"thirty-four passengers on a train traveling from marseilles to moscow..." lord palmerston repeated, looking intently at larry. "in the first compartment - '
"out of how many?" larry asked.
"don't interrupt his lordship," mr alfred russel wallace interjected sharply.
"no, no," replied lord palmerston. 'it shows the young man is paying attention. the thirty-four passengers are spread out through ten compartments,"
"are there any empty compartments?" larry asked.
"a most astute question, most astute." lord palmerston looked at lord salisbury. "what about it? are they any empty compartments, eh?"
"there are three empty compartments," lord salisbury answered after a pause. "i see you are a very conscientious young fellow, who knows how to ask clarifying questions," he said to larry. " tell me, have you ever negotiated a treaty with the porte or the russian bear?"
"no, my lord, but i have always admired the excellent mystery novels of miss benicia driscoll, which often concern themselves with just such problems."
"ah. is it safe, now, for my colleague to proceed?"
"excellent," said lord palmerston. "but do, pray, ask any questions you may have if i don't make myself perfectly clear."
larry nodded. mr wallace, standing behind him, did not look happy.
"in the first compartment - the first of ten occupied compartments - are four albigensian abbesses on their way to a conference at antioch to explore the possibility of a rapprochement between the albigensian and the manichean congregations."
"and are there any disagreements among them about the advisability and possibility of this rapprochement?" asked larry.
"this is really too much!" cried mr wallace. "i beg your lordships' indulgences - i had no idea of this fellow's insolence when i hired him. i can only humbly ask that you to consider the difficulties of getting good help in these turbulent times."
"indeed." lord palmerston fixed larry with a somewhat less amused gaze. "remember, young man, moderation in all things, but especially in zeal."
"but sir, it is important to register as much information as possible. more mistakes are made from hypothesizing from insufficient factors than from inadequate premises."
"shall i send this fellow to the kitchen, my lord?" asked mr wallace. "i am sure i can find another member of the staff who will show a better appreciation of the honor his lordship is bestowing."
"not at all, not at all. i rather like his independence - in moderation, of course."
"if i may make a suggestion," lord salisbury interrupted smoothly. "perhaps lord palmerston could proceed uninterruptedly with his narrative, and when he is done, then ask all the questions you like, eh?"
"capital," replied lord palmerston. "a most diplomatic solution."
"but their lordships don't have all night," mr wallace added.
"but they do have all night, " larry answered. "what else do they have to do here?" he pointed out the window at the night and the deserted beach. "they can retire to the inn, but won't get much sleep in the terrible lumpy beds they have. what better occupation than to consider every facet of a knotty problem?"
"if it is a knotty problem," mr wallace responded. "it might be a very simple one."
"come, come," lord salisbury laughed. "we surrender! have a seat, young man, make yourself comfortable. we have a long night ahead of us."
"in the second compartment we find four members of an american wild west show, on their way to vienna for the wagner festival. the quartet consists of buffalo bill cody, sitting bull, and their british valets, who serve as foils for the humorous elements of the show."
"and very humorous it is," lord salisbury added. "i could hardly catch my breath for laughing."
"in the third compartment is no less a personage than count witte, returning to moscow from who knows where, accompanied by his sallow georgian valet and his fearsome mongolian bodyguard."
larry looked up sharply, but held his tongue.
"in the fourth compartment - on her way to berlin on a secret mission on behalf of the foreign office, the razor-tongued lady abigail ashworth, and her ill-tempered maid harriet o'hara."
"a fearsome virago," lord salisbury interjected.
in the fifth compartment, four high ranking members of the portugese anarchist collective, summoned to st petersburg.
in the sixth compartment, colonel osbert mccutcheon, the famous explorer and encyclopeadist, his faceless swiss secretary, and his sikh bodyguard. the bodyguard is graying and past his prime, but mccutcheon, always the most loyal of men, retains him.
in the seventh compartment we find the patriach nestor , custodian of the artworks at the basilica of baku, miss gertrude gainsworth, a retired librarian from cicero illinois, and le comte de scaramouche- st mathieu, the worlds greatest expert on lemurs and a champion badminton player. although at first glance these three would seem to have little in common, all three are famous detectives, whose exploits have been widely chronicled and distributed wherever thrilling stories are appreciated. in fact , they are on their way to a conference of famous detectives to be held in milan, and will transfer at zurich.
in the eighth compartment, three surly turks and a gentleman rancher from bolivia, all with little to say for themselves.
the duchess of parma and her party are ensconced in the ninth and tenth compartments. besides the duchess herself, her chief of state, the inscrutable sicilian moro, two maidservants, one of course young and beautiful and the other old and bent, and in defiance of the refined taste of the day, a dwarf, and a shepherdess and shepherd boy."
"excuse me, -" said larry.
"you promised not to interrupt!" mr wallace exclaimed.
"i am not asking a question," larry replied. "i feel it necessary to make a statement. you see, i know what happened aboard that train that night. because i was on it. i was that shepherd boy."
"really?" lord salisbury murmured. "perhaps, at the end of the evening, you can favor us with a tune on your pipe."
count witte tossed his cigar out the window of the speeding train. a brief trail of sparks vanished into the night. with a nod to his bodyguard to keep his seat, the count slowly opened the door of his compartment and poked his head into the corridor.
a steward came hurrying by.
"is something amiss?" asked the count.
"one of the religious ladies in compartment one is feeling unwell."
the count nodded and he passed on.
the count moved down to the sixth compartment and knocked softly. it was immediately opened by the sikh bodyguard. the count entered and seated himself at the window across from colonel mccutcheon. the bodyguard closed the door and seated himself beside the count.
"so. count," enquired the colonel. "how long is this to continue?"