Chapter 6: The Fatal Mistake
As it happened, Japp returned from his trip abroad a full month early, owing to half of the travel party being struck down with illness. The Scotland Yard man himself was well and unscathed, but when Poirot and I met him at the station and relayed our most recent adventures with Inspector Morett, he turned an unpleasant shade of purple. Eventually, rumour went round of a fabulous telling-off at the Yard that week, and a suspension levelled at Morett.
This cheery news was compounded by another stroke of good fortune. In early February, Poirot and I braved a heavy snowfall to be in attendance at an exhibition of valuable jewels and artifacts from a certain reigning house. The display, situated at the Carlton, coincided with a royal visit, and was to be shown in two separate exhibitions on different dates. In light of a tip that a robbery attempt might be made by the London Syndicate, Poirot was invited by Japp to work with local police with the aim of prevention. Sure enough, the first exhibition on the third of the month involved an assault and attempted robbery, and Poirot, through an amazing display of deduction, managed to foil the attempt and retrieve the property.
Perhaps it was this elevated sense of euphoria that precipitated inevitable disaster. For the London Syndicate was about to make a fatal mistake. In some respects, the coming blow would be the darkest moment we had yet known.
Although the would-be thieves had managed to escape the Carlton and were currently evading the police, this did not dim the public outpouring of gratitude for my little friend. Lavish tokens of admiration poured into our flat over the next two days, coming from scullery maids and grand dukes alike. Mr. Johnston, the porter, was kept busy hauling parcels and ostentatious floral displays up to our flat, while I collected reams of post and amused Poirot by reading letters to him.
It seems dreadful silliness to me, but nothing brings admirers out of the woodwork like connections with a high-profile case involving royalty. Such a zealous public reaction was indeed a testament to my friend, but I was inclined to find it rather overdone and a trifle embarrassing. My sentiments were, I need hardly say, wholly lost on Poirot. With a bourgeois attitude toward the aristocracy and a limitless capacity for feeding his ego, he was positively bursting with self-satisfaction and delight.
Poirot, seated at his desk, was just opening another parcel as I instructed the porter to add the newest bunch of calla lilies to the already over-full vase on the hall table.
‘Tell me,’ I said, handing Poirot one of his twin silver paper knives, ‘do the police expect another attempted theft at the next exhibition?’
‘Well, my friend, that would not surprise me.’ He plucked delicately at the brown paper with the knife. ‘Japp has invited me to the second exhibition in case I may be of additional assistance, although I do not think so. I have given to him a full description of the miscreants, but the London Syndicate would be fools indeed to send the same thieves again for the second attempt.’
He laid down his paper knife and examined the now-liberated gift box, from which he extracted a white monogrammed handkerchief. Laying it aside, he proceeded methodically to the next parcel in the stack.
‘And this one is– ah, the chocolates, once again.’ I looked up from the purple prose of the letter I was currently reading to see my friend gingerly lift the lid of this particular box, only to wince in disappointment.
‘The untidy cocoa powder, it gets everywhere,’ he grumbled, pushing them away.
Collecting the box, I extracted one of the chocolates and popped it into my mouth. They were liqueurs and not, I thought, particularly good. Unwanted sweets, particularly those of the ‘untidy’ variety, went into a little dish which was placed in the entrance hall, to be passed off to unsuspecting callers and guests with less-fine sensibilities. Poirot’s sense of Flemish thrift was strongly averse to throwing things away.
In the hallway, I began to lay out the remaining chocolates on the empty dish as the porter gave a last, desperate shove to a stubborn floral stem. He gave up with a sigh, and proceeded to exit the flat again.
‘By the bye, sir,’ he said suddenly, turning a little on his way out the door, ‘there’s a gentleman wanting to see Monsieur Poirot, down in the lobby. I think he’s press. Thought you might like a warning.’
Now Poirot was not the sort to shun press coverage of his clever exploits, but I soon realised why the warning had been offered. Minutes later, through our door blustered a burly, red-faced creature, clad in shabby charcoal tweeds and armed with a large camera.
‘A word, Mister Pwarrit?’ he wheezed, marching straight into our sitting room and wielding his camera before him. Poirot (who had been in the process of opening another parcel) was visibly annoyed at this intrusion of our privacy. The subsequent barrage of somewhat inappropriate questions, none of which seemed to relate to Poirot’s role in the recent exhibition, resulted in my apprehension of the trespasser, whom I firmly escorted back down the hallway and out the door again.
‘Good heavens,’ I exclaimed in annoyance as I rejoined my friend, who had liberated from the most recent gift box something that resembled a horrible handmade paperweight, ‘this last adventure of yours has brought all the rabble out. The awful weather doesn’t even seem to stop them.’
My friend gave his moustache a self-conscious twirl and murmured, ‘The main roads are clear enough. Much of the diligence on that front is due to the royal visit and exhibition, bien sûr. I should not like to be out in the country in this much snow, nor even off on the side roads– assuredly not!’ He held up his paperweight, or whatever the unsightly object was, and studied it with a critical eye.
‘So do you mean to attend the second exhibition or not, then?’
Poirot shook his head and straightened the stack of mail on his desk with tidy efficiency.
‘I think not, my friend. As I said before, I believe it would be quite unnecessary. And I have earned some repose. A warm home, a good tisane, and perhaps some peace and quiet at last.’
Peace and quiet was yet to come, however. About twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I vacated the sitting room to answer it just as the phone rang behind me. Poirot reached for the phone and nodded me toward the door.
