فصل 03

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Chapter three

Accidents?

With the discovery of the missing pistol, Nick stopped being amused. She still tried to behave as though she wasn’t too worried, because it was her habit, but there was a distinct difference in her manner.

Poirot turned to me. ‘You remember, Hastings, the little idea I mentioned in the hotel garden? Well, supposing Mademoiselle had been discovered in that garden with a bullet in her head? She might not have been found for some hours - few people pass that way. And supposing beside her hand is her own pistol. There is no doubt that the good Madame Ellen would identify it. There would be suggestions, no doubt, of worry or of sleeplessness…’

‘That’s true,’ Nick said. ‘I’ve been terribly worried recently. Everybody’s been telling me I’m not myself. Yes, they’d say all that…’

‘It was suicide. Mademoiselle’s fingerprints, and nobody else’s, would be conveniently on the pistol - it would be very simple and convincing. There must be no more of this. We are here, my friend and I, to put a stop to that!’

I was pleased to hear the ‘we’ - Poirot has a habit of sometimes ignoring my existence. ‘Yes,’ I said quickly, ‘you must not be alarmed, Miss Buckley. We will protect you.’

‘And. the first thing to do,’ said Poirot, ‘is to ask some questions.’

He smiled at her in a friendly manner.

‘To begin with, Mademoiselle, have you any enemies?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ she said apologetically.

‘Good. We can forget about that possibility then. And now we ask the question of the detective novel - who profits by your death, Mademoiselle?’

‘I can’t imagine,’ said Nick. ‘There is a huge mortgage on the house because we had to pay two lots of taxes quite soon after each other, because first my grandfather died - just six years ago, and then my brother died three years ago.’

‘And your father?’ Poirot asked.

‘He died in 1919 and my mother died when I was a baby. I lived here - Grandfather and Dad didn’t get on, so Dad left me with my grandfather and went travelling around the world until the War. Gerald, my brother, didn’t get on with Grandfather either, but Grandfather said I was just like him.’ She laughed. ‘He was a gambler and was always losing money rather than winning it. When he died, he left hardly anything - only the house and land. I was sixteen and Gerald was twenty-two. When Gerald was killed in a car accident, End House came to me.’

‘And after you, Mademoiselle? Who is your nearest relation?’

‘My cousin, Charles Vyse. He’s a lawyer - good and very boring. He tries to stop me spending lots of money. He arranged the mortgage on the house for me and made me rent the cottage to some Australians. Croft their name is. They are always bringing us vegetables they’ve grown. Very, very friendly people. She’s an invalid, poor thing, and lies on a sofa all day.’

‘How long have they been here?’

‘Oh, about six months.’

‘I see. Now, apart from this cousin of yours - is he on your father’s side of the family or your mother’s, by the way?’

‘Mother’s.’

‘Now, besides this cousin, have you any other relatives?’

‘Some very distant cousins in Yorkshire - Buckleys.’

‘No one else?’

‘No.’

‘Now, Mademoiselle - your servants.’

‘I have two. Ellen cooks and cleans and generally looks after me. Her husband’s the gardener, though not a very hard-working one. I pay them very little because I let them have the child here and if I have a party, we get people to help serve drinks and food. I’m giving a party on Monday, in fact. It’s the beginning of the St Loo festival week, you know.’

‘Monday - and today is Saturday. Yes. Yes. And now, Mademoiselle, your friends - the ones with whom you were having lunch today?’

‘Well, Freddie Rice is my greatest friend. She’s had a miserable life. She is married to a man who drank and was a drug addict. She had to leave him a year or two ago. I wish she’d get a divorce and marry Jim Lazarus.’

‘Lazarus? Is he the son of the London art dealer?’

‘Yes. Jim’s the only son. He’s very rich, of course. Did you see that new car of his? And he’s in love with Freddie. They’re staying at The Majestic over the weekend and are coming to the party here on Monday.’

‘And Madame Rice’s husband?’

‘Oh, nobody knows where he is. It makes it very difficult for Freddie. You can’t divorce a man when you don’t know where he is. Poor Freddie,’ said Nick sadly, ‘she is so short of money.’

‘Yes, yes, that must be unpleasant for her. And the good Commander Challenger?’

‘George? I’ve known George all my life - well, for the last five years! He’s a good man, George.’

‘He wishes you to marry him - eh?’

‘He does mention it now and again. But what would be the use of George and me marrying one another? Neither of us have got any money. And I’d get very bored with George. After all, he must be at least forty.’

‘I agree, much too old for you,’ said Poirot. ‘And now, Mademoiselle, tell me more about these accidents. The picture, for instance?’

