Sherlock Homes glanced up from the finely penned vellum pages bound in calf-hide as the train slowed, then shuddered to a stop. They were just over four hours out from Rome, deep into the Italian countryside, and no halts were scheduled until they reached Milan; of course, that did not mean much, for although the Italians were possessed of many fine attributes, running a railway efficiently was not among them.
“Oh my, I hope nothing is seriously amiss,” murmured Canon Fairpenny, lowering the compartment window and thrusting his grey head into the chill air of late afternoon. “I can see the guard, or whatever they call him in Italian, on the side and talking with two other men.”
“Is there some object blocking the way on the rails?” asked Mlle Giscard, her accent as broad as she was thin.
“Not that I can see, my dear,” the Canon replied. “All I see are thick woods, mountains rising behind, and maybe … yes, I think I see perhaps the start of a hamlet at the curve, but it is certainly not a main station on the line.”
“Will we be long at this hamlet, as you say, do you think?” the French girl asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t say,” replied the elderly cleric, still looking out the window. “What say you, Mr Sigurson?”
“It is always foolish to theorize without facts,” Holmes said. The faintest of smiles momentarily pursed his thin pale lips. “One just as well might try to make bricks without straw.”
The little clergyman looked back into the compartment, frowned, then allowed a small pained smile. “Ah, very good, Mr Sigurson, but the Children of Israel did make do, did they not?” He took a last long look down the curving length of the train, then returned to his seat. “The guard is coming this way, but surely not to our carriage; why would he do that?”
Sherlock Holmes shrugged his bony shoulders. But he closed the calf-bound tome and returned it to his satchel-bag in the bin overhead. His study of the poisons favoured by the Mohammedans might have to wait another day.
He had looked forward penning his weekly letter to his brother, Mycroft, telling him of his visit to Rome and his acquisition of the book of poisons. That, too, he thought, might have to wait for another day.
The door at the rear of the carriage clattered open, then slammed shut. Heavy footfalls pounded down the passage. The guard, a wide-shouldered man with an equally wide moustache, slid open the door of the first-class compartment and let his gaze linger momentarily upon each of the three foreigners.
“I say to regret that a stop not on schedule to be made it must,” the guard announced in heavily accented and fractured English.
“C’est très regrettable,” the young French girl murmured with obvious distress. “Combien de temps nous allons être arrêtés?”
The Italian frowned in concentration, but managed a small smile of encouragement for the pretty girl.
“What will be the duration of the interruption, my good man?” Canon Fairpenny inquired.
Again, the guard frowned, but he did not smile.
The thin pale man travelling under the name of Sigurson asked softly: “Qual è il motivo per l’arresto non programmato, e quanto tempo sarà?”
The guard beamed and proceeded to pour out a torrent of words in his native tongue. Sherlock Holmes nodded now and then, and occasionally voiced a brief question.
“Mi scusi, Signore, ma devo informare tutti i passeggeri in prima classe che ci sarà arresto per la notte in questo villaggio,” the guard said as he withdrew into the passage. “Ha una locanda, piccolo e semplice, ma molto bello.”
“My word,” Canon Fairpenny breathed. “How fortunate we are to have you amongst us, Mr Sigurson. What did the man say?”
“Yes, will it be of a long time?” Mlle Giscard asked, forming the English words slowly and carefully.
“Je suis désolé, mais la garde dire qu’il y sera retardée jusqu’au matin,” Holmes said to the girl. “Il y a eu une avalanche sur la ligne et les pistes sont bloqués.””
“Merci beaucoup, Monsieur.”
“There has been an avalanche ahead, Canon,” Holmes said. “It is being cleared, but we shall be delayed here through the night.”