I opened the door to find a grubby-looking adolescent female on our doorstep. She was about thirteen years old, with stringy blonde hair and spectacles, and was clad in an unbecoming overcoat, muffler, and a brimmed hat with a yellow insignia that marked her as a Girl Guide. What was the expression I had just used– ‘the rabble’? Yes, it suited this young creature exactly.
Before either of us could speak, Poirot had approached and touched my arm. ‘The telephone is for you, Hastings,’ he said, and I gratefully retreated to leave Poirot to deal with our new visitor, who was holding a collection box and looked particularly determined.
Indeed, a swarm of petty annoyances seemed to have descended upon our flat that afternoon. The telephone call concerned some unimportant matter from a solicitor’s office, which demanded attention while simultaneously insisting on putting me on hold. My attention drifted to Poirot and the Girl Guide at the door, who were just visible from where I stood by the desk.
The girl was launching into an uninspired monologue. ‘Martha Bauers,’ she mumbled, lifting her hand in a salute expressive of half-hearted brand loyalty. ‘We’re goin’ round collecting for our sister Guides in India, or someplace like that where there’s no food. I been at it all morning.’ She glared at Poirot as if this state of affairs were his own fault. He waited politely. ‘Had nothing to eat all day either. Left before breakfast and Aunt Clara forgot to give me my lunch. M’supposed to meet her after this round out in Hensley. I’ll probably starve before then.’
She was in the process of describing the unfortunate conditions of the Guides in India when her bored eyes suddenly fixated on the candy dish on the hall table before her. Poirot took the hint and proffered the dish to her, no doubt relieved to be rid of another untidy chocolate. She took one immediately and made a face as she ate it. I couldn’t blame her, I thought.
‘Well?’ she garbled rudely, her mouth full of chocolate, as she indicated her collection box.
Poirot hastily searched his pocket for a coin, probably with the aim of speeding our visitor on her way. When the solicitor’s office secretary came over the line again, I suggested that they call back at a more convenient time, and rang off at last. I’d had enough of intruders for one day.
We were just finishing our breakfast the following morning when a loud rap at the door startled us. I leapt up to answer it, and found Mr. Johnston, wide-eyed and stammering.
‘I do beg your pardon, but– the strangest thing,’ he said uncertainly. ‘A woman was down in the lobby just now, shrieking and raising a fuss, something about a death. I tried to calm her down, and asked if she’d come here to see Monsieur Poirot. I thought it might be some case she wanted him to take on.’
Poirot himself appeared in the hall. The porter continued the narrative.
‘And she gasped out, “Poirot? No, I know no one by that name. But she was here, in this building, here right before she came out to meet me.” And then she started crying, and said: “I just wanted to see if there was an eating establishment here in this building. She must have eaten something! It looked like food poisoning!” Or something to that effect, sir.’
Poirot was at my side now. He looked very pale, and spoke quietly. ‘Did she give you a name?’
‘Yes, sir, I ascertained that her own was Mrs. Clara Bauers. And she kept wailing out about Martha.’
Never before, nor since, have I seen the ghastly change that came over Poirot’s countenance. We stared at each other in shock. Then our eyes went together to the dish of chocolates on the hall table.
Finally, Poirot said in hoarse whisper: ‘Bring her here.’
The doorman beat a hasty retreat.
I had only just managed to steer my friend into a chair in the sitting room when Mr. Johnston returned.
‘She wouldn’t come up, sir,’ he said apologetically. ‘She didn’t seem to understand why you should want to see her. Her concern was for a niece of hers who seems to have died suddenly out in the country the other day. Nothing to do with the residents here.’ Poirot uttered a moan. The doorman continued. ‘You seemed to be interested in her story, monsieur, so I pressed her for a little more. The lady told me that she’d been concerned that this girl hadn’t eaten all day, but that after her canvassing of this block of flats, she’d be taking a bus out to Hensley to meet the aunt, and they’d have a meal. Well, they met all right… and the girl began cold sweats and retching. Apparently died that evening at home. Mrs. Bauers was out here this morning and came to see if there was a restaurant near these flats where she might have somehow obtained some food.’
‘Perhaps the girl did just that,’ I said hastily. ‘Perhaps before catching her bus, she found a spot nearby to get something to eat…’
Poirot shook his head, the picture of misery.
‘The lady seemed in a mortal hurry to leave again,’ added the porter, ‘but I did manage to convince her to leave her phone number first.’ He reached into his pocket and offered a slip of paper to me. ‘Seeing as Monsieur Poirot seemed so keen on this affair. Is something funny going on?’
‘Thank you, Mr. Johnston,’ I said, looking down at the paper in my hand. ‘We will take it from here.’ Sensing the dismissal, he tactfully made his exit.
There was a long silence.
‘You are convinced, then,’ I said at last, pacing the sitting room, ‘that someone tampered with those chocolates… that someone sent them to poison you.’
‘Oui, bien sûr. How could I have been so criminally foolish, Hastings. The London Syndicate, they send the chocolates to me in spite, because of my recent success against them– or, perhaps, to prevent my attendance at the second exhibit tomorrow. And as it happens, I was not planning to attend! Needless– how they have misfired! But it is I who bear the blame.’
‘You attribute the sending of the chocolates to the London Syndicate? Murdering you with poison hardly seems to be their style.’
Poirot looked at me mournfully. ‘Undoubtably they meant to poison, but not fatally. That is very much their style. If the poison were in only one or two of the chocolates, it may have been a dose that would incapacitate an adult, but kill a…’ He broke off with a tremor.
‘You mustn’t blame yourself,’ I insisted, but Poirot merely waved an exasperated hand. I tried a different tack.
‘We shall have to get the rest of those chocolates analysed, of course. We know nothing for certain as yet.’
‘That would probably be wise, my friend. Do as you like.’
