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Life at St. Austin's was rendered somewhat hollow and burdensome for Pillingshot by the fact that he fagged for Scott. Not that Scott was the Beetle-Browed Bully in any way. Far from it. He showed a kindly interest in Pillingshot's welfare, and sometimes even did his Latin verses for him. But the noblest natures have flaws, and Scott's was no exception. He was by way of being a humorist, and Pillingshot, with his rather serious outlook on life, was puzzled and inconvenienced by this.
It was through this defect in Scott's character that Pillingshot first became a detective.
He was toasting muffins at the study fire one evening, while Scott, seated on two chairs and five cushions, read "Sherlock Holmes," when the Prefect laid down his book and fixed him with an earnest eye.
"Do you know, Pillingshot," he said, "you've got a bright, intelligent face. I shouldn't wonder if you weren't rather clever. Why do you hide your light under a bushel?"
"We must find some way of advertising you. Why don't you go in for a Junior Scholarship?"
"Too old," said Pillingshot with satisfaction.
"I believe by sitting up all night and swotting——"
"Here, I say!" said Pillingshot, alarmed.
"You've got no enterprise," said Scott sadly. "What are those? Muffins? Well, well, I suppose I had better try and peck a bit."
He ate four in rapid succession, and resumed his scrutiny of Pillingshot's countenance.
"The great thing," he said, "is to find out your special line. Till then we are working in the dark. Perhaps it's music? Singing? Sing me a bar or two."
Pillingshot wriggled uncomfortably.
"Left your music at home?" said Scott. "Never mind, then. Perhaps it's all for the best. What are those? Still muffins? Hand me another. After all, one must keep one's strength up. You can have one if you like."
Pillingshot's face brightened. He became more affable. He chatted.
"There's rather a row on downstairs," he said. "In the junior day-room."
"There always is," said Scott. "If it grows too loud, I shall get in amongst them with a swagger-stick. I attribute half my success at bringing off late-cuts to the practice I have had in the junior day-room. It keeps the wrist supple."
"I don't mean that sort of row. It's about Evans."
"What about Evans?"
"He's lost a sovereign."
"Silly young ass."
Pillingshot furtively helped himself to another muffin.
"He thinks some one's taken it," he said.
"What! Stolen it?"
"What makes him think that?"
"He doesn't see how else it could have gone."
"Oh, I don't—By Jove!"
Scott sat up with some excitement.
"I've got it," he said. "I knew we should hit on it sooner or later. Here's a field for your genius. You shall be a detective. Pillingshot, I hand this case over to you. I employ you."
"I feel certain that's your line. I've often noticed you walking over to school, looking exactly like a blood-hound. Get to work. As a start you'd better fetch Evans up here and question him."
"But, look here——"
"Buck up, man, buck up. Don't you know that every moment is precious?"
Evans, a small, stout youth, was not disposed to be reticent. The gist of his rambling statement was as follows. Rich uncle. Impecunious nephew. Visit of former to latter. Handsome tip, one sovereign. Impecunious nephew pouches sovereign, and it vanishes.
"And I call it beastly rot," concluded Evans volubly. "And if I could find the cad who's pinched it, I'd jolly well——"
"Less of it," said Scott. "Now, then, Pillingshot, I'll begin this thing, just to start you off. What makes you think the quid has been stolen, Evans?"
"Because I jolly well know it has."
"What you jolly well know isn't evidence. We must thresh this thing out. To begin with, where did you last see it?"
"When I put it in my pocket."
"Good. Make a note of that, Pillingshot. Where's your notebook? Not got one? Here you are then. You can tear out the first few pages, the ones I've written on. Ready? Carry on, Evans. When?"
"When did you put it in your pocket?"
"Same pair of bags you're wearing now?"
"No, my cricket bags. I was playing at the nets when my uncle came."
"Ah! Cricket bags? Put it down, Pillingshot. That's a clue. Work on it. Where are they?"
"They've gone to the wash."
"About time, too. I noticed them. How do you know the quid didn't go to the wash as well?"
"I turned both the pockets inside out."
