The Mystery of the Spot Ball

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Mystery of the Spot Ball is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche written anonymously by "C" published in Student, the Edinburgh University's official weekly magazine in 1893.

The Mystery of the Spot Ball

We were in our old rooms in Baker Street, the rain was falling fast, and the monotony of three consecutive days unenlivened by murder or mystery had begun seriously to affect the spirits of my friend Sherlock Holmes. All that dreary afternoon he had lain stretched upon a sofa sipping a concentrated solution of cocaine through a straw, an amusement which he varied at times by softly playing a few bars of "God Save the Queen" on a fine 'cello conveniently suspended above his head by a stout string. Suddenly he exclaimed, "You were out last night, Watson." I started in astonishment. Holmes chuckled softly to himself. "Ah, my dear Watson, it is a very simple matter after all," he said, with his peculiarly penetrating smile. "On your trousers I have noticed for some time two or three crumbs of a peculiar shape and colour. These I recognised at once as belonging to the common water biscuit. I may mention that I have written a monograph on the subject of biscuit crumbs. From the tenacity with which they retained their position I saw at once that they had been fixed by some fluid. What fluid could it be? The garments in question are so light that coffee would be at once seen, water you never drink; I know the resources of our cellar, therefore soda water it must have been. And why should you, a man of five foot six, in the best of health, breakfast off soda water and a biscuit if you had not been out last night?"

"But my dear Holmes," I exclaimed, "I went to bed last night at ten, and these are your trousers which I took the liberty of borrowing while my own were — well, while they were being repaired, if you must know."

Holmes smiled somewhat bitterly. "I never get any credit when I explain the steps by which I have arrived at my results," he said; "I always give myself away, I am afraid," and tossing off the remains of the cocaine, he closed his eyes wearily.

Suddenly we were startled by a loud peal on the bell. I rushed to the window, and was rewarded by a glimpse of a female figure entering the door. I could hardly control my excitement.

"Our visitor," said Holmes casually, "is a tall bulky gentleman, dressed in a long blue coat, and I think wears a red beard, though I am not certain as to this last point."

I perceived that he had a mirror let to the back of his 'cello, and arranged at such an angle that he could obtain an excellent view of the street. "You have accurately described the policeman on the other side of the street," I said, "but our visitor will, I think, prove a somewhat more interesting person."

As I spoke the door opened, and a lady was shown in. She was a person of some forty winters, dressed neatly but plainly in black, and had an air of unusual agitation. Holmes sprang to his feet, and greeted her with that ready courtesy which he knew so well how to assume. "I perceive," he said, "that you have just come from Glasgow, and that you received a severe cut over the right eye about four years ago; you have three teeth stopped with gold, you wear your boots down at the heel, have a taste for drink and a weakness for peppermints, are in comparatively poor circumstances, have had a love affair many years ago, and have something on your mind at present."

"Indeed, sir," replied the lady, in evident alarm. "I have something terrible on my mind, but I have never been to Glasgow, and my teeth—"

Holmes interrupted her with a wave of his hand. "To the point, my dear madam, to the point," he said; "tell me in your own words what is the matter with you." As he spoke he threw himself back in an easy­chair, and prepared to listen to her tale in a characteristic attitude.

She was, it seemed, a lady in reduced circumstances, who had for a number of years past let lodgings to a single gentleman, a certain Mr. Tollocks by name. She described him as a pleasant affable gentleman, of somewhat irregular hours, and, at times, habits, well off, and apparently in a good position. She had neither seen nor heard anything remarkable about him, and nothing at all eventful or suspicious had happened till that day.

The night before he had declared his intention of dining out, a by no means unusual course for Mr. Tollocks, and one that caused his landlady, Mrs. Boddle, no anxiety. She retired to bed at ten o'clock, leaving her door locked, but not bolted, as her lodger was in the habit of carrying a latch key. About one o'clock, as nearly as she could say, she was awakened by strange sounds outside the house. She was quite certain that they came from the outside, and not from within, and for some minutes she lay awake with a beating heart. All was silent again, however, and Mrs. Boddle once more went to sleep. Again, some hours later, she thinks she woke with a start for the second time, and then she clearly and distinctly heard a deep grunting sound coming apparently from beneath the window. There was a moment's silence, then a long deep­drawn sigh sounded through the silent room, and all was still again. Mrs. Boddle was too agitated for further slumber. Nothing more was heard save the ticking of the clock and the occasional moan of the wind, but for hour after hour the poor woman tossed restlessly from side to side, and as soon as it was daylight she got up. With commendable prudence she at once summoned the police, and then, accompanied by an inspector and two constables, she knocked at Mr. Tollock's bedroom door. There was no reply, and as Mrs. Boddle said it would have seemed strange if there had been after a night so broken with incidents and presentiments. Entering, they found that the bed had not been slept in, and that Mr. Tollocks had evidently not been in his apartment since he left on the previous evening. Mrs. Boddle then left the house in charge of six detectives, and came straight to Baker Street.