I was utterly beside myself. Never had I seen Poirot react like this to a likely crime occurring under his nose. He looked downcast and crushed, leaning forward in his chair as though studying the floor. Finally he spoke again.
‘But I do not understand.’ He looked at me. ‘You ate one of the chocolates, did you not? You suffer no ill effects?’
‘No, none at all. But you said yourself that it was most likely that only one or two of them would be poisoned.’
‘Yes… and that is what I do not comprehend.’
I wasn’t following this line at all. ‘But–’
‘Hastings.’ He was suddenly harsh. ‘Go on your errand. I shall not be able to process the grey cells until you do.’
Snubbed, I proceeded to collect the chocolates and once again reached for the telephone.
Poirot has many useful friends for whom he has performed a number of favours over the years. These included a chemist, Dr. Martin Lansing-Hayes, who resided a few blocks down from our flat. I rang him up and asked him if he would be willing to run some tests on our chocolates. Fortunately, he was free that afternoon and I was able to come round. His tests were swift and conclusive. Of the ten remaining chocolates, nine were normal. One had been filled with a dangerous dose of cocaine.
Although the news was expected, it was still a tremendous blow. The chocolates I left in the keeping of Dr. Lansing-Hayes for the present, until the police were informed. Good Lord, the police. No blame would be attached to Poirot, of course, but he would have a great deal of difficulty forgiving himself.
I returned to our flat with a heavy heart and broke the news to Poirot. He merely closed his eyes.
‘This wasn’t your fault,’ I insisted again. ‘How could you have possibly known?’
‘Of course I should have known! What manner of triple imbecile receives edibles in the mail, shortly after thwarting a dangerous criminal gang, and passes them off to a child! Mille tonnerres! I am abased. I am a murderer!’
‘Now, don’t dramatise,’ I said in some alarm. ‘We need to keep our wits about us. The police must be phoned. It seems fairly certain that it was the London Syndicate who were involved in the attempt to poison you. We have a contact number for Mrs. Bauers. And there’s the postmark on the parcel…’
‘My friend,’ interjected Poirot, ‘you must have the order and method for both of us. My brain has deserted me entirely. I… I must try to get control of myself, to do what must be done. You have witnessed everything that has passed in this affair, and I leave the police to you. There are some things that I cannot face today.’
And rising unsteadily from the chair, he retired to his bedroom.
When I phoned the police to explain the situation, they seemed perplexed but agreed to send someone round. Fifteen minutes later, I was opening our front door to a Constable Derek Allender, a gangly young fellow with dark hair and eyes and a thoroughly intimidated attitude. He did not look promising. I explained that Poirot was indisposed, and proceeded to reiterate the facts of the case to him.
‘Very curious, sir,’ he said in his high, thin voice as he scribbled in his little notebook. ‘We shall need to track down this Mrs. Bauers, then. They told me at headquarters that they’d not received a call from her.’
‘Well, why would they have?’ I returned. ‘She would have no reason at this point to think anything criminal has occurred. Very likely she rang for a doctor, that’s all.’
‘Yes,’ said the constable, looking abashed. ‘And have you tried telephoning her?’
I was losing patience. ‘Yes, but she was not in yet. If she came up to town from the country this morning, she might stay for a short while before returning home, particularly if there were any arrangements to make for a funeral, that sort of thing.’
‘One wouldn’t want to trek around any more than necessary in this weather,’ Allender said, sapiently stating the obvious. I suppressed an peevish sigh. This was the best that our local police could do?
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘we shall keep trying. She is bound to be in this evening at least. In the meantime, I thought we’d better make a run out to Hensley and see what can be seen.’
Allender seemed amazed at this suggestion, but he acquiesced.
To be brief, our investigations were singularly disappointing. Although Allender had obtained an address for the phone number I had, the roads were barely passable with the snow and we got lost more than once. At about six o’clock in the evening, I was finally able to get through to Mrs. Clara Bauers on the telephone from a nearby village. The line crackled and our conversation was short and incomplete; I ascertained only that she had indeed been to Whitehaven Mansions that morning to try to determine where her niece may have last eaten, and that a doctor had been to their place and had presumed food poisoning. In the end, we were cut off and Allender and I were forced to return to town without having made a personal visit. I put through a quick call to Poirot to relay the lack of progress, and speculated a return to the flat in about an hour’s time.
When I finally returned home that evening and parked across the street from the flats, I disembarked to find, to my surprise, that Japp himself had also just arrived on the scene. We greeted each other and, as we entered the building, I poured out the whole frustrating story to him, including my recent failures.
‘It never rains but it pours, eh?’ he said, pausing in the lobby to take it all in. ‘Or snowstorms. Trust me, Hastings, it’s perfectly normal for investigations to take extra time in these weather conditions. Country folk are a hardy lot, and they deal with their own personal problems well enough without us. But we’ll get through soon enough, never fear– patience and spadework. I was thinking of having a quick word with Poirot on the way back to the Yard tonight. Royal visits and fancy to-dos are an operational nightmare for the police, and I can’t direct much attention elsewhere myself until it’s all wrapped up tomorrow night. All the same, these events might share some point in common– the interests of the London Syndicate, in particular. By all accounts, Moosior’s been acting dashed odd today.’
‘It all seems suspicious to me,’ I grumbled, my mind still on my fruitless efforts of earlier. ‘Maybe the old lady poisoned her niece herself, and the chocolates have nothing to do with it.’
‘Lord, Captain, with what motive? No,’ he said, giving me a bracing clap on the back as we entered the lift together, ‘that doesn’t fit in at all. There are enough simple ways to poison a family member at home without all this rigmarole; anyway, she wouldn’t know the girl would have the conversation she did with Poirot and that the chocolates would be right there for the taking. And the chocolates were poisoned; we know that. That’s cause and effect right enough, I’m afraid.’