"Any hole in the pocket?"
"Well, when did you take off the bags? Did you sleep in them?"
"I wore 'em till bed-time, and then shoved them on a chair by the side of the bed. It wasn't till next morning that I remembered the quid was in them——"
"But it wasn't," objected Scott.
"I thought it was. It ought to have been."
"He thought it was. That's a clue, young Pillingshot. Work on it. Well?"
"Well, when I went to take the quid out of my cricket bags, it wasn't there."
"What time was that?"
"Half-past seven this morning."
"What time did you go to bed?"
"Then the theft occurred between the hours of ten and seven-thirty. Mind you, I'm giving you a jolly good leg-up, young Pillingshot. But as it's your first case I don't mind. That'll be all from you, Evans. Pop off."
Evans disappeared. Scott turned to the detective.
"Well, young Pillingshot," he said, "what do you make of it?"
"I don't know."
"What steps do you propose to take?"
"I don't know."
"You're a lot of use, aren't you? As a start, you'd better examine the scene of the robbery, I should say."
Pillingshot reluctantly left the room.
"Well?" said Scott, when he returned. "Any clues?"
"You thoroughly examined the scene of the robbery?"
"I looked under the bed."
"Under the bed? What's the good of that? Did you go over every inch of the strip of carpet leading to the chair with a magnifying-glass?"
"Hadn't got a magnifying-glass."
"Then you'd better buck up and get one, if you're going to be a detective. Do you think Sherlock Holmes ever moved a step without his? Not much. Well, anyhow. Did you find any foot-prints or tobacco-ash?"
"There was a jolly lot of dust about."
"Did you preserve a sample?"
"My word, you've a lot to learn. Now, weighing the evidence, does anything strike you?"
"You're a bright sort of sleuth-hound, aren't you! It seems to me I'm doing all the work on this case. I'll have to give you another leg-up. Considering the time when the quid disappeared, I should say that somebody in the dormitory must have collared it. How many fellows are there in Evans' dormitory?"
"I don't know."
"Cut along and find out."
The detective reluctantly trudged off once more.
"Well?" said Scott, on his return.
"Seven," said Pillingshot. "Counting Evans."
"We needn't count Evans. If he's ass enough to steal his own quids, he deserves to lose them. Who are the other six?"
"There's Trent. He's prefect."
"The Napoleon of Crime. Watch his every move. Yes?"
"A dangerous man. Sinister to the core."
"And Green, Berkeley, Hanson, and Daubeny."
"Every one of them well known to the police. Why, the place is a perfect Thieves' Kitchen. Look here, we must act swiftly, young Pillingshot. This is a black business. We'll take them in alphabetical order. Run and fetch Berkeley."
Berkeley, interrupted in a game of Halma, came unwillingly.
"Now then, Pillingshot, put your questions," said Scott. "This is a black business, Berkeley. Young Evans has lost a sovereign——"
"If you think I've taken his beastly quid——!" said Berkeley warmly.
"Make a note that, on being questioned, the man Berkeley exhibited suspicious emotion. Go on. Jam it down."
Pillingshot reluctantly entered the statement under Berkeley's indignant gaze.
"Now then, carry on."
"You know, it's all rot," protested Pillingshot. "I never said Berkeley had anything to do with it."
"Never mind. Ask him what his movements were on the night of the—what was yesterday?—on the night of the sixteenth of July."
Pillingshot put the question nervously.
"I was in bed, of course, you silly ass."
"Were you asleep?" inquired Scott.
"Of course I was."
"Then how do you know what you were doing? Pillingshot, make a note of the fact that the man Berkeley's statement was confused and contradictory. It's a clue. Work on it. Who's next? Daubeny. Berkeley, send Daubeny up here."
"All right, Pillingshot, you wait," was Berkeley's exit speech.
Daubeny, when examined, exhibited the same suspicious emotion that Berkeley had shown; and Hanson, Simms, and Green behaved in a precisely similar manner.
