and the Adventure of the Broken Saber
by Colin Chock
"Ah, Watson, you've been fencing, I see."
I just stood in the doorway of our rented bungalow, my mouth agape. Sherlock Holmes and I, on holiday in Honolulu, had been breakfasting at our hotel when I had been called away.
Upon my return, Holmes had seemed so immersed in his Hawaiian studies that I was surprised that he heard my entry, much less somehow deduced what I had been up to for the last hour.
"Very simple, my friend," he said putting down his book to answer the question I had not voiced. "A fencing sword, when manufactured, is quite straight. When it is put to use, a gentle curve must be introduced into it. The best way to do that," and here he pointed out the gouge in the arch of my left tennis shoe, "is to bend the blade between one's shoe and the floor."
He resumed his reading and did not stop, even while I told him that the reason I had been called away was to treat a cut to fencer's non-weapon hand, a wound which had been sustained a week earlier, but which, despite good treatment, had become infected. It was quite routine: I inspected the cut, which was minor, and had changed the dressings. And then I had been persuaded to stay and fence. I was remarking that I couldn't recall when I had last participated in this invigorating sport when Holmes interrupted me.
"The gentleman you treated..."
"Ben. Is he a novice?"
"I should say not; on the contrary, he was on his college team." I had saved my best information for last. "By the way, Holmes, I hear there was a rather curious death at the fencing club last week. Ted (the same fencer who inflicted the cut on Ben, my patient) on the same day also fenced and also cut a gentleman named Cole, though this cut was right through Cole's fencing jacket."
Though Holmes didn't appear as interested in this as I had hoped, I nevertheless went on to tell him about the argument that ensued. Cole said that Ted should have been issued a penalty. Ted, though apologizing for the accident, disagreed. The argument escalated, until Cole, now very worked up, suddenly fell over dead.
"Was Ted's action, the one which caused the accident, especially violent?"
"From all accounts, no. Not especially."
"What did the autopsy say?"
Holmes then resumed reading in earnest, and to my disappointment spoke no more the rest of the morning. That's why I was surprised when, in the early afternoon, he asked if he might invite the fencing salle's fencing coaches (there are three: Basil, Art, and Bill) to tea. Of course I agreed. When the three gentlemen were seated opposite us, I took up my cup and let my old friend lead the conversation.
After some small talk, Holmes asked, "Did Ted have any ill will toward Cole?"
"No, not that I know of," replied Basil, surprised, "They didn't know each other very well. Ted doesn't know anyone very well, really."
"Rather spend his time surfing, I shouldn't wonder," I said cheerfully.
"No," Art replied, "It's that Ted only recently joined the club. Actually he spends very little time outdoors."
Bill agreed. "Ted's commitment to fencing in the short time he's been a club member is quite admirable."
Said Holmes, "When Ted cuts his opponents, is he remorseful?"
"I should say so!" replied Basil. "Why, as soon as he cut Ben, he stopped, apologized, and insisted the cut be looked after."
"But after he cut Cole," Holmes said, "he argued violently with him."
"The argument wasn't rancorous. As to the cut, he was equally apologetic with Cole as he was with Ben."
It was when Holmes asked the coaches if Cole had any enemies at all that we learned that earlier that year, while visiting the Philippines, a knife-wielding thug had attempted to rob Cole. Snatching up his own hunting knife from his belt, Cole had, using his fencing skills, defended himself. The would-be robber had been sent to hospital with serious injuries. Holmes and I exchanged glances at this rather exotic piece of information.
The fencing coaches had barely left before I said, "Do you suspect Cole's incident in the Philippines to have anything to do with his death?"
"I'm sure I don't know," replied Holmes.
To cover my disappointment at that non-answer, I said, "Holmes, did I miss it or did you forget to ask our guests the most basic of questions: which coach teaches which weapon? I mean I've already been to the club so I know-"
"I already know who teaches what," Holmes interjected. In answer to my questioning look, he continued: "Art is stocky, so I initially picked him to be the sabreur. Bill is tall, so I took him for the epeeist. That leaves foil for Basil."
"Then, as we chatted, it was apparent to me that Basil was more interested in tactics than the other two. Thus I was correct that he was the foilist. Art seemed more naturally assertive, which goes along with his fencing saber. That confirms Bill as the epeeist. Bill also considered himself to be a practical person (did you notice?), and that is typical of epee fencers."
What could I do but declare my admiration for such reasoning?
"I didn't know you knew so much about fencing, Holmes."
"I am quite fascinated by it, actually. In fact, I consider fencing to be the perfect sport."
"Oh yes. I have made a modest study of it. Do you know the most significant thing I've discovered?"
"I haven't the foggiest. What?"
"Actually not 'what,' Watson, but rather, 'who.' There is a young boy. His name is Aldo Nadi-"
"Quite so. And unless I'm very much off the mark, Watson, my conclusion is that he'll turn out to be the next great swordsman."
