The Problem of the Silent Trains
The Problem of the Silent Trains
By A. H. Brazier
Based on the Sherlock Holmes series created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In my observations of the great writers of the day, I have often come across works of the supernatural genre. When such works come to mind, one must always take note of two of Dickens's tellings, one being The Signalman and the other being the much-celebrated Christmas Carol. However, one will always come across a person who regards such stories as a silly myth, and that the main truth comes from either the shadows of everyday objects, or a person playing a clever trick, and I am sorry to say that my great friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, was such a person. Whenever the topic of ghosts was broached to him, he would shrug his shoulders, chuckle and say 'Ghost stories, eh, Watson? I never pay any attention to them, and you shouldn't either. They're just made up to improve the behaviour of children!' One particularly warm summer's morning, as I approached the door belonging to Sherlock Holmes, I was not surprised to hear the bars of Tchaikovsky's Bluebird Pas de Deux. For the sake of the old days, since in my time living with him, I had often heard him playing the violin to all hours, I asked the landlady, Mrs Hudson how long he had been playing for. I have often observed the practises many people engage in on the first moment of awakening. Some in my acquaintance took the habit of going for a run in the morning, some for a swim in the lake. 'He's been at it since six o'clock in the morning, Doctor Watson', she replied, 'I've been taking him his coffee and breakfast, and he hasn't touched it. I've even tried begging him to stop, but he didn't look as though he had heard me'. 'Ah!' I replied, 'Any visitors come yet?' 'No, only a letter for him, the postman was running late yesterday.' 'Then I think we have our answer. I shall go and speak to him, and see if I can do anything'. So I went upstairs to his study, thinking I knew what to expect. Having accompanied Holmes on so many cases, and having observed his habits, both myself and those others who knew him personally would naturally expect the reason for his playing the violin since the early hours would be because he was trying to occupy himself as a result of his depression about the lack of crime, the lack of cases there seemed to be that day. Holmes, always wont to feel in a state of boredom on such days, was very much like a bird trapped in a cage. He tended to feel frustrated, trapped even, in a world without crime, and longed for the challenge.
I opened the door to his study and walked in, where I was met with the familiar smell of tobacco smoke, and the fireplace blazing. He ended the piece, and, while putting down his violin, without turning to look at me, he said 'Good to see you, my dear Watson, I was wondering when you might visit'. 'Well, you can hardly expect me to be visiting at all hours', I replied. 'Ah, but when you've received this letter, I think you'll understand my reasons.' He handed me the letter, and I read through it:
Dear Mr Holmes
Word has reached us of your excellent skills of detection, and it is those skills which we need now. For the last week, we have received complaints about goods which have never arrived. Whenever our shunting yard receives any loaded wagons, they are often gone exactly one day after their arrival, and when they are recovered, they are completely empty. We have contacted the Head Office and informed our Station Master, but they both say the same thing – no trains have been scheduled to stop at our station during the night, except for late night passenger services, and that it is most likely either vandalism or a mistake made by our staff. Additionally, our shunters always make sure that the brakes are screwed on tight, and though the police have been ordered to keep an eye out for anyone trespassing on our railway, they haven't reported anyone doing so, and the wagons and loads still disapppear. We would be grateful of your immediate assistance.
Porter at Horsted Keynes.
'Well, what do you make of it, Watson?' Holmes asked. 'It's beyond my comprehension, Holmes. Surely, they must've made some mistake and left the brakes off?' I replied, feeling a little bit of a fool on my previous conclusions for his playing the violins. I had seldom expected a case to come overnight. 'Ah, but my dear fellow, if such an incident did occur, the news would have made reports of an accident. Remember that if it occurred once, it would be dealt with. If twice, it would be seen as a coincidence if on the following day. But if it happens in a week, then it is clear there is something gravely wrong. I admit that it is most likely a simple act of railway vandalism, the likes of which some people would agree with me. But it is the thrill of the hunt and the fact that it has kept on happening for so long that interests me most. Take my advice, my dear fellow, head home at once and pack your bags, if you care to join me.' 'Holmes, we've been on many an adventure, and I don't know why you bothered asking if I would care to join you on this quest' I replied, grinning.
I returned in a pony-and-trap at around noon, and saw Holmes standing outside, case in hand, talking to Wiggins, the leader of that group of bedraggled boys my regular readers have come to know as the Baker Street Irregulars. 'I am about to embark on a case that will take me away from London for a considerable while, Wiggins. I am giving you and the rest of the boys your wages in advance, but, while you may consider it a paid holiday, I would advise you to watch out for and report to Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade any crimes while I'm away, though heaven knows how Scotland Yard will manage. I shall see you on my return.' 'Very good, Mr Holmes, sir. Myself and the lads wish you every success and a good journey.' 'Good lad, and thank you. Now, be off' Holmes replied. 'Goodbye, sir. And thank you once again' Wiggins replied, turning and running off, his left hand waving in farewell.
