Captain Goffey and the Adventure of the Five Bells

 Thu 18 Jun 2020: Further adventures of Captain Goffey RN. (16 min read; 3222 words)

‘In former times I would always stop to look at a heron fishing below the weir at Mutton Bridge.’

The nightingale and thrush
Blackbird and wren
Are all praised to death
And then praised again

I’ll hitch my flag
To a grey piece of rag
And salute the mighty heron

[‘The Heron’, from Captain Goffey’s Journal, published in the posthumous collection ‘A Fire-Eater at the North Pole’]

The Diary of Dr Thomas Watson, Surgeon of HMS Jupiter

Today I noticed that Captain Goffey has started writing in one of the account books we discovered last week. He was rather cagey about what he was writing so I took the opportunity of his daily walk down to the bay to have a glance at his scribbling.

It is a diary, but not an accurate one. He appears to have written me out of the story altogether. Worse: he has turned me into a dog. I have decided to put pen to paper to provide some factual ballast to the Captain’s fanciful ramblings.

If any of this writing survives our isolation, I would like to provide you with a brief sketch of Captain Goffey. His is without a doubt the keenest and most inquiring mind I have known in His Majesty’s Navy. He stands 6-foot-tall if you include his skull cap, which sits on a head which is as wrong in proportion as his legs are short. His is not exactly a sporting demeanour but you wouldn’t have asked him for a fight if you had met him in Paradise Street thirty years ago. His hair was white before I knew him, which is probably around that time. His eyes sit like an owl’s under bushy black eyebrows that curve upwards at ninety degrees from the horizon.

If the eyebrows were windows to the soul, they would suggest quite rightly that Captain Goffey’s was a life lived at an angle to the crowd. There aren’t that many fourteen-year-olds who would dream of running away from the circus. Even fewer who would run from Hampstead to Peterhead and join a whaling ship, the Hope, as a cooper.

It was on his first voyage that he had the good fortune to meet Arthur Conan Doyle, the ship’s surgeon and, whilst icebound in the Arctic the young Goffey was taught the three r’s by the soon to be famous author, in return for the skins of three seals he had shot on the ice.

For another seal, he gained a grounding in the emerging discipline of scientific deduction, and was one of the first people in the world to hear, at the oil stove, as the oak planks crackled in the shifting ice, the voice of a certain celebrated detective, whose adventures would be the only reading material he would manage to save from the Jupiter as she sank two months, or as it now seems, a lifetime, ago.

Captain Goffey’s Journal

I had been reading and must have dozed off when I was woken by an urgent knocking on the door. I opened it to find a young woman.

‘Captain Goffey?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘To whom do I have the honour?’

‘I am Elinor Grim. Perhaps you know my family?’

‘Indeed, I do know the Grims of Coxcombe Barnet in Middlesex. Come in and sit down. You must be tired after such a long journey in a dog cart in the rain, sitting, I believe, on the left-hand side of the driver.’

‘What an odd thing to say, Captain, it has been the sunniest May I can remember, and there are no dogcarts on the island.’

‘But the marks on your dress?’

‘I crossed the stream at the bottom of your garden.’

I may have blushed slightly.

‘How can I help you?’

‘I’m afraid there has been a bit of a murder. My husband, Lawrence, the Vicar of Coxcombe Barnet, was yesterday attacked and now hovers between life and death. I should explain that recently, he started behaving oddly. He began digging up the croquet lawn in our garden. Over the last two months, he has built military entrenchments this way and that. Almost a fortified town.’

‘I see,’ I replied, reaching for my tobacco pouch.

‘Yesterday he didn’t come to luncheon when called, although that is not unusual. Anyway, I went to the bottom of the garden and found him in a trench with his head smashed in. Our gardener, Trim, hasn’t been seen since. What can have happened, Captain Goffey?’

Polly made a sucking sound and shook her head.

‘What a lovely bird!’ said Mrs Grim.

‘Do your children spend a lot of time playing on their own, have one or two very absorbing special interests – in rocks, perhaps, or stamps, envelopes even? Hobbies which they don’t share with other children but are only too willing to share at very great length with a friendly adult – an uncle or aunt perhaps, a favourite teacher or a retired sea captain?