Grudgingly I was forced to agree.
As Japp and I approached the flat I noticed, to my amazement, that the door was cracked open. If a poisoner was about, I thought uneasily, breaking into the flat might signal another attempt at mischief. Japp was obviously thinking the same. Putting a finger to his lips, he tipped the door open a little more, and we entered the flat. It was dark, but the kitchen light was on. We went in and looked around.
‘Hello, what’s this?’ inquired Japp. He picked up a small container from the table. I leaned closer to see.
‘Veronal,’ he said. ‘Mostly empty. This yours, Captain Hastings?’
‘No,’ I said blankly. ‘And Poirot doesn’t take veronal.’
We exchanged looks of alarm. In a flash, we vacated the kitchen, racing to Poirot’s bedchamber.
I had half expected to see my friend’s lifeless form, fatally poisoned by the mysterious intruder, but to my relief he was sitting on the side of his bed. A full glass of water stood on his bedside table, and a little prayer book lay open in one hand. He was staring ahead and did not seem to see us.
Japp stood in the doorway as I approached the bed. Poirot’s other hand clenched a little in his lap.
‘Poirot?’ I said. His eyes flickered, but did not meet my eye.
Then the truth was plain. Reaching down, I opened Poirot’s clenched fist with a swift movement. There were in the palm no fewer than two dozen tablets of veronal.
I heard Japp’s astonished intake of breath behind me, and as he moved toward us I took advantage of the slight distraction to transfer the tablets into my own hand. There was no resistance.
Japp stood facing him and leaned down, placing his hand on Poirot’s shoulder. He spoke in a completely unfamiliar tone of voice. ‘Come on,’ he said quietly. ‘You’ve had a shock today. Hastings will pack you a bag.’
I looked at Japp in surprise.
‘He can’t stay here,’ Japp told me, looking about as bewildered as I’ve ever seen him. But he remained business-like. ‘There’s a nursing home on Wimpole Street. You pack, I’ll telephone.’
As Japp briskly dialed the bedside telephone, I took a long look at Poirot. He was breathing slowly and blinking a little, looking weary.
‘Have you taken any yet?’ I asked tensely. He shook his head. I pocketed the tablets and hoped he was telling the truth. ‘Come on, old chap,’ I said, helping him to his feet. ‘We’ll get a few things and be on our way.’
I went in a flurry through the room, grabbing some essentials and throwing them haphazardly into a small valise. Poirot watched with an amazing detachment. He has deceived me many times over the years in the course of an investigation, but the despair that he radiated at this moment was palpable. The very fact that he wasn’t chiding me for not folding each item with proper care frightened me almost as much as the sight of the veronal.
The nursing staff were getting Poirot situated in his room when Japp pulled me aside.
‘I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to stay here for the present, Captain Hastings,’ he said under his breath, ‘and absolutely on your guard– at least for the first twenty-four hours. There must be hundreds of ways for a man to do away with himself, and I don’t doubt that Poirot knows every single blinking one. He has to be most carefully watched. The nurses here will, of course, do their duty. But you and I know this fellow and what he’s capable of.’
I nodded. ‘Of course. That was just my intention. Here, you’d better take these away.’ And I transferred my pocketful of veronal to him.
‘He’s not going to want to stay here,’ said Japp. ‘You mark my words. In half an hour he’ll have changed his tune and be demanding to leave. Nothing doing. He’s here for three days at least, and that’s final. He leaves when I sign him out myself.’
Japp crossed his arms and looked uncomfortable. ‘Bloody hell. As if we didn’t have enough problems on our hands to sort through, and now this. I can hardly believe it. It’s not like Poirot to just give up. He should have been throwing himself into the case, tracking down the Syndicate or whoever it was as poisoned his chocolates, if he wants to avenge that girl.’
‘Poirot is very particular about murder,’ I reminded him. ‘When we first received proof that the chocolates had been poisoned, he berated himself as criminally liable, the one who ultimately brought about the girl’s death. He thinks he should have seen it coming and been more on guard.’
‘I should think that suicide was against his principles.’
‘All but one. In his own mind, he is a murderer. If the law won’t charge him, he will charge himself. I’m afraid that in his own past cases, there is a good deal of precedence for a guilty party being given the chance to take this way out.’
Japp stared at me, then shook his head. ‘Blimey. No, prevention alone won’t cut it. He needs someone who might eventually get through to him with some sense.’
He peered through the door leading into Poirot’s room, then turned to me again with a little cough. ‘Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there isn’t any chance that Poirot could be… putting us on? Could this be some method of his own to set a trap or such like? Well, you know the stunts he’s pulled in the past to bring in a criminal. I wouldn’t put it past him.’
I shook my head decisively. The words my friend had spoken to me some months ago, in the house of Alexei Dimitri, came into my mind: ‘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.’ No, this danger was unmistakably real.
It didn’t take even the half hour that Japp had predicted before Poirot began angling to leave. I had been alone with him for about ten minutes before he started.
‘It was a mistake,’ he muttered from the depths of a comfortable-looking bed. ‘It was the mere moment of melodrama. I am recovered.’
‘You are incorrigible,’ I replied, undaunted. ‘And you’re here to rest. A bit of extra quiet after a shock like that will do no harm.’
‘The second showing of the exhibition,’ he began half-heartedly.
‘Don’t be absurd. You said yourself that you wouldn’t attend. Japp and the rest will get on perfectly fine tomorrow evening without you.’
The thought of Japp getting on perfectly fine without him seemed to depress him even more.