We caught the 11 o'clock train that morning down to Horsted Keynes station, and, I find myself at liberty to say, it was indeed an excellently-built area, grand and rather spacious, being a main junction for the railway, with goods sidings all around it. Holmes and I alighted from our carriage, and we were met by the porter, a thin man of around forty. 'Mr Hughes, I presume?' enquired Holmes. 'Yes sir. Glad you could come sir. The station master is very doubtful that you should interfere, but I keep on telling him I've been here long enough to know when this station needs someone of your qualities.' 'Indeed. Tell me more, old man', demanded Holmes, sitting down on the platform bench. 'Well, it's like this, you see, sir' said Hughes, after waving the engine off on seeing that no one else was getting off, while I accompanied Holmes on the seat.
'About a week ago, at around midnight, I had just seen off the last train. It was a mixed traffic service, on its way to Brighton. As I was on my way home, I walked past the stationmaster's office, and overheard both him and one of our shunters, Carter, a very good friend of mine, arguing with raised voices, even yelling at each other. I listened a while, and learned that Carter was demanding a pay rise. His missus has given birth to a daughter two weeks ago. Unfortunately, the poor baby has fallen ill, and their family can't afford the medicine to cure her. The stationmaster would have none of it, you see, sir, and told him to get out. Fearing being discovered by him, I carried on home. The next day, Carter never showed up for work. I asked the stationmaster, who told me he had forced Carter to seek other employment, to put it politely. At luncheon, I ran to Carter's house to ask him if this was true. His wife met me at the door and told me she hadn't seen him since yesterday morning. Then, as I saw off the last train that evening, and prepared to go home, I saw an entire train of wagons rolling down the line. I ran to the signal box, and told the signalman, who set all the necessary signals to danger, and the points in favour of the trucks. I then ran up to them, and set their brakes on by hand, before running to the station-pilot's crew, asking them to move the trucks. As I walked away from them, I looked around and saw no one else in sight. Such was the nature of the affair the night before, I decided that Carter must've done it out of revenge, but I'm not too sure. Our stationmaster, he's called Morris, and a nasty piece of work he is, he's been here for a year. Anyone who disagrees with him, or breaks one of his rules is forced to leave, so he says, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was anyone else who'd left the staff. A month ago, our signalman, Hunt, was fired for sleeping on his job. However, the next day, we received an angry telephone call from Sheffield Park Station, one of our next stations, about some empty wagons that had ended up down there. We sent a goods engine down to pick them up and return them to us, but when they were returned, one of our shunters claimed to have seen those wagons loaded with flour.'
'I see' replied Holmes, once Hughes had finished his story. 'While I'm not surprised that such an act would occur after a person lost their job to a man, who, so you say, is somewhat disagreeable…' 'Disagreeable?' came a voice from behind me, giving all three of us the fright of our lives. Hughes started to his feet suddenly, in a considerable amount of shock. 'I would've at least expected a person with your experience not to get people who have no business with station affairs involved, Hughes. About your work. I shall see you at noon, tomorrow' replied the man, who we obviously identified from his use of his position to be Morris the stationmaster. Hughes stood up, saluted and walked away, in a very scared manner which I and Holmes noticed instantly. Something told us that here was a man with much to be feared for. Holmes immediately stood to his feet. 'Now look here, my man!' he exclaimed with anger, 'your colleague was giving me…' 'To my office. Now' instructed Morris with all the authority of a schoolmaster over an erring pupil. So we did as he ordered. Upon our entering his office, we discovered it to be a rather discomforting place. The walls were lime green, with lamps on either sides. A desk stood next to one of the windows, cluttered with timetables and spreadsheets and all the other usual paperwork an office worker of the railway requires. As we walked in, the floorboards creaked, leading myself to make the assumption that they were loose. A look at Holmes told me he thought the same. He had that look of keen observation, like he was looking for something. Experience told me that he was making his deductions on the room. He had that look of an eagle, watching for his prey.
