The Disappearance of Daniel Question

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 nvot, 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.

The Mission in Wharton’s Row was a dark and insalubrious place, close to the docks. There we met the Reverend Bledlow, a thin, pale, exhausted cleric, who told us that Danny the street-sweeper had come to the mission about a year earlier.

“He was brought here by a seaman from the docks,” he said. “Were you aware that he could not speak?”

Holmes nodded and the clergyman went on. “When our nurse came to examine him, she found that he was not naturally speechless. At some point his tongue had been removed.”

“Great Heavens!” I exclaimed. “What monster would do that?”

“Exactly, Dr. Watson,” said the missionary. “I assumed him to be the victim of some savagery abroad.”

“Was he able to write?” asked Holmes.

“I gave him paper and pencil in that hope, but he merely covered pages with scribblings. There was nothing intelligible, though his writing was that of an educated man. I could not determine his nationality, though I thought him European. We named him Daniel Question, but I’m afraid his fellows called him Dumb Danny.”

“And you have no idea of his present whereabouts?” asked my friend.

“No,” said the clergyman. “He has left his few belongings here, which makes me fear that he has met with some harm. I have enquired of the hospitals but they have not seen him. I fear he may be dead.”

We examined the pathetic items which the crossing-sweeper had left. There was a seaman’s pocketknife, a cheap tin tobacco box and a few rags of clothing. I recall that among them was a greasy, tattered strip of necktie which my friend examined and held up to the light, even turning it inside out. We left the Mission no wiser than we had come.

That is all I recall of the affair. Months later when I enquired of his progress on the case, Holmes informed me that he had come to a dead end.

I recited my recollection to Holmes and he nodded. “Excellent, Watson,” he said. “You do not, I think, know how the matter ended as far as the public was concerned. Some months after Phillimore’s disappearance, a body surfaced in the Thames. The man had been struck about the head and apparently murdered. Mrs. Phillimore identified her son by a signet ring. By then an examination of the Bank’s affairs had revealed a series of abstractions of funds by James Phillimore. The combination was too much for the poor lady and she died shortly afterwards.”

“So he robbed his own bank,” I said. “But what on earth made him run on that morning? And what became of the money?”

“It was the sight of the crossing-sweeper that provoked his flight,” said Holmes. “The Bank of England attempted to trace the money but was not, I believe, successful.”

“But why should the crossing-sweeper have driven Phillimore to flee?” I asked.

Holmes smiled. “You may,” he said, “consider that question until we return to London, for at the end of your holiday I propose to trespass upon your hospitality a little, while I bring this matter to a conclusion.”

Not another word would he say on the subject during the rest of my holiday, but when I left for London Holmes accompanied me. As we alighted on the platform at Victoria Station a young man in civilian clothing touched his hat to us.

“Mr. Holmes?” he said. “I am Chief Inspector Robinson from Scotland Yard. Could we perhaps step into the refreshment room?”

We accompanied him to the tea-room where he laid a manilla envelope on the table.

“Your letter to the Yard, Mr. Holmes, caused a certain flutter. There were those who believed that you were dead, and there are still some who recall a few of the matters in which you assisted . . .”

“I dare say that there are still some who remember me as an unofficial meddler with elaborate theories,” interrupted Holmes.

Robinson smiled. “There are those too,” he said, “but the Commissioner believed your requests should be looked into speedily. This envelope contains the fruits of our enquiries-the details of the Smallfish family, a cable from the consulate, the Bank of England’s results and the burial particulars, as requested.”

He pushed the envelope towards Holmes and rose from the table. “The Commissioner wishes me to ask if you would be kind enough to inform him of your findings if you are able to solve the matter, Mr. Holmes. Moreover, he wishes you good hunting.”

He strode away and we collected our luggage, found a cab and made our way to my home.

After dinner that night, as we sat over a bottle of port, I could contain myself no longer.

“Holmes,” I pleaded, “are you yet able to explain the Phillimore affair to me?”

He smiled. “Ah, Watson! You know my desire to see my little tricks completed before I reveal their mechanisms.”

