THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES
By Agatha Christie
I. I GO TO STYLES II. THE 16TH AND 17TH OF JULY III. THE NIGHT OF THE TRAGEDY IV. POIROT INVESTIGATES V. "IT ISN'T STRYCHNINE, IS IT?" VI. THE INQUEST VII. POIROT PAYS HIS DEBTS VIII. FRESH SUSPICIONS IX. DR. BAUERSTEIN X. THE ARREST XI. THE CASE FOR THE PROSECUTION XII. THE LAST LINK XIII. POIROT EXPLAINS
CHAPTER I. I GO TO STYLES
The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as "The Styles Case" has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in view of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the sensational rumours which still persist.
I will therefore briefly set down the circumstances which led to my being connected with the affair.
I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month's sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though, I had often stayed at Styles, his mother's place in Essex.
We had a good yarn about old times, and it ended in his inviting me down to Styles to spend my leave there.
"The mater will be delighted to see you again—after all those years," he added.
"Your mother keeps well?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?"
I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John's father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.
Their country-place, Styles Court, had been purchased by Mr. Cavendish early in their married life. He had been completely under his wife's ascendancy, so much so that, on dying, he left the place to her for her lifetime, as well as the larger part of his income; an arrangement that was distinctly unfair to his two sons. Their step-mother, however, had always been most generous to them; indeed, they were so young at the time of their father's remarriage that they always thought of her as their own mother.
Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.
John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down to the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance, which would have enabled him to have a home of his own. Mrs. Cavendish, however, was a lady who liked to make her own plans, and expected other people to fall in with them, and in this case she certainly had the whip hand, namely: the purse strings.
John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother's remarriage and smiled rather ruefully.
"Rotten little bounder too!" he said savagely. "I can tell you, Hastings, it's making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you remember Evie?"
"Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She's the mater's factotum, companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely young and beautiful, but as game as they make them."
"You were going to say——?"
"Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a second cousin or something of Evie's, though she didn't seem particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He's got a great black beard, and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she's always running a hundred societies?"
"Well, of course the war has turned the hundreds into thousands. No doubt the fellow was very useful to her. But you could have knocked us all down with a feather when, three months ago, she suddenly announced that she and Alfred were engaged! The fellow must be at least twenty years younger than she is! It's simply bare-faced fortune hunting; but there you are—she is her own mistress, and she's married him."
"It must be a difficult situation for you all."
"Difficult! It's damnable!"
Thus it came about that, three days later, I descended from the train at Styles St. Mary, an absurd little station, with no apparent reason for existence, perched up in the midst of green fields and country lanes. John Cavendish was waiting on the platform, and piloted me out to the car.
"Got a drop or two of petrol still, you see," he remarked. "Mainly owing to the mater's activities."
The village of Styles St. Mary was situated about two miles from the little station, and Styles Court lay a mile the other side of it. It was a still, warm day in early July. As one looked out over the flat Essex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, it seemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayed into another world. As we turned in at the lodge gates, John said:
"I'm afraid you'll find it very quiet down here, Hastings."
"My dear fellow, that's just what I want."
"Oh, it's pleasant enough if you want to lead the idle life. I drill with the volunteers twice a week, and lend a hand at the farms. My wife works regularly 'on the land'. She is up at five every morning to milk, and keeps at it steadily until lunchtime. It's a jolly good life taking it all round—if it weren't for that fellow Alfred Inglethorp!" He checked the car suddenly, and glanced at his watch. "I wonder if we've time to pick up Cynthia. No, she'll have started from the hospital by now."
"Cynthia! That's not your wife?"
"No, Cynthia is a protegee of my mother's, the daughter of an old schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. She works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away."
As he spoke the last words, we drew up in front of the fine old house. A lady in a stout tweed skirt, who was bending over a flower bed, straightened herself at our approach.
"Hullo, Evie, here's our wounded hero! Mr. Hastings—Miss Howard."
Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to match—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
"Weeds grow like house afire. Can't keep even with 'em. Shall press you in. Better be careful."
"I'm sure I shall be only too delighted to make myself useful," I responded.
"Don't say it. Never does. Wish you hadn't later."
"You're a cynic, Evie," said John, laughing. "Where's tea to-day—inside or out?"
"Out. Too fine a day to be cooped up in the house."
"Come on then, you've done enough gardening for to-day. 'The labourer is worthy of his hire', you know. Come and be refreshed."
"Well," said Miss Howard, drawing off her gardening gloves, "I'm inclined to agree with you."
She led the way round the house to where tea was spread under the shade of a large sycamore.
A figure rose from one of the basket chairs, and came a few steps to meet us.
"My wife, Hastings," said John.
I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman's that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilised body—all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.
She greeted me with a few words of pleasant welcome in a low clear voice, and I sank into a basket chair feeling distinctly glad that I had accepted John's invitation. Mrs. Cavendish gave me some tea, and her few quiet remarks heightened my first impression of her as a thoroughly fascinating woman. An appreciative listener is always stimulating, and I described, in a humorous manner, certain incidents of my Convalescent Home, in a way which, I flatter myself, greatly amused my hostess. John, of course, good fellow though he is, could hardly be called a brilliant conversationalist.
At that moment a well remembered voice floated through the open French window near at hand:
"Then you'll write to the Princess after tea, Alfred? I'll write to Lady Tadminster for the second day, myself. Or shall we wait until we hear from the Princess? In case of a refusal, Lady Tadminster might open it the first day, and Mrs. Crosbie the second. Then there's the Duchess—about the school fete."
There was the murmur of a man's voice, and then Mrs. Inglethorp's rose in reply:
"Yes, certainly. After tea will do quite well. You are so thoughtful, Alfred dear."
The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome white-haired old lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features, stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of deference in his manner.
Mrs. Inglethorp greeted me with effusion.
"Why, if it isn't too delightful to see you again, Mr. Hastings, after all these years. Alfred, darling, Mr. Hastings—my husband."
I looked with some curiosity at "Alfred darling". He certainly struck a rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous. He placed a wooden hand in mine and said:
"This is a pleasure, Mr. Hastings." Then, turning to his wife: "Emily dearest, I think that cushion is a little damp."
She beamed fondly on him, as he substituted another with every demonstration of the tenderest care. Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman!
With the presence of Mr. Inglethorp, a sense of constraint and veiled hostility seemed to settle down upon the company. Miss Howard, in particular, took no pains to conceal her feelings. Mrs. Inglethorp, however, seemed to notice nothing unusual. Her volubility, which I remembered of old, had lost nothing in the intervening years, and she poured out a steady flood of conversation, mainly on the subject of the forthcoming bazaar which she was organizing and which was to take place shortly. Occasionally she referred to her husband over a question of days or dates. His watchful and attentive manner never varied. From the very first I took a firm and rooted dislike to him, and I flatter myself that my first judgments are usually fairly shrewd.
Presently Mrs. Inglethorp turned to give some instructions about letters to Evelyn Howard, and her husband addressed me in his painstaking voice:
"Is soldiering your regular profession, Mr. Hastings?"
"No, before the war I was in Lloyd's."
"And you will return there after it is over?"
"Perhaps. Either that or a fresh start altogether."
Mary Cavendish leant forward.
"What would you really choose as a profession, if you could just consult your inclination?"
"Well, that depends."
"No secret hobby?" she asked. "Tell me—you're drawn to something? Every one is—usually something absurd."
"You'll laugh at me."
"Well, I've always had a secret hankering to be a detective!"
"The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?"
"Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever."
"Like a good detective story myself," remarked Miss Howard. "Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in last chapter. Every one dumbfounded. Real crime—you'd know at once."
"There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes," I argued.
"Don't mean the police, but the people that are right in it. The family. You couldn't really hoodwink them. They'd know."
"Then," I said, much amused, "you think that if you were mixed up in a crime, say a murder, you'd be able to spot the murderer right off?"
"Of course I should. Mightn't be able to prove it to a pack of lawyers. But I'm certain I'd know. I'd feel it in my fingertips if he came near me."
"It might be a 'she,'" I suggested.
"Might. But murder's a violent crime. Associate it more with a man."
"Not in a case of poisoning." Mrs. Cavendish's clear voice startled me. "Dr. Bauerstein was saying yesterday that, owing to the general ignorance of the more uncommon poisons among the medical profession, there were probably countless cases of poisoning quite unsuspected."