"This," said Scott, "somewhat complicates the case. We must have further clues. You'd better pop off now, Pillingshot. I've got a Latin Prose to do. Bring me reports of your progress daily, and don't overlook the importance of trifles. Why, in 'Silver Blaze' it was a burnt match that first put Holmes on the scent."
Entering the junior day-room with some apprehension, the sleuth-hound found an excited gathering of suspects waiting to interview him.
One sentiment animated the meeting. Each of the five wanted to know what Pillingshot meant by it.
"What's the row?" queried interested spectators, rallying round.
"That cad Pillingshot's been accusing us of bagging Evans' quid."
"What's Scott got to do with it?" inquired one of the spectators.
Pillingshot explained his position.
"All the same," said Daubeny, "you needn't have dragged us into it."
"I couldn't help it. He made me."
"Awful ass, Scott," admitted Green.
Pillingshot welcomed this sign that the focus of popular indignation was being shifted.
"Shoving himself into other people's business," grumbled Pillingshot.
"Trying to be funny," Berkeley summed up.
"Rotten at cricket, too."
"Can't play a yorker for nuts."
"See him drop that sitter on Saturday?"
So that was all right. As far as the junior day-room was concerned, Pillingshot felt himself vindicated.
But his employer was less easily satisfied. Pillingshot had hoped that by the next day he would have forgotten the subject. But, when he went into the study to get tea ready, up it came again.
"Any clues yet, Pillingshot?"
Pillingshot had to admit that there were none.
"Hullo, this won't do. You must bustle about. You must get your nose to the trail. Have you cross-examined Trent yet? No? Well, there you are, then. Nip off and do it now."
"But, I say, Scott! He's a prefect!"
"In the dictionary of crime," said Scott sententiously, "there is no such word as prefect. All are alike. Go and take down Trent's statement."
To tax a prefect with having stolen a sovereign was a task at which Pillingshot's imagination boggled. He went to Trent's study in a sort of dream.
A hoarse roar answered his feeble tap. There was no doubt about Trent being in. Inspection revealed the fact that the prefect was working and evidently ill-attuned to conversation. He wore a haggard look and his eye, as it caught that of the collector of statements, was dangerous.
"Well?" said Trent, scowling murderously.
Pillingshot's legs felt perfectly boneless.
"Well?" said Trent.
The roar shook the window, and Pillingshot's presence of mind deserted him altogether.
"Have you bagged a sovereign?" he asked.
There was an awful silence, during which the detective, his limbs suddenly becoming active again, banged the door, and shot off down the passage.
He re-entered Scott's study at the double.
"Well?" said Scott. "What did he say?"
"Get out your note-book, and put down, under the heading 'Trent': 'Suspicious silence.' A very bad lot, Trent. Keep him under constant espionage. It's a clue. Work on it."
Pillingshot made a note of the silence, but later on, when he and the prefect met in the dormitory, felt inclined to erase it. For silence was the last epithet one would have applied to Trent on that occasion. As he crawled painfully into bed Pillingshot became more than ever convinced that the path of the amateur detective was a thorny one.
This conviction deepened next day.
Scott's help was possibly well meant, but it was certainly inconvenient. His theories were of the brilliant, dashing order, and Pillingshot could never be certain who and in what rank of life the next suspect would be. He spent that afternoon shadowing the Greaser (the combination of boot-boy and butler who did the odd jobs about the school house), and in the evening seemed likely to be about to move in the very highest circles. This was when Scott remarked in a dreamy voice, "You know, I'm told the old man has been spending a good lot of money lately…."
To which the burden of Pillingshot's reply was that he would do anything in reason, but he was blowed if he was going to cross-examine the head-master.
"It seems to me," said Scott sadly, "that you don't want to find that sovereign. Don't you like Evans, or what is it?"
It was on the following morning, after breakfast, that the close observer might have noticed a change in the detective's demeanour. He no longer looked as if he were weighed down by a secret sorrow. His manner was even jaunty.
Scott noticed it.
"What's up?" he inquired. "Got a clue?"
"What is it? Let's have a look."
"Sh—h—h!" said Pillingshot mysteriously.
