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Sherlock Holmes at the Breakfast Table
By L.F.E. Coombs
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 L.F.E. Coombs
All rights reserved.
The Railway Van That Vanished
In which bullion on its way to Russia is borrowed.
I was standing with my friend and companion Sherlock Holmes at the sitting-room window of 221B Baker Street. We were surveying the vehicles and pedestrians passing back and forth below. My wife had gone to stay with one of her cousins who lived in Surrey, so for a few days I was back in the familiar surroundings of the great detective's household.
'Here we are,' said Holmes, 'looking down at a microcosm of our city of five million or more people. Below there are statesmen and dustmen, bankers, servant girls and errand boys, all bustling about their various businesses and tasks. And to think that only a mile or two from where we stand some unfortunate women have been found horribly mutilated. I am somewhat surprised not to have been requested to help with the investigation by the official police.'
One particular pedestrian attracted my attention. It was a stout man in a frock-coat and check trousers. I drew Holmes' attention to the man. 'Possibly that is the client who telegraphed to say he had important business to discuss and would be with us at ten?'
'You mean the stout man in the frock-coat and check trousers with a newspaper under one arm?'
'Yes, that's the one. He is early and no doubt is waiting until the exact time of the meeting. It gives us a few minutes to determine who and what he is.'
Holmes observed him for a minute and then said, 'The vivid check trousers suggest someone interested in the turf. The paper under his arm is no doubt the Racing Times. His hat is set at a slight angle to the perpendicular which suggests he is a man of the world, as they say. The silver-topped ebony cane could be a swordstick with which to defend him against the more unsavoury persons to be found around a racecourse. Don't you agree, Watson?'
'A very comprehensive set of observations,' said I.
A minute later the page boy ushered in the object of our scrutiny. 'Good morning, Mr Jones,' said Holmes. 'I received your telegram and have awaited your arrival. Please take this chair.'
Holmes always endeavoured to place a client in the light from the window in order to observe their mannerisms and dress.
'Did you have a good journey up from Surrey? The sand on your boots leads me to believe that is where you live.'
'No, Mr Holmes. I have only come from Highgate and walked part of the way across the Heath.'
'Well, never mind. I anticipate your visit concerns racing. So many of my clients get into difficulties with trainers and, regrettably, bookmakers.'
'Mr Holmes, I assure you that horse racing, let alone betting, is something I will have nothing to do with. It's a fool's game. I have come about —'
Holmes interrupted him, saying, 'Then you've come about an affair of the heart?'
'Sir, you are very much mistaken indeed.'
I observed that Holmes' keen eye had noticed how the client kept glancing at the tantalus on the table.
'Before we continue, may I offer a stimulating drink? Brandy, perhaps?'
'Certainly not, Mr Holmes. I do not approve of strong drink.'
'A cigarette then.'
'I do not smoke, thank you. Obviously you have noticed the discolouration of my fingers. It's a varnish stain that comes from my cabinet-making hobby.'
'My apologies, Mr Jones.'
'Mr Holmes, I have not come about myself. I am here on behalf of the Southern Counties Insurance Company. I am a claims investigator. My profession is not given on my card in order to avoid alerting people to why I may want to speak to them.'
After the terms had been agreed under which a very serious attempt to defraud the insurance company would be investigated and our visitor had left, Holmes threw himself into his old chair.
'I have to admit, Watson, that appearances can sometimes, indeed, be deceptive.'
Nothing more was said about the visitor. A little later Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper, entered holding a telegram.
'I say, listen to this, Watson. It's from the Bank of England. The governor wishes to consult me on a very important and confidential matter and will I come at once? The Bank of England! Well, well. Of course, I should wish you to come with me.'
We passed through the lofty and magnificent rooms of the Bank of England. Our guide threw open the door to the governor's office and announced, 'Mr Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, sir.'
The features and voice of the man in whose hands rested the security of the nation's finances reflected his anxiety. He motioned us to sit down.
'Gentlemen, I am more than pleased that you have agreed to help. We, that is the bank, have lost a vast amount of bullion. The railway van or wagon in which it was being conveyed to Newcastle to go on board the SS Dog Star was removed from the train somewhere between here and the port. The two railway companies involved cannot explain how such a large wagon could vanish. When the train reached its destination it was apparently in its place behind the engine. However, it was not the same as the one which left here. There was no inner steel container and the roof, through which the container is loaded, was intact.'
We listened intently to the strange events. 'You mention the fact that the van left here? Where exactly is here. Surely there is no railway line into the bank?' asked Holmes.
The governor replied, 'We take the bullion boxes – under guard, I assure you – to the goods depot under Smithfield Market. There they are loaded into the special van.'
