Then the others made game in spades—no use trying to stop them. We went down three hands running after that but undoubled. Then we won the second game in no trumps. Then a battle royal started. Each side went down in turn. Dr. Roberts overcalled but though he went down badly once or twice, his calling paid, for more than once he frightened Miss Meredith out of bidding her hand. Then he bid an original two spades, I gave him three diamonds, he bid four no trumps, I bid five spades and he suddenly jumped to seven diamonds. We were doubled, of course. He had no business to make such a call. By a kind of miracle we got it. I never thought we should when I saw his hand go down. If the others had led a heart we would have been three tricks down. As it was they led the king of clubs and we got it. It was really very exciting.”
“Je crois bien—a Grand Slam Vulnerable doubled. It causes the emotions, that! Me, I admit it, I have not the nerve to go for the slams. I content myself with the game.”
“Oh, but you shouldn’t,” said Mrs. Lorrimer with energy. “You must play the game properly.”
“Take risks, you mean?”
“There is no risk if the bidding is correct. It should be a mathematical certainty. Unfortunately, few people really bid well. They know the opening bids but later they lose their heads. They cannot distinguish between a hand with winning cards in it and a hand without losing cards—but I mustn’t give you a lecture on bridge, or on the losing count, M. Poirot.”
“It would improve my play, I am sure, madame.”
Mrs. Lorrimer resumed her study of the score.
“After that excitement the next hands were rather tame. Have you the fourth score there? Ah, yes. A ding-dong battle—neither side able to score below.”
“It is often like that as the evening wears on.”
“Yes, one starts tamely and then the cards get worked up.”
Poirot collected the scores and made a little bow.
“Madame, I congratulate you. Your card memory is magnificent—but magnificent! You remember, one might say, every card that was played!”
“I believe I do!”
“Memory is a wonderful gift. With it the past is never the past—I should imagine, madame, that to you the past unrolls itself, every incident clear as yesterday. Is that so?”
She looked at him quickly. Her eyes were wide and dark.
It was only for a moment, then she had resumed her woman-of-the-world manner, but Hercule Poirot did not doubt. That shot had gone home.
Mrs. Lorrimer rose.
“I’m afraid I shall have to leave now. I am so sorry—but I really mustn’t be late.”
“Of course not—of course not. I apologize for trespassing on your time.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help you more.”
“But you have helped me,” said Hercule Poirot.
“I hardly think so.”
She spoke with decision.
“But yes. You have told me something I wanted to know.”
She asked no question as to what that something was.
He held out his hand.
“Thank you, madame, for your forbearance.”
As she shook hands with him she said:
“You are an extraordinary man, M. Poirot.”
“I am as the good God made me, madame.”
“We are all that, I suppose.”
“Not all, madame. Some of us have tried to improve on His pattern. Mr. Shaitana, for instance.”
“In what way do you mean?”
“He had a very pretty taste in objets de vertu and bric-à-brac—he should have been content with that. Instead, he collected other things.”
“What sort of things?”
“Well—shall we say—sensations?”
“And don’t you think that was dans son caractère?”
Poirot shook his head gravely.
“He played the part of the devil too successfully. But he was not the devil. Au fond, he was a stupid man. And so—he died.”
“Because he was stupid?”
“It is the sin that is never forgiven and always punished, madame.”
There was a silence. Then Poirot said:
“I take my departure. A thousand thanks for your amiability, madame. I will not come again unless you send for me.”
Her eyebrows rose.
“Dear me, M. Poirot, why should I send for you?”
“You might. It is just an idea. If so, I will come. Remember that.”
He bowed once more and left the room.
In the street he said to himself:
“I am right … I am sure I am right … It must be that!”
Mrs. Oliver extricated herself from the driving seat of her little two-seater with some difficulty. To begin with, the makers of modern motorcars assume that only a pair of sylphlike knees will ever be under the steering wheel. It is also the fashion to sit low. That being so, for a middle-aged woman of generous proportions it requires a good deal of superhuman wriggling to get out from under the steering wheel. In the second place, the seat next to the driving seat was encumbered by several maps, a handbag, three novels and a large bag of apples. Mrs. Oliver was partial to apples and had indeed been known to eat as many as five pounds straight off whilst composing the complicated plot of The Death in the Drain Pipe—coming to herself with a start and an incipient stomachache an hour and ten minutes after she was due at an important luncheon party given in her honour.
