Another Crowhurst Sherlock Holmes story! Father Michael and Paul Johnson have had their Arthur Conan Doyle hats on again…
Perhaps you remember The Mystery of the Purple Emperor a few years ago (December 1909 to be precise) – Holmes and Watson were summoned to Crowhurst by our village rector and famed letter-writer, the Rev’d James Bacon-Phillips, to assist Lieutenant Colonel Papillon of Crowhurst Park, who was receiving ominous butterfly wings in the post. A missing antique figurine was discovered concealed in the newly-railed Yew in the Churchyard, a troubled butler called Rother and his miscreant brother the culprits.
Now, it is the summer of 1913, and military hero turned original Scoutmaster, Lieutenant General Baden-Powell, has a local problem, also lepidoptery-related…
During my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr Sherlock Holmes, I had seldom known him to read anything purely for pleasure. Or to cease to be amazed at his lack of awareness of any matter he considered to be extraneous to developing his powers of observation. It was a great shock to me, therefore, on entering our little Baker Street sitting room to find him, not smoking his pipe of the day, but engaged in reading the compendium known as Scouting for Boys by Lt Gen Baden-Powell, the hero of Mafeking.
Holmes beckoned me over. ‘Are you aware, Watson, that your writings feature in this work? Its boyish readership is encouraged to read your story known as The Resident Patient where, from the most rudimentary of signs of a bitten cigar and footmarks, I was able to deduce that the supposed solitary suicide of Mr Blessington was in fact an execution at the hands of three men by a forced hanging.’
‘I was aware that Baden-Powell is an admirer of your methods,’ I responded. ‘You also feature in his much earlier work Scouting for NCOs and Men. But why are you reading it?’
‘Watson, you astonish me,’ he retorted. ‘Given my use of the youthful Baker Street irregulars in my detective work, is it so surprising that I should be interested in a work conveying the importance of observation to the young? It has some fine points, although it is also ruined, as your stories are, by a tendency to the romantic and fanciful. However, there is another reason, which will become apparent, if you read that letter from your old military colleague Colonel Papillon of Crowhurst Park.’
I opened the large envelope containing a letter written in a neat, familiar, military hand.
10th June 1913
Dear Mr Holmes,
You were kind enough to solve the mystery of the Purple Emperor for me with discretion. I believe that you are also the man who may be able to resolve a delicate situation for a former military colleague of mine, Lt Gen Baden-Powell who now resides in the Sussex village of Ewhust Green. I would be grateful if you could call upon us both at Crowhurst Park, at some point on the 11th, where he is currently staying .
‘So, Watson,’ exclaimed Holmes ‘Are you ready for a little more country air? We might tie it in with a visit to the Downs where I have half a mind to buy a small cottage and retire to the pursuit of bee keeping.’
‘Why, yes,’ I replied, ‘I am sure the practice can manage without me for a day. But what do you think the issue is? I can deduce nothing from this.’
‘Oh, Watson. Why does anyone call me in? Either the matter is beyond the local constabulary or too embarrassing to wish to share with officialdom. I rather think it is the latter in this case: Baden-Powell is a military man who places much emphasis on correct behaviour and he fears an embarrassment to the new and growing Boy Scout Movement.’
So once again, I accompanied Holmes to the picturesque village of Crowhurst. As we alighted onto the platform, it appeared to me that nothing had changed since our last visit. However, the journey down the old estate road in the station trap provided plenty of evidence that this was not the case.
The tranquil grounds of Crowhurst Park were a hive of activity as Boy Scouts scurried about between a selection of bell tents erected, as the driver informed us, for the Whitsun camp.
‘No doubt the village must have its own troop,’ I commented to Holmes. ‘The Scout movement has swept the country. If Papillon is a friend of the Chief Scout it is not surprising that he has encouraged it locally.’
‘But they are not just local boys,’ countered Holmes. ‘That tent is a German military design.’
‘That means nothing,’ I responded. ‘Maybe its owner bought it on a German walking holiday.’
‘I agree that on its own it would hardly be definitive, but there is also a pennant, displaying a red acorn. If I am not mistaken it is from the Rhineland town of Oberstein. No, I think you will find that there are some German scouts here too.’
My expression clearly showed some surprise that Holmes should be interested in municipal heraldry for he gave a slight smile.