‘It has been hung up again with a new cord. You can come and see it if you like.’ She led the way. The picture was an oil painting in a heavy frame. It hung directly over the head of the bed.

With a quiet, ‘May I, Mademoiselle?’ Poirot removed his shoes and stood upon the bed. He examined the picture and the cord, and tested the weight of the painting, then he got down from the bed. ‘If that fell on one’s head - no, it would not be pretty. Was the old cord like this one, Mademoiselle?’

‘Yes, but not so thick.’

‘I should like to look at that piece of cord. Is it in the house somewhere?’

‘I expect the man who put the new cord on the picture just threw the old one away.’

‘A pity. I wish I had seen it. It may have been an accident. It is impossible to say. But the damage to the brakes of your car - that was not an accident. And the stone that rolled down the cliff - I should like to see the spot where that occurred.’

Nick took us to the cliff. The sea below us glittered blue in the sunshine and a path led down the face of the rock. Nick described just where the accident had happened and Poirot nodded thoughtfully.

‘How many ways are there into your garden, Mademoiselle?’

‘There’s the front way - past the cottage. And a door in the wall half-way up that lane. Then there’s a gate just along here on the cliff. It takes you to a path that leads up from that beach to the Majestic Hotel. And then, of course, you can go straight through a gap in the bushes into the Majestic garden - that’s the way I went this morning.’

‘And your gardener - where does he work?’

‘He’s usually in the kitchen garden.’

‘Round the other side of the house?’ said Poirot. ‘So that if anyone came in here and then moved a stone, one large enough to kill you, he probably wouldn’t be seen by anyone.’

Nick looked slightly sick. ‘Do you - do you really think that is what happened?’ she asked. ‘It seems so perfectly pointless.’ Poirot took the bullet out of his pocket again. ‘That was not pointless, Mademoiselle,’ he said gently. ‘Tell me, these friends of yours, Madame Rice and Monsieur Lazarus - they have been here, how long?’

‘Freddie came on Wednesday and stayed with some people near Tavistock for a couple of nights. She came here yesterday. Jim has been touring about, I believe.’

‘And Commander Challenger?’

‘He lives at Devonport. He comes over in his car whenever he can - at the weekends mostly.’

There was a silence, and then Poirot said suddenly, ‘Have you a friend whom you can trust, Mademoiselle? Other than Madame Rice. Because I want you to have a friend to stay with you - immediately.’

Nick said, ‘There’s Maggie…’

‘Who is Maggie?’

‘One of my cousins from Yorkshire. There’s a large family of them. Her father’s a clergyman, and Maggie’s my age. But she’s no fun - she’s one of those girls who never does anything wrong or exciting, with the type of hair that has just become fashionable by accident.’

‘Your cousin, Mademoiselle, will do very well. Could you arrange for her to sleep in your room? She would not think that a strange request?’

‘Oh, Maggie never thinks. All right, I’ll send her a telegram asking her to come on Monday.’

‘Why not tomorrow?’

‘With the bad train service on Sundays? She’ll think I’m dying if I suggest that. No, I’ll say Monday. Are you going to tell her about the awful fate hanging over me?’

‘You still make a joke of it? You have courage, I am glad to see.’

‘It gives me something else to think about, anyway,’ said Nick.

Something in her tone seemed strange and I looked at her curiously. I had a feeling that there was something she hadn’t said. We had re-entered the living room and Poirot picked up the newspaper on the sofa.

‘You read this, Mademoiselle?’ he asked.

‘No. I just opened it to see the time of the tides.’

‘I see. By the way, Mademoiselle, have you ever made a will?’

‘Yes, about six months ago. Just before my operation. For appendicitis. Someone said I ought to make a will, so I did. It made me feel quite important.’

‘And the details of that will?’

‘I left End House to Charles and everything else to Freddie.’ Poirot nodded. ‘I must leave. Goodbye for now, Mademoiselle. Be careful.’

‘Careful of what?’ asked Nick.

‘That is the weak point - in which direction should you be careful? Who can say? But have confidence, Mademoiselle. In a few days I will have discovered the truth.’

‘Until then be careful of poison, bombs, revolver shots, car accidents and arrows dipped in the secret poison of the South American Indians,’ finished Nick laughing.

Poirot paused as he reached the door. ‘By the way,’ he said. ‘What price did Monsieur Lazarus offer you for the portrait of your grandfather?’

‘Fifty pounds.’

‘Ah!’ said Poirot. He looked back at the painting above the fireplace.

‘But, as I told you, I don’t want to sell the old boy.’

‘No,’ said Poirot thoughtfully. ‘No, I understand.’

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