With a final determined heave and a sharp shove with a knee against a recalcitrant door, Mrs. Oliver arrived a little too suddenly on the sidewalk outside the gate of Wendon Cottage, showering apple cores freely round her as she did so.
She gave a deep sigh, pushed back her country hat to an unfashionable angle, looked down with approval at the tweeds she had remembered to put on, frowned a little when she saw that she had absentmindedly retained her London high-heeled patent leather shoes, and pushing open the gate of Wendon Cottage walked up the flagged path to the front door. She rang the bell and executed a cheerful little rat-a-tat-tat on the knocker—a quaint conceit in the form of a toad’s head.
As nothing happened she repeated the performance.
After a further pause of a minute and a half, Mrs. Oliver stepped briskly round the side of the house on a voyage of exploration.
There was a small old-fashioned garden with Michaelmas daisies and straggling chrysanthemums behind the cottage, and beyond it a field. Beyond the field was the river. For an October day the sun was warm.
Two girls were just crossing the field in the direction of the cottage. As they came through the gate into the garden, the foremost of the two stopped dead.
Mrs. Oliver came forward.
“How do you do, Miss Meredith? You remember me, don’t you?”
“Oh—oh, of course.” Anne Meredith extended her hand hurriedly. Her eyes looked wide and startled. Then she pulled herself together.
“This is my friend who lives with me—Miss Dawes. Rhoda, this is Mrs. Oliver.”
The other girl was tall, dark, and vigorous-looking. She said excitedly:
“Oh, are you the Mrs. Oliver? Ariadne Oliver?”
“I am,” said Mrs. Oliver, and she added to Anne, “Now let us sit down somewhere, my dear, because I’ve got a lot to say to you.”
“Of course. And we’ll have tea—”
“Tea can wait,” said Mrs. Oliver.
Anne led the way to a little group of deck and basket chairs, all rather dilapidated. Mrs. Oliver chose the strongest-looking with some care, having had various unfortunate experiences with flimsy summer furniture.
“Now, my dear,” she said briskly. “Don’t let’s beat about the bush. About this murder the other evening. We’ve got to get busy and do something.”
“Do something?” queried Anne.
“Naturally,” said Mrs. Oliver. “I don’t know what you think, but I haven’t the least doubt who did it. That doctor. What was his name? Roberts. That’s it! Roberts. A Welsh name! I never trust the Welsh! I had a Welsh nurse and she took me to Harrogate one day and went home having forgotten all about me. Very unstable. But never mind about her. Roberts did it—that’s the point and we must put our heads together and prove he did.”
Rhoda Dawes laughed suddenly—then she blushed.
“I beg your pardon. But you’re—you’re so different from what I would have imagined.”
“A disappointment, I expect,” said Mrs. Oliver serenely. “I’m used to that. Never mind. What we must do is prove that Roberts did it!”
“How can we?” said Anne.
“Oh, don’t be so defeatist, Anne,” cried Rhoda Dawes. “I think Mrs. Oliver’s splendid. Of course, she knows all about these things. She’ll do just as Sven Hjerson does.”
Blushing slightly at the name of her celebrated Finnish detective, Mrs. Oliver said:
“It’s got to be done, and I’ll tell you why, child. You don’t want people thinking you did it?”
“Why should they?” asked Anne, her colour rising.
“You know what people are!” said Mrs. Oliver. “The three who didn’t do it will come in for just as much suspicion as the one who did.”
Anne Meredith said slowly:
“I still don’t quite see why you come to me, Mrs. Oliver?”
“Because in my opinion the other two don’t matter! Mrs. Lorrimer is one of those women who play bridge at bridge clubs all day. Women like that must be made of armourplating—they can look after themselves all right! And anyway she’s old. It wouldn’t matter if anyone thought she’d done it. A girl’s different. She’s got her life in front of her.”
“And Major Despard?” asked Anne.
“Pah!” said Mrs. Oliver. “He’s a man! I never worry about men. Men can look after themselves. Do it remarkably well, if you ask me. Besides, Major Despard enjoys a dangerous life. He’s getting his fun at home instead of on the Irrawaddy—or do I mean the Limpopo? You know what I mean—that yellow African river that men like so much. No, I’m not worrying my head about either of those two.”
