In order to protect a prominent university from scandal, Watson is hiding the details of this case, beyond telling us that their client, a Mr. Hilton Soames, is a tutor and lecturer at St. Luke’s College in said university town where he and Holmes find themselves. A forthcoming exam involving Greek translation has caused one of the students to copy the tutor’s gallery proofs so as to gain an unfair advantage. Soames had left his office for an hour, returning to discover that his servant, Bannister, had entered but accidentally left his key in the lock upon his departure. Bannister swears he did not touch the papers and collapses on a chair in distress. The clues provided are pencil shavings, a broken pencil lead, a fresh cut in the leather surface of his writing desk, and a small lump of black clay speckled with sawdust.
The exam represents a considerable scholarship, so Soames wants to reveal the cheater and prevent him from taking the exam. Three of the students who will participate live in the same building above Soames.
Holmes’ examination of the office leads him to formulate how the intruder operated while on watch for Soames to return. As Soames did not return by the usual manner, however, Holmes shocks him by revealing the intruder was in the room the entire time he questioned Bannister about the matter.
The next morning, Holmes and Watson return to the office to confront Bannister. Holmes sends for one of the three suspects in particular and lays out his case once Bannister refuses to fess up. The cheater knew the exam was there, and the suspect, Gilchrist, was the only one tall enough to look in through the window to see where the exam had been hidden. The clay is found in the long-jump pit, further implicating him through his athletic activities. Bannister reveals that he had formerly served Gilchrist’s father and recognized the boy’s gloves in the chair when he entered, which is why he sat there, to hide them from Soames. The gash in the desk was caused by Gilchrist’s spiked shoes as he grabbed them quickly on his way out. Gilchrist presents Soames with a letter stating his wish not to sit the exam, accepting instead an offer in South Africa for the Rhodesian Police (oh, the irony). The boy credits Bannister with convincing him not to go through with his original plan.
Far from the most adventurous story in the canon, this story smacks of being a side job. The fallout of the school’s reputation is far more important than the case itself, apparently. Even so, it’s fun to watch Holmes work an interrogation with all due theater. The man’s ego truly knows no bounds. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with that given that he is there at the behest of those who plead for his help. A little drama and a case to work his mind go a long way to keep him out of his cocaine drawer.