‘Do not be surprised Watson that I should know something of heraldry, it was one of the few hobbies that both brother Mycroft and myself had in common as boys. It is pleasingly logical, and its presence often helps to pinpoint the ancestry of both objects and people. When in Crowhurst Park last time, I drew your attention to the Pelham Buckle and you can hardly have forgotten the fact that Colonel Papillon sports butterflies upon his own shield.’
On arrival at the Manor House, we were shown into the library where the Pelham Buckle on the mantelpiece was flanked by both distinguished military gentlemen.
Papillon greeted us warmly and introduced us to Baden-Powell.
‘Pray resume your seats and let us know how we might serve you,’ invited Holmes.
For a man renowned for his oratorical skills, Baden-Powell seemed to be remarkably shy. ‘The matter is an embarrassing one,’ he finally began.
‘Without a detailed account of the circumstances which have disturbed you I can do nothing,’ pressed Holmes. ‘Please tell me everything.’
‘Go on, B-P,’ said Papillon supportively. ‘He sorted out my matter without any public fuss.’
Baden-Powell began. ‘The matter, as I say, is an embarrassing one. During my military career there were occasions when it was thought helpful for me to travel abroad as an ordinary tourist to see what I could observe.’
‘You were a spy!’ I gasped.
‘Come, Watson,’ Holmes rejoined. ‘It is one of the oldest professions in the world; it is even mentioned in the Bible as Caleb is sent to spy out the Promised Land.’
‘Well, quite,’ agreed Baden-Powell. ‘And I believed myself to be good at this task. I used to go “butterfly hunting”. I would take a sketchbook in which were numerous pictures – some finished, others partly done – of butterflies of every degree and rank from a “Red Admiral” to a “Painted Lady”. I found that when carrying a sketchbook, a colour-box and a butterfly net on my person, I was above suspicion to anyone who met me on the lonely mountainsides I visited, even when I was near to military forts and barracks. I was simply the eccentric Englishman who was mad enough to be hunting these colourful insects.
‘However, no one looked sufficiently closely into the sketches of butterflies to notice that the delicately drawn veins of the wings were often exact representations, in plan, of their own forts, and that the spots on the wings denoted the number and position of guns and their different calibres.‘You may be aware that I am recently married,’ he continued. ‘My wife was interested in my sketches and persuaded me to frame a couple of them to display in our home at Ewhurst Place. I need hardly say that she knew nothing of what the Painted Lady really contained and, to my knowledge, neither did anyone else.’
‘I take it that it has disappeared?’ interjected Holmes. ‘But what makes you think this is a cause for fear? You are a famous man, could it not be a young enthusiast anxious for something produced by his hero?’
‘I had hoped so,’ Baden-Powell nodded. ‘But yesterday, this letter arrived through the post to the Scout Magazine.’
He proffered a buff envelope to Holmes, who held it up to the light, did the same with the single sheet within and then read:
Our Troop has found the study of butterflies to be a fascinating one. The markings are of military precision. It is amazing what can be discovered when you look closely.
Holmes was silent for a moment. ‘I agree that this is suggestive that someone is aware of your hidden meaning. I take it that you feel that the publication of such information might be both embarrassing to you and possibly to our Government if your lepidopteral enthusiasm became better known?’
‘And when did this sketch disappear from your home?’
‘For a man who has prided himself on his powers of observation,’ responded Baden-Powell, ‘I’m ashamed to say that I am not certain. However, the Housekeep assures me it was in my study last week. She did not comment on its disappearance to either my wife or myself as we have been busy with so many visitors to our home recently.’
‘Including the camp we saw outside?’ enquired Holmes.
‘Well, yes. So many Troops wish to visit us at Ewhurst. This camp was a little more unusual, since they are not all from Sussex and some are from the Continent.’
‘So I observed,’ remarked Holmes. ‘How long was this camp in residence in your grounds? And when did they arrive here in Crowhurst?’
‘They were at Ewhurst Place for a week, before transferring camp to Crowhurst Park two days ago. I travelled over with them myself as I wanted to discuss this difficulty with my old friend, Papillon. Tomorrow is their last day here before they break camp and return to their respective homes.’
Holmes then began to whistle. All three of us stared in surprise at him. ‘I believe a Scout is supposed to whistle in the face of all difficulties,’ he stated. ‘I take it you would have no objection if I visit the Scout Camp? It might even help me to apply the Scouting method to this problem.’
