquiries. You remember I asked you to let me look at those letters of yours?"
Trevor nodded. This had happened on the Sunday of that week.
"Well, I wanted to look at the post-marks."
"By Jove, I never thought of that."
Milton continued with the business-like air of the detective who explains in the last chapter of the book how he did it.
"I found, as I thought, that both letters came from the same place."
Trevor pulled out the letters in question. "So they do," he said, "Chesterton."
"Do you know Chesterton?" asked Milton.
"Only by name."
"It's a small hamlet about two miles from here across the downs. There's only one shop in the place, which acts as post-office and tobacconist and everything else. I thought that if I went there and asked about those letters, they might remember who it was that sent them, if I showed them a photograph."
"By Jove," said Trevor, "of course! Did you? What happened?"
"I went there yesterday afternoon. I took about half-a-dozen photographs of various chaps, including Rand-Brown."
"But wait a bit. If Chesterton's two miles off, Rand-Brown couldn't have sent the letters. He wouldn't have the time after school. He was on the grounds both the afternoons before I got the letters."
"I know," said Milton; "I didn't think of that at the time."
"One of the points about the Chesterton post-office is that there's no letter-box outside. You have to go into the shop and hand anything you want to post across the counter. I thought this was a tremendous score for me. I thought they would be bound to remember who handed in the letters. There can't be many at a place like that."
"Did they remember?"
"They remembered the letters being given in distinctly, but as for knowing anything beyond that, they were simply futile. There was an old woman in the shop, aged about three hundred and ten, I should think. I shouldn't say she had ever been very intelligent, but now she simply gibbered. I started off by laying out a shilling on some poisonous-looking sweets. I gave the lot to a village kid when I got out. I hope they didn't kill him. Then, having scattered ground-bait in that way, I lugged out the photographs, mentioned the letters and the date they had been sent, and asked her to weigh in and identify the sender."
"My dear chap, she identified them all, one after the other. The first was one of Clowes. She was prepared to swear on oath that that was the chap who had sent the letters. Then I shot a photograph of you across the counter, and doubts began to creep in. She said she was certain it was one of those two 'la-ads', but couldn't quite say which. To keep her amused I fired in photograph number three--Allardyce's. She identified that, too. At the end of ten minutes she was pretty sure that it was one of the six--the other three were Paget, Clephane, and Rand-Brown--but she was not going to bind herself down to any particular one. As I had come to the end of my stock of photographs, and was getting a bit sick of the game, I got up to go, when in came another ornament of Chesterton from a room at the back of the shop. He was quite a kid, not more than a hundred and fifty at the outside, so, as a last chance, I tackled him on the subject. He looked at the photographs for about half an hour, mumbling something about it not being 'thiccy 'un' or 'that 'un', or 'that 'ere tother 'un', until I began to feel I'd had enough of it. Then it came out that the real chap who had sent the letters was a 'la-ad' with light hair, not so big as me--"
"That doesn't help us much," said Trevor.
"--And a 'prarper little gennlemun'. So all we've got to do is to look for some young duke of polished manners and exterior, with a thatch of light hair."
"There are three hundred and sixty-seven fellows with light hair in the school," said Trevor, calmly.
"Thought it was three hundred and sixty-eight myself," said Milton, "but I may be wrong. Anyhow, there you have the results of my investigations. If you can make anything out of them, you're welcome to it. Good-bye."
"Half a second," said Trevor, as he got up; "had the fellow a cap of any sort?"
"No. Bareheaded. You wouldn't expect him to give himself away by wearing a house-cap?"
Trevor went over to the headmaster's revolving this discovery in his mind. It was not much of a clue, but the smallest clue is better than nothing. To find out that the sender of the League letters had fair hair narrowed the search down a little. It cleared the more raven-locked members of the school, at any rate. Besides, by combining his information with Milton's, the search might be still further narrowed down. He knew that the polite letter-writer must be either in Seymour's or in Donaldson's. The number of fair-haired youths in the two houses was not excessive. Indeed, at the moment he could not recall any; which rather complicated matters.
He arrived at the headmaster's door, and knocked. He was shown into a room at the side of the hall, near the door. The butler informed him that the headmaster was engaged at present. Trevor, who knew the butler slightly through having constantly been to see the headmaster on business via the front door, asked who was there.
"Sir Eustace Briggs," said the butler, and disappeared in the direction of his lair beyond the green baize partition at the end of the hall.
Trevor went into the room, which was a sort of spare study, and sat down, wondering what had brought the mayor of Wrykyn to see the headmaster at this advanced hour.
A quarter of an hour later the sound of voices broke in upon his peace. The headmaster was coming down the hall with the intention of showing his visitor out. The door of Trevor's room was ajar, and he could hear distinctly what was being said. He had no particular desire to play the eavesdropper, but the part was forced upon him.
Sir Eustace seemed excited.
"It is far from being my habit," he was saying, "to make unnecessary complaints respecting the conduct of the lads under your care." (Sir Eustace Briggs had a distaste for the shorter and more colloquial forms of speech. He would have perished sooner than have substituted "complain of your boys" for the majestic formula he had used. He spoke as if he enjoyed choosing his words. He seemed to pause and think before each word. Unkind people--who were jealous of his distinguished career--used to say that he did this because he was afraid of dropping an aitch if he relaxed his vigilance.)
"But," continued he, "I am reluctantly forced to the unpleasant conclusion that the dastardly outrage to which both I and the Press of the town have called your attention is to be attributed to one of the lads to whom I 'ave--have (this with a jerk) referred."
"I will make a thorough inquiry, Sir Eustace," said the bass voice of the headmaster.
"I thank you," said the mayor. "It would, under the circumstances, be nothing more, I think, than what is distinctly advisable. The man Samuel Wapshott, of whose narrative I have recently afforded you a brief synopsis, stated in no uncertain terms that he found at the foot of the statue on which the dastardly outrage was perpetrated a diminutive ornament, in shape like the bats that are used in the game of cricket. This ornament, he avers (with what truth I know not), was handed by him to a youth of an age coeval with that of the lads in the upper division of this school. The youth claimed it as his property, I was given to understand."
"A thorough inquiry shall be made, Sir Eustace."
"I thank you."
And then the door shut, and the conversation ceased.