"Why, Mary, what a gruesome conversation!" cried Mrs. Inglethorp. "It makes me feel as if a goose were walking over my grave. Oh, there's Cynthia!"
A young girl in V. A. D. uniform ran lightly across the lawn.
"Why, Cynthia, you are late to-day. This is Mr. Hastings—Miss Murdoch."
Cynthia Murdoch was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour. She tossed off her little V. A. D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to claim her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty.
She flung herself down on the ground beside John, and as I handed her a plate of sandwiches she smiled up at me.
"Sit down here on the grass, do. It's ever so much nicer."
I dropped down obediently.
"You work at Tadminster, don't you, Miss Murdoch?"
"For my sins."
"Do they bully you, then?" I asked, smiling.
"I should like to see them!" cried Cynthia with dignity.
"I have got a cousin who is nursing," I remarked. "And she is terrified of 'Sisters'."
"I don't wonder. Sisters are, you know, Mr. Hastings. They simp—ly are! You've no idea! But I'm not a nurse, thank heaven, I work in the dispensary."
"How many people do you poison?" I asked, smiling.
Cynthia smiled too.
"Oh, hundreds!" she said.
"Cynthia," called Mrs. Inglethorp, "do you think you could write a few notes for me?"
"Certainly, Aunt Emily."
She jumped up promptly, and something in her manner reminded me that her position was a dependent one, and that Mrs. Inglethorp, kind as she might be in the main, did not allow her to forget it.
My hostess turned to me.
"John will show you your room. Supper is at half-past seven. We have given up late dinner for some time now. Lady Tadminster, our Member's wife—she was the late Lord Abbotsbury's daughter—does the same. She agrees with me that one must set an example of economy. We are quite a war household; nothing is wasted here—every scrap of waste paper, even, is saved and sent away in sacks."
I expressed my appreciation, and John took me into the house and up the broad staircase, which forked right and left half-way to different wings of the building. My room was in the left wing, and looked out over the park.
John left me, and a few minutes later I saw him from my window walking slowly across the grass arm in arm with Cynthia Murdoch. I heard Mrs. Inglethorp call "Cynthia" impatiently, and the girl started and ran back to the house. At the same moment, a man stepped out from the shadow of a tree and walked slowly in the same direction. He looked about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John's younger brother, Lawrence Cavendish. I wondered what it was that had brought that singular expression to his face.
Then I dismissed him from my mind, and returned to the contemplation of my own affairs.
The evening passed pleasantly enough; and I dreamed that night of that enigmatical woman, Mary Cavendish.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was full of the anticipation of a delightful visit.
I did not see Mrs. Cavendish until lunch-time, when she volunteered to take me for a walk, and we spent a charming afternoon roaming in the woods, returning to the house about five.
As we entered the large hall, John beckoned us both into the smoking-room. I saw at once by his face that something disturbing had occurred. We followed him in, and he shut the door after us.
"Look here, Mary, there's the deuce of a mess. Evie's had a row with Alfred Inglethorp, and she's off."
John nodded gloomily.
"Yes; you see she went to the mater, and—Oh, here's Evie herself."
Miss Howard entered. Her lips were set grimly together, and she carried a small suit-case. She looked excited and determined, and slightly on the defensive.
"At any rate," she burst out, "I've spoken my mind!"
"My dear Evelyn," cried Mrs. Cavendish, "this can't be true!"
Miss Howard nodded grimly.
"True enough! Afraid I said some things to Emily she won't forget or forgive in a hurry. Don't mind if they've only sunk in a bit. Probably water off a duck's back, though. I said right out: 'You're an old woman, Emily, and there's no fool like an old fool. The man's twenty years younger than you, and don't you fool yourself as to what he married you for. Money! Well, don't let him have too much of it. Farmer Raikes has got a very pretty young wife. Just ask your Alfred how much time he spends over there.' She was very angry. Natural! I went on, 'I'm going to warn you, whether you like it or not. That man would as soon murder you in your bed as look at you. He's a bad lot. You can say what you like to me, but remember what I've told you. He's a bad lot!'"
"What did she say?"
Miss Howard made an extremely expressive grimace.
"'Darling Alfred'—'dearest Alfred'—'wicked calumnies' —'wicked lies'—'wicked woman'—to accuse her 'dear husband'! The sooner I left her house the better. So I'm off."
"But not now?"
For a moment we sat and stared at her. Finally John Cavendish, finding his persuasions of no avail, went off to look up the trains. His wife followed him, murmuring something about persuading Mrs. Inglethorp to think better of it.
As she left the room, Miss Howard's face changed. She leant towards me eagerly.
"Mr. Hastings, you're honest. I can trust you?"
I was a little startled. She laid her hand on my arm, and sank her voice to a whisper.
"Look after her, Mr. Hastings. My poor Emily. They're a lot of sharks—all of them. Oh, I know what I'm talking about. There isn't one of them that's not hard up and trying to get money out of her. I've protected her as much as I could. Now I'm out of the way, they'll impose upon her."
"Of course, Miss Howard," I said, "I'll do everything I can, but I'm sure you're excited and overwrought."
She interrupted me by slowly shaking her forefinger.
"Young man, trust me. I've lived in the world rather longer than you have. All I ask you is to keep your eyes open. You'll see what I mean."
The throb of the motor came through the open window, and Miss Howard rose and moved to the door. John's voice sounded outside. With her hand on the handle, she turned her head over her shoulder, and beckoned to me.
"Above all, Mr. Hastings, watch that devil—her husband!"
There was no time for more. Miss Howard was swallowed up in an eager chorus of protests and good-byes. The Inglethorps did not appear.
As the motor drove away, Mrs. Cavendish suddenly detached herself from the group, and moved across the drive to the lawn to meet a tall bearded man who had been evidently making for the house. The colour rose in her cheeks as she held out her hand to him.
"Who is that?" I asked sharply, for instinctively I distrusted the man.
"That's Dr. Bauerstein," said John shortly.
"And who is Dr. Bauerstein?"
"He's staying in the village doing a rest cure, after a bad nervous breakdown. He's a London specialist; a very clever man—one of the greatest living experts on poisons, I believe."
"And he's a great friend of Mary's," put in Cynthia, the irrepressible.
John Cavendish frowned and changed the subject.
"Come for a stroll, Hastings. This has been a most rotten business. She always had a rough tongue, but there is no stauncher friend in England than Evelyn Howard."
He took the path through the plantation, and we walked down to the village through the woods which bordered one side of the estate.
As we passed through one of the gates on our way home again, a pretty young woman of gipsy type coming in the opposite direction bowed and smiled.
"That's a pretty girl," I remarked appreciatively.
John's face hardened.
"That is Mrs. Raikes."
"The one that Miss Howard——"
"Exactly," said John, with rather unnecessary abruptness.
I thought of the white-haired old lady in the big house, and that vivid wicked little face that had just smiled into ours, and a vague chill of foreboding crept over me. I brushed it aside.
"Styles is really a glorious old place," I said to John.
He nodded rather gloomily.
"Yes, it's a fine property. It'll be mine some day—should be mine now by rights, if my father had only made a decent will. And then I shouldn't be so damned hard up as I am now."
"Hard up, are you?"
"My dear Hastings, I don't mind telling you that I'm at my wit's end for money."
"Couldn't your brother help you?"
"Lawrence? He's gone through every penny he ever had, publishing rotten verses in fancy bindings. No, we're an impecunious lot. My mother's always been awfully good to us, I must say. That is, up to now. Since her marriage, of course——" he broke off, frowning.
For the first time I felt that, with Evelyn Howard, something indefinable had gone from the atmosphere. Her presence had spelt security. Now that security was removed—and the air seemed rife with suspicion. The sinister face of Dr. Bauerstein recurred to me unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of every one and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.
CHAPTER II. THE 16TH AND 17TH OF JULY
I had arrived at Styles on the 5th of July. I come now to the events of the 16th and 17th of that month. For the convenience of the reader I will recapitulate the incidents of those days in as exact a manner as possible. They were elicited subsequently at the trial by a process of long and tedious cross-examinations.
I received a letter from Evelyn Howard a couple of days after her departure, telling me she was working as a nurse at the big hospital in Middlingham, a manufacturing town some fifteen miles away, and begging me to let her know if Mrs. Inglethorp should show any wish to be reconciled.
