Part I. The Facts
1. An Important Passenger on the Taurus Express
It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.
By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform conversing, with a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.
It was freezingly cold, and this job of seeing off a distinguished stranger was not one to be envied, but Lieutenant Dubosc performed his part manfully. Graceful phrases fell from his lips in polished French. Not that he knew what it was all about. There had been rumours, of course, as there always were in such cases. The General’s-his General’s-temper had grown worse and worse. And then
there had come this Belgian stranger-all the way from England, it seemed. There had been a week-a week of curious tensity. And then certain things had happened. A very distinguished officer had committed suicide, another had suddenly resigned, anxious faces had suddenly lost their anxiety, certain military precautions were relaxed. And the General, Lieutenant Dubosc’s own particular General, had suddenly looked ten years younger.
Dubosc had overheard part of a conversation between him and the stranger. “You have saved us, mon cher,” said the General emotionally, his great white moustache trembling as he spoke. “You have saved the honour of the French Army-you have averted much bloodshed! How can I thank you for acceding to my request? To have come so far-“
To which the stranger (by name M. Hercule Poirot) had made a fitting reply including the phrase-“But indeed, do I not remember that once you saved my life?” And then the General had made another fitting reply to that, disclaiming any merit for that past service; and with more mention of France, of Belgium, of glory, of honour and of such kindred things they had embraced each other heartily and the conversation had ended.
As to what it had all been about, Lieutenant Dubosc was still in the dark, but to him had been delegated the duty of seeing off M. Poirot by the Taurus Express, and he was carrying it out with all the zeal and ardour befitting a young officer with a promising career ahead of him.
“To-day is Sunday,” said Lieutenant Dubosc. “Tomorrow, Monday evening, you will be in Stamboul.”
It was not the first time he had made this observation. Conversations on the platform, before the departure of a train, are apt to be somewhat repetitive in character.
“That is so,” agreed M. Poirot.
“And you intend to remain there a few days, I think?”
“Mais oui. Stamboul, it is a city I have never visited. It would be a pity to pass through-comme ca.” He snapped his fingers descriptively. “Nothing presses-I shall remain there as a tourist for a few days.”
“La Sainte Sophie, it is very fine,” said Lieutenant Dubosc, who had never seen it.
A cold wind came whistling down the platform. Both men shivered. Lieutenant Dubosc managed to cast a surreptitious glance at his watch. Five minutes to five-only five minutes more!
Fancying that the other man had noticed his glance, he hastened once more into speech.
“There are few people travelling this time of year,” he said, glancing up at the windows of the sleeping-car above them.
“That is so,” agreed M. Poirot.