Mrs Grim knitted her eyebrows.

‘I think turning part of your garden into a series of military entrenchments is an interesting hobby, differing from those of other men only in the degree of intensity, or focus of concentration. A hobby is almost a condition of joining the Church of England today. Vicars have had little to do since man was proved to be contemporaneous with the creatures which inhabited the earth before the flood, and not the six-day-wonder of an authoritarian father figure beloved by aggressive imperialists and self-serving monarchs.’

Mrs Grim’s eyes opened wider, but she remained silent.

‘It is also true that these absorbing special interests often have a therapeutic benefit. A shared interest can lead to lifelong friendships for these solitary people. What’s more, in Rev. Grim’s case, it could, at least for a while, take his mind off the terrible injury he suffered to his groin three years ago, whilst gardening.’

Mrs Grim shifted on her feet.

‘A quick temper, even occasionally to the point of violence (to objects rather than people, mostly) is by no means uncommon, though allowed space to follow their interests, these are very rare. Rev. Grim, like the rest of his tribe, is as amiable as fresh mown hay. No, Mrs Grim, if your husband has one fault … it is that he truly believes that everyone is as loving and good-natured as himself.’

‘No,’ interrupted Mrs Grim, finally, ‘I mean who tried to kill him?’

‘Mrs. Grim, I need you to think very carefully. Did anything out of the ordinary happen before your husband’s change of habits?’

‘He received a parcel from India about two months ago. In it was a handwritten diary. My husband seemed agitated, excited. He took to his room for several days to study it. He came down one morning, called for Trim, and began digging up the croquet lawn. He explained that next year would be the anniversary of the Siege of Agra and he hoped that a facsimile of its entrenchments would focus attention on the heroism of the British defenders and of the Lady Nurses and Doctors so often written out of the history of great doings. (I believed that his professed interest in medicine was a ruse to gain my sympathy and I observed that his interest in the siege didn’t really indicate any kind of authentically human interest in the doings of either sex. He was only concerned with the engineering side of the affair.) He drew up very careful plans of the fortifications and very quickly turned the bottom of the garden into a facsimile of the battleground.’

‘Mrs. Grim, leave the diary with me. Meanwhile, it is very important that you do not answer the door of your home to anyone wearing a brightly coloured scarf or earrings or offering a ballad in return for small change. You will be quite safe. I believe these people want to use you to get to me. Anyway, they don’t have anything to do with the murder of your husband, of that I am quite certain.

Dr Watson’s Diary

It was dusk when I returned to our makeshift home and Captain Goffey excitedly told me the story that you have just read. It seemed clear to me that he had fallen asleep reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He had dreamt the whole thing, casting himself in the lead role. The shock of our shipwreck and subsequent isolation, the unfortunate nature of our rescued cargo and its action on a constitution already shaken with years of intemperance, had convinced him that the dream actually happened. It was also, I reflected, perfectly possible he was dredging up stories he had been told by Conan Doyle, whilst trapped in the ice nearly half a century ago.

It seemed to me, as a doctor, that the fictional world he now inhabited was rather better for him than perseverating on the dire situation we now found ourselves. I determined, as far as possible, to play along with his phantasmagoric imaginings. I would, at the same time, take upon my own shoulders some of the heavy responsibilities of command.

Guided by the science, our situation appears to be thus:

1) We are alone on the island.
2) We are a hundred miles from the nearest sea road.
3) The last communication we had with the Admiralty was a Christmas card.

On a practical level, I had now become passably adept at making bread[1]. I had also managed to mend the Captain’s timepiece. During our incarceration, the evening drink had been getting earlier and earlier. Now I could adjust the clock backwards as the day went along and slow, if not quite halt, his course of self-destruction.

A Lady’s Escape from Simla

Today the civilians retreated into the fort at Agra. We were only allowed to take one bag! The magnificent red sandstone fort is really like a large town. We are all crammed together in corridors with the flimsiest of screens shielding us from our neighbours. You can hear absolutely everything.