The only fly in the ointment of my peaceful days was Mrs. Cavendish's extraordinary, and, for my part, unaccountable preference for the society of Dr. Bauerstein. What she saw in the man I cannot imagine, but she was always asking him up to the house, and often went off for long expeditions with him. I must confess that I was quite unable to see his attraction.
The 16th of July fell on a Monday. It was a day of turmoil. The famous bazaar had taken place on Saturday, and an entertainment, in connection with the same charity, at which Mrs. Inglethorp was to recite a War poem, was to be held that night. We were all busy during the morning arranging and decorating the Hall in the village where it was to take place. We had a late luncheon and spent the afternoon resting in the garden. I noticed that John's manner was somewhat unusual. He seemed very excited and restless.
After tea, Mrs. Inglethorp went to lie down to rest before her efforts in the evening and I challenged Mary Cavendish to a single at tennis.
About a quarter to seven, Mrs. Inglethorp called us that we should be late as supper was early that night. We had rather a scramble to get ready in time; and before the meal was over the motor was waiting at the door.
The entertainment was a great success, Mrs. Inglethorp's recitation receiving tremendous applause. There were also some tableaux in which Cynthia took part. She did not return with us, having been asked to a supper party, and to remain the night with some friends who had been acting with her in the tableaux.
The following morning, Mrs. Inglethorp stayed in bed to breakfast, as she was rather overtired; but she appeared in her briskest mood about 12.30, and swept Lawrence and myself off to a luncheon party.
"Such a charming invitation from Mrs. Rolleston. Lady Tadminster's sister, you know. The Rollestons came over with the Conqueror—one of our oldest families."
Mary had excused herself on the plea of an engagement with Dr. Bauerstein.
We had a pleasant luncheon, and as we drove away Lawrence suggested that we should return by Tadminster, which was barely a mile out of our way, and pay a visit to Cynthia in her dispensary. Mrs. Inglethorp replied that this was an excellent idea, but as she had several letters to write she would drop us there, and we could come back with Cynthia in the pony-trap.
We were detained under suspicion by the hospital porter, until Cynthia appeared to vouch for us, looking very cool and sweet in her long white overall. She took us up to her sanctum, and introduced us to her fellow dispenser, a rather awe-inspiring individual, whom Cynthia cheerily addressed as "Nibs."
"What a lot of bottles!" I exclaimed, as my eye travelled round the small room. "Do you really know what's in them all?"
"Say something original," groaned Cynthia. "Every single person who comes up here says that. We are really thinking of bestowing a prize on the first individual who does not say: 'What a lot of bottles!' And I know the next thing you're going to say is: 'How many people have you poisoned?'"
I pleaded guilty with a laugh.
"If you people only knew how fatally easy it is to poison some one by mistake, you wouldn't joke about it. Come on, let's have tea. We've got all sorts of secret stories in that cupboard. No, Lawrence—that's the poison cupboard. The big cupboard—that's right."
We had a very cheery tea, and assisted Cynthia to wash up afterwards. We had just put away the last tea-spoon when a knock came at the door. The countenances of Cynthia and Nibs were suddenly petrified into a stern and forbidding expression.
"Come in," said Cynthia, in a sharp professional tone.
A young and rather scared looking nurse appeared with a bottle which she proffered to Nibs, who waved her towards Cynthia with the somewhat enigmatical remark:
"I'm not really here to-day."
Cynthia took the bottle and examined it with the severity of a judge.
"This should have been sent up this morning."
"Sister is very sorry. She forgot."
"Sister should read the rules outside the door."
I gathered from the little nurse's expression that there was not the least likelihood of her having the hardihood to retail this message to the dreaded "Sister".
"So now it can't be done until to-morrow," finished Cynthia.
"Don't you think you could possibly let us have it to-night?"
"Well," said Cynthia graciously, "we are very busy, but if we have time it shall be done."
The little nurse withdrew, and Cynthia promptly took a jar from the shelf, refilled the bottle, and placed it on the table outside the door.
"Discipline must be maintained?"
"Exactly. Come out on our little balcony. You can see all the outside wards there."
I followed Cynthia and her friend and they pointed out the different wards to me. Lawrence remained behind, but after a few moments Cynthia called to him over her shoulder to come and join us. Then she looked at her watch.
"Nothing more to do, Nibs?"
"All right. Then we can lock up and go."
I had seen Lawrence in quite a different light that afternoon. Compared to John, he was an astoundingly difficult person to get to know. He was the opposite of his brother in almost every respect, being unusually shy and reserved. Yet he had a certain charm of manner, and I fancied that, if one really knew him well, one could have a deep affection for him. I had always fancied that his manner to Cynthia was rather constrained, and that she on her side was inclined to be shy of him. But they were both gay enough this afternoon, and chatted together like a couple of children.
As we drove through the village, I remembered that I wanted some stamps, so accordingly we pulled up at the post office.
As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologised, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
"Mon ami Hastings!" he cried. "It is indeed mon ami Hastings!"
"Poirot!" I exclaimed.
I turned to the pony-trap.
"This is a very pleasant meeting for me, Miss Cynthia. This is my old friend, Monsieur Poirot, whom I have not seen for years."
"Oh, we know Monsieur Poirot," said Cynthia gaily. "But I had no idea he was a friend of yours."
"Yes, indeed," said Poirot seriously. "I know Mademoiselle Cynthia. It is by the charity of that good Mrs. Inglethorp that I am here." Then, as I looked at him inquiringly: "Yes, my friend, she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land. We Belgians will always remember her with gratitude."
Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandyfied little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.
He pointed out to me the little house inhabited by him and his fellow Belgians, and I promised to go and see him at an early date. Then he raised his hat with a flourish to Cynthia, and we drove away.
"He's a dear little man," said Cynthia. "I'd no idea you knew him."
"You've been entertaining a celebrity unawares," I replied.
And, for the rest of the way home, I recited to them the various exploits and triumphs of Hercule Poirot.
We arrived back in a very cheerful mood. As we entered the hall, Mrs. Inglethorp came out of her boudoir. She looked flushed and upset.
"Oh, it's you," she said.
"Is there anything the matter, Aunt Emily?" asked Cynthia.
"Certainly not," said Mrs. Inglethorp sharply. "What should there be?" Then catching sight of Dorcas, the parlourmaid, going into the dining-room, she called to her to bring some stamps into the boudoir.
"Yes, m'm." The old servant hesitated, then added diffidently: "Don't you think, m'm, you'd better get to bed? You're looking very tired."
"Perhaps you're right, Dorcas—yes—no—not now. I've some letters I must finish by post-time. Have you lighted the fire in my room as I told you?"
"Then I'll go to bed directly after supper."
She went into the boudoir again, and Cynthia stared after her.
"Goodness gracious! I wonder what's up?" she said to Lawrence.
He did not seem to have heard her, for without a word he turned on his heel and went out of the house.
I suggested a quick game of tennis before supper and, Cynthia agreeing, I ran upstairs to fetch my racquet.
Mrs. Cavendish was coming down the stairs. It may have been my fancy, but she, too, was looking odd and disturbed.
"Had a good walk with Dr. Bauerstein?" I asked, trying to appear as indifferent as I could.
"I didn't go," she replied abruptly. "Where is Mrs. Inglethorp?"
"In the boudoir."
Her hand clenched itself on the banisters, then she seemed to nerve herself for some encounter, and went rapidly past me down the stairs across the hall to the boudoir, the door of which she shut behind her.
As I ran out to the tennis court a few moments later, I had to pass the open boudoir window, and was unable to help overhearing the following scrap of dialogue. Mary Cavendish was saying in the voice of a woman desperately controlling herself:
"Then you won't show it to me?"
To which Mrs. Inglethorp replied:
"My dear Mary, it has nothing to do with that matter."
"Then show it to me."
"I tell you it is not what you imagine. It does not concern you in the least."
To which Mary Cavendish replied, with a rising bitterness:
"Of course, I might have known you would shield him."
Cynthia was waiting for me, and greeted me eagerly with:
"I say! There's been the most awful row! I've got it all out of Dorcas."
"What kind of a row?"
"Between Aunt Emily and him. I do hope she's found him out at last!"
"Was Dorcas there, then?"