'Admittedly the circumstances are very strange. I have had to deal with many cases in which something has disappeared although never one involving something as large as a railway van.'
'You will appreciate that this matter is extremely confidential. Were knowledge of the loss to reach the City, or even more so the foreign markets, the consequences could affect the country's international reputation financially. The Home Secretary has been informed and I understand he has given instructions that you will have the fullest support from the police. We are relying on you, Mr Holmes.'
'Have you a list of the names of all persons who might possibly know about the special van, the loading arrangements, and particularly the railway officials responsible for its security?'
'I anticipated such a request, Mr Holmes. Here is the list. It is not very long and as you see only two railway officials are listed: they are superintendents respectively of the Great Northern and the North Eastern railways.'
A visitor awaited our return to Baker Street. I was not surprised to find it was Inspector Lestrade, who immediately said, 'You've been to the bank, no doubt. I have been ordered by the commissioner himself, who is under great pressure from the Home Secretary, to give you every possible assistance. I am armed with the necessary documents for opening all doors and the loosening of all tongues.'
'I am most delighted to have your support,' responded Holmes. 'The governor has given some of the facts of this very unusual case. I might even say a singular case.'
'I admit, Mr Holmes, that I am at a loss to know where to start.'
'Well, as Alice said, it is best to start at the beginning. I am sure you will agree that that is at Smithfield. I cannot see much would be gained by examining the counterfeit railway wagon at Newcastle?' Lestrade said, 'I agree.'
Below Smithfield we met the railway official responsible for seeing that the special van was attached to a goods train. He explained that it was kept hidden behind a screen of tarpaulins until the time came for it to be attached to other wagons. A Great Northern locomotive came from the sidings at Finsbury Park and took the train along the partly underground 'Widened' lines, past Farringdon Street and King's Cross stations on the Metropolitan, up round the Hotel Curve and on through the tunnels north of King's Cross mainline station. At Finsbury Park the wagons were shunted with other wagons to form a longer train with the bullion van coupled next to the locomotive. During the shunting operations an official of the railway was charged with ensuring that it was in its correct place in the northbound night goods; even though he was not aware of its valuable contents.
Holmes then said, 'Apart from the fact that the van's exterior was no different from that of any other of the same class, were there any identification markings that might distinguish it from others?'
The official thought for a moment and then replied, 'Well, you see, most wagons are marked with chalk to indicate their destination. In this case we apply an additional mark to make sure we do not lose the van when it is being shunted around at Finsbury Park.'
'Therefore, that means that anyone wanting to keep an eye on the van with intent to rob it might also know about the special chalk mark.'
'Yes, Mr Holmes, that is so.'
'You say that after leaving London the train was only intended to stop at Little Newark, Grantham and York.'
'Yes, the train only made those three scheduled stops. The first in the loop which ends just before Little Newark station to let other trains precede it, then at Grantham to change engines and again when it was handed over to the North Eastern railway at York. At Grantham and York the change of engines takes place in full view of a number of people. There is no way in which the van could have been detached and replaced with another without someone noticing.'
'So what you are saying is that Little Newark would appear to be the only place where the vans could have been changed over.'
'I am certain of it, Mr Holmes.'
Accompanied by Mr Devereux, the superintendent of the Great Northern railway, we stood on the platform at Little Newark station. By means of a drawing, he explained the purpose of the different tracks and the signals.
'As you see, the road bridges that cross over the railway and the sharp curve in the line prevented the signalman or anyone else on the station seeing the train as it stood in the loop.'
I could not resist interposing, 'I understand that this arrangement is one with which the Board of Trade is not very happy. Legislation is about to be enforced that will require that all points connecting running lines must be within 200 yards and within direct sight of the signalman —'
Holmes interrupted me. 'Yes, yes, very technical, Watson. I anticipate that your recent interest in railway-operating minutiae will prove most helpful. Knowledge of such pending legislation does not alter the fact that the signalman or others on the station would not be able to see any suspicious activities.'
The official led us down the platform ramp and under the road bridge until we stood alongside the line on which the train had waited for about thirty minutes. Holmes searched the ground alongside the track where the locomotive had stood.
'Lestrade, look at this! A large round object has left an imprint in the mud. It may have been formed by a small barrel.'
He looked closely. 'Yes, I'm sure you are right, Mr Holmes. I see that there are many footprints. I suppose you will be able to deduce the number of people that have been here and their occupations?'
'Well, not really. They are all muddled together as if a party of men had been moving about.'
