Chapter 3: Absent Without Leave
Chapter 4: A Close Shave
Over the next few months following the Bexhill incident, I was loath to let Poirot out of my sight for a minute. When he had sufficiently recovered, he began to protest my persistent hovering.
‘My dear Hastings, be reasonable,’ he murmured. ‘One cannot always be prepared for the completely unexpected in life, it is true. All the same, brains and common sense will go far for both prevention and cure. You cannot remain forever the mother chicken.’
We were in the bathroom of our flat, hastily preparing to meet a client who had made an unexpected appointment five minutes ago and was due to arrive shortly. I was at the sink, lathering up to shave; Poirot, who had shaved earlier, was touching up his moustache in front of the other mirror.
‘You know, Poirot,’ I said, ‘it gets my back up something fierce that they never caught that offensive, blue-eyed fellow who delivered your letter to me when you were kidnapped. His name was Ramsey, wasn’t it?’
‘Oui, my friend,’ Poirot said. ‘Griffon leaked that particular detail on the very day he was arrested and questioned. Scott Ramsey, though he doubtless has many aliases. He was present when I composed that letter to you.’
‘Rumour has it that he lost a great deal of money on some other deals when Griffon’s papers were discovered,’ I went on, rinsing my razor. ‘No great love for you, I daresay. Every time I see you fiddling about with your moustache these days, I think of the threats you told me about.’
‘Oh, yes,’ grunted Poirot in indignant tones, ‘he was most impertinently disappointed that he could not relieve me of my moustache before sending me off to France. His idea of a trophy, ma foi!’ He laid down his little silver comb and reached for more wax. ‘It seems to be a favourite threat of my enemies, mon ami– the victory of depriving me of my trademark. Why, even Girauld himself, our old acquaintance from the Sûreté, would have gladly seen Poirot in such a degraded state, if you recall. It is to them the gesture of– what is the word?– emasculation.’
Yes, Poirot would see it like that, I thought, rinsing my face. A loud sniff emanated from Poirot’s direction as I returned my razor to its place.
‘The safety razor, indeed,’ he said contemptuously, curling the tips of his own facial hair with dexterity.
‘You might try it sometime, you know,’ I said patiently, grabbing a towel. ‘I don’t know why you still insist on a straight razor; it’s extremely inconvenient.’
‘La commodité! That is all that people care about today! My poor friend, the implements of the toilette should be both artistic and of the highest quality!’
I cast my eye over his perfectly-organized grooming supplies, which were currently taking up most of the counter, including his solid silver moustache grooming set. My little friend was certainly a dandy of the first order. Cleopatra herself couldn’t have had a toilette as meticulous as Hercule Poirot’s.
‘Anyway,’ I added, as we tidied up and prepared to leave the room, ‘it’s just a razor.’
‘Indeed. But as you will see, Hastings, the client who has made an appointment with us this morning is one who appreciates the fine things of life. Pray do not reveal too much of your plebeian preferences during our interview. Alexei Dimitri is one of the greatest concert violinists alive today.’
‘Oh!’ I said. I had heard of Dimitri, who, despite his exotic name and flamboyant tastes, was thoroughly English and owned an expensive and sprawling property in Kent. Although still in his thirties, he was one of England’s great patrons of music.
Minutes later, the young maestro was sweeping into our flat: dark, handsome, well-dressed, and smiling in a distracted sort of way. We exchanged pleasantries.
‘Precisely on time, I gather?’ he said, checking his watch. ‘I do hate tardiness. Forgive me, gentlemen, for the last-minute consultation, but an associate of mine positively insisted that I do something about the Stradivarius. You see,’ he chattered on, ‘this evening at six, I’m holding a bit of a social for a wide range of friends and acquaintances at my estate– it will be quite a crowd. My friend, Lord Conway, insists that I am far too careless with my possessions, and seems to fear that an attempt will be made to steal the violin, which is worth a small fortune. Nonsense, I tell him! But he persisted– spooked by rumours, I suppose– so to ease his mind, I’ve come to ask you to the little gathering this evening. Perhaps you could keep an eye on things?’