At the end of this interesting narrative, told in a simple unaffected manner, and in a voice at times choked with emotion, Holmes sprang to his feet, his lassitude gone, his eyes gleaming with the excitement of the chase. "There is no time to be lost," he said, "call a cab, Watson — my colleague Dr. Watson — Mrs. Boddle. We will go at once to the house."

During the drive Holmes sat in a corner of the cab, his hat over his brows, buried in deep thought. All at once he started up, smiled mysteriously, and then launched forth into a conversation of the most various and desultory kind. No one would have thought that he had just been grappling with one of those intricate and vital problems which take inferior minds days of constant thought, and before which they have so often to retire baffled and dismayed. We reached Tooral Terrace, E.W., after about an hour's drive. A quiet suburban road it seemed, a double line of semi­detached villas standing in small gardens, a grocer's van in front of one, and at No. 16, Mrs. Boddle's residence, two well­dressed men lounging at the front gate. These touched their hats to Holmes as he entered, Mrs. Boddle and I following. We were met at the door by Mugson, the Chief of the Metropolitan Detective Force.

"A strange business, Mr. Holmes," he remarked, shaking his bullet head sententiously, and looking wisely out of a pair of unintelligent green eyes, "— a strange business, but we have a clue, and I think we shall be at the bottom of this affair before very long."

Holmes smiled sarcastically. "Indeed, my dear Mugson, and may I ask what evidence you have acquired?"

Mugson gave a self­satisfied smirk, and putting his hand into his coattail pocket, produced a round white spherical object, much stained with mud, but most unmistakably recognisable as a billiard ball. Holmes took it in his hand, and gazed at it intently. Suddenly he gave an exclamation of astonishment. "The spot ball!" he cried.

Mugson looked the picture of envious surprise; he had evidently overlooked this fact. Recovering his composure, however, he remarked, in a tone of great importance, "We have something else," and with that he produced a narrow slip of paper.

Holmes seized it eagerly, and taking from his waistcoat pocket a lens of great power, examined it minutely for some time.

"My dear Mugson," he said at length, "you are really excelling yourself; this is most satisfactory."

Then pocketing the two pieces of evidence, he requested us to stand aside, and proceeded to make an exhaustive examination of the garden. Throwing himself flat on his face, he wriggled his way over the grass plots at the side, up and down the path in front — in short, through the entire garden. His nose seemed actually in the mud at times, and his lens left not a blade of grass or the smallest pebble unnoticed.

"Well, Mugson," he said, as he rose at last to his feet, "of course you observed that two red pebbles near the gate had been turned over since last night, and that the word 'Betsy' had been cut on the stone work about three years ago, and, of course, you have formed your own conclusions."

Mugson looked baffled and mortified.

"Let us enter the house, Watson," he added. Having carefully examined every room in turn, taken down all the pictures, and turned up all the carpets, he at length paused and said, "Well, what do you make of this case?"

"I confess that I am completely at sea," I replied.

Holmes handed me the slip of paper, and said, "Perhaps this throws some light upon it."

I looked at the paper carefully. "It is rather more than half an inch wide, the edges are evenly cut and not torn, the writing has been printed in capitals, and it reads: 'Crowded house; several minor bills read.' But what it means I haven't a notion," I said.

"Ah! my dear Watson," replied Sherlock Holmes, "it is just in the study of these seemingly mysterious but really very simple things that I have gained such renown as your very flattering notices of some of my cases have given me. I own at first that the case presented some difficulties. These apparently straightforward and simple problems generally are the hardest in reality. But a little reflection soon convinced me of two things. Mr. Tollocks had evidently come back to his house, and Mr. Tollocks had not gone inside. Mrs. Boddle's tale, though apparently so truthful, I at once rejected as improbable and inconsistent; and it is an elementary axiom that having eliminated the evidently doubtful, what remains must either be false or true. Therefore, I was driven to the conclusion that Mrs. Boddle has been murdered by Mr. Tollocks."

I started. "Impossible," I exclaimed; "Mrs. Boddle is in the garden at this moment."

"Mr. Tollocks, disguised as Mrs. Boddle, is in the garden, and I have told Mugson and his satellites not to let him out of their sight," replied Holmes.

"But how in the world did you find that out, Holmes?" I asked with an admiration which evidently gratified him, for it was with a pleased smile that he continued.

"Ah! my dear Watson, it was a very simple affair after all. I saw at once that a terrible tragedy had been committed. The sounds outside the house, the deep sigh, the external arguments drawn from my varied experience, convinced me of the truth of a suspicion which crossed my mind before Mrs. Boddle had entered my rooms."

"But," I suggested, "perhaps Mrs. Boddle, or rather, I should say, Mr. Tollocks may have invented these particulars."

"I thought of that," said Holmes, "but I dismissed the supposition at once as being untenable and inconvenient. The spot ball and the paper confirmed my suspicions, and my search through the house and garden placed the last links in this mysterious chain of events securely in my hands." He paused for a moment in triumph, and then continued, "Listen, Watson, and you shall judge for yourself. This ball, you will observe, is spot, not plain; that is the first important point. How did it come here, and why? It must have been thrown over the wall by some one who was well acquainted with the house and the ways of its inmates, and it was obviously thrown with a meaning. It is for us to discover that meaning. What does the word itself suggest? 'Spot,' evidently this is the spot, the spot for the murder; the spot where the deed should be done. And the paper, what does that tell us? It is the record of some deadly secret society, and by putting the words backwards we shall see a new and a more insidious meaning; look at it now." And with that he rapidly wrote on the back of an envelope, "Red. bills. Minor several house crowded."