"Of course not. She 'happened to be near the door'. It was a real old bust-up. I do wish I knew what it was all about."
I thought of Mrs. Raikes's gipsy face, and Evelyn Howard's warnings, but wisely decided to hold my peace, whilst Cynthia exhausted every possible hypothesis, and cheerfully hoped, "Aunt Emily will send him away, and will never speak to him again."
I was anxious to get hold of John, but he was nowhere to be seen. Evidently something very momentous had occurred that afternoon. I tried to forget the few words I had overheard; but, do what I would, I could not dismiss them altogether from my mind. What was Mary Cavendish's concern in the matter?
Mr. Inglethorp was in the drawing-room when I came down to supper. His face was impassive as ever, and the strange unreality of the man struck me afresh.
Mrs. Inglethorp came down last. She still looked agitated, and during the meal there was a somewhat constrained silence. Inglethorp was unusually quiet. As a rule, he surrounded his wife with little attentions, placing a cushion at her back, and altogether playing the part of the devoted husband. Immediately after supper, Mrs. Inglethorp retired to her boudoir again.
"Send my coffee in here, Mary," she called. "I've just five minutes to catch the post."
Cynthia and I went and sat by the open window in the drawing-room. Mary Cavendish brought our coffee to us. She seemed excited.
"Do you young people want lights, or do you enjoy the twilight?" she asked. "Will you take Mrs. Inglethorp her coffee, Cynthia? I will pour it out."
"Do not trouble, Mary," said Inglethorp. "I will take it to Emily." He poured it out, and went out of the room carrying it carefully.
Lawrence followed him, and Mrs. Cavendish sat down by us.
We three sat for some time in silence. It was a glorious night, hot and still. Mrs. Cavendish fanned herself gently with a palm leaf.
"It's almost too hot," she murmured. "We shall have a thunderstorm."
Alas, that these harmonious moments can never endure! My paradise was rudely shattered by the sound of a well known, and heartily disliked, voice in the hall.
"Dr. Bauerstein!" exclaimed Cynthia. "What a funny time to come."
I glanced jealously at Mary Cavendish, but she seemed quite undisturbed, the delicate pallor of her cheeks did not vary.
In a few moments, Alfred Inglethorp had ushered the doctor in, the latter laughing, and protesting that he was in no fit state for a drawing-room. In truth, he presented a sorry spectacle, being literally plastered with mud.
"What have you been doing, doctor?" cried Mrs. Cavendish.
"I must make my apologies," said the doctor. "I did not really mean to come in, but Mr. Inglethorp insisted."
"Well, Bauerstein, you are in a plight," said John, strolling in from the hall. "Have some coffee, and tell us what you have been up to."
"Thank you, I will." He laughed rather ruefully, as he described how he had discovered a very rare species of fern in an inaccessible place, and in his efforts to obtain it had lost his footing, and slipped ignominiously into a neighbouring pond.
"The sun soon dried me off," he added, "but I'm afraid my appearance is very disreputable."
At this juncture, Mrs. Inglethorp called to Cynthia from the hall, and the girl ran out.
"Just carry up my despatch-case, will you, dear? I'm going to bed."
The door into the hall was a wide one. I had risen when Cynthia did, John was close by me. There were therefore three witnesses who could swear that Mrs. Inglethorp was carrying her coffee, as yet untasted, in her hand.
My evening was utterly and entirely spoilt by the presence of Dr. Bauerstein. It seemed to me the man would never go. He rose at last, however, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
"I'll walk down to the village with you," said Mr. Inglethorp. "I must see our agent over those estate accounts." He turned to John. "No one need sit up. I will take the latch-key."
CHAPTER III. THE NIGHT OF THE TRAGEDY
To make this part of my story clear, I append the following plan of the first floor of Styles. The servants' rooms are reached through the door B. They have no communication with the right wing, where the Inglethorps' rooms were situated.
It seemed to be the middle of the night when I was awakened by Lawrence Cavendish. He had a candle in his hand, and the agitation of his face told me at once that something was seriously wrong.
"What's the matter?" I asked, sitting up in bed, and trying to collect my scattered thoughts.
"We are afraid my mother is very ill. She seems to be having some kind of fit. Unfortunately she has locked herself in."
"I'll come at once."
I sprang out of bed; and, pulling on a dressing-gown, followed Lawrence along the passage and the gallery to the right wing of the house.
John Cavendish joined us, and one or two of the servants were standing round in a state of awe-stricken excitement. Lawrence turned to his brother.
"What do you think we had better do?"
Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.
John rattled the handle of Mrs. Inglethorp's door violently, but with no effect. It was obviously locked or bolted on the inside. The whole household was aroused by now. The most alarming sounds were audible from the interior of the room. Clearly something must be done.
"Try going through Mr. Inglethorp's room, sir," cried Dorcas. "Oh, the poor mistress!"
Suddenly I realized that Alfred Inglethorp was not with us—that he alone had given no sign of his presence. John opened the door of his room. It was pitch dark, but Lawrence was following with the candle, and by its feeble light we saw that the bed had not been slept in, and that there was no sign of the room having been occupied.
We went straight to the connecting door. That, too, was locked or bolted on the inside. What was to be done?
"Oh, dear, sir," cried Dorcas, wringing her hands, "what ever shall we do?"
"We must try and break the door in, I suppose. It'll be a tough job, though. Here, let one of the maids go down and wake Baily and tell him to go for Dr. Wilkins at once. Now then, we'll have a try at the door. Half a moment, though, isn't there a door into Miss Cynthia's rooms?"
"Yes, sir, but that's always bolted. It's never been undone."
"Well, we might just see."
He ran rapidly down the corridor to Cynthia's room. Mary Cavendish was there, shaking the girl—who must have been an unusually sound sleeper—and trying to wake her.
In a moment or two he was back.
"No good. That's bolted too. We must break in the door. I think this one is a shade less solid than the one in the passage."
We strained and heaved together. The framework of the door was solid, and for a long time it resisted our efforts, but at last we felt it give beneath our weight, and finally, with a resounding crash, it was burst open.
We stumbled in together, Lawrence still holding his candle. Mrs. Inglethorp was lying on the bed, her whole form agitated by violent convulsions, in one of which she must have overturned the table beside her. As we entered, however, her limbs relaxed, and she fell back upon the pillows.
John strode across the room, and lit the gas. Turning to Annie, one of the housemaids, he sent her downstairs to the dining-room for brandy. Then he went across to his mother whilst I unbolted the door that gave on the corridor.
I turned to Lawrence, to suggest that I had better leave them now that there was no further need of my services, but the words were frozen on my lips. Never have I seen such a ghastly look on any man's face. He was white as chalk, the candle he held in his shaking hand was sputtering onto the carpet, and his eyes, petrified with terror, or some such kindred emotion, stared fixedly over my head at a point on the further wall. It was as though he had seen something that turned him to stone. I instinctively followed the direction of his eyes, but I could see nothing unusual. The still feebly flickering ashes in the grate, and the row of prim ornaments on the mantelpiece, were surely harmless enough.
The violence of Mrs. Inglethorp's attack seemed to be passing. She was able to speak in short gasps.
"Better now—very sudden—stupid of me—to lock myself in."
A shadow fell on the bed and, looking up, I saw Mary Cavendish standing near the door with her arm around Cynthia. She seemed to be supporting the girl, who looked utterly dazed and unlike herself. Her face was heavily flushed, and she yawned repeatedly.
"Poor Cynthia is quite frightened," said Mrs. Cavendish in a low clear voice. She herself, I noticed, was dressed in her white land smock. Then it must be later than I thought. I saw that a faint streak of daylight was showing through the curtains of the windows, and that the clock on the mantelpiece pointed to close upon five o'clock.
A strangled cry from the bed startled me. A fresh access of pain seized the unfortunate old lady. The convulsions were of a violence terrible to behold. Everything was confusion. We thronged round her, powerless to help or alleviate. A final convulsion lifted her from the bed, until she appeared to rest upon her head and her heels, with her body arched in an extraordinary manner. In vain Mary and John tried to administer more brandy. The moments flew. Again the body arched itself in that peculiar fashion.
At that moment, Dr. Bauerstein pushed his way authoritatively into the room. For one instant he stopped dead, staring at the figure on the bed, and, at the same instant, Mrs. Inglethorp cried out in a strangled voice, her eyes fixed on the doctor:
"Alfred—Alfred——" Then she fell back motionless on the pillows.