Poirot opened his mouth, closed it, and looked at me. ‘Ah, well, M. Dimitri, Captain Hastings and I would certainly be available this evening–’
‘Oh, splendid, splendid,’ gushed our voluble client. ‘I daresay many of my friends would be most delighted to meet you– although, perhaps you’ll want to operate with discretion? Oh, never mind– do as you like. The social winds down around nine, and the guests clear out. Nine is the time I’m having a smaller, private gathering in my house, just half a dozen or so friends over from America. You needn’t stay later than that.’
‘Bien, monsieur. Concerning this violin, this Stradivarius, may I ask–’
‘Yes, I’ll have it in the house, nothing for it. I am so particularly looking forward to my little gathering later in the evening. These new friends of mine comprise a sort of Appalachian folk band from the southern U.S. They are quite obscure over there, but I happened upon a show of theirs on my most recent transcontinental visit and oh! what talent! I positively insisted on bringing them over.’
‘Mais oui, bien sûr. Now, this violin–’
‘It’s a beauty,’ beamed Dimitri with pride. ‘Which reminds me– oh, dash it, I must be off. I’ve another engagement, I’m afraid. I’ll meet you at the house at six, but I mightn’t stay the whole time for the first part of the evening. There will be lots of coming and going, I daresay, so I may or may not see you around terribly much. Name your fee and send me the bill. Till tonight, then!’
And with a nod of his dark head, he took his leave again, a sort of cloud of incoherence in his wake. Poirot and I stared after him.
‘Eccentric fellow,’ I said at last, crossing my arms and looking at my little friend wryly. ‘Appalachian folk, eh? Still convinced that Alexei Dimitri doesn’t entertain any “plebeian” fancies?’
Poirot threw me a reproachful glare.
That evening at six, my friend and I arrived at Dimitri’s enormous Ashford estate, situated on stunning woodlands. The autumn air was crisp, and the changing leaves seemed to bathe the whole scene in a sea of dusky fire. Poirot, naturally, was muffled up to the ears to keep out the chill.
We entered in the front hall, which was large and already swarming with clusters of well-dressed people. They seemed to compliment the opulence of their setting: all around us were luxurious furniture, priceless artworks, hanging tapestries and heavy curtains. Dimitri was no ascetic. As our coats and hats were taken, a middle-aged man with slightly greying temples came over to greet us.
‘Monsieur Poirot,’ he said enthusiastically, hand outstretched. ‘How wonderful to meet you. I am Lord Conway; Dimitri may have mentioned–’
As though he felt a summons, our host himself suddenly emerged from a cluster of young women wielding champagne, and hurried over to us.
‘Oh, Andrew, you’ve met Monsieur Poirot and Captain Hastings, splendid. He was awfully keen on your presence here this evening. Seems to think I’m irresponsible!’ I looked around to see several visitors closely examining some enormous Chinese porcelain vessels, while still more knots of people broke away to explore other rooms of the house.
‘Go ahead and take them around,’ said Dimitri encouragingly, finishing off his champagne. ‘I’ll catch up with you later, I’m sure–’
‘Monsieur–’ said Poirot with some desperation, but Dimitri had disappeared again.
‘I’m sure we’ll find him again later,’ said Lord Conway apologetically, as he led us into an adjoining room. ‘He’s a bit scatterbrained, though a genius in his own right, of course. He rather likes to show off, I fancy, and sometimes I fear it will make him a target. One hears rumours at times.’ We looked around the room we currently occupied, which was full of African curios, including a good many drums and other instruments. From there, our guide led us through several other palatial rooms– presumably nearly all of the house– some of which had strangers wandering through, examining any number of objects with great interest. Dimitri had entire rooms devoted to music, including two well-furnished studios for recording, a rather staggering ballroom, and impressive displays of instruments of all kinds.
‘He’s forever renovating,’ said Lord Conway with a shade of a wince, ‘and the way he lets crowds of people wander through everywhere, poking around…’ He shook his head. ‘I try to do what I can for him in terms of security,’ he went on. ‘He is an old friend of mine. You might have noticed the two constables patrolling outside.’ I hadn’t, but Poirot nodded his head comprehendingly. Our companion checked his watch. ‘If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I’m headed back to the drawing room for a smoke.’