‘Not at all,’ answered Baden-Powell. ‘Any Scout would be delighted to meet such a famous detective. Perhaps you would speak to them?’
‘I am not accustomed to giving public talks, but Watson could no doubt be prevailed upon to retell one of his stories. I might offer a few guiding points relating to the finer points of deduction.’
And so, we found ourselves sat beneath the oaks of Crowhurst Park with a group of eager boys hanging on our every word. I chose to recount the story of The Adventure of the Speckled Band to this gathering of Boy Scouts. They heartily cheered me at the end. Then, to my astonishment, Holmes, who had always scorned public performances of deduction as only being appropriate for the music hall, announced that he would pick a few of the Scouts and point out what might be deduced from their appearance.
One was quickly identified as the village’s apprentice blacksmith from the way his muscles were developed and the burn marks where sparks from the forge had struck his arms. Another was recognised as a junior clerk from the type of calluses on his hand and a small smudge of ink on his index finger.
Then he turned his eyes to a tall youth at the rear of the group of scouts.
‘The exceptional brush of your hat, the clearly ironed crease of your clothes and the polish of your boots make you stand out among your friends. It might have indicated a military background, but your bearing is wrong for that. Your scout stave is also most illustrative.’
Holmes stood up, moved forward and, before the surprised scout could respond, gave the stave two sharp raps with his cane. ‘Beyond the obvious facts that you are left-handed, a fine shot with a rifle, you enjoy the attentions of a fine valet and you have a young sister who you are most fond of, I can deduce nothing else.’
I was used to Holmes’ ability to read people and had long given up asking how he reached his conclusions. However, my admiration for his talent had not waned over the years and along with everyone else, I turned towards the boy to await his reaction.
The scout gave a short, stiff bow to acknowledge that Holmes was correct in his deductions before excusing himself and walking back to the tent bearing the pennant of the red acorn. Holmes gazed after him with an expression of such intensity that I thought he was going to run after the youth and challenge him there and then.
Instead, he turned to Baden-Powell. ‘What time will the scouts break camp tomorrow?’
‘First thing, as some, including young Gunter there, have a long journey ahead of them.’
‘So,’ mused Holmes thoughtfully, ‘If I am correct, we have but a few hours to nail the culprit. Observe Gunter’s tent, Watson. What has changed?’
At first, I could see nothing different about the bell tent, but then I noticed the pennant. No longer was the red acorn flying, it had been replaced by a black eagle, reminiscent of the armies of Caesar.
‘What can that mean Holmes?’ I enquired.
‘I have three theories at present,’ he replied. ‘I must impose upon the good Colonel for the use of his telephone, then I hope to have some answers for you.’ With that he strode towards the house, twirling his cane as he whistled a cheery refrain.
That evening, we dined with Papillon and Baden-Powell. Holmes was on sparkling form, discussing the arts and his love of music. When he broached the subject of polyphonic motets, he suddenly turned to me with a mischievous smile. ‘Watson, do you recall the monograph I composed on Lassus all those years ago?’
‘Of course,’ I replied, ‘To this day it is considered by experts to be the last word on the subject.’ Holmes brushed aside the compliment, although I could see he was pleased.
‘That’s as may be, Watson,’ he admonished, ‘But I was thinking of the case we were engaged upon at the time, and the memorable name of a certain international agent we trapped in the Charring Cross Hotel.’
‘Hugo Oberstein!’ I gasped in surprise. ‘Surely, Holmes, you are not saying that he has something to do with this? He must be languishing in prison still. Though, how he escaped the noose for the murder of poor Cadogen West is beyond my ken.’
Holmes nodded gravely. ‘The methods employed by those immersed in affairs of state would seem to oppose a natural sense of justice at times. However, my dear Watson, you may be interested to learn that Hugo Oberstein is just one of the names the man we caught is known by. A telephone conversation with Mycroft earlier was most instructive regarding the numerous pseudonyms used during his nefarious activities. His real name is hitherto unknown and is of no importance to us in our current case.’
‘It is of no great surprise for a spy to use a false name,’ I retorted, ‘And I do not see how this helps us track down the missing drawings.’ Baden-Powell and Papillon both nodded their agreement with this sentiment.