"Good heavens, Holmes, I had no idea you were such an aficionado!"
"Merely a dilettante, old bean, merely a dilettante." Holmes frowned. "But as to this question before us, I'm afraid we don't have enough information." As he rose to put on his coat, he informed me that though he didn't want to leave his precious Hawaiian books, that it was incumbent upon us to visit the fencing salle in person.
The walk was not far from our rooms and I was gently chiding my friend, suggesting he was becoming physically indolent like his brother Mycroft, when an old crone beckoned to us from an alley.
"I have heard of the great Sherlock Holmes" she said as we approached. "The man's death was not an accident! You can solve the particulars of the case, but there is also a curse involved. Not only must the murderer be brought to justice, but the room in which it occurred must be blessed. If not, the crime will be reenacted."
"When?" Holmes asked.
"One hundred years from now."
At this point, though I recognized on the woman the raiment of a kahuna, I decided she was also daft, and turned away. Holmes indulged her for a few moments more (listening to her babble something about a private investigator named Magnum).
We continued on to the fencing salle. As we were about to enter, Holmes stopped so suddenly that I bumped into him.
"What's up?" I asked.
"What do you hear?"
"Why, I hear fencing, Holmes."
"What kind of fencing?"
"What do you mean?"
"Foil, saber, or epee?"
"I'm listening, Holmes, but for the life of me I can't tell."
"Tsk, Watson," Holmes said, grabbing me by the lapel. "Listen! Epee fencing can be distinguished by the occasional bell-like ringing of the guard. Tell me, have you heard that sound in the last minute?"
"Correct! So there is no epee being fenced. Now, tell me, what do you hear?"
I listened. I said tentatively, "I hear the whoosh and smack...of saber?"
"Exactly, my good man! My, but there's hope for you yet!"
He smacked me on the back rather too hard before striding into the salle.
Recovering myself, I caught up with Holmes inside.
We watched the fencers for a while before I saw a man with a deep tan who was just now taking to the strip.
"That's Ted," I said, as Ted gave his opponent a rather sloppy salute. I expressed, sotto voce, my displeasure at his lack of form.
"With regard to salutes," Holmes replied, "yes, they are less formal here, but less formal doesn't necessarily mean less civil. This is, after all, Hawaii."
"And," he added after a while, "he's not a bad fencer."
I had to agree.
Holmes soon found and interviewed Kenneth, the club manager. Holmes then went around to the back of the salle, returning with both pieces of the saber Ted had broken a week ago, reclaimed from the trash bin. After examining the pieces under his magnifying glass, Holmes expressed disappointment at finding the pieces quite clean.
Kenneth said, "Of course there is no blood. Ted immediately wiped it off."
"Before throwing it in the trash?"
"He is a fastidious person. Not to mention a dedicated fencer."
"So I have heard."
"Is it evidence, Mr. Holmes? None of us thought of preserving it as evidence."
"A shame. Ted wiped off both pieces?"
"Yes. Sure. Why?"
Instead of answering, Holmes turned to me, "Watson: Ted cleaned off his broken saber before throwing it away. Why clean something before throwing it away? And why wipe off both pieces? Only one piece will have blood on it."
I rose to the occasion. "To, eh, wipe off poison?"
"Yes, exactly!" Holmes nodded his approval before turning to Kenneth and saying, "Thank you. You've been most helpful." Turning to me again, he said, "On second thought, Ted does have quite a sloppy salute, doesn't he?" With that he turned on his heel and walked out, leaving me to give Kenneth an apologetic shrug before following.
As I caught up with him, Holmes said, "Yes, you're right, Watson-teaching someone to fight without teaching him tradition, not to mention values, puts a hoodlum into society. Fencing and manners, and that includes the salute, are not often enough tied together. Not like in the Oriental martial arts. No.
"When Ted accidentally cut Ben," Holmes continued, "why, aside from general politeness, was Ted so solicitous?" Now I just shrugged. "Because he had just accidentally given Ben a mild case of poisoning."
"Oh! Poisoned someone prematurely, as it were."
"Which is why Ben's cut hasn't yet healed."
"Say, Holmes," I said, "this isn't the way back to our rooms."
"No, it's not," he agreed. "We're heading toward Diamond Head. And our rooms are in the other direction."
"I say, so you do know where you're going?"
With that, I argued no more, content to follow where my estimable friend would lead.
"I asked you initially," Holmes said, "if Ben were a novice because he was cut on his non-weapon hand."
"Yes," I said, encouragingly.
"You replied that Ben is not a novice; on the contrary, that he is on a college team."