‘Milord,’ said Poirot, ‘Captain Hastings and myself are here because of M. Dimitri’s Stradivarius. It is feared to be the object of some thief’s interest, is it not so? Would you relay to us, please, where it is kept?’
Lord Conway started a little. ‘Why, I haven’t the foggiest idea where it is right now,’ he said. ‘Didn’t he tell you?’
The look on Poirot’s face was telling. Hastily, I interjected: ‘We’ll head back ourselves in a few minutes and ask him about it.’
When Lord Conway had gone and Poirot and I were alone in the hall, Poirot gave vent to his annoyance. ‘Sapristi!’ he hissed. ‘Our Monsieur Dimitri has absolutely no concept of method! How he expects us to aid him when he cannot be bothered to present the most basic facts of a case…’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, as we strolled back down the hall and made to round the corner. ‘You would think that he’d at least have told us where he kept the Stradivarius.’
I heard Poirot’s first sharp intake of breath before I noticed anything else. Then a constricting arm encircled my chest, and I felt something like the tickle of a hair at my neck. Frantically I looked across to Poirot who stood opposite me, and saw my situation in mirror reflection. Poirot, gasping a little, was clutching at an arm drawn tightly across his chest, a razor blade held to his throat.
Three men had sprung the attack, but I could not get good view of any but the short, shaggy-headed one who held Poirot. My friend and I needed no special instruction to keep silent, and we were hurried down the corridor and through several narrow passages and stairs. (The irony of the razor blades did not escape me.) Our captors had clearly worked out an isolated route. Finally, we stopped before a heavy door, and the tall man who led the way crouched down and began to pick the lock. It quickly gave way, and we were thrust through the door into a sparsely-furnished and untidy room, littered with bottles but otherwise relatively clean. I was surprised to notice that a second room, in the form of a rather large booth with glass windows, appeared within the larger room. It suggested an atmosphere of sound recording. Into this room we were taken, where we were tightly bound with cords, but not gagged. The two men who brought us stepped out of the room again and closed the door behind them. I expelled a torrent of abuse at the man who was tightening the knots that leashed Poirot’s wrists behind him, and he returned me a withering glare.
Those serious blue eyes, the square jaw… it was none other than Ramsey.
‘You!’ I shouted. So the London Syndicate was behind this affair. My expletives became more pronounced and somewhat louder.
Ignoring me, the man abruptly picked up Poirot and brought him to the far side of the little room, where a couple of large, wooden storage crates were stacked against the wall. He laid him atop this perch and came back to me, unceremoniously dragging me backward, forcing me to sit with my back against a support, and anchoring me to it with another length of cord. Poirot watched this struggle, silent and unmoving where he lay. I was bitterly tormented by my impotence. A useless defence I had been for my friend!
‘What are you doing?’ I cried, as the syndicate agent once again approached the place where he had deposited Poirot.
He whipped around. ‘First of all,’ he said irritably, ‘you needn’t shout. We brought you here because this inner room is heavily sound-proofed. It is also isolated, well away from the activity of the rest of the house this evening. As for what I’m doing at this moment–’
Ramsey produced another length of rope and climbed up over the stacked crates, finding an exposed rafter above and firmly affixing the rope to it. The other end that hung down, he quickly fashioned into something that looked rather terrifyingly like a noose.
‘Don’t lose your mind,’ he smirked, observing my expression. ‘No one is being murdered today, let us hope. This is simply an added precaution to keep M. Poirot from wandering about. We seem to have to be rather careful with him.’ And he jerked Poirot to an upright sitting position, his short legs dangling well off the ground from atop the crates. Then the man arranged the loop of rope around Poirot’s neck and pulled it snugly under his chin. The objective was plain: if Poirot were to try to descend from the perch– or even lay down again– he would effectively hang himself.
‘I’d suggest, M. Poirot, not moving around too much,’ added Ramsey unnecessarily, climbing down from the crates again.