When we first arrived, there was a scare when the guns on the walls were all turned around to face into the fort. It was feared the police might have gone over to the rebels. But later the order was countermanded and the guns once more face outwards. The enemy is invisible, and no one knows where the next depredation will occur until it is already too late.

Yesterday, Captain Taylor showed us around the undercroft. We had to be silent and keep six feet apart to listen for mining works. Rebels have already been found tunnelling under the fort. One of them was hanged last week and thrown down a well.

There has been no news of any sort for weeks. The telegraph system has been destroyed by the rebels, and that which is left is useless to us, as the government don’t share their information. The 3rd European Regiment fought a tremendous battle yesterday which we watched from the walls. Monsieur Dauphinois of the French circus was killed. He was such a good horseman. Monsieur Lavengro, the weightlifter, has sworn that he will avenge his master’s death.

Brian John, who escorted us to the fort from our temporary bungalow, behaved heroically, ‘like a young Leonidas,’ his Captain said, ‘commanding his small band of Revenue men while the bullets spattered on the wall like hail’. We had to leave Tom behind in the bungalow. The military chaplain, Rev. Grim, has been very kind to us.

His wife has been teaching me how to shoot a pistol.

Mr Colvin, the civilian leader in the fort is, I am sorry to say, a milk-headed pussy.

Today I was taking a walk on the walls to watch the moon rise behind the Taj and listen to owls quartering the woods by the Jumna. I had sat down for a while to catch my breath when I noticed a man running towards the fort at great speed. It was M. Lavengro, who had sworn such blood-curdling revenge for his master. Clearly, the guards had been expecting him, despite the curfew, and he entered via the wicket in the main gate. As I made my way back to my quarters and coming up to a blind turn in the corridor, I overheard a conversation between this man and Rev. Grim.

‘Your worship must look after these. When they find out what I have done, I am a dead man. I have left some counterfeit ones at the palace.’

‘Simla?’ enquired the chaplain.

‘Only a jeweller could tell the difference,’ replied the Frenchman.

I waited in the shadows until the pair moved off and, as I turned the corner, I bumped into Brian John, the hero of yesterday’s battle. For a moment I wondered if he, too, had been eavesdropping, but dismissed the idea as absurd.

Today, Mr Colvin has offered to pardon the rebels, if they lay down their arms. He has now ceased to be an Englishman in my eyes. This has nothing to do with the Sepoys’ religion. They are devils, not men. Not everyone in India feels it necessary to murder infants and women. This is mutiny.

Captain Goffey’s Diary

Mutiny, my arse. Mr Colvin is a dove among snakes. The diamond story feels like it could be a lead. Tomorrow I will return to Coxcombe Barnet.

My way took me at first across the ‘Hampstead Heath’ of my first reconnaissance of the island. I had thought about avoiding it after my uncanny adventures but decided the shortest distance would be the lesser of evils. I needn’t have worried. It had rained in the morning, the glass was going down like oysters, and the ghostly crowds were conspicuous only by their absence. From the ridge, I walked down the drive to join a footpath at Spaniards Farm. A man was struck by lightning here when I was a boy. It blew the clothes off his body and melted the hobs on his boots. He survived only to be killed, my father told me, when he fell from the crow’s nest of a clipper carrying bibles to Spain.

Reaching East End Lane, I tracked west, past the Five Bells, and zig-zagged along lanes, past fields and a nursery, all the way to Finchley. A mile further, on the other side of the common, I passed the lychgate of St. James’s church and walked through a gate flanked by lime trees, into the vicarage.

Mrs Grim appeared with a tea trolley and we sat in the shade of a stately cedar tree. Beyond the lawn, I could make out the entrenchments which she had mentioned, and beyond them an orchard, the ground dropping away gently to the Dollis.

‘I notice that you have a new church roof, Mrs Grim. I put it to you that Rev. Grim, reading the Indian diary, dug up the croquet lawn under cover of his interest in military fortification to locate the diamonds hidden by his ancestor. When he found one of the diamonds, the church was the first beneficiary. Brian John, the hero of Agra, now an old man, read about Rev. Grim’s stroke of fortune in the Barnet Times & Hendon & Finchley Observer and came to confront him over ownership of the looted wealth. The wings come off our heroes, sadly, only too often, Mrs Grim.