With a stride, the doctor reached the bed, and seizing her arms worked them energetically, applying what I knew to be artificial respiration. He issued a few short sharp orders to the servants. An imperious wave of his hand drove us all to the door. We watched him, fascinated, though I think we all knew in our hearts that it was too late, and that nothing could be done now. I could see by the expression on his face that he himself had little hope.
Finally he abandoned his task, shaking his head gravely. At that moment, we heard footsteps outside, and Dr. Wilkins, Mrs. Inglethorp's own doctor, a portly, fussy little man, came bustling in.
In a few words Dr. Bauerstein explained how he had happened to be passing the lodge gates as the car came out, and had run up to the house as fast as he could, whilst the car went on to fetch Dr. Wilkins. With a faint gesture of the hand, he indicated the figure on the bed.
"Ve—ry sad. Ve—ry sad," murmured Dr. Wilkins. "Poor dear lady. Always did far too much—far too much—against my advice. I warned her. Her heart was far from strong. 'Take it easy,' I said to her, 'Take—it—easy'. But no—her zeal for good works was too great. Nature rebelled. Na—ture—re—belled."
Dr. Bauerstein, I noticed, was watching the local doctor narrowly. He still kept his eyes fixed on him as he spoke.
"The convulsions were of a peculiar violence, Dr. Wilkins. I am sorry you were not here in time to witness them. They were quite—tetanic in character."
"Ah!" said Dr. Wilkins wisely.
"I should like to speak to you in private," said Dr. Bauerstein. He turned to John. "You do not object?"
We all trooped out into the corridor, leaving the two doctors alone, and I heard the key turned in the lock behind us.
We went slowly down the stairs. I was violently excited. I have a certain talent for deduction, and Dr. Bauerstein's manner had started a flock of wild surmises in my mind. Mary Cavendish laid her hand upon my arm.
"What is it? Why did Dr. Bauerstein seem so—peculiar?"
I looked at her.
"Do you know what I think?"
"Listen!" I looked round, the others were out of earshot. I lowered my voice to a whisper. "I believe she has been poisoned! I'm certain Dr. Bauerstein suspects it."
"What?" She shrank against the wall, the pupils of her eyes dilating wildly. Then, with a sudden cry that startled me, she cried out: "No, no—not that—not that!" And breaking from me, fled up the stairs. I followed her, afraid that she was going to faint. I found her leaning against the bannisters, deadly pale. She waved me away impatiently.
"No, no—leave me. I'd rather be alone. Let me just be quiet for a minute or two. Go down to the others."
I obeyed her reluctantly. John and Lawrence were in the dining-room. I joined them. We were all silent, but I suppose I voiced the thoughts of us all when I at last broke it by saying:
"Where is Mr. Inglethorp?"
John shook his head.
"He's not in the house."
Our eyes met. Where was Alfred Inglethorp? His absence was strange and inexplicable. I remembered Mrs. Inglethorp's dying words. What lay beneath them? What more could she have told us, if she had had time?
At last we heard the doctors descending the stairs. Dr. Wilkins was looking important and excited, and trying to conceal an inward exultation under a manner of decorous calm. Dr. Bauerstein remained in the background, his grave bearded face unchanged. Dr. Wilkins was the spokesman for the two. He addressed himself to John:
"Mr. Cavendish, I should like your consent to a postmortem."
"Is that necessary?" asked John gravely. A spasm of pain crossed his face.
"Absolutely," said Dr. Bauerstein.
"You mean by that——?"
"That neither Dr. Wilkins nor myself could give a death certificate under the circumstances."
John bent his head.
"In that case, I have no alternative but to agree."
"Thank you," said Dr. Wilkins briskly. "We propose that it should take place to-morrow night—or rather to-night." And he glanced at the daylight. "Under the circumstances, I am afraid an inquest can hardly be avoided—these formalities are necessary, but I beg that you won't distress yourselves."
There was a pause, and then Dr. Bauerstein drew two keys from his pocket, and handed them to John.
"These are the keys of the two rooms. I have locked them and, in my opinion, they would be better kept locked for the present."
The doctors then departed.
I had been turning over an idea in my head, and I felt that the moment had now come to broach it. Yet I was a little chary of doing so. John, I knew, had a horror of any kind of publicity, and was an easygoing optimist, who preferred never to meet trouble half-way. It might be difficult to convince him of the soundness of my plan. Lawrence, on the other hand, being less conventional, and having more imagination, I felt I might count upon as an ally. There was no doubt that the moment had come for me to take the lead.
"John," I said, "I am going to ask you something."
"You remember my speaking of my friend Poirot? The Belgian who is here? He has been a most famous detective."
"I want you to let me call him in—to investigate this matter."
"What—now? Before the post-mortem?"
"Yes, time is an advantage if—if—there has been foul play."
"Rubbish!" cried Lawrence angrily. "In my opinion the whole thing is a mare's nest of Bauerstein's! Wilkins hadn't an idea of such a thing, until Bauerstein put it into his head. But, like all specialists, Bauerstein's got a bee in his bonnet. Poisons are his hobby, so of course he sees them everywhere."
I confess that I was surprised by Lawrence's attitude. He was so seldom vehement about anything.
"I can't feel as you do, Lawrence," he said at last. "I'm inclined to give Hastings a free hand, though I should prefer to wait a bit. We don't want any unnecessary scandal."
"No, no," I cried eagerly, "you need have no fear of that. Poirot is discretion itself."
"Very well, then, have it your own way. I leave it in your hands. Though, if it is as we suspect, it seems a clear enough case. God forgive me if I am wronging him!"
I looked at my watch. It was six o'clock. I determined to lose no time.
Five minutes' delay, however, I allowed myself. I spent it in ransacking the library until I discovered a medical book which gave a description of strychnine poisoning.
CHAPTER IV. POIROT INVESTIGATES
The house which the Belgians occupied in the village was quite close to the park gates. One could save time by taking a narrow path through the long grass, which cut off the detours of the winding drive. So I, accordingly, went that way. I had nearly reached the lodge, when my attention was arrested by the running figure of a man approaching me. It was Mr. Inglethorp. Where had he been? How did he intend to explain his absence?
He accosted me eagerly.
"My God! This is terrible! My poor wife! I have only just heard."
"Where have you been?" I asked.
"Denby kept me late last night. It was one o'clock before we'd finished. Then I found that I'd forgotten the latch-key after all. I didn't want to arouse the household, so Denby gave me a bed."
"How did you hear the news?" I asked.
"Wilkins knocked Denby up to tell him. My poor Emily! She was so self-sacrificing—such a noble character. She over-taxed her strength."
A wave of revulsion swept over me. What a consummate hypocrite the man was!
"I must hurry on," I said, thankful that he did not ask me whither I was bound.
In a few minutes I was knocking at the door of Leastways Cottage.
Getting no answer, I repeated my summons impatiently. A window above me was cautiously opened, and Poirot himself looked out.
He gave an exclamation of surprise at seeing me. In a few brief words, I explained the tragedy that had occurred, and that I wanted his help.
"Wait, my friend, I will let you in, and you shall recount to me the affair whilst I dress."
In a few moments he had unbarred the door, and I followed him up to his room. There he installed me in a chair, and I related the whole story, keeping back nothing, and omitting no circumstance, however insignificant, whilst he himself made a careful and deliberate toilet.
I told him of my awakening, of Mrs. Inglethorp's dying words, of her husband's absence, of the quarrel the day before, of the scrap of conversation between Mary and her mother-in-law that I had overheard, of the former quarrel between Mrs. Inglethorp and Evelyn Howard, and of the latter's innuendoes.
I was hardly as clear as I could wish. I repeated myself several times, and occasionally had to go back to some detail that I had forgotten. Poirot smiled kindly on me.
"The mind is confused? Is it not so? Take time, mon ami. You are agitated; you are excited—it is but natural. Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place. We will examine—and reject. Those of importance we will put on one side; those of no importance, pouf!"—he screwed up his cherub-like face, and puffed comically enough—"blow them away!"
"That's all very well," I objected, "but how are you going to decide what is important, and what isn't? That always seems the difficulty to me."
Poirot shook his head energetically. He was now arranging his moustache with exquisite care.