The sight of Poirot, apparently seated on his own gallows and a slip away from eternity, was so ghastly and macabre an image that I broke into a cold sweat. My friend was a portrait of remarkable self-control. He still had said no word throughout our ordeal, but glared with a cool dignity at our foe, who was tall enough to be nearly at eye level with Poirot now. Finally he broke his silence.
‘You choose an unwise path, monsieur,’ he said gravely. ‘Have you not yet learned the cost of trifling with myself and my friend? This will be your undoing.’
The man regarded him steadily, but chose not to rise to the bait. ‘My friends and I,’ he said at last, ‘are off to do our search of the house for the Stradivarius, as you are undoubtably aware.’
Poirot nodded, as he was able. ‘And also, you undoubtedly heard that Hastings and myself were not informed of the location of the piece.’
‘Yes, that would have simplified things,’ he conceded. ‘Nevertheless, we will find it. There is plenty of to-and-fro happening so that our presence will not be noticed; Dimitri is not winding the main party down until nine. That gives us over two hours. And when we find it, monsieur…’ He took a step closer to Poirot, who continued to gaze coldly at him. ‘I will be back to bid you and your friend adieu. You will not be killed, no… that is quite unnecessary. But I’ve a score to settle.’
He pulled a blade from his pocket and held it close to Poirot’s face.
‘When you are found,’ he whispered, ‘it will be without your precious moustache. Possibly with slightly less blood, as well.’
And on that sinister note, he spun round and left the room.
‘My friend?’ came Poirot’s voice, sounding far away.
I blinked a little, feeling dizzy. Poirot’s voice, full of concern, came again. ‘You are all right, yes?’
My eyes focussed once more on the little figure opposite me, mounted on the crates in a tangle of lethal-looking rope. He was watching me anxiously and seemed supremely unconcerned at his own paralysation. ‘You have been out for several minutes, my friend.’
I took a deep breath, my face still damp with sweat.
‘I’m terribly sorry, old chap,’ I said, heavy with guilt– a failed soldier. ‘I haven’t been any use at all, I’m afraid. I’d have sooner lost my right arm than to see you mixed up with that loathsome blackguard again…’
‘Mais non, non, mon ami! Do not speak like that! And it is not true; always you are of use. Do not derange yourself at what you see before you– they have arranged me like this solely to produce terror in your heart, to weaken your nerve, and in this they have succeeded. But we shall live to see another day, mon brave. Perhaps we shall even save the violin from being purloined. With the bonne chance, the moustaches may not even be desecrated! Let us hope for better things.’ And my friend, immobilized and inches away from hanging by his neck from the ceiling, smiled reassuringly at me.
His optimism, of course, was patently ludicrous. We were securely bound, in an isolated and largely sound-proof room within another (presumably locked) room. We were powerless to move an inch, much less escape, or pursue our adversaries, or discover the violin’s location. Apparently Poirot fancied himself a magician!
‘If you can get us out of this mess, Poirot,’ I sighed, ‘I’ll eat my hat. In the more idiotic detective stories, the super-sleuth manages some deus ex machina and unrealistically turns the whole story round in the most unsatisfactory manner.’
‘Nonsense; only, do not make rash and impious vows about consuming headwear. Have you not with you the greatest detective in the world? An interesting coincidence, that our captors apprehended us using the razor blades, n’est-ce pas? To think that we spoke of them, and Ramsey’s little grudge, such a short time ago. You might call this a “close shave” that we are experiencing now, my friend.’ And to my intense annoyance, he burst into an irrational fit of merriment.
One of the many intolerable things about Poirot is his complete lack of a proper sense of humour and proportion.
‘Listen,’ I said abruptly, spurred on by the horrible memory of our blade-wielding villains, ‘what if they don’t find the violin after all? What will they do?’
‘I fully expect someone to return to check on us periodically,’ Poirot said, calming down a little from his mirth. ‘They may yet even enlist our help to find the violin. We shall see. If they do not find what they seek by the end of the party… they will not be pleased. They might be inclined to be vindictive, it is true. Eventually they would leave us here, and we would be missed before too long and the house searched, and we would be found and released. The room is not airtight and we shall not starve. It is far from the worst situation we have faced together yet. Try not to worry, mon cher.’
