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SHORT STORIES>>

The Disappearance of Daniel Question
by Barrie Roberts

Early this summer I went down to Sussex, as I do often nowadays, to pass a few days with my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes and to blow the sooty air of London out of my lungs. He greeted me in typical fashion. "Watson!" he exclaimed, "I do believe that you have added a full six pounds since you were last here."

"I had thought it more like three or four," I said. "I see that you are still well," for he was as upright as ever, had added no weight, and his hair was only slightly touched with silver.

He laughed. "The product of my little makers of sweetness will see me through a good few years yet."

That evening, after Martha, Holmes’ housekeeper, had gone, Holmes and I settled on either side of the fireplace in his study, a room not dissimilar in its untidiness to our old sitting room at Baker Street. Here were the old brass coal-scuttle, the Persian slipper filled with tobacco, other old friends including the shelves of Holmes’ invaluable scrapbooks, and there was still a table littered with his chemical apparatus, though I have no doubt it is now devoted to the mysteries of apiculture rather than the defining of poisonous alkaloids.

I noted with pleasure a faded, well-worn copy of the Strand Magazine upon his desk and mentioned it. "I see," I remarked, "that you continue to read my accounts of your enquiries."

He finished filling his pipe and got it well alight before he replied. "So I do," he said. "I have been looking at your version of the Thor Bridge case. It seems to me that you were a little premature in describing the Phillimore affair as unsolved."

"But it was!" I protested. "You told me so, shortly before you left Baker Street."

"So I did, Watson, and perhaps I have been too hard on you. Nevertheless, I now have a theory of the case which, unless I have slipped into my dotage, meets the facts. A very little research will, I trust, clarify the small points which remain unclear. What do you recall of the matter, Watson?"

"Very little after two decades," I admitted. "It is certainly in my records but, believing that I should never be able to write it up for publication, I have not reviewed my notes."

"Make a long arm, if you will," said Holmes, "and pass me the second P volume on the shelf over there."

I reached for one of his scrapbooks and passed it across to him. He thumbed its pages for a few moments, then began to read from a news-cutting.

"Here we are, Watson, from July of 1903: ‘The City of London is still disturbed by the disappearance five days ago of Mr. James Phillimore, the proprietor of Phillimore’s Commercial Bank. It will be recalled from our earlier accounts that Mr. Phillimore set out from his home, in company with his mother, at about 11 o’clock last Wednesday. Turning back on some trivial pretext, he . . .’"

My mind raced back twenty years to 1903. The previous summer Holmes had announced his intention to retire and I had left Baker Street. I had a sufficient income from my pen to meet my modest needs but I missed the stimulus of the footfall on the stair that had, so often, taken Holmes and I on the path of adventure, mystery, and danger. Accordingly, I lost no opportunity of visiting our old lodgings and, indeed, accompanied my friend on many of his last enquiries.

So it was that I was at Baker Street when Mrs. Hudson announced Mrs. Honoria Phillimore. Our visitor was a lady in late middle age, dressed in pale grey linen, with a veiled hat. Holmes settled her in the basket chair and once the veil was lifted, I could see that her eyes were red-rimmed from weeping and her features pale and drawn with some great sorrow.

"Mr. Holmes," she began, "Mr. Gregson at Scotland Yard gave me your name and suggested that you might succeed where the police have failed."

"It has been known to happen," said Holmes. "I imagine that you wish me to trace your missing son?"

She started. "You know?" she said.

"It would be difficult not to connect your name and your evident distress with the press reports of the missing banker. The papers are not, however, unanimous in their details of his disappearance. Perhaps it would assist if you were to give me the facts as you know them."

She drew a deep breath and began. "It was last Wednesday," she said. "James—my son—had agreed to accompany me to a charitable sale for the Indian Missions and had stayed away from the Bank. We had planned on leaving our home in Welton Square at about half past eleven, intending to arrive at the event at noon. Peter, our chauffeur, was to take us in the motorcar. He brought the car to the front of the house and James and I stepped out of the front door. Peter was climbing from his seat to open the door of the vehicle when the crossing-sweeper forestalled him."