"What do you say to that, Watson?" he chuckled, rubbing his long lean hands together.

"I am simply overwhelmed," I replied.

"And you have rightly observed that it is printed in capitals; that proves that the man who wrote this was not in the habit of writing in English. What races print in capitals and commit murders on spots?"

Holmes drew from his pocket an Encyclopaedia Britannica, and read, "'The Hyti­Tytis inhabit the island of Blob, in the South Pacific. They average about four feet three in height, are plainly but tastefully dressed in corals, wear their hair in papers composed of the bark of the gum tree, &c. &c. Thanks to the efforts of our missionaries, they have learned to print in capital style. . . . They choose lonely spots for the celebration of these horrid rites.' There you are, Watson; Mrs. Boddle and Mr. Tollocks were both Hyti­Tytis. They were fellow­members of a secret society."

"But, my dear Holmes," I interrupted, "this person Boddle or Tollocks, or whoever he or she is, is considerably above four feet three."

"He is a giant Hyti­Tyti," replied Holmes, with unanswerable logic, and then he continued—

"Last night this ball and this paper were thrown into the garden. They were the signal for the 'red bill' to be put into execution; and now, Watson, it only remains to find the body."

He had just finished speaking, when a sharp knock on the door was followed by the entrance of Mugson in a state of extreme excitement. In his hand he carried a mud­stained blue Melton coat. "Well, Mr. Holmes, while you been thinking, we have been working, and this is what we have found. We discovered it beneath the two red pebbles," he said, complacently.

Holmes started, but immediately recovered himself. "I suppose you have searched the pockets," he said, carelessly.

It was Mugson's turn to start; he had evidently omitted to take the precaution.

Muttering "idiot" under his breath, Sherlock Holmes seized the coat, and proceeded to turn out the pockets. We stood round watching with breathless interest. A cigar case, a theatre bill, and a few loose fusees, in turn emerged; and then, with a low exclamation, Holmes drew forth first a plain and then a red billiard ball. Putting his hand hastily into the other pocket, an extraordinary mass of stuff was brought to light. Yard after yard of the same mysterious paper strips appeared, covered, like our previous find, with printed matter. "It is an archive!" cried Holmes, in his excitement; "the whole records of the society are here! This is indeed a find, Mugson."

As we crowded round him, eager to read the multitudinous messages, we were arrested by a low cry from the garden.

"He cannot have escaped," muttered Holmes, as we all rushed out.

"We have found him, sir," said a detective, coming forward to meet us in the garden.

"Found him? Found whom?" demanded Holmes.

"Mr. Tollocks, sir."

"Mr. Tollocks — nonsense," said Holmes, quickly.

"Come here then, sir."

We followed the man, and found the five other detectives and Mrs. Boddle grouped round the water­butt at the back of the house. Gazing into the butt, an extraordinary spectacle met our view. At the bottom, in about eighteen inches of water, sat a middle­aged gentleman in evening clothes. His button boots had been carefully taken off, but otherwise he was in full dress. He had evidently been drinking pretty heavily over night, and apparently his brain was not yet very clear; for, in answer to Mrs. Boddle's almost tearful entreaties that he should get up and come in, he replied in bibulous accents, "Go 'way, go 'way, dear. Call me 'gain — half­pasht nine, thatsch a dear." With some difficulty, and in spite of his expostulations that he was "perfidy comferrable" where he was, we got him into the house, and sobered him sufficiently to answer our questions.

It seemed that he had been dining not wisely but too well at his club, and on his return home, after an abortive attempt to enter by the front door, he had taken off his coat, and quietly gone to sleep in the water­butt.

"And the balls — how do you account for these?" asked Sherlock Holmes.

"The ballsh?" said Mr. Tollocks, with a puzzled expression.

"Yes, the billiard balls we found in your pockets?" Mr. Tollocks laughed gaily. "Alwaysh shtick the chalk in my pocket; shupposh Ishtuck ballsh by mistaksh," he explained, brimming over with mirth at the recollection.

"And all this stuff — how did you come by this?" asked Mugson, holding up the mass of paper.

"Thatsh the tape. Put penniesh in the shlot of the tape machine and got all that — all that blooming paper. Shplendid fun," said Mr. Tollocks, still laughing merrily.

"I think we had better leave him to Mrs. Boddle," said Mugson. "We worked well, sir," he added to Holmes, "and I am much obliged, I am sure, for any little assistance you were able to give us."

"That's always the way, Watson," said Sherlock, bitterly; "I do all the work, they get the credit. All the evening papers will be full of Mr. Mugson's intelligence and energy, I suppose."

As we drove away together, Holmes remarked to me: "I tell you what, Watson, next time you can do the detecting, and I shall do the writing."