'Now, then, gentlemen, just what do you mean by all this?' Morris thundered. 'Now listen, my good man…' Holmes began. 'I come out of office for a bit of air, I try to get that man's death out of my mind, and who do I find sticking his abnormally large nose into my affairs? Mr Sherlock Bl-y Holmes!' Morris yelled. 'Mr Morris, I advise you to…' I tried. 'And you' he snapped, turning to me. 'You're that Doctor, aren't you? You're Holmes's lap-dog! You just follow him around, agreeing to whatever he says or does. Why can't you knock some sense into him? This is my business, and I intend to take matters into my own hands! I bid you good-day, gentlemen, and demand that you leave my sight!' I opened my mouth to argue with Morris. I had had quite enough of his foul and erroneous behaviour. Holmes saw this, and said, quite calmly, 'No, Watson, let us leave.' 'Leave?' I exclaimed. 'Yes' replied Holmes, 'If Mr Morris does not wish for us to intervene in his affairs, I do not wish to insult him by doing so, and I advise you to do the same. Come, my friend, the case is closed.' He opened the door, and walked out. I stared open-mouthed after him, and eventually followed, closing the door behind me.
'Holmes, I don't believe you! You were actually giving up the case?' I hissed in shock. Holmes just laughed. 'What's that? Me, give up the game? My dear Watson, you should know me better than that by now!' he remarked, smiling. I stood there, stunned. 'But you… But you… Holmes, you were acting at it, weren't you, eh?' I stuttered. 'Exactly, Watson, and you were right to say you didn't believe me. I have not given up the case, and I have no intention to do so, either!' Holmes answered. 'But why did you say, in that building, in my presence, hang it all…?' I exclaimed. 'A simple mind-game, Watson, intended to make our illusive friend, Mr Morris, think he had thrown us off the scent. Now, let us commence. We now have two crimes in one case, that of the missing goods, and that of a supposed murder, and as anyone who has any awareness of their own personal safety around public transport should know, the railway is a likely cause for a death. Do not forget that one of our politicians, Mr Husskisson, was killed by Stephenson's magnificent Rocket, during its trial runs. Have you observed, Watson, the creaking of the floorboards as we entered his office?' 'No,' I replied. 'That could mean that he's a suspect. You may consider this atypical of a murderer, but there is a chance that something is under that floorboard. But we must not jump to conclusions. We must observe the crime scene, and its causes, first. Come, Watson, there is something I wish to try.' We walked over to the goods sidings, and behind one of the vans. 'Now, Watson, should you make any note of this in your memoirs, I would advise you to make a note that this is not something I would normally do, and that the consequences should be sufficient enough to instruct your readers not to make any attempt to undergo the same actions as I, for their own benefits' Holmes said, as he uncoupled the van at the end of the siding, and pushed hard against it. The van moved silently along the line, gaining momentum as it went. I stood aghast. Holmes had just spoken of the importance of railway safety, and here he was putting himself and the van at risk. Finally, the van hit a set of points, which were not set to the line it was on. As such, the van hit the rails on the points. First the front two wheels came off the rails, then, because the van was heading towards a ditch, the latter two followed, and the van clattered down the embankment, before hitting the ditch, and smashing into pieces. The noise brought us to the attention of the rest of the station. We were subsequently apprehended, Holmes not putting up a struggle, for I realised he had come to his own conclusions on the crimes at hand.
'Well, now, gentlemen,' Morris grimaced, 'I was led to understand you had given up trying to anger me, and yet here you are vandalising railway property.' 'Mr Morris, I cannot…' 'No buts!' Mr Morris shouted, 'You have annoyed me far too often, today.' He beckoned to the two large men who had brought us to him. 'Take them to the police station' he said, 'I shall make my accusations by telephone.'
'Well, here's a pretty picture of events' I remarked as we left the police station. We had been charged with railway vandalism, a crime sufficient enough to see us in prison for six months. However, we were only given a fine, since my friend is known to all who are of the literary audience, and had explained to the police precisely why we were undertaking such reckless behaviour. 'We've gotten almost nowhere in our case, we've been charged with railway vandalism, and we find ourselves £10 poorer.' 'Nonsense, Watson' Holmes replied, 'As a matter of fact, we have found ourselves a potential starting point. We have found two possible explanations, and proved them to be true. The van moved as quietly as the grave over the line, until it met its demise, thus giving us reason to believe that someone else has pushed the trucks along the line. This gives us ample explanation that our deceased friend, Mr Carter, was potentially killed by whoever pushed a truck along the line, but certainly that those goods wagons have been relieved of their rest from their work. We have at least solved one element of the mystery; that the wagons have indeed moved off without a noise. Also, did you notice how easily the brake and the wheels on that van moved? Clearly, all the wagons that have disappeared must've been oiled enough to make them move without anyone being aware of their absence. It is therefore easy to gather that someone has caused the trucks to move off, but what requires explaining is now what happened to those goods. It is likely that someone has ridden on those wagons, and they are likely to be the ones responsible for the missing goods, and for Carter's unfortunate demise. Watson, you must meet up with Hughes. Be mindful of how you go, for I fear Morris may not be as jovial to see either of us again. Instruct Hughes to meet us at ten minutes to midnight. I meanwhile have some business to attend to, which requires a telegram to my brother Mycroft'.