"Well that doesn't necessarily mean anything, Watson. In a European city, as you know, you'll find that the college fencing teams are among the city's strongest. The fencers there have been fencing since they were little. But come to an American city like this one and, if you find fencing at all, chances are you'll find that the top fencers are not the college fencers at all, but post-collegians, people in their mid-20s to mid-30s."
"Yes, quite so. Imagine a college football team in which every member started playing football from scratch during his freshman year and you'll get an idea of the strength of the average American college fencing team."
Holmes consulted a street sign before continuing.
"I also entertained the possibility that it wasn't that Ben is a novice but that Ted is a brutal fencer, cutting two opponents in one day. You did suspect poison?"
"No, not until you mentioned it. Blast! But with regard to Cole's autopsy..."
"That's simply a case of the doctors not knowing what to look for. I've made, as you know, a study of poison. And the fact that Cole's incident happened in the Philippines-"
"I say, I recall that there are a few poisons that come from the Philippines that our doctors cannot as of yet detect."
"I have to admit that the fortune teller woman-"
"-threw me off for a moment."
"Quite daft, she."
"Then we saw Ted," Holmes continued. "As soon as I saw him fence, I modified my assumption that he is a brutal fencer. He is not. But, based on his lackadaisical salute, he is also not classically trained. In fact, Ted had just joined the club. Well, Watson, not only had he just joined the club, but he is also new to the islands."
"My God, Holmes, I take him for a local!"
"Because he obviously has a talent for adaptation. Goodness! How valuable he'd be as one of my Baker Street Irregulars! You recall, though, that Art said Ted didn't spend much time outdoors."
"And so, he has a dark tan."
"Ah." I waited. "So," I said finally, "how did he get his tan?"
"Actually, that's his natural skin color; he's Filipino."
Of course?? This was too much for me. I stopped dead.
"Now see here," I said, "I've had about all I can take. Please! You jump here and there and I cannot follow you. Can you not start from the beginning and make yourself plain!"
Holmes looked astonished.
"My good man," he said, "I'm so sorry! Have I not been as plain as day? Have I really been so mysterious? Well, no more. It is like this: Cole gets in a knife fight in the Philippines, a fight in which we know that the other chap came out the worse for wear. A friend, or, more likely a brother (the authorities will find out soon enough), of this hospitalized hooligan follows Cole all the way here, to Hawaii, to exact his revenge."
He started walking again. I fell in step.
Holmes continued: "As I said, Ted, or whatever his real name is, is quite a talented fellow. First, he passed himself off as a local. Second, he is decent a saber fencer; after all, Watson, what is saber fencing but civilized knife-fighting?"
It was a rhetorical question, but I answered. "He is civilized except for his salute!"
"Just so, Watson, just so.
"And lastly," Holmes continued, "but for my coincidental presence, Ted almost got away with murder."
"Murder!" I echoed. It was the first time the word had been uttered with regard to this incident.
"As I had originally suspected, it was saber that was being fenced when Cole met his premature demise. As you know, I didn't find any substance, whether blood or poison, on the broken saber. But I did find that it had been lightly scored so that it would break-and break jagged. By the bye, there are several fast-acting poisons, Watson, that would do the trick, not just a few..."
"Okay," I interjected, to forestall his launching into a treatise on exotic poisons, "I'm following you. Pray, go on."
"Saber, as you know, Watson, is primarily a slashing weapon. Thus as long as Ted slashed lightly, his tricked-up saber would remain intact. When he was ready to deliver the coup de gras, he just had to thrust and 'accidentally' break his blade, nicking Cole in the process."
"My God, Holmes, what skill that would've taken!"
"Not really. Think of martial arts as a tree with fencing being one branch. Almost any decently-skilled person down this 'branch' would have the attributes necessary to pull such a feat off, Watson.
"Ted then argued with Cole," Holmes continued, "exciting him so that the poison would work faster."
Holmes stopped walking. I looked up to see we were at the entrance to the local police station.
"I am on holiday, Watson," he said, "And I'd really like to get back to my Hawaiian research. Shall we leave this problem to the local authorities?"
"Let's shall," I said, and we strode in together. Holmes let me tell the tale, and I got it mostly right. I think.
"By the way, Watson," Holmes said on our way back to the hotel, "was there a penalty?"
"To Ted. For cutting Cole."
I thought. "Yes," I said finally, "I think there was."
"Ted shouldn't have received a penalty, Holmes?"
"For the murder, Watson, Ted will answer to the proper authorities. But as for the fencing action, no, he should not have received a penalty."
Colin Chock is Hawaii's Foil Champ. He is also the founder of Salle Honolulu.
Salle Honolulu meets on Oahu Mondays 6-8pm (Weinberg bldg.) and Saturdays 5-7pm (room 305) at the Moiliili Community Center, 2535 South King Street. Wednesdays' meetings are at 630-830pm at Lanikai Elementary in Kailua.Click here to visit the Salle Honolulu Homepage
Back to TFA Magazine