"The Adventure of the Three Students" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It first appeared in print in the June 1904 issue of The Strand magazine. It was published again in 1905 as part of the anthology The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
The plot is set in motion when Hilton Soames, a lecturer in Greek at an unnamed university, notices that someone has gone into his study and looked at the text for an unseen translation exam that is due to take place the next day. Suspicion falls on the three students who live in the same building in which Soames lives and works, all of whom are entered for the exam. If the guilty party cannot be found, the exam will have to be cancelled. If the exam is cancelled, everybody will know that something went wrong in its preparation and a scandal will result. In order to avoid a scandal, Soames turns to the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes for help.
"The Adventure of the Three Students" has been adapted for film and radio.
The story takes place in 1895. Sherlock Holmes wants to do some research into early English law. Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson temporarily move to an unnamed university town so that he can carry out this research. One evening, Holmes and Watson are visited in their lodgings by Hilton Soames, a lecturer in Greek from the university's College of Saint Luke's. Soames is in a great deal of distress. He explains to Holmes that a crime has been committed at his college. In order to prevent a scandal, however, Soames would like Holmes to find the culprit without involving the police.
An examination is due to take place the following day to select which student will receive the Fortescue Scholarship. The scholarship is a very large amount of money. Candidates for the scholarship have to translate from Greek a lengthy passage which they have not seen before. Anybody who saw the text beforehand would have a considerable advantage in the exam. For that reason, its contents are kept strictly secret. Soames is responsible for marking the Greek translation test. Before copies of the test are printed, the printer needs to send proofs to Soames so that he can check them for any mistakes. The three page proofs, in the form of a roll of paper, arrived at Soames' study at three o'clock that afternoon. One student who is due to take the exam, an Indian named Daulat Ras, came to Soames' study after the proofs arrived. It is unlikely, however, that he recognized the roll of paper as the text of the unseen translation exam.
After having unrolled and read the proofs, Soames went out at 4:30pm. He returned an hour later to find a key in the door of his study. He discovered that the key was not his but that of his servant Bannister. On entering his study, Soames saw that someone had been there in his absence and looked at the proofs. The third page was still on his desk but the first one was on the floor and the second was by the window. On the table by the window, Soames found shavings from a sharpened pencil and a broken pencil tip. A three inch long cut was on the red leather top of Soames' new writing desk. A small piece of black clay with sawdust in it was also on the writing desk. Bannister not only denied that he had anything to do with the intrusion, he also appeared to be very upset by it. While still standing at the study's door, Bannister appeared to take ill. Soames made him sit down in a chair and gave him some brandy. Soames left Bannister in the chair in his study when he went to see Holmes.
Holmes and Watson go to the College of Saint Luke's. Soames lives and works on the ground floor of a medieval building. Three students live above him in the same building. A ground floor window looks into Soames' study. Holmes examines the window and stands on tiptoe to look through it. Soames thinks that Holmes is wasting time because the intruder obviously did not climb through the window but came in through the door. On entering Soames' study, Holmes sees that Bannister has left. The detective asks Soames which chair Bannister was sitting in. Soames answers that he was sitting in the chair nearest to the window.
Sherlock Holmes realizes that the intruder took the papers one by one to the table near the window. From there, he would be able to see Soames coming back to the building's main entrance. It would have taken the intruder about fifteen minutes to copy the first paper. After copying it, he threw it on the floor. While he was copying the second paper, Soames came back. The intruder did not see Soames coming through the window because he entered the building through its side entrance. He had to leave hurriedly, having no time to remove the signs of his intrusion.
Holmes examines the shavings from the sharpened pencil and the broken pencil tip. He sees that they come from a soft lead pencil. From lettering on the shavings, he sees that the pencil is of a very popular brand, Johann Faber, but it is of unusually large size. He says that the pencil will now be only about an inch and a half long and that it was sharpened with a very blunt knife. Holmes also examines the cut on the writing desk and the piece of black clay and sawdust.
Soames had not been in his adjoining bedroom since he found out there had been an intruder in his study. Holmes examines that room also. He finds that nobody is hiding in the bedroom but notices another piece of black clay and sawdust on the floor. It is clear that the intruder escaped into the bedroom when Soames returned. Holmes thinks it is unlikely that the intruder escaped through the bedroom window, meaning that he was still there while Soames was looking around his study and talking to Bannister.
Believing that the intruder was most likely one of the three students who live in the same building as Soames, Holmes asks Soames about them. The students are Gilchrist, Daulat Ras and Miles McLaren. All three students are candidates for the Fortescue Scholarship and are due to take the exam the next day. Gilchrist is a good student and athlete. He plays on the university's rugby and cricket teams and is very good at long jump and hurdles. He is the son of Sir Jabez Gilchrist, who lost a lot of money through gambling and left his family poor. The Indian student Daulat Ras is quiet and hard working. He is generally a good student, although he is not very good at Greek. Miles McLaren is a good student when he chooses to be. He is badly behaved, however, and was almost expelled from the university once. He has not been studying hard recently and is unlikely to do well in the exam.