‘Perhaps,’ I mused, ‘I might be able to go myself on your behalf, if it would make you feel better.’ For some reason, this elicited a muffled groan.
‘That is quite unnecessary, Hastings.’ With some effort, Poirot raised himself up on his elbows and peered across the room where I stood standing by the window. ‘You are returning to the flat tonight, are you not? This late hour is hardly the time for visitors.’
‘Japp used some of his professional pull to make an exception,’ I replied.
‘Ah. I comprehend.’ He fell back on the pillows. ‘Perhaps I should be flattered that you both still have faith in my ingenuity.’
I did not reply.
‘But no– it is gone, mon cher. I cannot think. I am not even sure that I want to. There is a great fog about me. Do not tax yourself for my sake, my friend. I am very tired, more tired than I have ever been in my life. Right now, I would very much like to forget.’
He closed his eyes and was fast asleep within minutes. I seated myself in the chair by the window and drew a deep breath. After some time had passed, I permitted myself to doze.
As I anticipated, there was a good deal of coming and going from the room by the nursing staff overnight. They were extremely quiet and never remained long, engaging in a variety of insignificant tasks, but discreetly keeping an eye on things. My own sleep was fitful.
Morning came and went on, but Poirot still slept soundly. Concern rose in me that he had managed to ingest some veronal after all, but the nurses who had examined him assured me that it was mere exhaustion. Nonetheless, I was relieved when my friend finally roused himself in the early afternoon.
He tried, unsuccessfully, to wave away lunch.
‘And what news, my friend?’ he inquired solemnly, picking at his food. ‘Has the good Japp been running to and fro on his investigations? Or is he much occupied with preparations for the exhibition?’
‘I haven’t heard from Japp,’ I replied, leafing idly through a magazine. ‘Seeing as no messages have come, I take it he has received no news of note to share.’
Poirot shrugged. ‘The snow, the blocked roads, even the lines that are down, it makes the running to and fro très difficile, n’est-ce pas? This is why it is better to be still and think.’ He rubbed his temples as if attempting to relieve a dreadful headache. ‘It is so very hard.’
‘Perhaps it’s not the time for straining the grey cells just yet,’ I advised. ‘There’s no shame in leaving this to others for now. After tonight’s events are over and done with, Japp will be able to focus on this poisoning affair himself. The last thing he wants you to do right now is brood. Rest is what you need.’
My friend did not look convinced. ‘If only I could brood– if I could think! But all I see is insanity. This poisoning, it is not only tragic, it is reckless and unintelligent, and makes not the common sense.’
‘Accidents like these never seem to accord with common sense,’ I said firmly. ‘Put it from your mind.’
Poirot sighed and gave up. Pushing his lunch away, he lay back down on the bed dejectedly and closed his eyes. I could not tell whether he was awake or asleep.
That evening, supper was brought and I began to think of heading back to the flat for the night. My friend was sitting up again, still melancholic, when the nurse entered. On the tray of food, which was set down on the little table by the bed, was a yellow rosebud in a vase, and a folded bit of paper. Poirot looked at them inquiringly.
‘Those came from a visitor, sir,’ said the smiling nurse, and she took her leave.
With a curious frown, Poirot reached for the paper, unfolded it and read it. He blinked, and then his face transformed.
‘Can it be?’ he whispered. A light crept over his eyes. ‘Mon Dieu, can it be?’ I hastened over to him when he began to tremble.
‘Hastings…’ He was now sitting bolt upright, his eyes flashing. Excitement seemed to be giving way to spasms of anger. He threw off the bed coverings and leapt to his feet, but he had misjudged his stamina. I grabbed him before he could fall and tried to get him to sit down again. He swatted at me irritably.
‘I must go, Hastings– I must dress and depart immédiatement!’
‘You can’t, Poirot,’ I insisted. ‘You’re not well.’
‘I am perfectly all right!’
‘I promised Japp faithfully that I’d keep an eye on you. What will he think when you’ve disappeared, after the state you’ve been in lately?’
Poirot briefly closed his eyes in deep frustration. ‘Sacré! Accompany me if you please, and keep two eyes on me if you must, but I leave now!’
Looking unaccountably fey, Poirot proceeded to dart through the room with fanatical rage, grabbing clothes, throwing them on, or into his valise. I was frankly worried about what sort of action he was planning to take. And why this change?
My friend stopped suddenly, as if struck by a thought. ‘They will be watching. Mon Dieu, Hastings, this is horrible. I need your assistance, mon ami, if I am to depart. You must create some small diversion.’
I hesitated. I had been carefully instructed against leaving Poirot alone, and would be most fervently reprimanded for helping him to vacate the premises. More importantly, I might actually be placing him in danger.
‘The staff here,’ I began haltingly, ‘are only trying to ensure your own safety.’
He flared at me immediately. ‘Do you refuse to assist?’ He looked to the window of his room. ‘Then I break the window and descend by means of the tree outside.’
He turned such ferocious eyes on me that I actually recoiled a little. Then he grabbed the valise and lunged for the door directly behind me.
‘Remove yourself, Hastings.’
His hand shot past me to reach the door, and I seized his arm.
‘You are going to explain to me, this very minute, what’s going on. If you don’t, you have no chance of leaving.’
Poirot stayed perfectly still, staring at me. His keen intellect seemed to be once more asserting itself out of the fit of blind rage I had just beheld. Taking a deep breath, he took a step back, and I relinquished his arm. He felt it gingerly, wincing.
‘Eh bien,’ he said at last. ‘You wish to be sure that it is safe. This is why it is safe, Hastings, and imperative that we depart, if we are not already too late.’ He snatched the paper from the little table by the bed and thrust it at me.