Poirot’s initial prognostications were correct. Not five more minutes had passed when one of the gang– the unattractive, mop-haired gent who had brought Poirot along to this room at blade-point– opened the door to the outer room. We watched him through the glass pane, but we could hear nothing of his movements and, presumably, he heard none of ours, either. He stood close to the glass for a few moments, observing us like vaguely interesting zoological specimens, then hurried out of the room again.
I taxed my little friend about his speculations as to where Dimitri had hidden his instrument, but he was vague and noncommittal, saying only that there were certain observations he’d made when we first entered the main hall that struck him at once. Then he changed the subject.
‘These rooms we now occupy, they are also for recording purposes, you think, mon ami?’
‘Most likely– that explains the microphones,’ I said, not very interested, as I looked at a couple specimens of technology here and there in the room. ‘Many musicians have their own private studios in their homes these days. Dimitri, who’s rolling in money, seems to have a few of them, besides all those other rooms devoted to music, instruments, and performance. He strikes me as rather a monomaniac. This place looks like he could hardly be bothered with it, though.’
‘Yes,’ said Poirot, casually surveying the cheap couch and table in the outer room, its ashtrays and bottles, and its disorganized odds and ends. ‘It is not a pleasant place.’
‘I say,’ I said uncomfortably, looking at the microphones, ‘you don’t suppose that our friends are somehow recording our conversation here, do you– trying to cotton on to some clue that would lead to the violin?’
Poirot considered a moment. ‘Tiens, but I had not thought of that, my friend. It is better, perhaps, to remain quieter. We do not want them to, how do you say, “cotton on” to the clue of the entrance hall.’ And we relapsed into silence.
After a spell, Ramsey returned. His grave blue eyes did not look happy, and he came to the point immediately.
‘I want to know what ideas you have about the whereabouts of the Stradivarius, monsieur,’ he said in a low voice. Poirot wriggled a bit in his bonds, looking uncomfortable. Unable to suppress myself at the sight of his precarious position, I said, ‘For God’s sake, don’t move, Poirot!’ Then a terrible thought struck me.
‘Look, you devil,’ I said, ‘you plan to leave us here after you’ve gone, with or without the violin. We’ll be found, yes, but it might be a day or more. If Poirot falls asleep with that thing around his neck, it’s likely to kill him!’
Poirot shot me a quelling stare, but I thought my point was a salient one. Ramsey stooped down to address me.
‘Quite right, no doubt,’ he said smoothly. ‘And if M. Poirot’s ideas about the location of our quarry bear fruit, we can certainly come to an arrangement on that point. If you help us so that we can leave this house with our object accomplished, I will remove the rope from around your friend’s neck.’
I bit my tongue to suppress a sarcastic rejoinder about how very gracious he was. After all, my friend’s life was on the line, and this could be a chance to save it.
Poirot did not look too inclined to divulge information, but he did look profoundly uncomfortable, as though he had become newly cognizant of the seriousness of his own situation. ‘You… put me in a difficult position, monsieur,’ he said hesitantly. ‘I have promised to preserve the violin for my client…’
‘Poirot,’ I cried in frustration, ‘this is hardly the time for heroics in the line of business dealing. You don’t know, but you suspect.’ He glared at me and opened his mouth to interject, but I cut him off. ‘Poirot told me,’ I said in a rush, ‘that the entrance hall of the house particularly interested him when we first arrived.’
My friend was evidently furious with me, but I figured he’d forgive me later. Ramsey cast an approving smile in my direction.
‘At least one of you has some common sense.’ He moved to the door, glancing at the little clock on the wall of the sound booth. ‘It is a quarter to eight. For your friend’s sake, let us hope his guesses are good ones.’ And he left us.
‘Hastings,’ said Poirot at last, sighing, ‘what shall I do with you? How easily you fell into their trap. The rope around the neck and the lost nerve, and after I had warned you! Sometimes I feel that you could not keep a secret if your life depended on it. The speculations of Poirot are not yours to disclose.’