Holmes smiled and took a sip from his Curaçao, but before he could answer there was a knock on the door and two Boy Scouts entered the room. ‘Ah,’ said Holmes springing out of his chair, ‘I believe the answer to your question may be at hand.’
I recognised the burly figure of the young smith; the other scout was not familiar to me. After paying due courtesy to the Chief Scout with a smart salute, the second youth took a thin tube of paper from a satchel and handed it to Holmes.
‘Everything was as you said Mr Holmes, we managed to carry out the switch without him knowing.’
Holmes handed the paper tube to Baden-Powell. ‘I believe this might belong to you,’ he said with a smile.
The astonished General unrolled the tube to reveal the missing painting of the Painted Lady in all its glory.
The Chief Scout appeared stunned as he gazed at his own work. ‘What!’ he exclaimed, ‘Where on earth did you find it?’
Holmes thanked the two scouts who left the room with wide grins on their faces.
‘Oberstein may not be the agent’s name but he certainly has connections with the town and is not unfamiliar with the noble family of that region. Mycroft believes that our continental scout, Gunter, is in fact one of the younger members of that family who has recently carried out certain duties for the newly formed German Signals Intelligence. The red acorn pennant linked the owner of the tent to Oberstein, as did the crest on Gunter’s hat band. I had my suspicions about his stave when I saw how thick it was compared to the others; a rap with my cane was enough to ascertain that it was hollow, the perfect hiding place for a rolled-up sketch. The change in his pennant was clearly a signal to someone outside of the camp, perhaps to tell them to be ready as they are leaving the next day.’
‘But how did you know it was a scout who had taken it, Holmes?’ I asked. ‘It could have been any common thief breaking and entering.’
‘You forget the note, Watson,’ he replied, ‘Only a scout would refer to “our troop”, especially to the Chief Scout. Gunter would have taken the sketch off the wall and secreted it in his stave, which had been specially made for the task.’
‘Yes, the note!’ exclaimed Papillon. ‘Why send such a note at all, unless blackmail was the objective?’
‘I do not think that was the case,’ replied Holmes. ‘I suspect this to be a singularly vindictive individual who wanted our good Lieutenant-General to suffer before the humiliation of the disclosure of his more clandestine, military activities. As to why, I believe that, to this day, there are members of the German Freikorps of Volunteers who fought with the Boer, still active in Africa and who would give their right arm to see the hero of Mafeking humbled.’
We sat in silence contemplating this turn of events until Baden-Powell found his voice again. ‘I owe you a huge debt, Mr Holmes. You have confirmed my belief that a scout can do no better than read Dr Watson’s records of your cases.’
Before my friend could object, he continued. ‘But tell me pray, what was the switch the scouts referred to?’
Holmes grinned. ‘Those two excellent scouts carried out their tasks with admirable skill. One asked Gunter to help with collecting firewood on the outskirts of the camp allowing the other to slip into his tent and retrieve the sketch from his stave. I suspect that Gunter’s career with the German Signals Intelligence will be short-lived.’
‘But, my dear fellow, the switch,’ I pressed. ‘The switch?’
Mr Sherlock Holmes then suddenly let out an uncharacteristic guffaw.
‘I would love to be a fly on the wall when his contact receives a flyleaf from Scouting For Boys by our own dear Baden-Powell!’
With a wry smile, he leaned forward.
‘More Curaçao, gentlemen?’
Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement, was a military hero of the Boer War. Pelham Rawstorn Papillon, Squire of Crowhurst, also fought in that war and even if they never served together, it is likely that they knew of each other. They became neighbours of a sort when the Baden-Powells settled in Sussex, at Ewhurst Place in Ewhurst Green, in April 1913.
The records suggest that Crowhurst had its first Boy Scout Troop and Wolf Cub Pack at the end of the 1920s. However, the village was familiar with the Boy Scout movement at the time of this story as the Parish Magazine of May 1912 reports how a ‘large contingent of Boy Scouts who are in Camp in Hollington will attend the Morning Service on Whitsunday’.
This story is fictional and zealous local historians will note that we have taken the odd liberty. Nevertheless, it is true that Baden-Powell was a spy when he worked for Military Intelligence in the Mediterranean and did incorporate plans of military installations within sketches of butterflies.
Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiasts will recognise that we have drawn upon earlier stories in the canon, with particular reference to The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.
– Fr Michael Brydon and Paul Johnson