“It’s very kind of you,” said Anne slowly.
“It was a beastly thing to happen,” said Rhoda. “It’s broken Anne up, Mrs. Oliver. She’s awfully sensitive. And I think you’re quite right. It would be ever so much better to do something than just to sit here thinking about it all.”
“Of course it would,” said Mrs. Oliver. “To tell you the truth, a real murder has never come my way before. And, to continue telling the truth, I don’t believe real murder is very much in my line. I’m so used to loading the dice—if you understand what I mean. But I wasn’t going to be out of it and let those three men have all the fun to themselves. I’ve always said that if a woman were the head of Scotland Yard—”
“Yes?” said Rhoda, leaning forward with parted lips. “If you were head of Scotland Yard, what would you do?”
“I should arrest Dr. Roberts straight away—”
“However, I’m not the head of Scotland Yard,” said Mrs. Oliver, retreating from dangerous ground. “I’m a private individual—”
“Oh, you’re not that,” said Rhoda, confusedly complimentary.
“Here we are,” continued Mrs. Oliver, “three private individuals—all women. Let us see what we can do by putting our heads together.”
Anne Meredith nodded thoughtfully. Then she said:
“Why do you think Dr. Roberts did it?”
“He’s that sort of man,” replied Mrs. Oliver promptly.
“Don’t you think, though—” Anne hesitated. “Wouldn’t a doctor—? I mean something like poison would be so much easier for him.”
“Not at all. Poison—drugs of any kind would point straight to a doctor. Look how they are always leaving cases of dangerous drugs in cars all over London and getting them stolen. No, just because he was a doctor he’d take special care not to use anything of a medical kind.”
“I see,” said Anne doubtfully.
Then she said:
“But why do you think he wanted to kill Mr. Shaitana? Have you any idea?”
“Idea? I’ve got any amount of ideas. In fact, that’s just the difficulty. It always is my difficulty. I can never think of even one plot at a time. I always think of at least five, and it’s agony to decide between them. I can think of six beautiful reasons for the murder. The trouble is I’ve no earthly means of knowing which is right. To begin with, perhaps Shaitana was a moneylender. He had a very oily look. Roberts was in his clutches, and killed him because he couldn’t get the money to repay the loan. Or perhaps Shaitana ruined his daughter or his sister. Or perhaps Roberts is a bigamist, and Shaitana knew it. Or possibly Roberts married Shaitana’s second cousin, and will inherit all Shaitana’s money through her. Or—How many have I got to?”
“Four,” said Rhoda.
“Or—and this is a really good one—suppose Shaitana knew some secret in Roberts’ past. Perhaps you didn’t notice, my dear, but Shaitana said something rather peculiar at dinner—just before a rather queer pause.”
Anne stooped to tickle a caterpillar. She said, “I don’t think I remember.”
“What did he say?” asked Rhoda.
“Something about—what was it?—an accident and poison. Don’t you remember?”
Anne’s left hand tightened on the basketwork of her chair.
“I do remember something of the kind,” she said composedly.
Rhoda said suddenly, “Darling, you ought to have a coat. It’s not summer, remember. Go and get one.”
Anne shook her head.
“I’m quite warm.”
But she gave a queer little shiver as she spoke.
“You see my theory,” went on Mrs. Oliver. “I daresay one of the doctor’s patients poisoned himself by accident; but, of course, really, it was the doctor’s own doing. I daresay he’s murdered lots of people that way.”
A sudden colour came into Anne’s cheeks. She said, “Do doctors usually want to murder their patients wholesale? Wouldn’t it have rather a regrettable effect on their practice?”
“There would be a reason, of course,” said Mrs. Oliver vaguely.
“I think the idea is absurd,” said Anne crisply. “Absolutely absurdly melodramatic.”
“Oh, Anne!” cried Rhoda in an agony of apology. She looked at Mrs. Oliver. Her eyes, rather like those of an intelligent spaniel, seemed to be trying to say something. “Try and understand. Try and understand,” those eyes said.
“I think it’s a splendid idea, Mrs. Oliver,” Rhoda said earnestly.