‘Your life does depend on it,’ I argued. I was grumpy and my limbs had lost feeling some time ago. ‘It was just a hint, anyway. I don’t suppose you really know where the violin is being kept.’
‘I cannot know, it is true, but I can make reasonable inferences.’
‘And if you do fall asleep, like I said? You hadn’t thought of that before. What then?’
Poirot scoffed. ‘Never. Hercule Poirot has the willpower of iron. And he thinks of everything.’
If I’d been able to throw my hands in the air in frustration, I would have done so. Instead I had to be content with the most dramatic rolling of the eyes that I could muster.
It was five minutes to nine. Ramsey returned to us in (I was alarmed to see) a towering rage. His accomplices were with him, and they banged the door of the sound booth behind them. Ramsey stormed over to Poirot, still seated placidly in his bonds.
‘Your little hints have led me nowhere,’ he snarled. ‘This is your last chance. Do you or do you not know where it is hidden?’
Poirot stared back at him coldly. ‘Parbleu, it was never told to me where it was hidden! The house is a large one, monsieur. You can hardly blame me for your own failure.’
Ramsey whipped something out of his pocket. Knowing what it was, my heart leapt into my throat.
‘I have not managed the violin– this time,’ he said steadily. ‘But I have incapacitated you and your friend. And I will not leave here without–’
‘–A consolation prize?’ asked Poirot, with a stiffness to match his exquisitely befurled black moustaches. ‘Le trophée? It hardly seems to me that, even by your own questionable standards, you have earned it.’
Blast him, what did he hope to gain by antagonizing a man who was inches from him with a razor blade?!
‘Supposing, then,’ Ramsey said menacingly, ‘that we were to forgo the plan of shearing that damned arrogant lip of yours, and instead I just give a few almighty kicks to this stack of crates and let that bit of rope around your neck do its work?’ He moved to one side so that I could see the scene clearly. ‘Captain Hastings here would have a perfect view of–’
My nerve deserted me entirely. I broke down and shamelessly begged for my friend’s life, rambling, stammering, and making a general commotion. I did not know how seriously bent this man was on lethal vengeance, but it was too soon after the Bexhill incident. Too soon, and too much. My carrying on encompassed several pitiful minutes, and by the end my breath came wheezy and hitching.
When I looked up at Poirot again, there were no traces of his previous quelling glances, nor of any frustration or fury. He seemed deeply affected by my display and was looking at me with an expression of great tenderness. Ramsey laughed callously and turned his back on me.
‘Well then,’ he said mockingly to Poirot, coming closer. ‘The razor it is. It would never do for the good captain to have a full-blown seizure. Considering your current neckwear, monsieur, I would advise you to focus on staying very, very still…’
‘There is, I’m afraid,’ said Poirot calmly, as Ramsey’s hands inched forward in a predatory fashion, ‘what you might call “the snag.” You see– ’ He nodded infinitesimally to the glass partition. ‘We are not alone.’
Both Ramsey and myself nearly jumped out of our skin at this pronouncement; our eyes flew, together, to the window. Several men were entering the room– we had not heard them– and were stopping dead at the sight of us. One of them, Alexei Dimitri himself, immediately dashed to the sound booth and flung open the door, closely followed by his companions.
If this were not sufficiently astonishing, what happened next seemed a positive miracle. Ramsey’s back was now to Poirot, and my little friend, with a sudden and deft movement, shook off all of his entangling ropes, hopped down, and darted over to me!
Ramsey and I (and perhaps one or two of the newcomers, all strongly-built but somewhat shabbily-dressed men) gaped at Poirot open-mouthed. As Ramsey and his two aides were disarmed and held at bay, with much cursing, Poirot quickly knelt before me.
‘Mon pauvre ami,’ he murmured, ‘Thanks in part to you, I do not come unprepared to the fray.’ And, out of his sleeve, he extracted and unsheathed… his own straight razor.
It sliced through the cords that bound me like they were butter.
‘Do you– do you mean–’ I gasped, as Poirot dextrously untangled me and helped me to my feet, ‘that you had that razor on you the whole time?’