Holmes continued his investigation. All he found of possible interest was a pair of leather gloves. 'I shall take these gloves with me for further examination. They may or may not be of importance. I see from the plan that the loop line extends into a siding.'
The official then explained the purpose of the different lines and the points. 'Yes, as you see, the points are kept in their present position to a train coming along the loop line so that should it overrun the signal it will run onto the siding and not into the path of a train on the main line.'
Again, I was anxious to air my interest in railways. 'The signals and the points are all connected together so that the signalman cannot move the points if either of the signals has been cleared; that is "pulled off". Am I correct, Mr Devereux?'
'Indeed you are, Doctor Watson. How refreshing to find someone who is not on the railway having such an accurate understanding of such matters. Newspaper reporters and writers of books take dreadful liberties when describing the way a railway is operated.'
I was most encouraged by the comment. In the past I had frequently been criticized for my lack of knowledge on the subject.
Soon there was the sound of a train approaching. We stepped back as the locomotive and its train of wagons came up to the signal and stopped. The superintendent explained, 'This one will wait here until two passenger trains have passed and then it will be let out onto the down mainline. I must have a word with the driver.'
'Please wait a moment,' said Holmes. 'There's something I need to test.'
He moved alongside the engine until he was at the footsteps leading up to the footplate. He then turned and came back to where we waited.
'As I expected, Superintendent, the enginemen are having something to eat. They were not aware of my presence.'
'Most likely, Mr Holmes. They know that they will not be able to go further until the two passenger trains have passed, so they often take the opportunity to refresh themselves.'
'Gentlemen, I suggest we examine the siding,' said Holmes.
We walked along the track.
'You say this line leads, as I can see, between some warehouses,' observed Holmes. 'Now what are these round platforms with rails laid upon them, Mr Devereux?'
'They are called turnplates or turntables. You see, if a wagon is moved onto one it can then be turned through an angle so that the rails are aligned with one of the sidings set at right angles to it. A wagon can then be pushed into one of the warehouses.'
'Let me see your plan. Now if the engine that night were to just take the bullion van and move it over one of these plates then the van could have been turned and pushed into one of the warehouses. This is rather like those puzzles you find in children's books where an engine and some wagons have to be shuffled to achieve a certain order.'
'Indeed, Mr Holmes. However, there is a flaw in your argument. The turnplates are not intended to bear the weight of a large engine.'
'Therefore the shuffling puzzle to be solved is how did the van, in effect, get in front of the engine?'
Holmes walked past the second turnplate and gazed at the track.
After a moment's thought he exclaimed, 'I think I've solved it. You see these cinders between the rails? Surely, they could only have come from underneath a locomotive. The gang must have moved the engine over the plate and hoped it would bear the weight. Watson, you will recall the Failed Bridge case where we found that engineers usually make things much stronger than they need be. It is possible that the designer of these turnplates specified that they be used only for wagons; otherwise the continuous use by locomotives would eventually weaken them. The gang took a chance and won. And I assume that an identical van was kept out of sight in the warehouse as part of their plan. When the bullion van had been moved off the turnplate, the other van was manhandled on to it, turned, and then shunted back by the engine onto the goods train.'
'That is a good explanation. I expect that our engineers will find on closer examination that the plates have been strained,' replied the official.
In one of the warehouses, we found the missing van.
Its wooden doors had been forced open to expose the steel door of the inner container. There were numerous marks and dents around the edges of the container door where an attempt had been made to break in. We made a careful scrutiny on the roadside of the warehouse. The tracks in the mud of the road revealed that a large cart had come along and been drawn up against the back door to the loading bay.
'Mr Holmes, these ruts must have been made by a heavy wagon. Don't you agree?' said Lestrade.
'Certainly. You will also observe the size of these two sets of horseshoe impressions. They could only have been made by shire horses. And that leads me to the conclusion that the robbers may have intended to transfer the bullion onto the cart. Knowing the weight of the gold bars, I expect that they would have had to make more than one journey to where they intended to hide it. There are also these impressions of the boots of the robbers. Ah, what have we here! These have been made by the boots of a boy or a small man. They are about size six.'
'Lestrade, I think we had better leave things as they are and await the return of the robbers. More than likely they have gone to find special cutting tools. Why they did not think of it before I cannot imagine. Unless, of course, their informants within the railway or the bank failed, either deliberately or by mischance, to tell them about the inner strong door. Another possibility is that something has gone wrong with their plans and they have been forced to leave the bullion here. In the meantime they will be thinking up a new scheme.'
Excerpted from Sherlock Holmes at the Breakfast Table by L.F.E. Coombs. Copyright © 2012 L.F.E. Coombs. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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