"Who was left in the house?" asked Holmes.

"Only the servants, Mr. Holmes."

"Your home has steps from the front door to the pavement."

"Yes, Mr. Holmes. James and I were on the steps when he said something about fetching an umbrella and made his way back to the house."

"Was it raining, Mrs. Phillimore?"

"No, Mr. Holmes. It was a bright clear day with a blue sky. I found James’ remark incomprehensible and I thought that I might have misheard him."

"He returned to the house. What did you do?" Holmes lay back in his chair with his eyes nearly closed.

"I continued down the steps to the motorcar. The crossing-sweeper held open the door for me and Peter had returned to his seat. I gave the crossing-sweeper a small coin, took my seat and waited for my son."

She paused, then continued. "After some time, I told Peter to see what was delaying my son. He returned to say that my son was not in the house and that none of the servants had seen him." Her face began to crumple and tears sprang to her eyes. "From that moment, Mr. Holmes, there has been no sign of James—no sign at all."

I was at the gasogene in a moment and was soon pressing a brandy into her hand. When she had taken it and composed herself Holmes leaned forward. "I am familiar with Welton Square," he said, "but I shall be grateful if you will describe the front of your home."

"It is similar to all the houses in the Square," she said. "It has a coach-house to the left, which we now use for the motorcar. To the right of the coach-house entrance, in a railed area, are the steps to the servants’ quarters. Then there is the front door, which opens onto a pillared porch and the top of a flight of steps leading to the pavement. At the right of the house is a wrought-iron gate which leads to the garden."

"And your son did not use the coach-house area or garden entrances?"

She shook her head. "No, Mr. Holmes. I was beside him on the steps when he turned and went up to the front door. Besides, the garden gate is kept locked unless the gardener or his boy is about and they were away."

"Tell me about your son," said Holmes.

"My late husband was the grandson of the founder of the Bank. I married him in 1865. James, our only child, was born in the following year. He was educated at Chorling College in Sussex and it was always intended that he should follow in his father’s footsteps. He left school at eighteen and spent a year with the Bank before he and my husband fell out."

"Over what matter?" enquired Holmes.

"I am not really sure," she said. "I know that my husband complained that James had become inattentive to his work. I attributed that to a misfortune which befell his best friend at College. The lad’s family fell into financial difficulties, and James was very upset for his friend."

"And was their dispute a serious one?"

"It became very serious, Mr. Holmes. One night I heard them in my husband’s study. Their voices were raised in extreme anger. The next morning my husband told me that he had given James an ultimatum; he had told him that he must either sever himself from the Bank and from the household, or accept his father’s order that he should work in the continental offices of Phillimore’s until he was summoned home."

"Then their dispute must indeed have been a grave one," said Holmes.

"I was horrified at my husband’s proposal, Mr. Holmes. I could not imagine what James had done to so provoke his father. I asked the cause of my husband’s decision but he merely said that the Bank had lent a large sum of money against a customer’s word and had not been repaid. To prevent a loss to the Bank, he had proposed liquidating the customer’s company. James, it seemed, had striven to prevent him, for what my husband called sentimental reasons."

"Sentimental reasons," mused Holmes. "Was there a young lady involved?"

"Not so far as I could determine, Mr. Holmes. My son had no deep attachment at the time. But do you believe his disappearance may be connected with his difference with his father? It was eighteen years ago."

"I do not know, Mrs. Phillimore. I merely collect all the available data and attempt to unravel the pattern which it forms. What did James do?"

