The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie (13 chapters)

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  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles

    Agatha Christie

    IV. Poirot Investigates (cont .)

    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 plans, 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 teatime 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 today. Now, to pass to another subject, had your mistress a dark green dress in her wardrobe?"

    Dorcas was rather startled by the unexpected question.
    "No, sir."
    "Are you quite sure?"
    "Oh, yes, sir."
    "Has anyone else in the house got a green dress?"

    Dorcas reflected.
    "Miss Cynthia has a green evening dress."
    "Light or dark green?"
    "A light green, sir; a sort of chiffong, 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?"
    "Positive, sir."
    "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?"
    Annie considered.
    "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."
    "Yes, 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?"
    "Yes, sir."

    "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?"
    Annie hesitated.
    "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?"
    "No, sir."
    "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?"
    Annie reflected.
    "No, sir."
    "You are sure of that?"
    "Quite sure."

    "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.
    Poirot was surveying me with quietly twinkling eyes.

    "You are not pleased with me, mon ami?"
    "My dear Poirot," I said coldly, "it is not for me to dictate to you. You have a right to your own opinion, just as I have to mine."
    "A most admirable sentiment," remarked Poirot, rising briskly to his feet. "Now I have finished with this room. By the way, whose is the smaller desk in the corner?"
    "Mr. Inglethorp's."
    "Ah!" He tried the roll top tentatively. "Locked. But perhaps one of Mrs. Inglethorp's keys would open it." He tried several, twisting and turning them with a practised hand, and finally uttering an ejaculation of satisfaction. "Voilà! It is not the key, but it will open it at a pinch." He slid back the roll top, and ran a rapid eye over the neatly filed papers. To my surprise, he did not examine them, merely remarking approvingly as he relocked the desk: "Decidedly, he is a man of method, this Mr. Inglethorp!"

    A "man of method" was, in Poirot's estimation, the highest praise that could be bestowed on any individual.
    I felt that my friend was not what he had been as he rambled on disconnectedly:
    "There were no stamps in his desk, but there might have been eh, mon ami? There might have been? Yes"—his eyes wandered round the room—"this boudoir has nothing more to tell us. It did not yield much. Only this."
    He pulled a crumpled envelope out of his pocket, and tossed it over to me. It was rather a curious document. A plain, dirty looking old envelope with a few words scrawled across it, apparently at random. The following is a facsimile of it:

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