‘Mais oui,’ he said composedly. ‘M. Dimitri, if a few of your friends could escort these intruders out through the front of the house, you will find two constables patrolling outside.’ Exit Ramsey, his confederates, and their handlers, staring at Poirot as they went.
I turned to Poirot, still flabbergasted. ‘But when did you get a chance to cut your bonds? I never noticed it.’
My friend took on a slightly apologetic tone. ‘It was after Ramsey first left us alone, my friend, and you had some minutes of unconsciousness. The razor, I had slipped up my sleeve before we left our flat. The fools who apprehended us with their own razor blades, they did not check to see what we had up the sleeve before binding the wrists! C’était une erreur, ça.
‘By holding the hands at a certain angle, one can manage a small amount of leeway in the bindings. When we were alone, I shook the razor from my sleeve, opened it behind my back, wedged it upright into the slats of the crate, and cut the ropes on my wrists first. Then I cut the other cords as well, and arranged them to look as though they were yet uncut.’
As he spoke, I felt my relief giving way to anger. ‘Dash it all, Poirot,’ I roared, ‘I’ve spent the last couple of hours thinking you were teetering on the brink of death! Why didn’t you cut my bonds, too, so we could escape?’
Poirot had shrunk slightly behind the bewildered Dimitri in anticipation of my just wrath. ‘Mon ami,’ he said piteously, gesturing with an air of helplessness, ‘I had taken on a job to preserve the violin of this monsieur. I could not desert my post.’
‘Your post! What good did you hope to do stuck in here?’
‘Well, I had a little idea, you see…’ Poirot sidled over to the wooden crates where he had been incarcerated, and climbed onto the bottom crate so as to access the top one. He gingerly prised open the lid and reached inside, bringing forth a handsome black case.
‘No,’ I said in disbelief. ‘That’s never… it can’t be.’
Dimitri nodded, taking the case and opening it for us to see. It was the priceless Stradivarius.
My jaw dropped yet again. ‘You were sitting on it the whole time?’
I couldn’t stand it…
Poirot and I were alone in the outer room, sitting on the shabby little sofa, while Dimitri and his remaining companions left us to acquire some brandy. The black violin case lay open on the little table before us, the priceless instrument appearing supremely out of place in our dingy environment.
‘So, they brought us here, tied us up in the sound booth, and sat you right on top of the violin, without realizing they had just done so.’
‘And you guessed that you were sitting on it?’
I shook my head. ‘It’s ridiculous,’ I exclaimed. ‘How could you possibly know?’
Poirot shrugged. ‘I do not say that I knew exactly, but it seemed strongly indicated. Mon cher, it is strange, yes, but not quite as unlikely nor as complicated as you might think. The Syndicate thought they were very clever by finding an unattractive, unfinished room of the house that was kept locked; there, they could keep us out of the way while they make their search. It even had a sound-proofed room within. Did it not occur to you at once to ask yourself why this room would be kept locked by the owner, when practically every other room in this house, with all its expensive curios, was left wide open during a house party where a theft might possibly occur?’
‘Well… no, it didn’t. There seemed nothing of interest in here!’
‘Precisely what most people would think, Hastings! And yet, locked it was. What was the reason? Moreover, it was not an abandoned room; it is kept dusted, and the microphones we saw in the inner room were of quite good quality. The bottles and ashtrays in the outer room suggest that some form of entertaining occurs here– but not at all the same manner of entertaining that would occur in les grandes chambres of the rest of the house! No, this is a room for the entertaining of those guests who might, perhaps, be uncomfortable with the high-class fancies of Dimitri’s richer and more aristocratic friends. And it is a room of interest to those of the musical profession.
‘M. Dimitri said that he was having, in his house at nine o’clock, a small party for an obscure Appalachian folk ensemble of which he was most fond. Of all the rooms I had seen in this grand house of his, this was precisely the room to which I knew he would take them. And do you really know nothing of the musical temperament, mon ami? He was inordinately proud of his Stradivarius. He would want to show them immediately, perhaps even play and record music with them. He locked this room because his prized violin was here, and this was to be both where he would use it and socialize with his American friends. Enfin, from my observations, there was only one place of storage in these sparse rooms where the violin could be kept, and there it was. It is really of the most straightforward.’