"He bowed to his father’s order, albeit with a poor grace. He went abroad and continued working for the Bank. It seemed to satisfy my husband. The reports of James’ work were favourable. He wrote to me regularly and, in a little while, I think he began to enjoy his situation. I only wished that he might come home occasionally, but my husband was adamant. He said that it had always been his intention that James should learn the work of the continental offices thoroughly in any event. He said that when he believed James was completely versed in the Bank’s foreign affairs, he would call him home. My husband was not a cruel man, Mr. Holmes, but he would brook no interference."

"How long was it before Mr. Phillimore brought him back?" asked Holmes.

"He never did, Mr. Holmes. When he was stricken with his final illness I wired to James—he was at the Rome office at that time—to return immediately, but he had taken leave and gone to Naples. I wired him at Naples and, eventually, he replied. My poor son travelled day and night to reach his father’s bedside and be reconciled with him, but it was not to be—he was just too late."

"So your son inherited the Bank and took up his father’s position?"

"Yes, Mr. Holmes. James was a changed man. I say man—perhaps I should say that he had grown from a headstrong boy into a thoughtful and able young man. He has applied himself to the business, I am told, with great experience and acumen and has made the Bank into one of the foremost concerns of its kind. If I have a complaint it is that he works too much and is sometimes forgetful in small matters. That is why I was the more pleased that he had agreed to accompany me last Wednesday."

We accompanied Mrs. Phillimore to Welton Square, a quiet area lined with prosperous houses such as she had described. Holmes questioned each of the servants, but learned nothing. He examined every inch of the garden, lens in hand, swooping, plunging, and peering like some great dark bird seeking its prey under the shrubs. He examined with great care the lock of the gate in the rear wall of the garden.

As we took our leave of Mrs. Phillimore, Holmes asked, "Were there any persons in the Square apart from yourself, your chauffeur, and the crossing-sweeper when your son disappeared?"

"No," she said.

"Can you describe the sweeper?"

She thought for a moment. "He is a tall heavily bearded man and walks with a stoop. I believe that he is some kind of native, for he wears a religious mark on his forehead."

"What manner of mark, Mrs. Phillimore?"

"A small mark like a hand. It seems to be scarred, as though it had been burned on. It is quite unpleasant."

"And can you recognise his accent?"

"He never speaks, Mr. Holmes. I believe him to be dumb."

"Is your son familiar with the crossing-sweeper?"

"I doubt it," she said. "The sweeper tends to arrive after my son has left for the Bank."

As we left the house, a police constable appeared around a corner of the Square. Holmes approached him and introduced himself.

"The crossing-sweeper," mused the constable in response to Holmes’ question. "They call him Dumb Danny because he can’t talk. He’s been sweeping hereabouts for a year or so. But you won’t find him, Mr. Holmes. He lives in the Mission at Wharton’s Row in the East, but the Yard went looking for him there and he’s gone."

Holmes sat silent in our cab after directing the cabbie to Wharton’s Row. At last I asked, "Why are you so interested in the crossing-sweeper, Holmes?"

"Because," he said, "James Phillimore left his home voluntarily and abruptly."

"How can you be sure?"

"The only way out, apart from the three front exits, was through the garden. There is no leaf disturbed, no branch broken, no twig out of place, Watson. The weather has been clear and dry since the disappearance, but there are no signs of a struggle, such as would remain if an unwilling adult was forced across the garden."

"Were there no footmarks?" I asked.

"The mark of a man’s left boot was impressed into the path beside the rear door of the garden," he said. "On the lock was a mark where the right foot had rested. Someone had must have clambered over the locked door into the lane behind. Who else but the missing banker?"

"And you believe that the crossing-sweeper was involved?"

"I have warned you before, Watson, that coincidence is the ready servant of the lazy mind."

"Coincidence?" I said.

"Only four people were in Welton Square that morning, Watson. Two of them have disappeared."

"But what would be the cause?" I asked.

"If I am right in my surmises," he said, "we are in very dark waters indeed, Watson." But he would vouchsafe me no further comment or explanation.

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