At the appointed hour, Hughes joined us at the station entrance, looking tired and sulky, but serious. 'It is good of you to come, Mr Hughes,' Holmes greeted, 'but I would advise you to remain silent. What you are about to witness may well put the souls of you and the Carters at ease for all the trouble you suffered, but I feel it wisest also to have no distractions.' 'That is good with me!' Hughes replied, 'All I want is to know why Carter disappeared, and the identity of the cad who stole the goods.' 'Quite so, my good man, quite so' I agreed. We walked silently behind one of the empty trucks. Holmes put his finger to his lips. Then we climbed into a truck that was significantly smaller than all the others, and lay there for a minute, the air turning suddenly cold as we lay.
I shall never forget that dreadful night. It would be a night far more memorable than any other I have spent in such emotion, more so than my time spent on the grounds of the Baskerville manner, more so than the night of our pursuit of Jonathan Small, the thief who tried to rob my deceased wife, Mary, and equal only to the night of that fateful day of Holmes' final meeting with the despicable Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. The wind blew, and we suddenly had the feeling that we weren't alone. The three of us slowly raised our heads above the wagon. What we saw made our blood freeze. A white figure walked towards our truck. It stopped and looked up. 'Oh, my G-D! Carter!' screamed Hughes, who then proceeded to jump down from the wagon, and run off into the distance, leaving Holmes and I. Holmes said nothing. Instead, he merely rose to his feet and looked down at the ghost. My head remained down. The ghost saw in Holmes a look of cold severity, while his face remained pale. Holmes had never believed in the supernatural before. Now, he was seeing it before his very eyes. 'You are Mr Carter, I assume?' he asked. The ghost nodded slowly, with a serious and malicious look on his face. 'You were killed on site at this very station?' ghost nodded, with its expression now seeming sad. 'Have no fear, my man. I am Sherlock Holmes. Are you responsible also for the disappearing goods.' The ghost nodded, looking sadder still. 'You rode on the trucks, and halfway between here and the next station, you threw off all the goods?' Again, the entity gave us a nod. 'Do you know who killed you?' The ghost gave a further nod of his head, looking sadder still. 'Can you show me?' The ghost raised his arm, in gesture towards Morris's office. 'Thank you' said Holmes, 'Let me assure you, justice will be served. There is no need for your services. Rest in peace, my man.' Carter gave a small, sad smile and disappeared.
'Bless me, Holmes, I swear you were conversing with a ghost!' I exclaimed. Holmes said nothing. It was uncharacteristic of him, but his face told all. It was a face of fear, and of disappointment. It seemed that Holmes at long last had learned that not even he can find logic in all situations. He walked off to Morris's office. We forced the office door open, and burst in. Holmes found a jack in the desk, and lifted up the creaking floorboard. Inside was a sight too terrible to behold. Twelve dead bodies, men, women and children lay underneath. My eyes filled with tears. 'I refuse to believe this' I said quietly, for some of the young women reminded me of my beloved Mary. All of them had knife or bullet wounds, but there was one, at the very top of the dreaded pile, with no wounds on him at all. We recognised the figure instantly. It was Carter's body. 'I guess, Watson,' said Holmes silently, and with a mournful tone in his voice, 'that it appears that there really is more to this case than meets the eye. There are no wounds on him, so I can assume that Morris pushed him. By the looks of things, I'd say he was pushed onto the line. The fall must've killed him instantly.'