"Not so. Voyons! One fact leads to another—so we continue. Does the next fit in with that? A merveille! Good! We can proceed. This next little fact—no! Ah, that is curious! There is something missing—a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here!" He made an extravagant gesture with his hand. "It is significant! It is tremendous!"
"Ah!" Poirot shook his forefinger so fiercely at me that I quailed before it. "Beware! Peril to the detective who says: 'It is so small—it does not matter. It will not agree. I will forget it.' That way lies confusion! Everything matters."
"I know. You always told me that. That's why I have gone into all the details of this thing whether they seemed to me relevant or not."
"And I am pleased with you. You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully. Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing—truly, it is deplorable! But I make allowances—you are upset. To that I attribute the circumstance that you have omitted one fact of paramount importance."
"What is that?" I asked.
"You have not told me if Mrs. Inglethorp ate well last night."
I stared at him. Surely the war had affected the little man's brain. He was carefully engaged in brushing his coat before putting it on, and seemed wholly engrossed in the task.
"I don't remember," I said. "And, anyway, I don't see——"
"You do not see? But it is of the first importance."
"I can't see why," I said, rather nettled. "As far as I can remember, she didn't eat much. She was obviously upset, and it had taken her appetite away. That was only natural."
"Yes," said Poirot thoughtfully, "it was only natural."
He opened a drawer, and took out a small despatch-case, then turned to me.
"Now I am ready. We will proceed to the chateau, and study matters on the spot. Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me." With a deft gesture, he rearranged it.
"Ca y est! Now, shall we start?"
We hurried up the village, and turned in at the lodge gates. Poirot stopped for a moment, and gazed sorrowfully over the beautiful expanse of park, still glittering with morning dew.
"So beautiful, so beautiful, and yet, the poor family, plunged in sorrow, prostrated with grief."
He looked at me keenly as he spoke, and I was aware that I reddened under his prolonged gaze.
Was the family prostrated by grief? Was the sorrow at Mrs. Inglethorp's death so great? I realized that there was an emotional lack in the atmosphere. The dead woman had not the gift of commanding love. Her death was a shock and a distress, but she would not be passionately regretted.
Poirot seemed to follow my thoughts. He nodded his head gravely.
"No, you are right," he said, "it is not as though there was a blood tie. She has been kind and generous to these Cavendishes, but she was not their own mother. Blood tells—always remember that—blood tells."
"Poirot," I said, "I wish you would tell me why you wanted to know if Mrs. Inglethorp ate well last night? I have been turning it over in my mind, but I can't see how it has anything to do with the matter?"
He was silent for a minute or two as we walked along, but finally he said:
"I do not mind telling you—though, as you know, it is not my habit to explain until the end is reached. The present contention is that Mrs. Inglethorp died of strychnine poisoning, presumably administered in her coffee."
"Well, what time was the coffee served?"
"About eight o'clock."
"Therefore she drank it between then and half-past eight—certainly not much later. Well, strychnine is a fairly rapid poison. Its effects would be felt very soon, probably in about an hour. Yet, in Mrs. Inglethorp's case, the symptoms do not manifest themselves until five o'clock the next morning: nine hours! But a heavy meal, taken at about the same time as the poison, might retard its effects, though hardly to that extent. Still, it is a possibility to be taken into account. But, according to you, she ate very little for supper, and yet the symptoms do not develop until early the next morning! Now that is a curious circumstance, my friend. Something may arise at the autopsy to explain it. In the meantime, remember it."
As we neared the house, John came out and met us. His face looked weary and haggard.
"This is a very dreadful business, Monsieur Poirot," he said. "Hastings has explained to you that we are anxious for no publicity?"
"I comprehend perfectly."
"You see, it is only suspicion so far. We have nothing to go upon."
"Precisely. It is a matter of precaution only."
John turned to me, taking out his cigarette-case, and lighting a cigarette as he did so.
"You know that fellow Inglethorp is back?"
"Yes. I met him."
John flung the match into an adjacent flower bed, a proceeding which was too much for Poirot's feelings. He retrieved it, and buried it neatly.
"It's jolly difficult to know how to treat him."
"That difficulty will not exist long," pronounced Poirot quietly.
John looked puzzled, not quite understanding the portent of this cryptic saying. He handed the two keys which Dr. Bauerstein had given him to me.
"Show Monsieur Poirot everything he wants to see."
"The rooms are locked?" asked Poirot.
"Dr. Bauerstein considered it advisable."
Poirot nodded thoughtfully.
"Then he is very sure. Well, that simplifies matters for us."
We went up together to the room of the tragedy. For convenience I append a plan of the room and the principal articles of furniture in it.
Poirot locked the door on the inside, and proceeded to a minute inspection of the room. He darted from one object to the other with the agility of a grasshopper. I remained by the door, fearing to obliterate any clues. Poirot, however, did not seem grateful to me for my forbearance.
"What have you, my friend," he cried, "that you remain there like—how do you say it?—ah, yes, the stuck pig?"
I explained that I was afraid of obliterating any foot-marks.
"Foot-marks? But what an idea! There has already been practically an army in the room! What foot-marks are we likely to find? No, come here and aid me in my search. I will put down my little case until I need it."
He did so, on the round table by the window, but it was an ill-advised proceeding; for, the top of it being loose, it tilted up, and precipitated the despatch-case on the floor.
"Eh voila une table!" cried Poirot. "Ah, my friend, one may live in a big house and yet have no comfort."
After which piece of moralizing, he resumed his search.
A small purple despatch-case, with a key in the lock, on the writing-table, engaged his attention for some time. He took out the key from the lock, and passed it to me to inspect. I saw nothing peculiar, however. It was an ordinary key of the Yale type, with a bit of twisted wire through the handle.
Next, he examined the framework of the door we had broken in, assuring himself that the bolt had really been shot. Then he went to the door opposite leading into Cynthia's room. That door was also bolted, as I had stated. However, he went to the length of unbolting it, and opening and shutting it several times; this he did with the utmost precaution against making any noise. Suddenly something in the bolt itself seemed to rivet his attention. He examined it carefully, and then, nimbly whipping out a pair of small forceps from his case, he drew out some minute particle which he carefully sealed up in a tiny envelope.
On the chest of drawers there was a tray with a spirit lamp and a small saucepan on it. A small quantity of a dark fluid remained in the saucepan, and an empty cup and saucer that had been drunk out of stood near it.
I wondered how I could have been so unobservant as to overlook this. Here was a clue worth having. Poirot delicately dipped his finger into liquid, and tasted it gingerly. He made a grimace.
"Coco—with—I think—rum in it."
He passed on to the debris on the floor, where the table by the bed had been overturned. A reading-lamp, some books, matches, a bunch of keys, and the crushed fragments of a coffee-cup lay scattered about.
"Ah, this is curious," said Poirot.
"I must confess that I see nothing particularly curious about it."
"You do not? Observe the lamp—the chimney is broken in two places; they lie there as they fell. But see, the coffee-cup is absolutely smashed to powder."
"Well," I said wearily, "I suppose some one must have stepped on it."
"Exactly," said Poirot, in an odd voice. "Some one stepped on it."
He rose from his knees, and walked slowly across to the mantelpiece, where he stood abstractedly fingering the ornaments, and straightening them—a trick of his when he was agitated.
"Mon ami," he said, turning to me, "somebody stepped on that cup, grinding it to powder, and the reason they did so was either because it contained strychnine or—which is far more serious—because it did not contain strychnine!"
I made no reply. I was bewildered, but I knew that it was no good asking him to explain. In a moment or two he roused himself, and went on with his investigations. He picked up the bunch of keys from the floor, and twirling them round in his fingers finally selected one, very bright and shining, which he tried in the lock of the purple despatch-case. It fitted, and he opened the box, but after a moment's hesitation, closed and relocked it, and slipped the bunch of keys, as well as the key that had originally stood in the lock, into his own pocket.
"I have no authority to go through these papers. But it should be done—at once!"
He then made a very careful examination of the drawers of the wash-stand. Crossing the room to the left-hand window, a round stain, hardly visible on the dark brown carpet, seemed to interest him particularly. He went down on his knees, examining it minutely—even going so far as to smell it.
Finally, he poured a few drops of the coco into a test tube, sealing it up carefully. His next proceeding was to take out a little notebook.
"We have found in this room," he said, writing busily, "six points of interest. Shall I enumerate them, or will you?"