‘So you just decided to wait here until nine o’clock until they showed up?’
‘Exactement. It seemed very much the best way both to keep the Syndicate from finding the violin, as well as to apprehend our would-be thieves at the last with the helpful assistance of M. Dimitri and his guests.’
‘Poirot,’ I exclaimed in exasperation, ‘I could throttle you myself right now! Supposing you were wrong, and Dimitri and his friends didn’t show?’
‘I am not in the habit of being wrong in my deductions. At any rate, M. Dimitri is absentminded, but nonetheless values punctuality. Should something have come up to detain them, I planned to stall for a little more time. Fortunately I did not need to do so, as you did an admirable job doing this for me. I refer to your very touching speech of several minutes, petitioning Ramsey to spare my life.’
I growled a little, remembering my antics with great embarrassment and not best pleased with Poirot for deceiving me on that point. This reminded me of something else.
‘You told me that you suspected the entrance hall as a clue to the location of the violin,’ I said, narrowing my eyes.
Poirot had the good grace to look embarrassed again. ‘Er, yes, that was une blague as well, mon ami. I could not tell you my plans, lest your honest and transparent nature break forth and give the game away to our enemies. I knew that if I gave you a false hint, and then jerked around a bit in my ropes in the presence of Ramsey, that you would break down and convey the false hint to him yourself as a means of bargaining. I feign an upset reaction at this supposed breach of confidence, but in fact my plan has gone ahead parfaitement. Your response would be utterly convincing to our enemies, and they would waste much time searching, far away from us.’
I leapt to my feet, livid. ‘You have been perfectly abominable to me,’ I burst out. ‘The torture I’ve been through this evening, and on your behalf!’
Poirot leapt up too, full of soothing, mollifying gestures. ‘I prostrate myself,’ he cried. ‘I offer a thousand, a million apologies–’
I cut him off savagely. ‘Go to the devil, Poirot– I’ve heard it before! But I’m not one of these susceptible ladies who goes to puddles when you throw out a few winsome-sounding pretenses of remorse.’ I turned away from him, feeling bitterly wronged. The evening’s events seemed to be a mix of silly idiocity and a pain that touched me on the raw. Part of me thought I should shrug it off as nothing; another part wanted me to never forgive Poirot, or perhaps strangle him after all.
My friend was arrested by my bluntness. Several moments of silence followed. Then he drew up beside me and I felt a bracing pressure on my elbow. I passed my hand over my brow, ruthlessly willing away the threat of stronger emotion.
‘You have had to face more than your fair share of pain these last months,’ he said quietly. ‘More than once you feared for the life of a friend, with good reason, and have felt powerless to act. But you have saved me now, mon ami, not once but twice. Were it not for the attention you drew to my straight razor earlier today as we prepared the toilette before our interview with M. Dimitri, it might not have occurred to me, on a whim, to slip it into my sleeve this evening, should we face such a trial as we did. Your frustration is fully justified. You are an excellent and loyal friend, without whom I might now be utterly disgraced or even dead, and I have treated you shamefully. So concentrated was I on the task of apprehending Ramsey, who had wronged me so deeply, that I had forgotten my friend Hastings, who has these past months not left me out of his sight lest harm befall me.’
My rage wavered and ebbed. I turned to my friend. His eyes expressed a grave compassion. ‘I give you my solemn word, mon ami, that I shall not again deceive you concerning my own safety or well-being in order to score points against the London Syndicate. It was a cruelty to you.’
I nodded mutely, and Poirot was undoubtably on the verge of one of his typically demonstrative embraces when Dimitri suddenly returned with his American friends and a butler, who proffered brandy to Poirot and myself. We received it gratefully.
‘You must let us offer you supper before you depart, gentlemen,’ said Dimitri cheerfully. ‘I suppose you missed yours. Well, you have preserved my Stradivarius for me and caught a few thieves as well; neat work for an evening.’
Poirot bowed. ‘Merci, monsieur,’ he said, and glanced at me. ‘Yes, that is enough for one day.’