'Well done, Mr Holmes. I congradulate you' came a voice from behind us. We stood up, turned and were met by Morris, who was in possession of a pistol. On observing this, I punched him with all possible force, and Holmes wrestled the pistol out of him. The devilish man crashed to the floor. Holmes armed the pistol, and raised it at him. 'Alright, Morris, the game is up. You were guilty of Carter's death, were you not?' he demanded. Morris stared at us. Then, he slowly stood up, smiling. 'You found me fair and square. Yes, I killed him. The B-d came in asking for money. You've seen the state of this country, Mr Holmes. You've seen the filth that lives on the streets. You even converse and make use of them with your gang of mutts you call the Baker Street Irregulars. I have seen how they constantly littered up the planet with their so-called begging and 'pleading for money.' I think a man or woman should get a job if they want money. I refused and killed him, for I will not give a single penny for charity. All it ever does is give money to people who are completely unwilling to make themselves useful. Yes, manual labour is the only way to earn money, and if I were in charge of the country's money, as I am with the money this station earns and gives, I would not give so much as a farthing to anyone asking for a rise in payment. Money, Mr Holmes, is the only way of survival, and I have every intention to keep as much for myself as possible. I will also not put up with insubordination in my station. These foul beings should've been grateful that I was allowing them to work for me anyway. I never liked this job, but it was the only thing that kept me away from filth.' All this time, he walked slowly around the room. He approached the candle which was used as a light. On seeing this, Holmes and I leaped onto him, but regrettably not before he blew out the light. Darkness was now the only thing visible. I heard a thud and a gunshot, which made my heart stand still, and felt two arms around my back, forcing me outside. I broke free, and wrestled with Carter. He hurled me to the ground. I got up, for I saw he had regained his pistol, forced it out of his hand, and threw it onto the other side of the points of the siding which we had made our supernatural discovery. We both ran towards the pistol. I was the faster runner, for my adventures with Holmes had thus enabled me to be so, and reached the pistol first. I then looked and saw two things. One was Morris running towards me as fast as his legs would carry him, the other was a line of trucks, moving steadily along the line, but picking up significant speed as they went along. As he ran, Morris tripped over a rail, with his neck ending up on the other rail, on the same line as the approaching trucks. The effect of what happened next was like that of an axe-man to the condemned, for the truck's wheel decapitated Morris, and he moved no more. I stood there, breathing, trying to take it all in.
I ran back to the office, and quickly relit the candle, using my own matches. I was relieved to find that the pistol's bullet had missed, smashing a window, and that Holmes had not been killed, but was lying unconscious on the floor. I recovered him by pouring water from the fire-bucket on him, and he sat up, all in a daze. 'Well, now, Watson. And what has become of our elusive friend, Morris?' I told him all. 'Very well. I can assume that Carter sensed we were in some kind of trouble, so, by way of repayment, he reappeared once more, and intended and succeeded in coming to your aid. It is pleasant to know that his soul may now be at eternal peace, now justice is served.' 'But dash it all, Holmes. We were too slow. An earlier strike on Morris would've prevented our scuffle and such a horrible death.' 'I understand your feelings, Watson, but you must know this. As you know, every person has their weaknesses, and I must have been shocked into lowering my guard. My supernatural experience had stunned me so much, that I momentarily forgot to deduce that Morris would blind us. My tardiness in doing so would undoubtedly have prevented such an unnecessary death. Come, let us find a hotel. We have had a trying evening, and deserve a good rest. Tomorrow, we shall inform the police. I have telegraphed Mycroft, and I have no doubt that he shall oversee any necessary legal enquiries. You know of his influence, so he should be able to persuade the police to let us off. Then, we shall inform Hughes and finally the railway authorities, and make our way back to Baker Street.'
Two weeks after our supernatural ordeal, I received this letter from Hughes:
Dear Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson.
I am writing to thank you for your assistance in uncovering the twelve murders, especially that of poor Mr Carter. The families of the dead have been informed, and they were given a funeral, with hopes that they too have found eternal peace, a burial almost all of them deserve after what happened to them. I wish to also inform you that glad tidings have come to us at the station. On learning of my actions in the crisis, and of my experience as a porter, the authorities have seen fit to promote me to the position of the stationmaster. I have naturally told Mrs Carter myself of her husband's death, and have moved in with the family. My new position has thus resulted in a pay rise, and, since I owe it to Carter to be as good a father to his daughter as he never could, I have personally bought, out of my own pocket, the medicine required to rejuvenate her. I am glad to say that she has made a speedy recovery, and intend to stay with the family.
Once more, I thank you.
Stationmaster at Horsted Keynes
I showed the letter to Holmes, and he smiled. 'Well now, Watson,' he said, 'it seems that our little experience has brought more happiness than we imagined it would.' 'Quite so, Holmes' I agreed.
Since that day, Holmes's respect for the supernatural rose significantly. He always knew, as should anyone with an ounce of sense in them, that some supernatural sightings have simple explanations, but now realised that there is that underlying prospect that ghosts may well exist in our world. From that day to this, however, there have been no more adventures of the supernatural, befitting Holmes's desire not to experience anything like this chronicle ever again. I intend to store away this case, along with the adventure of the House of Silk, and hope that one day, if it should make its presence known to the general public, that it should do so through the use of some futuristic machinery.