I scrutinized the bit of paper that had sent my friend into such mad paroxysms. It had just a few enigmatic words scrawled on it.
Only just found out. They did not want you to recognise him.
‘Who would have sent this to you?’ I asked sharply. Surely Poirot’s presence at the institution was a secret to all but a very few close friends. And, perhaps… an enemy? I felt a dawning comprehension.
‘Someone found out you were here and sent this, meaning to taunt you. Is that what sparks your indignation and inspires you to rush off and avenge this girl’s death with a fury, after all?’
Poirot made a noise of exasperation that sounded remarkably like a cat sneezing. Reaching for the flower in the vase on the little table, he extracted it and, as with the note, thrust it toward me. I took it also, uncomprehending.
‘It is a message from your friend, Hastings,’ he said quietly. ‘We are needed at the exhibition.’ He pushed his hastily-packed valise towards me as well; I nearly dropped it in my astonishment. ‘There is no need to fear for my state of mind, my friend. I am not responsible for the death of Martha Bauers.’
To this day, it stuns me to think how those few sentences convinced me, instantly, to go along with Poirot’s instructions. I did not understand any of it. But if Poirot was convinced from this mysterious message that he bore no guilt for the child’s death, I was not inclined to contradict him now. As long as he believed that, he was in no danger to himself. And if he posed no danger to himself, I was not in the habit of standing in the way of even his most outlandish methods of investigation. My impression was that he believed that he would be able to locate the deadly poisoner at the Carlton exhibition. Trying not to think of what Japp would say to me when he found out what we were doing, I recklessly followed Poirot’s lead.
It was not easy to sneak out of the ward and vacate the premises, but we managed it in the end with a ruse of distraction on my part. As we drove through the snowy lanes as quickly as could well be managed, I assayed to get further details from Poirot, who seemed lost in a distraction of mutterings.
‘So I take it that Clara Bauers didn’t murder her niece…’ I began.
‘Of course not, quelle idée!’
‘Can you at least explain what we’re looking for at the Carlton? The poisoner responsible for the girl’s death?’
‘We seek for a thief, Hastings, bien entendu– not the poisoner of Martha Bauers.’
I was incredulous. ‘Poirot, the security at the exhibition has been doubled. It has been well established, even by yourself, that you are not needed there to prevent a second robbery, should one be attempted. The police have things covered on that front. If the would-be thief and the poisoner are two different members of the London Syndicate, then surely finding the poisoner is our greater priority!’
‘There I disagree with you. Figure to yourself: if someone attempts a poisoning with the likely goal of keeping me away from the Carlton tonight, something very interesting is bound to take place there. Something, perhaps,’ he added with a touch of characteristic vanity, ‘that I could accomplish but a whole army of policemen could not.’
‘Hang it all,’ I groused. ‘You are impossible to reason with when you fall into one of these moods.’
Ignoring me, my friend extracted a little mirror and a minute brush from his coat pocket and began to touch up his neglected moustache with a concerned air. In spite of myself I could not help but be cheered by this renewal of familiar behaviour.
‘We are not, I fear, properly attired for the event,’ said Poirot regretfully. ‘You yourself are in a deplorably unkempt state. But if we keep buttoned up the overcoats, perhaps we may remain less conspicuous for a time.’
‘And in what guise do you hope to find this thief?’ I inquired, passing over the thankless comment about my appearance.
‘I should think,’ replied Poirot, ‘that we might be on the lookout for a man disguised as a journalist– perhaps with a large camera to shield his face when it suits him. What more natural to find at an event of this kind than many unremarkable and faceless men of the press? The brightness of the flashing bulbs, eh, what a simple way to temporarily blind several people at once. And the mechanisms of a camera, what a clever way to conceal the necessary tools.’
A light dawned in my mind. A man with a camera– !
Before I could say anything, Poirot pointed to the imposing structure looming ahead on the corner. ‘Ah! We arrive. Vite, Hastings, there is no time to be lost!’
We left the car and my friend briefly pulled me aside in front of the doors of the grand hotel.
‘Inside, we split up,’ he said quickly. ‘I will go directly to the palm court where the jewels are on display. Tout de même, I think we are bound to be spotted eventually. But even that, I pray, will be sufficient for prevention.’
And with that, he charged inside and I followed. Four uniformed officers approached us as we entered but fell back in astonishment upon recognising Poirot. The front hall, warm and elegantly lighted, was packed with people, and I watched my friend slip through the crowds inconspicuously and disappear through the doors into the large atrium where the exhibition was situated.
I lingered outside the doors, unsure of my next move. At least a dozen men holding large cameras were moving to and fro in the lobby, and I eyed them suspiciously. Inwardly I seethed at Poirot for not giving me more explicit instructions. There was nothing to do, it seemed, but wait for a sign of some kind.
A sign. Looking down, I suddenly realised that I still had the rosebud and the little note in my hand, and had done since Poirot first pressed them upon me. On the drive I hadn’t even noticed that they were still clenched in my fist, and now they were quite crushed. ‘A message from your friend,’ Poirot had said to me. Surely, he didn’t mean Miss Whittaker (or Whitcombe), that rogue agent of the London Syndicate. But who else could he have meant?
I tossed the crumpled items into the empty wastepaper basket outside the doors of the atrium, and cautiously entered the room myself. Despite the crowds, the glittering room felt spacious and airy. I did not see Poirot anywhere, but I did observe quite a lot of policemen– and press. Several minutes later I had meandered down to the far end of the palm court, where I gave a sudden start at a hand falling on my shoulder.