The sometime crack shot of the Revenue Volunteers shot Rev. Grim with an explosive bullet fired from the barrel of a modified Malacca Cane, whilst he was hiding in the orchard out of sight of the vicarage but with a clear line of sight to the trenches.’

‘Actually, Captain Goffey, your deduction is quite breathtakingly stupid in a number of ways. The church roof came from a charitable grant – I know this because I wrote the application. My husband is dyslexic and finds it difficult to concentrate on mundane tasks. The grant matched an equal sum raised by his loyal parishioners over many years.

Also, my husband hasn’t been shot.

Also, Trim has now told me exactly what happened.’

The reader might feel uncomfortable on my behalf at this moment, but they needn’t be. No one has a monopoly on failure. Arthur Conan Doyle once told me, in confidence, that the greatest literary detective of all time suffered many missteps and deductive embarrassments, not just as a rooky, but all the way through his career, real howlers, sometimes, especially when he was unable to take the whip off his cocaine use. He just chose not to write about them.

‘Yes, your honour’ said the gardener, helping himself to tea. ‘On the day in question, I had gone to town to discuss plans for a small draw bridge with the blacksmith on Ballard’s Lane. I hadn’t got far on my way when I met Monsieur Lavengro. He told me that his grandfather, as a boy, had boxed with Goffey at Barnet Fair. Goffey had secretly worn a knuckle duster and sent M. Lavengro’s front teeth to the back of his head. Lavengro fils, hearing that Captain Goffey was about, had decided to repay him the compliment. However, when he saw that Captain Goffey was now an old man, he decided against a confrontation. There was no honour in smacking a dotard, he told me, if your honour will excuse the expression.’

‘Go on, Trim,’ sighed Captain Goffey.

The blacksmith was busy, so we went into the Hotel to wait for him. I’m afraid we were both a few sheets to the wind when we returned to the vicarage. Lavengro had a rattle which his son used to scare birds. I crept up behind Rev. Grim and sounded the rattle. He leapt a clear three feet in the air, lost balance and fell head-first into the trench, smashing his head on the parados.

I jumped down after him, but, believing him to be quite dead, panicked and ran away with M. Lavengro, staying in a dingle with his common-law wife and furloughed members of the French Circus.

Two days later, M. Lavengro went to the vicarage to ask after my master’s health, but Mrs Grim wouldn’t open the door.’[2]

The Grim’s doctor, Dr Shackleton, had now joined our tea party. ‘Rev. Grim is sitting up in bed and asking if anybody has seen his copy of Battering Rams of the Ancients, by Major and Mrs Holt. However, I think it is best that he doesn’t tax himself mentally to any degree, for the time being.’

My work in Coxcombe Barnet, such as it was, was done. I walked home along what made every impression of being the delightful Dollis Brook. In former times I would always stop to look at a heron fishing below the weir at Mutton Bridge. Today, too, I was not disappointed. I wondered if it was related to the herons I saw here as a boy.

As I draw the eyes of the bird, I find myself changing shape. My clumsy gait begins to make sense. My intense concentration seems to have a counterpart in the mind of the bird. It is me rising high above Temple Fortune Lane and Wild Hatch. I hear pan pipes and lose my hat as I fumble to put on another layer against the wind. Higher and higher I rise until the heath is just a small thing. Now I can see the bay and the wreck of the Jupiter broken on the rocks and further out to sea black dots on the sea roads utterly oblivious to anything except oblivion itself. Now I see the moon rising behind the Taj and hear an owl far across the ice.

At home, Polly greets me with a cheery ‘Twat!’ I have a gin and some sardines, which I eat standing up, and fall asleep in my chair.


  1. ‘Bread in sailors’ language means biscuits; the bread that landsmen eat is called by Jack “tommy” and “soft tack.”‘ Sailors’ Language, William Clark Russell, 1883.

  2. I haven’t found any firm evidence to suggest that the first Rev. Grim ever came back to England. Army records place him in Malta in 1868 with the 113th Foot. He died of fever in Jamaica, exacerbated, according to a local newspaper report, by a wound sustained in a duel at Marseilles with a former member of the French circus.


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