Scott's interest was aroused. When his fag was making tea in the afternoon, he questioned him again.
"Out with it," he said. "What's the point of all this silent mystery business?"
"Sherlock Holmes never gave anything away."
"Out with it."
"Walls have ears," said Pillingshot.
"So have you," replied Scott crisply, "and I'll smite them in half a second."
Pillingshot sighed resignedly, and produced an envelope. From this he poured some dried mud.
"Here, steady on with my table-cloth," said Scott. "What's this?"
"What about it?"
"Where do you think it came from?"
"How should I know? Road, I suppose."
Pillingshot smiled faintly.
"Eighteen different kinds of mud about here," he said patronisingly. "This is flower-bed mud from the house front-garden."
"Well? What about it?"
"Sh—h—h!" said Pillingshot, and glided out of the room.
* * * * *
"Well?" asked Scott next day. "Clues pouring in all right?"
"What? Got another?"
Pillingshot walked silently to the door and flung it open. He looked up and down the passage. Then he closed the door and returned to the table, where he took from his waistcoat-pocket a used match.
Scott turned it over inquiringly.
"What's the idea of this?"
"A clue," said Pillingshot. "See anything queer about it? See that rummy brown stain on it?"
"Blood!" snorted Pillingshot.
"What's the good of blood? There's been no murder."
Pillingshot looked serious.
"I never thought of that."
"You must think of everything. The worst mistake a detective can make is to get switched off on to another track while he's working on a case. This match is a clue to something else. You can't work on it."
"I suppose not," said Pillingshot.
"Don't be discouraged. You're doing fine."
"I know," said Pillingshot. "I shall find that quid all right."
"Nothing like sticking to it."
Pillingshot shuffled, then rose to a point of order.
"I've been reading those Sherlock Holmes stories," he said, "and Sherlock Holmes always got a fee if he brought a thing off. I think I ought to, too."
"Mercenary young brute."
"It has been a beastly sweat."
"Done you good. Supplied you with a serious interest in life. Well, I expect Evans will give you something—a jewelled snuff-box or something—if you pull the thing off."
"Well, he'll buy you a tea or something."
"He won't. He's not going to break the quid. He's saving up for a camera."
"Well, what are you going to do about it?"
Pillingshot kicked the leg of the table.
"You put me on to the case," he said casually.
"What! If you think I'm going to squander——"
"I think you ought to let me off fagging for the rest of the term."
"There's something in that. All right."
"Don't mention it. You haven't found the quid yet."
"I know where it is."
"Fool," said Scott.
* * * * *
After breakfast next day Scott was seated in his study when Pillingshot entered.
"Here you are," said Pillingshot.
He unclasped his right hand and exhibited a sovereign. Scott inspected it.
"Is this the one?" he said.
"Yes," said Pillingshot.
"How do you know?"
"It is. I've sifted all the evidence."
"Who had bagged it?"
"I don't want to mention names."
"Oh, all right. As he didn't spend any of it, it doesn't much matter. Not that it's much catch having a thief roaming at large about the house. Anyhow, what put you on to him? How did you get on the track? You're a jolly smart kid, young Pillingshot. How did you work it?"
"I have my methods," said Pillingshot with dignity.
"Buck up. I shall have to be going over to school in a second."
"I hardly like to tell you."
"Tell me! Dash it all, I put you on to the case. I'm your employer."
"You won't touch me up if I tell you?"
"I will if you don't."
"But not if I do?"
"And how about the fee?"
"That's all right. Go on."
"All right then. Well, I thought the whole thing over, and I couldn't make anything out of it at first, because it didn't seem likely that Trent or any of the other fellows in the dormitory had taken it; and then suddenly something Evans told me the day before yesterday made it all clear."
"What was that?"
"He said that the matron had just given him back his quid, which one of the housemaids had found on the floor by his bed. It had dropped out of his pocket that first night."
Scott eyed him fixedly. Pillingshot coyly evaded his gaze.
"That was it, was it?" said Scott.
"It was a clue," he said. "I worked on it."
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