‘Captain Hastings?’ intoned a familiar voice. I turned with a jerk to find myself face-to-face with a slightly suspicious-looking Chief Inspector Japp. ‘I wasn’t expecting to find you here.’
Guilt was evidently shouting from my face, because Japp’s eyes narrowed with acute comprehension. He spun round, his eyes darting through the large and bustling room until they lighted on a small figure by the display cases near the French windows. A single word roared across the atrium.
At that moment, there was a shattering sound in the lobby outside the atrium, and the scuffling of a man running. Poirot hurried over to Japp and myself, interrupting the Chief Inspector’s outrage with a swift gesture of the hand.
‘I advise you to give chase to that man at once,’ he said firmly, ‘though I fear his escape has been well and truly made. At any rate, I have prevented the second robbery attempt.’
The order was given to the nearest constables, who took off at a run. The three of us filed out of the atrium and into the lobby. On the floor there lay the remains of a dropped and shattered camera.
How Poirot managed to placate Japp I know not, but after a swift and secret conference there in the lobby, the Scotland Yard man appeared mollified and subsequently spoke nothing of the nursing home. Instead, we were given a police escort back to Whitehaven Mansions.
Back in our flat, I watched in helplessness as Poirot robustly kicked the furniture.
‘You… prevented the robbery, you say?’ I said timidly.
‘Of course,’ he grunted. ‘When Japp shouted my name, it startled the would-be thief immensely. It was the thing he feared; his plans were undone. Crash went his camera, and he fled. Of all this sordid affair we have been dealing with over the last few days, I now know everything.’
‘You know who meant to poison you with the cocaine, then? The same man who fled the exhibition tonight?’
‘No one meant to poison me at all, Hastings.’
For a moment I thought I had misheard. ‘But– do you mean that I was intended to be the recipient of the poisoned chocolate all along?’ I asked in bewilderment.
‘No, no, mon ami. Indeed, they were counting on both of us not to eat the chocolates.’
Seeing the hopeless confusion on my face, he hastened on. ‘Let me be more specific. From the very beginning, I could not understand their method of poisoning. They could not send a whole boxful of poison; that would be too dangerous. But if only one or two chocolates were poisoned, as we first suspected, how would they determine that I, and not you, would receive the dose? You ate one of the chocolates yourself. Even if I lived alone in the flat, a laced chocolate might not be eaten for many days. Compounding the confusion, they were utterly unpalatable, these chocolates; no one could be tempted to eat any more of them once tasted! It made no sense. But I was in a fog– a fog of confusion and grief and misplaced guilt! My grey cells were functioning wretchedly, and indeed, the London Syndicate were banking on that! They never intended to poison my body by this method– how could they be sure of success? No, they determined to poison my mind. And, ma foi, that was very nearly the deadliest move they made.’ And he crossed himself vigorously.
‘Are you saying,’ I replied, aghast, ‘that they somehow meant for you to attempt suicide?’
‘That I cannot say, Hastings, but perhaps it is not so. I hope not; I should repent of all the words I ever said in praise of the sportsmanship of these criminals. This affair of theirs was a most dastardly one, regardless– the work of a mind twisted and perverse.
‘In light of their plans to rob the exhibition, I believe that it was their goal to create in me a deep and paralysing remorse, a heavy blow to my professional self-regard, far more effective than any bout of poisoning. They fabricated the crime, Hastings, and allowed me to believe myself responsible. It is like a mirror-reflection of the stunt they attempted to pull with Morett; why did I not see it coming? I do not, at this juncture, really believe that they thought I would take my own life as a result. A temporary mental paralysis, certainment. Being taken to the nursing home was probably an unforeseen advantage from their standpoint, as there was added security, reinforced by my closest friends. But regardless of their ultimate intent… I would be out of their way.’
My mounting fury gave way to sudden puzzlement. ‘But the girl who died…’
‘There was no death, Hastings. Jamais de la vie! What hard evidence had we of a death? A girl of their own family is selected to come to our door, ostensibly as a Girl Guide. They have already planted the chocolates in the post, and they know that the dish of sweets is in the hall by the front door. Alors, the girl comes to the door at the appointed time, and it is made certain that I am the one who is there to offer her a chocolate– recall that you receive a telephone call to distract you at the very moment of her arrival. She is particular to explain that she has not eaten today and will not eat until after meeting with her aunt– ah, how conveniently thorough is her speech!– so that we should be properly suspicious of that chocolate she received from us. Later, her name is simply given as the girl who has died. The heavy snow, it covers all traces and buys sufficient time. The illusion could not be maintained for long, but it only had to be maintained until the second exhibition. Voilà, the plan.’
My jaw fell. ‘So Clara Bauers, or whoever she really is, and this girl– they were behind this, together?’
‘Not only they, Hastings. The driving force behind it all, you have left out of your calculations. Who had access to our flat that day? Who might know of that dish of sweets and its location? Who would know avec certitude that the chocolates were received and placed in position by the time the Girl Guide arrived?’
‘Of course, the man from the press, who burst in here with his camera to–’
Poirot cut me off with superabundant gesticulations. ‘No, no, no, Hastings. Mon Dieu, but the answer is as clear as the noonday sun. None of the chocolates in that parcel I received were poisoned. Have I not demonstrated that this must be so? The girl calling herself Martha Bauers was in on the plot and in no danger of being poisoned by my offer to her. The chocolates, also, were meant to be distasteful to both of us, so that after you sampled one they would go straight onto the hall table. Someone has studied our habits carefully. But none were poisoned.’
‘But I brought the lot to Lansing-Hayes for analysis, and they–’
‘–included one that was poisoned. Therefore, a poisoned chocolate was substituted after the Girl Guide visited us. Very shortly, in fact, before you took them to get analysed.’