He paused to fill his pipe. “Let me remind you,” he said, “that it was always my view that the appearance of the crossing-sweeper impelled Phillimore to flight.”

“But how?” I interjected. “That poor wretch can hardly have known of Phillimore’s financial manoeuvres.”

“True, Watson. Nevertheless it seems his mere presence drove Phillimore to precipitate flight, to mumble a ridiculous explanation and flee from the Square and from his whole existence. Therefore Phillimore must have recognised the sweeper as someone who could damage him in some way.”

“But the man was a witless, speechless pauper.”

“Perhaps Phillimore did not know that. But in any case it is more likely that he recognised the mark.”

“The religious mark?” I enquired.

“Mrs. Phillimore, who probably had little experience of foreigners, thought him a native with a religious mark, though those are usually tattooed, not branded. The Reverend Bledlow, who had daily experience of foreign seamen from all over the globe, thought him European. We know that his tongue had been removed. That, and the branded hand, suggested only one thing to me, Watson. A man who had been tortured by that abominable brotherhood, born in Sicily, but now present in Italy, Corsica, France, and even the United States.”

“The Black Hand Gang!” I exclaimed.

“Precisely, Watson. One of its names and one of its emblems.”

“But what can the crossing-sweeper have had to do with them?”

“He was evidently their victim,” said Holmes. “Had he been a member-even a minor one-the hand would have been a mark of punishment applied to his corpse. More pertinent is the question of Phillimore’s probable connection with that unholy order, and that I was unable to unravel. When it was revealed after his death that funds were missing from the Bank, I inferred that he had been paying the Black Hand and that they had been responsible for his demise, but I got no further until I came across new information.”

“How lucky!” I exclaimed.

“Luck,” said my friend, sternly, “usually consists in the ability of the well-prepared mind to take full advantage of an unexpected opportunity.”

“What was the opportunity, then?”

“It is not possible,” he said, “to be as unsociable in the country as in town. In Baker Street I could deal only with you, Mrs. Hudson, and those who called on me professionally. Country people rely upon each other for society, for entertainment, and often for assistance. If I had not bent a little to that convention I should not have enjoyed two decades of peace in Fulworth. A retired schoolmaster there cajoled me into assisting him with the translation of some Anglo-Saxon documents, having read of my researches in the subject, and at our conclusion he insisted on inviting me to dine with him.”

He grimaced at the recollection. “I steeled myself for an evening of Hawsley’s dull chatter and that-in short-is exactly what I received, but in trying to divert the stream of my host’s patter, my eye fell upon his necktie, a curious confection in deep purple struck with narrow bands of white and lime green. I thought it a school or college tie, though I could not identify it and it occurred to me that I had seen the pattern before.”

He paused and looked straight at me. “I have explained to you on many occasions, Watson, the significance of patterns in any investigation, whether visual or otherwise, and I rarely forget one once I have noticed it. I asked him if it was a school tie.

“‘Certainly,’ he said. ‘It is the Old Chorlotian’s, which I wear by courtesy as a former master there.’

“Recollection flashed into my mind. ‘Were you long at Chorling College?’ I asked, and when he confirmed that almost all his teaching had been done there, I asked, ‘Do you by chance recall a boy named James Phillimore?’ Whereupon he said that he did and produced a photograph of a Rugby football team with the boy in the front rank.

“‘Who is the lad next to him?’ I asked Hawsley. ‘Is he a relative?’

“He shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘though they were alike enough to be brothers. That is Frank Smallfish. Funny name, but his family was Italian originally. He was Phillimore’s pal throughout their years at Chorling, inseparable they were and always engaged in pranks.’

“‘Do you know what became of them?’ I asked.

“‘Phillimore,’ he said, ‘went to the bad, I’m sorry to say. Robbed his family bank and ended up in the river.’ He shook his head sadly.

“‘And Smallfish?’ I asked.

“‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I know that his father was ruined and shot himself shortly after the boy left Chorling. What became of the lad I never heard.’ And he shook his head again.”

Holmes smiled at a recollection. “Poor Hawsley must have thought me a dull guest indeed, Watson, for very shortly I made my excuses and left in order to mull over the new information.”

“And where did it take you?” I asked.