Bannister is called in for questioning. He tells Holmes that it was not the first time that he absent-mindedly left the key in Soames' door. He explains that he came to bring Soames' tea and left the room when he saw that the lecturer was not there. He left the key behind because he had the tea tray in his hands. Holmes asks Bannister why, although he began to feel ill while he was standing at the door, he chose to sit in the chair by the window instead of a nearer one. Bannister cannot give a satisfactory answer. Bannister says that he only stayed in the study for a very short while after Soames left. When asked who he suspects of being the intruder, Bannister replies that he suspects nobody.
Having briefly stepped outside, Holmes and Watson can see by the lights in their rooms that all three students are in. Daulat Ras can be seen pacing around his room. Pretending to be a visitor to the college who is interested in medieval architecture, Holmes goes to the rooms of each of the student, accompanied by Watson and Soames. Gilchrist, whom Watson describes as a "tall, flaxen-haired, slim young fellow", is very welcoming to the visitors. Holmes pretends to be very interested in something in Gilchrist's room and starts to sketch it. He breaks his pencil and asks the student to lend him another one. He then asks to borrow a knife to sharpen his own pencil. Holmes goes through the same routine at the room of Daulat Ras. The Indian student is less welcoming to the visitors and is clearly glad when they leave. Neither student produces a pencil or knife which match the ones the intruder used. Miles McLaren refuses to open his door to the visitors and shouts and swears at them until they leave. Holmes asks Soames how tall McLaren is. Soames replies that he is taller than Daulat Ras but shorter than Gilchrist.
Holmes tells Soames that the exam should go ahead the next day as planned. He adds that he will return to see Soames early the following morning. He takes the pencil shavings, broken pencil tip and pieces of black clay and sawdust with him.
As they leave the college, Holmes and Watson can still see Daulat Ras pacing around his room. Holmes says that this is not very unusual behavior and that people often do it while trying to learn something off by heart. Holmes also says that McLaren's reaction was quite normal for someone who was taking an important exam the following day. Holmes, however, cannot work out what Bannister's involvement in the case is.
On the way back to their lodgings, Holmes and Watson visit the town's four major stationery stores. None of the stores keep pencils which match the one that the intruder used in stock.
Watson is awoken by Holmes at eight o'clock the next morning. Holmes announces that he has been up since six o'clock and has solved the mystery. He shows Watson that he has found three more pieces of black clay and sawdust like the ones found in Soames' study and bedroom. At the College of Saint Luke's, Holmes tells Soames that the exam will go ahead as planned and that the intruder will not take it. Holmes, Watson and Soames seat themselves so that they resemble a panel of judges. Bannister is called in. He appears to be very frightened but insists that he has nothing more to say about the intrusion. He is asked to stay in the room and Gilchrist is called in. Gilchrist looks at Bannister. Bannister tries to reassure him by saying, "I never said a word", thus revealing Gilchrist's guilt.
Holmes reveals that he did not inspect the window of Soames' study because he thought that the intruder climbed through it. He was thinking instead of who might have been tall enough to look through it. He also remembered that Soames said Gilchrist was good at the long jump. The college's long jump pit is filled with black clay and sawdust.
On the previous day, Gilchrist, wearing spiked athletic shoes, had been doing the long jump. When he returned to his college in the afternoon, carrying his spiked shoes in his hands, he looked through the window into Soames' office. He saw some papers on the desk which he thought might have been the proofs of the Greek translation test. He saw the key in the door and entered the room. He put his spiked shoes on the desk and his gloves on the chair near the window. When he heard Soames coming, Gilchrist hurriedly picked up his shoes, cutting the red leather on the desk with their spikes as he did so, and went to hide in Soames' bedroom. He left his gloves behind.
Before becoming Soames' servant, Bannister had been butler to Gilchrist's father Sir Jabez Gilchrist. He continued to feel very protective towards young Gilchrist. He immediately recognized Gilchrist's gloves. He sat on the chair near the window to hide the gloves and stayed in the chair until Soames left. After Soames left, Gilchrist came out of hiding. Bannister went to see Gilchrist later and persuaded him not to cheat on the exam.
Gilchrist reveals that he has already written a letter to Soames in which he confesses what he did. He is leaving the university and going to Rhodesia to join the police. Holmes wishes Gilchrist well in his new life in Africa.
"The Adventure of the Three Students" was adapted as a short British silent movie, starring Ellie Norwood as Holmes, which was released in 1923.
A faithful radio adaptation of "The Adventure of the Three Students" was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on September 15, 1993. Among the few minor differences from the original short story, the exam is said to be for the Fortescue Prize, rather than for the Fortescue Scholarship. Rather than just pretending to be a visitor who is interested in medieval architecture when he goes to the three students' rooms, Holmes says that he is a quantity surveyor, that Watson is a builder and that they are inspecting the rooms on behalf of the university.
- Text of "The Adventure of the Three Students" on Wikisource.
- Quotations from "The Adventure of the Three Students" on Wikiquote.
- Public domain audiobook of "The Adventure of the Three Students" on YouTube:
- "The Adventure of the Three Students" on Baker Street wiki.