"Oh, you," I replied hastily.
"Very well, then. One, a coffee-cup that has been ground into powder; two, a despatch-case with a key in the lock; three, a stain on the floor."
"That may have been done some time ago," I interrupted.
"No, for it is still perceptibly damp and smells of coffee. Four, a fragment of some dark green fabric—only a thread or two, but recognizable."
"Ah!" I cried. "That was what you sealed up in the envelope."
"Yes. It may turn out to be a piece of one of Mrs. Inglethorp's own dresses, and quite unimportant. We shall see. Five, this!" With a dramatic gesture, he pointed to a large splash of candle grease on the floor by the writing-table. "It must have been done since yesterday, otherwise a good housemaid would have at once removed it with blotting-paper and a hot iron. One of my best hats once—but that is not to the point."
"It was very likely done last night. We were very agitated. Or perhaps Mrs. Inglethorp herself dropped her candle."
"You brought only one candle into the room?"
"Yes. Lawrence Cavendish was carrying it. But he was very upset. He seemed to see something over here"—I indicated the mantelpiece—"that absolutely paralysed him."
"That is interesting," said Poirot quickly. "Yes, it is suggestive"—his eye sweeping the whole length of the wall—"but it was not his candle that made this great patch, for you perceive that this is white grease; whereas Monsieur Lawrence's candle, which is still on the dressing-table, is pink. On the other hand, Mrs. Inglethorp had no candlestick in the room, only a reading-lamp."
"Then," I said, "what do you deduce?"
To which my friend only made a rather irritating reply, urging me to use my own natural faculties.
"And the sixth point?" I asked. "I suppose it is the sample of coco."
"No," said Poirot thoughtfully. "I might have included that in the six, but I did not. No, the sixth point I will keep to myself for the present."
He looked quickly round the room. "There is nothing more to be done here, I think, unless"—he stared earnestly and long at the dead ashes in the grate. "The fire burns—and it destroys. But by chance—there might be—let us see!"
Deftly, on hands and knees, he began to sort the ashes from the grate into the fender, handling them with the greatest caution. Suddenly, he gave a faint exclamation.
"The forceps, Hastings!"
I quickly handed them to him, and with skill he extracted a small piece of half charred paper.
"There, mon ami!" he cried. "What do you think of that?"
I scrutinized the fragment. This is an exact reproduction of it:—
I was puzzled. It was unusually thick, quite unlike ordinary notepaper. Suddenly an idea struck me.
"Poirot!" I cried. "This is a fragment of a will!"
I looked up at him sharply.
"You are not surprised?"
"No," he said gravely, "I expected it."
I relinquished the piece of paper, and watched him put it away in his case, with the same methodical care that he bestowed on everything. My brain was in a whirl. What was this complication of a will? Who had destroyed it? The person who had left the candle grease on the floor? Obviously. But how had anyone gained admission? All the doors had been bolted on the inside.
"Now, my friend," said Poirot briskly, "we will go. I should like to ask a few questions of the parlourmaid—Dorcas, her name is, is it not?"
We passed through Alfred Inglethorp's room, and Poirot delayed long enough to make a brief but fairly comprehensive examination of it. We went out through that door, locking both it and that of Mrs. Inglethorp's room as before.
I took him down to the boudoir which he had expressed a wish to see, and went myself in search of Dorcas.
When I returned with her, however, the boudoir was empty.
"Poirot," I cried, "where are you?"
"I am here, my friend."
He had stepped outside the French window, and was standing, apparently lost in admiration, before the various shaped flower beds.
"Admirable!" he murmured. "Admirable! What symmetry! Observe that crescent; and those diamonds—their neatness rejoices the eye. The spacing of the plants, also, is perfect. It has been recently done; is it not so?"
"Yes, I believe they were at it yesterday afternoon. But come in—Dorcas is here."
"Eh bien, eh bien! Do not grudge me a moment's satisfaction of the eye."
"Yes, but this affair is more important."
"And how do you know that these fine begonias are not of equal importance?"
I shrugged my shoulders. There was really no arguing with him if he chose to take that line.
"You do not agree? But such things have been. Well, we will come in and interview the brave Dorcas."
Dorcas was standing in the boudoir, her hands folded in front of her, and her grey hair rose in stiff waves under her white cap. She was the very model and picture of a good old-fashioned servant.
In her attitude towards Poirot, she was inclined to be suspicious, but he soon broke down her defences. He drew forward a chair.
"Pray be seated, mademoiselle."
"Thank you, sir."
"You have been with your mistress many years, is it not so?"
"Ten years, sir."
"That is a long time, and very faithful service. You were much attached to her, were you not?"
"She was a very good mistress to me, sir."
"Then you will not object to answering a few questions. I put them to you with Mr. Cavendish's full approval."
"Oh, certainly, sir."
"Then I will begin by asking you about the events of yesterday afternoon. Your mistress had a quarrel?"
"Yes, sir. But I don't know that I ought——" Dorcas hesitated. Poirot looked at her keenly.
"My good Dorcas, it is necessary that I should know every detail of that quarrel as fully as possible. Do not think that you are betraying your mistress's secrets. Your mistress lies dead, and it is necessary that we should know all—if we are to avenge her. Nothing can bring her back to life, but we do hope, if there has been foul play, to bring the murderer to justice."
"Amen to that," said Dorcas fiercely. "And, naming no names, there's one in this house that none of us could ever abide! And an ill day it was when first he darkened the threshold."
Poirot waited for her indignation to subside, and then, resuming his business-like tone, he asked:
"Now, as to this quarrel? What is the first you heard of it?"
"Well, sir, I happened to be going along the hall outside yesterday——"
"What time was that?"
"I couldn't say exactly, sir, but it wasn't tea-time by a long way. Perhaps four o'clock—or it may have been a bit later. Well, sir, as I said, I happened to be passing along, when I heard voices very loud and angry in here. I didn't exactly mean to listen, but—well, there it is. I stopped. The door was shut, but the mistress was speaking very sharp and clear, and I heard what she said quite plainly. 'You have lied to me, and deceived me,' she said. I didn't hear what Mr. Inglethorp replied. He spoke a good bit lower than she did—but she answered: 'How dare you? I have kept you and clothed you and fed you! You owe everything to me! And this is how you repay me! By bringing disgrace upon our name!' Again I didn't hear what he said, but she went on: 'Nothing that you can say will make any difference. I see my duty clearly. My mind is made up. You need not think that any fear of publicity, or scandal between husband and wife will deter me.' Then I thought I heard them coming out, so I went off quickly."
"You are sure it was Mr. Inglethorp's voice you heard?"
"Oh, yes, sir, whose else's could it be?"
"Well, what happened next?"
"Later, I came back to the hall; but it was all quiet. At five o'clock, Mrs. Inglethorp rang the bell and told me to bring her a cup of tea—nothing to eat—to the boudoir. She was looking dreadful—so white and upset. 'Dorcas,' she says, 'I've had a great shock.' 'I'm sorry for that, m'm,' I says. 'You'll feel better after a nice hot cup of tea, m'm.' She had something in her hand. I don't know if it was a letter, or just a piece of paper, but it had writing on it, and she kept staring at it, almost as if she couldn't believe what was written there. She whispered to herself, as though she had forgotten I was there: 'These few words—and everything's changed.' And then she says to me: 'Never trust a man, Dorcas, they're not worth it!' I hurried off, and got her a good strong cup of tea, and she thanked me, and said she'd feel better when she'd drunk it. 'I don't know what to do,' she says. 'Scandal between husband and wife is a dreadful thing, Dorcas. I'd rather hush it up if I could.' Mrs. Cavendish came in just then, so she didn't say any more."
"She still had the letter, or whatever it was, in her hand?" "Yes, sir."
"What would she be likely to do with it afterwards?"
"Well, I don't know, sir, I expect she would lock it up in that purple case of hers."
"Is that where she usually kept important papers?"
"Yes, sir. She brought it down with her every morning, and took it up every night."
"When did she lose the key of it?"
"She missed it yesterday at lunch-time, sir, and told me to look carefully for it. She was very much put out about it."
"But she had a duplicate key?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
Dorcas was looking very curiously at him and, to tell the truth, so was I. What was all this about a lost key? Poirot smiled.