I gave a gasp. ‘Not… Mr. Johnston! The porter?’
‘Oui. C’est ça. And I should have known. Would the London Syndicate have constructed such a charade simply to spite me for foiling the first robbery attempt? No, they must have had a plan for their second attempt, and poisoning me did not, strangely enough, seem to be their intended goal. So, what was the actual outcome of this series of events? I am out of their way for the second showing of the exhibition, sequestered in a nursing home that was nothing but a temporary prison. I think to myself, what if something of that nature was their very intention?
‘Ah, sacré!’ And he gave the dining table one more enraged kick for good measure. ‘Johnston was set to be the thief for the second robbery attempt at the exhibition, the only one considered able to pull it off in the face of all the security measures. It was assumed, wrongly, that I was likely to be in attendance again. I must be kept away at all costs, lest the keen eyes of Hercule Poirot recognise his own porter, even in disguise.’
I was silent. I thought of the London Syndicate, carrying out this plan merely to keep Poirot away– needlessly. Of my friend, who might have overdosed on veronal– even more needlessly!
Finally, I stammered out: ‘That’s not on.’
Poirot turned to look at me. Then he unexpectedly burst out into a long laugh.
‘Not on! Oh, Hastings, you are wonderful.’
Sometimes I think I shall never understand my strange little friend. He was wiping tears from his eyes and gasping ‘Not on! O-ho-ho!’ when I interrupted him to collect my whirling thoughts.
‘Johnston has been working here for only four months or so. He’s been into our flat several times– so he was in a position to know what was kept on the hall table, and to make deliveries without attracting suspicion.’’
‘He had known that Japp was leaving on holiday this past December, and probably had a hand in that affair as well!’
‘And that is why the police escorted us back to Whitehaven Mansions– they wanted to keep an eye out here for him tonight.’
‘You lay it all out with a most admirable succinctness, mon ami.’
I gazed around the sitting room, taking in all the tokens of admiration that came to our flat after Poirot’s successful prevention of robbery at the first exhibition– what if most of those gifts had actually come from the Syndicate itself in order to provide additional access for Mr. Johnston to our flat? Indeed, perhaps the first robbery was intentionally faked in favour of Poirot, affording not only the excuse to make several deliveries, but also to boost his pride to set him up for a greater fall…
Stunned by this revelation, I opened my mouth to voice it when I noticed Poirot glaring at me. Two bright spots of pink had appeared in his cheeks, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that he had been reading my mind. Tactfully, I closed my mouth again, judging it to be the safest course. There was no point in wounding his feelings further.
‘I owe a great deal,’ said Poirot with sudden feeling as he reposed himself at his desk, ‘to your Mademoiselle Whitcombe.’
‘She’s not my Mademoiselle Whitcombe. And for all you know, she helped plan this fiasco.’
‘Pardon, my friend. But I do not think so. She sent her message to me for a reason. The rose indicates her identity. She said in her note that she “only just found out” what happened, and I believe her. She was not privy to the plans of Johnston until the initial damage had been done. Johnston had my movements watched after he informed me of the “death” of the girl, and discovered that I was taken to a nursing home, undoubtably guessing the reason and reporting to the rest of the Syndicate. Mademoiselle Whitcombe was alarmed and feared that I would do myself harm after all. She decided to tell me the truth about why the Syndicate sought specially to keep me from the second exhibition: They did not want you to recognise him. It was all I needed to put two and two together.’
I dismissed Miss Whitcombe from my mind. Mr. Johnston, with the London Syndicate. The mild-mannered, middle-aged, unremarkable porter. It seemed incredible. The position of doorman was one of high trust, and I could scarce imagine how he had managed to land the job.
‘He could have broken in here anytime!’ I exclaimed. ‘Has he stolen anything, do you think?’
‘The porters do not have a pass key– although doubtless he would be able to obtain one dishonestly, had he desired to do so. I do not think that would suit his purpose, which was to remain safely undercover until the proper moment. He is wiser than our friend Carrington with his paper knife foolishness. I would know if anything went missing in the flat, and I do not leave important papers lying about for even a burglar to find easily.’
My friend glanced around him, and added, ‘Speaking of which, Hastings, what have you done with the rose and the note I gave to you?’
‘Oh– I threw them into an empty wastepaper basket at the Carlton.’
Poirot’s reaction was electric. He jumped up and stared at me, wide-eyed. ‘That was a foolishness, a great foolishness! Which wastepaper basket?’
‘Er, the one directly outside the atrium from the lobby, but–’
My friend had already grabbed the telephone on the desk. He demanded to be put through to the Carlton and had a rushed conversation with the management. He then slammed down the phone, flew out of the room and down the hallway, and I heard the clicking of our door being bolted.
‘My dear fellow,’ I said weakly, ‘what in heaven’s name is the matter now?’
Poirot came back into the sitting room. His face was very grave.
‘Sit down, mon ami,’ he said.
I sat down. He took the armchair facing me.
‘No cleaning personnel have been through the main floor of the Carlton to empty the wastepaper baskets since we were there, Hastings. But the basket you described to me, it was empty.’ He watched me as if expecting some sign of understanding, but I merely stared blankly at him. He took a deep breath.
‘It would be a terrible turn of fate if, by that one small gesture, you have placed your own life in mortal danger. But that is exactly what I now fear.’
‘Not more mortal danger,’ I groaned.
‘Do not jest, mon ami! As far as the London Syndicate is concerned, the games are over. The possibility of murder is now real. It is time, I believe, to recount to you again, and in greater detail, the story of the Battersea Scandal, and perhaps you will begin to understand why.’