“To a realisation that I had broken one of my own rules in narrowing my analysis of the case too early. I had convinced myself that the root of that singular tragedy and those monstrous crimes lay abroad. I realised that the explanation lay, instead, in that boyhood friendship at Chorling.

“Shortly after the boys left Chorling,” he continued, “Frank’s father was ruined by Phillimore’s Commercial Bank. Such was his Italian sense of honour that he shot himself. His son’s sense of honour dictated revenge upon the Phillimore family and his erstwhile friend. He waited his chance, and it came when James Phillimore holidayed in Naples. Perhaps Smallfish even lured him there. That city’s underworld swarms with those whose allegiance is to the Black Hand and there young Phillimore was taken prisoner.”

“But he returned for his father’s funeral,” I objected.

Holmes shook his head slowly. “No, Watson. Frank Smallfish saw the opportunity presented by Phillimore senior’s death and returned to England to commence a daring and heartless imposture that enabled him to rob Phillimore’s Bank of the sums he had promised the brotherhood in Italy for their services, or perhaps even for the sums they may have demanded in blackmail. Armed with a knowledge of James Phillimore gained from their long friendship, strengthened by their accidental resemblance, he was successful for several years.

Mrs. Phillimore merely thought that he was a changed man and forgetful in small things. What must he have thought and felt when he stepped from his front door and saw the real Phillimore standing at the foot of the steps? He did not know that his victim was by then witless and speechless. He thought that his evil game was up, and he ran.”

“It certainly meets the facts,” I said, “but it is all theoretical.”

“Not so, Watson. I made a serious error of thinking and an equally serious error of practice when I failed to identify that greasy rag left by the crossing-sweeper as an Old Chorlotian’s tie. Had I pursued my enquiries at the College I might have saved Smallfish’s life for the hangman. My enquiries of Scotland Yard were to confirm such points as I could.”

“You believe that he killed James Phillimore, then?” I said.

“He killed him or had him killed, and then was himself murdered because he was of no further use to the Black Hand.”

“But how came the real Phillimore to Welton Square?”

Holmes drew a telegram from the envelope which Robinson had given him. “Here is the reply to an enquiry which I asked the Yard to send to our Consulate at Naples: ‘Person of that description brought here by nuns in 1902 with request for repatriation to England. Unable to establish identity or citizenship. Matter left to local religious charity.’ So poor Phillimore made his way home somehow and lived amongst the poorest of the poor. Who knows what dim recollection drew him to Welton Square and made him return to see, each day, the half-remembered face and hear the half-remembered voice of his mother?”

“Could the Yard confirm any more of your argument?”

“They were able to confirm what I suspected. That Smallfish was an assumed name, based upon the Sicilian ‘Pisciotto.’ It means ‘small fish,’ Watson, and the Black Hand use it in our sense of ‘small fry’ to refer to the petty criminals who carry out the organisation’s routine tasks. Frank Smallfish’s family may already have had connections with the brotherhood in the past.

“The Bank of England traced the stolen funds through France and Switzerland to an account in Naples, held in a false name and emptied before they traced it.”

“Then you have made your case,” I declared, “apart from your belief that Smallfish killed Phillimore.”

He nodded, pleased as always by acknowledgement of his extraordinary talents. “The Yard told me something else,” he said, “and tomorrow, after a Turkish bath which, apart from your companionship, is the only good reason for visiting London, I shall show you.”

The following afternoon we stood in a great cemetery in the East of London. Holmes, after a word at the keeper’s lodge, led me to an unkempt patch of grass, unmarked by headstone or memorial, which lay under a far wall. He pointed with his stick.

“That,” he said, “is what the keeper calls Plot 643-pauper’s 1903-and there lie the remains of a tongueless labourer with a hand branded on his face. Like the man who impersonated him in life, his body came out of the Thames and had similar injuries to the skull.”

We gazed in silence at the last resting place of the real James Phillimore. As we turned away, Holmes said, “You see Watson, I have found James Phillimore, though whether your readers in the Strand will relish a story of suicide, murder, and heartbreak, embodying the most fiendishly singular revenge I have ever known, I cannot say.”


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