"Never mind, Dorcas, it is my business to know things. Is this the key that was lost?" He drew from his pocket the key that he had found in the lock of the despatch-case upstairs.
Dorcas's eyes looked as though they would pop out of her head.
"That's it, sir, right enough. But where did you find it? I looked everywhere for it."
"Ah, but you see it was not in the same place yesterday as it was to-day. Now, to pass to another subject, had your mistress a dark green dress in her wardrobe?"
Dorcas was rather startled by the unexpected question.
"Are you quite sure?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
"Has anyone else in the house got a green dress?"
"Miss Cynthia has a green evening dress."
"Light or dark green?"
"A light green, sir; a sort of chiffon, they call it."
"Ah, that is not what I want. And nobody else has anything green?"
"No, sir—not that I know of."
Poirot's face did not betray a trace of whether he was disappointed or otherwise. He merely remarked:
"Good, we will leave that and pass on. Have you any reason to believe that your mistress was likely to take a sleeping powder last night?"
"Not last night, sir, I know she didn't."
"Why do you know so positively?"
"Because the box was empty. She took the last one two days ago, and she didn't have any more made up."
"You are quite sure of that?"
"Then that is cleared up! By the way, your mistress didn't ask you to sign any paper yesterday?"
"To sign a paper? No, sir."
"When Mr. Hastings and Mr. Lawrence came in yesterday evening, they found your mistress busy writing letters. I suppose you can give me no idea to whom these letters were addressed?"
"I'm afraid I couldn't, sir. I was out in the evening. Perhaps Annie could tell you, though she's a careless girl. Never cleared the coffee-cups away last night. That's what happens when I'm not here to look after things."
Poirot lifted his hand.
"Since they have been left, Dorcas, leave them a little longer, I pray you. I should like to examine them."
"Very well, sir."
"What time did you go out last evening?"
"About six o'clock, sir."
"Thank you, Dorcas, that is all I have to ask you." He rose and strolled to the window. "I have been admiring these flower beds. How many gardeners are employed here, by the way?"
"Only three now, sir. Five, we had, before the war, when it was kept as a gentleman's place should be. I wish you could have seen it then, sir. A fair sight it was. But now there's only old Manning, and young William, and a new-fashioned woman gardener in breeches and such-like. Ah, these are dreadful times!"
"The good times will come again, Dorcas. At least, we hope so. Now, will you send Annie to me here?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"How did you know that Mrs. Inglethorp took sleeping powders?" I asked, in lively curiosity, as Dorcas left the room. "And about the lost key and the duplicate?"
"One thing at a time. As to the sleeping powders, I knew by this." He suddenly produced a small cardboard box, such as chemists use for powders.
"Where did you find it?"
"In the wash-stand drawer in Mrs. Inglethorp's bedroom. It was Number Six of my catalogue."
"But I suppose, as the last powder was taken two days ago, it is not of much importance?"
"Probably not, but do you notice anything that strikes you as peculiar about this box?"
I examined it closely.
"No, I can't say that I do."
"Look at the label."
I read the label carefully: "'One powder to be taken at bedtime, if required. Mrs. Inglethorp.' No, I see nothing unusual."
"Not the fact that there is no chemist's name?"
"Ah!" I exclaimed. "To be sure, that is odd!"
"Have you ever known a chemist to send out a box like that, without his printed name?"
"No, I can't say that I have."
I was becoming quite excited, but Poirot damped my ardour by remarking:
"Yet the explanation is quite simple. So do not intrigue yourself, my friend."
An audible creaking proclaimed the approach of Annie, so I had no time to reply.
Annie was a fine, strapping girl, and was evidently labouring under intense excitement, mingled with a certain ghoulish enjoyment of the tragedy.
Poirot came to the point at once, with a business-like briskness.
"I sent for you, Annie, because I thought you might be able to tell me something about the letters Mrs. Inglethorp wrote last night. How many were there? And can you tell me any of the names and addresses?"
"There were four letters, sir. One was to Miss Howard, and one was to Mr. Wells, the lawyer, and the other two I don't think I remember, sir—oh, yes, one was to Ross's, the caterers in Tadminster. The other one, I don't remember."
"Think," urged Poirot.
Annie racked her brains in vain.
"I'm sorry, sir, but it's clean gone. I don't think I can have noticed it."
"It does not matter," said Poirot, not betraying any sign of disappointment. "Now I want to ask you about something else. There is a saucepan in Mrs. Inglethorp's room with some coco in it. Did she have that every night?"
"Yes, sir, it was put in her room every evening, and she warmed it up in the night—whenever she fancied it."
"What was it? Plain coco?"
"Yes, sir, made with milk, with a teaspoonful of sugar, and two teaspoonfuls of rum in it."
"Who took it to her room?"
"I did, sir."
"At what time?"
"When I went to draw the curtains, as a rule, sir."
"Did you bring it straight up from the kitchen then?"
"No, sir, you see there's not much room on the gas stove, so Cook used to make it early, before putting the vegetables on for supper. Then I used to bring it up, and put it on the table by the swing door, and take it into her room later."
"The swing door is in the left wing, is it not?"
"And the table, is it on this side of the door, or on the farther—servants' side?"
"It's this side, sir."
"What time did you bring it up last night?"
"About quarter-past seven, I should say, sir."
"And when did you take it into Mrs. Inglethorp's room?"
"When I went to shut up, sir. About eight o'clock. Mrs. Inglethorp came up to bed before I'd finished."
"Then, between 7.15 and 8 o'clock, the coco was standing on the table in the left wing?"
"Yes, sir." Annie had been growing redder and redder in the face, and now she blurted out unexpectedly:
"And if there was salt in it, sir, it wasn't me. I never took the salt near it."
"What makes you think there was salt in it?" asked Poirot.
"Seeing it on the tray, sir."
"You saw some salt on the tray?"
"Yes. Coarse kitchen salt, it looked. I never noticed it when I took the tray up, but when I came to take it into the mistress's room I saw it at once, and I suppose I ought to have taken it down again, and asked Cook to make some fresh. But I was in a hurry, because Dorcas was out, and I thought maybe the coco itself was all right, and the salt had only gone on the tray. So I dusted it off with my apron, and took it in."
I had the utmost difficulty in controlling my excitement. Unknown to herself, Annie had provided us with an important piece of evidence. How she would have gaped if she had realized that her "coarse kitchen salt" was strychnine, one of the most deadly poisons known to mankind. I marvelled at Poirot's calm. His self-control was astonishing. I awaited his next question with impatience, but it disappointed me.
"When you went into Mrs. Inglethorp's room, was the door leading into Miss Cynthia's room bolted?"
"Oh! Yes, sir; it always was. It had never been opened."
"And the door into Mr. Inglethorp's room? Did you notice if that was bolted too?"
"I couldn't rightly say, sir; it was shut but I couldn't say whether it was bolted or not."
"When you finally left the room, did Mrs. Inglethorp bolt the door after you?"
"No, sir, not then, but I expect she did later. She usually did lock it at night. The door into the passage, that is."
"Did you notice any candle grease on the floor when you did the room yesterday?"
"Candle grease? Oh, no, sir. Mrs. Inglethorp didn't have a candle, only a reading-lamp."
"Then, if there had been a large patch of candle grease on the floor, you think you would have been sure to have seen it?"
"Yes, sir, and I would have taken it out with a piece of blotting-paper and a hot iron."
Then Poirot repeated the question he had put to Dorcas:
"Did your mistress ever have a green dress?"
"Nor a mantle, nor a cape, nor a—how do you call it?—a sports coat?"
"Not green, sir."
"Nor anyone else in the house?"
"You are sure of that?"
"Bien! That is all I want to know. Thank you very much."
With a nervous giggle, Annie took herself creakingly out of the room. My pent-up excitement burst forth.
"Poirot," I cried, "I congratulate you! This is a great discovery."
"What is a great discovery?"
"Why, that it was the coco and not the coffee that was poisoned. That explains everything! Of course it did not take effect until the early morning, since the coco was only drunk in the middle of the night."
"So you think that the coco—mark well what I say, Hastings, the coco—contained strychnine?"
"Of course! That salt on the tray, what else could it have been?"
"It might have been salt," replied Poirot placidly.
I shrugged my shoulders. If he was going to take the matter that way, it was no good arguing with him. The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him some one of a more receptive type of mind.