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Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery

Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery Agatha Christie Sophie Hannah Hercule Poirot returns in another brilliant murder mystery that can only be solved by the eponymous Belgian detective and his ‘little grey cells’.‘What I intend to say to you will come as a shock . . .’Lady Athelinda Playford has planned a house party at her mansion in Clonakilty, County Cork, but it is no ordinary gathering. As guests arrive, Lady Playford summons her lawyer to make an urgent change to her will – one she intends to announce at dinner that night. She has decided to cut off her two children without a penny and leave her fortune to someone who has only weeks to live . . .Among Lady Playford’s guests are two men she has never met – the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. Neither knows why he has been invited . . . until Poirot starts to wonder if Lady Playford expects a murderer to strike. But why does she seem so determined to provoke, in the presence of a possible killer?When the crime is committed in spite of Poirot’s best efforts to stop it, and the victim is not who he expected it to be, will he be able to find the culprit and solve the mystery?Following the phenomenal global success of The Monogram Murders, which was published to critical acclaim following a co-ordinated international launch in September 2014, international best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah has been commissioned by Agatha Christie Limited to pen a second fully-authorised Poirot novel. The new book marks the centenary of the creation of Christie’s world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, introduced in her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Closed Casket THE NEW HERCULE POIROT MYSTERY SOPHIE HANNAH Copyright (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins 2016 Closed Casket™ is a trade mark of Agatha Christie Limited and Agatha Christie®, Poirot® and the Agatha Christie Signature are registered trade marks of Agatha Christie Limited in the UK and elsewhere. Copyright © Agatha Christie Limited 2016 All rights reserved. www.agathachristie.com (http://www.agathachristie.com) Jacket design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016 Sophie Hannah asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008134099 Ebook Edition © September 2016 ISBN: 9780008134112 Version: 2018-10-02 Dedication (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) For Mathew and James Prichard and family, with love Table of Contents Cover (#uf4016184-2bb1-5e65-84e4-87cb4937a07a) Title Page (#uab1d6f97-fce0-58ea-ac48-3d23efe729c2) Copyright (#u434b2bc9-9080-585b-9827-c9ab40738737) Dedication (#ua6f1dc59-2b7a-5dfb-b78f-b5d157acd862) Part One (#u2f9668da-98ea-5e58-8c4c-6e11d00906cb) Chapter 1: A New Will (#u56154e13-c5e2-524d-8669-2bc585190545) Chapter 2: A Surprise Reunion (#uda954b47-1eda-5a8e-9463-82c1a375ef90) Chapter 3: A Particular Interest in Death (#u1e20ece7-5157-56de-873e-5634d6756f26) Chapter 4: An Unexpected Admirer (#u0de728de-16d3-5bfb-ad51-99be01fbc8b5) Chapter 5: Tears Before Dinner (#ud182c865-2991-5af5-9b2c-af77e79487df) Chapter 6: The Announcement (#u5395e9ac-18c0-5b1d-8707-43a46a5a4236) Chapter 7: The Reaction (#u104a8e4b-352d-5a87-98b1-69cf5bb957f3) Chapter 8: A Stroll in the Gardens (#uf8efa0de-9930-59a7-b68f-4ecda679d3d2) Chapter 9: King John (#u50593b85-fa2a-5495-894a-a39affb99648) Chapter 10: Open Casket (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11: Overheard Voices (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12: Sophie Points a Finger (#litres_trial_promo) Part Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13: Enter the Gardaí (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14: Lady Playford’s Two Lists (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15: Seeing, Hearing and Looking (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16: Down in the Dumps (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17: The Grandfather Clock (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18: Unrequited (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19: Two Irises (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20: Cause of Death (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21: The Casket Question (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22: In the Orangery (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23: The Inquest (#litres_trial_promo) Part Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24: Sophie Makes Another Accusation (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25: Shrimp Seddon and the Jealous Daughter (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26: Kimpton’s Definition of Knowledge (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27: The Iris Story (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28: A Possible Arrest (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29: The Grubber (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30: More Than Fond (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31: Lady Playford’s Plan (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32: The Kidnapped Racehorse (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33: The Two True Things (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34: Motive and Opportunity (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 35: Everyone Could Have But Nobody Did (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 36: The Experiment (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 37: Poirot Wins Fair and Square (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Sophie Hannah (#litres_trial_promo) The Agatha Christie Collection (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) PART ONE (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) CHAPTER 1 (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) A New Will (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) Michael Gathercole stared at the closed door in front of him and tried to persuade himself that now was the moment to knock, as the aged grandfather clock in the hall downstairs stuttered its announcement of the hour. Gathercole’s instructions had been to present himself at four, and four it was. He had stood here—in this same spot on the wide first landing of Lillieoak—many times in the past six years. Only once had he felt less at ease than he did today. On that occasion he had been one of two men waiting, not alone as he was this afternoon. He still remembered every word of his conversation with the other man, when his preference would have been to recall none of it. Applying the self-discipline upon which he relied, he cast it from his mind. He had been warned that he would find this afternoon’s meeting difficult. The warning had formed part of the summons, which was typical of his hostess. ‘What I intend to say to you will come as a shock …’ Gathercole did not doubt it. The prior notice was no use to him, for it contained no information about what sort of preparation might be in order. His discomfort grew more pronounced when he consulted his pocket watch and noticed that by hesitating, and with all the taking out of the watch and putting it back in the waistcoat pocket, and pulling it out once more to check, he had made himself late. It was already a minute after four o’clock. He knocked. Only one minute late. She would notice—was there anything she did not notice?—but with any luck she would not remark upon it. ‘Do come in, Michael!’ Lady Athelinda Playford sounded as ebullient as ever. She was seventy years old, with a voice as strong and clear as a polished bell. Gathercole had never encountered her in sober spirits. There was always, with her, a cause for excitement—often such morsels as would alarm a conventional person. Lady Playford had a talent for extracting as much amusement from the inconsequential as from the controversial. Gathercole had admired her stories of happy children solving mysteries that confounded the local police since he had first discovered them as a lonely ten-year-old in a London orphanage. Six years ago, he had met their creator for the first time and found her as disarming and unpredictable as her books. He had never expected to go far in his chosen profession, but here he was, thanks to Athelinda Playford: still a relatively young man at thirty-six, and a partner in a successful firm of solicitors, Gathercole and Rolfe. The notion that any profitable enterprise bore his name was still perplexing to Gathercole, even after a number of years. His loyalty to Lady Playford surpassed all other attachments he had formed in his life, but personal acquaintance with his favourite author had forced him to admit to himself that he preferred shocks and startling about-turns to occur in the safely distant world of fiction, not in reality. Lady Playford, needless to say, did not share his preference. He started to open the door. ‘Are you going to … Ah! There you are! Don’t hover. Sit, sit. We’ll get nowhere if we don’t start.’ Gathercole sat. ‘Hello, Michael.’ She smiled at him, and he had the strange sense he always had—as if her eyes had picked him up, turned him around and put him down again. ‘And now you must say, “Hello, Athie.” Go on, say it! After all this time, it ought to be a breeze. Not “Good afternoon, your ladyship”. Not “Good day, Lady Playford”. A plain, friendly “Hello, Athie”. Is that too much to manage? Ha!’ She clapped her hands together. ‘You look quite the hunted fox cub! You can’t understand why you’ve been invited to stay for a week, can you? Or why Mr Rolfe was invited too.’ Would the arrangements that Gathercole had put in place be sufficient to cover the absence of himself and Orville Rolfe? It was unheard of for them both to be away from the office for five consecutive days, but Lady Playford was the firm’s most illustrious client; no request from her could be refused. ‘I dare say you are wondering if there will be other guests, Michael. We shall come to all of that, but I’m still waiting for you to say hello.’ He had no choice. The greeting she demanded from him each time would never fall naturally from his lips. He was a man who liked to follow rules, and if there wasn’t a rule forbidding a person of his background from addressing a dowager viscountess, widow of the fifth Viscount Playford of Clonakilty, as ‘Athie’, then Gathercole fervently believed there ought to be. It was unfortunate, therefore—he said so to himself often—that Lady Playford, for whom he would do anything, poured scorn on the rules at every turn and derided those who obeyed them as ‘dreary dry sticks’. ‘Hello, Athie.’ ‘There we are!’ She spread out her arms in the manner of a woman inviting a man to leap into them, though Gathercole knew that was not her intention. ‘Ordeal survived. You may relax. Not too much! We have important matters to attend to—after we’ve discussed the bundle of the moment.’ It was Lady Playford’s habit to describe the book she was in the middle of writing as ‘the bundle’. Her latest sat on the corner of the desk and she threw a resentful glance in its direction. It looked to Gathercole less like a novel in progress and more like a whirlwind represented in paper: creased pages with curled edges, corners pointing every which way. There was nothing in the least rectangular about it. Lady Playford hauled herself out of her armchair by the window. She never looked out, Gathercole had noticed. If there was a human being to inspect, Lady Playford did not waste time on nature. Her study offered the most magnificent views: the rose garden and, behind it, a perfectly square lawn, at the centre of which was the angel statue that her husband Guy, the late Viscount Playford, had commissioned as a wedding anniversary gift, to celebrate thirty years of marriage. Gathercole always looked at the statue and the lawn and the rose bushes when he visited, as well as at the grandfather clock in the hall and the bronze table lamp in the library with the leaded glass snail-shell shade; he made a point of doing so. He approved of the stability they seemed to offer. Things—by which Gathercole meant lifeless objects and not any more general state of affairs—rarely changed at Lillieoak. Lady Playford’s constant meticulous scrutiny of every person that crossed her path meant that she paid little attention to anything that could not speak. In her study, the room she and Gathercole were in now, there were two books upside down in the large bookcase that stood against one wall: Shrimp Seddon and the Pearl Necklace and Shrimp Seddon and the Christmas Stocking. They had been upside down since Gathercole’s first visit. Six years later, to see them righted would be disconcerting. No other author’s books were permitted to reside upon those shelves, only Athelinda Playford’s. Their spines brought some much-needed brightness into the wood-panelled room—strips of red, blue, green, purple, orange; colours designed to appeal to children—though even they were no match for Lady Playford’s lustrous cloud of silver hair. She positioned herself directly in front of Gathercole. ‘I want to talk to you about my will, Michael, and to ask a favour of you. But first: how much do you imagine a child—an ordinary child—might know about surgical procedures to reshape a nose?’ ‘A … a nose?’ Gathercole wished he could hear about the will first and the favour second. Both sounded important, and were perhaps related. Lady Playford’s testamentary arrangements had been in place for some time. All was as it should be. Could it be that she wanted to change something? ‘Don’t be exasperating, Michael. It’s a perfectly simple question. After a bad motorcar accident, or to correct a deformity. Surgery to change the shape of the nose. Would a child know about such a thing? Would he know its name?’ ‘I don’t know, I’m afraid.’ ‘Do you know its name?’ ‘Surgery, I should call it, whether it’s for the nose or any other part of the body.’ ‘I suppose you might know the name without knowing you know it. That happens sometimes.’ Lady Playford frowned. ‘Hmph. Let me ask you another question: you arrive at the offices of a firm that employs ten men and two women. You overhear a few of the men talking about one of the women. They refer to her as “Rhino”.’ ‘Hardly gallant of them.’ ‘Their manners are not your concern. A few moments later, the two ladies return from lunch. One of them is fine-boned, slender and mild in her temperament, but she has a rather peculiar face. No one knows what’s wrong with it, but it somehow doesn’t look quite right. The other is a mountain of a woman—twice my size at least.’ Lady Playford was of average height, and plump, with downward slopes for shoulders that gave her a rather funnel-like appearance. ‘What is more, she has a fierce look on her face. Now, which of the two women I’ve described would you guess to be Rhino?’ ‘The large, fierce one,’ Gathercole replied at once. ‘Excellent! You’re wrong. In my story, Rhino turns out to be the slim girl with the strange facial features—because, you see, she’s had her nose surgically reconstructed after an accident, in a procedure that goes by the name of rhinoplasty!’ ‘Ah. That I did not know,’ said Gathercole. ‘But I fear children won’t know the name, and that’s who I’m writing for. If you haven’t heard of rhinoplasty …’ Lady Playford sighed. ‘I’m in two minds. I was so excited when I first thought of it, but then I started to worry. Is it a little too scientific to have the crux of the story revolving around a medical procedure? No one really thinks about surgeries unless they have to, after all—unless they’re about to go into hospital themselves. Children don’t think about such things, do they?’ ‘I like the idea,’ said Gathercole. ‘You might emphasize that the slender lady has not merely a strange face but a strange nose, to send your readers in the right direction. You could say early on in the story that she has a new nose, thanks to expert surgery, and you could have Shrimp somehow find out the name of the operation and let the reader see her surprise when she finds out.’ Shrimp Seddon was Lady Playford’s ten-year-old fictional heroine, the leader of a gang of child detectives. ‘So the reader sees the surprise but not, at first, the discovery. Yes! And perhaps Shrimp could say to Podge, “You’ll never guess what it’s called,” and then be interrupted, and I can put in a chapter there about something else—maybe the police stupidly arresting the wrong person but even wronger than usual, maybe even Shrimp’s father or mother—so that anyone reading can go away and consult a doctor or an encyclopaedia if they wish. But I won’t leave it too long before Shrimp reveals all. Yes. Michael, I knew I could rely on you. That’s settled, then. Now, about my will …’ She returned to her chair by the window and arranged herself in it. ‘I want you to make a new one for me.’ Gathercole was surprised. According to the terms of Lady Playford’s existing will, her substantial estate was to be divided equally, upon her death, between her two surviving children: her daughter Claudia and her son Harry, the sixth Viscount Playford of Clonakilty. There had been a third child, Nicholas, but he had died young. ‘I want to leave everything to my secretary, Joseph Scotcher,’ announced the clear-as-a-bell voice. Gathercole sat forward in his chair. It was pointless to try to push the unwelcome words away. He had heard them, and could not pretend otherwise. What act of vandalism was Lady Playford about to insist upon? She could not be in earnest. This was a trick; it had to be. Yes, Gathercole saw what she was about: get the frivolous part out of the way first—Rhino, rhinoplasty, all very clever and amusing—and then introduce the big caper as if it were a serious proposition. ‘I am in my right mind and entirely serious, Michael. I’d like you to do as I ask. Before dinner tonight, please. Why don’t you make a start now?’ ‘Lady Playford …’ ‘Athie,’ she corrected him. ‘If this is something else from your rhino story that you’re trying out on me—’ ‘Sincerely, it is not, Michael. I have never lied to you. I am not lying now. I need you to draw me up a new will. Joseph Scotcher is to inherit everything.’ ‘But what about your children?’ ‘Claudia is about to marry a greater fortune than mine, in the shape of Randall Kimpton. She will be perfectly all right. And Harry has a good head on his shoulders and a dependable if enervating wife. Poor Joseph needs what I have to give more than Claudia or Harry.’ ‘I must appeal to you to think very carefully before—’ ‘Michael, please don’t make a cake of yourself.’ Lady Playford cut him off. ‘Do you imagine the idea first occurred to me as you knocked at the door a few minutes ago? Or is it more likely that I have been ruminating on this for weeks or months? The careful thought you urge upon me has taken place, I assure you. Now: are you going to witness my new will or must I call for Mr Rolfe?’ So that was why Orville Rolfe had also been invited to Lillieoak: in case he, Gathercole, refused to do her bidding. ‘There’s another change I’d like to make to my will at the same time: the favour I mentioned, if you recall. To this part, you may say no if you wish, but I do hope you won’t. At present, Claudia and Harry are named as my literary executors. That arrangement no longer suits me. I should be honoured if you, Michael, would agree to take on the role.’ ‘To … to be your literary executor?’ He could scarcely credit it. For nearly a minute, he felt too overwhelmed to speak. Oh, but it was all wrong. What would Lady Playford’s children have to say about it? He couldn’t accept. ‘Do Harry and Claudia know your intentions?’ he asked eventually. ‘No. They will at dinner tonight. Joseph too. At present the only people who know are you and me.’ ‘Has there been a conflict within the family of which I am unaware?’ ‘Not at all!’ Lady Playford smiled. ‘Harry, Claudia and I are the best of friends—until dinner tonight, at least.’ ‘I … but … you have known Joseph Scotcher a mere six years. You met him the day you met me.’ ‘There is no need to tell me what I already know, Michael.’ ‘Whereas your children … Additionally, my understanding was that Joseph Scotcher …’ ‘Speak, dear man.’ ‘Is Scotcher not seriously ill?’ Silently, Gathercole added: Do you no longer believe he will die before you? Athelinda Playford was not young but she was full of vitality. It was hard to believe that anyone who relished life as she did might be deprived of it. ‘Indeed, Joseph is very sick,’ she said. ‘He grows weaker by the day. Hence this unusual decision on my part. I have never said so before, but I trust you’re aware that I adore Joseph? I love him like a son—as if he were my own flesh and blood.’ Gathercole felt a sudden tightness in his chest. Yes, he’d been aware. The difference between knowing a thing and having it confirmed was vast. It led to thoughts that were beneath him, which he fought to banish. ‘Joseph tells me his doctors have said he has only weeks, now, to live.’ ‘But … then I’m afraid I’m quite baffled,’ said Gathercole. ‘You wish to make a new will in favour of a man you know won’t be around to make use of his inheritance.’ ‘Nothing is ever known for certain in this world, Michael.’ ‘And if Scotcher should succumb to his illness within weeks, as you expect him to—what then?’ ‘Why, in that eventuality we revert to the original plan—Harry and Claudia get half each.’ ‘I must ask you something,’ said Gathercole, in whom a painful anxiety had started to grow. ‘Forgive the impertinence. Do you have any reason to believe that you too will die imminently?’ ‘Me?’ Lady Playford laughed. ‘I’m strong as an ox. I expect to chug on for years.’ ‘Then Scotcher will inherit nothing on your demise, being long dead himself, and the new will you are asking me to arrange will achieve nothing but to create discord between you and your children.’ ‘On the contrary: my new will might cause somethingwonderful to happen.’ She said this with relish. Gathercole sighed. ‘I’m afraid to say I’m still baffled.’ ‘Of course you are,’ said Athelinda Playford. ‘I knew you would be.’ CHAPTER 2 (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) A Surprise Reunion (#u439a14ff-fe15-578c-80e7-9122b2d28e5f) Conceal and reveal: how appropriate that those two words should rhyme. They sound like opposites and yet, as all good storytellers know, much can be revealed by the tiniest attempts at concealment, and new revelations often hide as much as they make plain. All of which is my clumsy way of introducing myself as the narrator of this story. Everything you have learned so far—about Michael Gathercole’s meeting with Lady Athelinda Playford—has been revealed to you by me, yet I started to tell the tale without making anybody aware of my presence. My name is Edward Catchpool, and I am a detective with London’s Scotland Yard. The extraordinary events that I have barely begun to describe did not take place in London, but in Clonakilty, County Cork, in the Irish Free State. It was on 14 October 1929 that Michael Gathercole and Lady Playford met in her study at Lillieoak, and it was on that same day, and only an hour after that meeting commenced, that I arrived at Lillieoak after a long journey from England. Six weeks earlier, I had received a puzzling letter from Lady Athelinda Playford, inviting me to spend a week as a guest at her country estate. The various delights of hunting, shooting and fishing were offered to me—none of which I had done before and nor was I keen to try them, though my prospective host wasn’t to know that—but what was missing from the invitation was any explanation of why my presence was desired. I put the letter down on the dining room table at my lodging house and considered what to do. I thought about Athelinda Playford—writer of detective stories, probably the most famous author of children’s books that I could think of—and then I thought about me: a bachelor, a policeman, no wife and therefore no children to whom I might read books … No, Lady Playford’s world and mine need never overlap, I decided—and yet she had sent me this letter, which meant that I had to do something about it. Did I want to go? Not greatly, no—and that meant that I probably would. Human beings, I have noticed, like to follow patterns, and I am no exception. Since so much of what I do in my daily life is not anything I would ever undertake by choice, I tend to assume that if something crops up that I would prefer not to do, that means I will certainly do it. Some days later, I wrote to Lady Playford and enthusiastically accepted her invitation. I suspected she wished to pick my brains and use whatever she extracted in a future book or books. Maybe she had finally decided to find out a little more about how the police operated. As a child, I had read one or two of her stories and been flabbergasted to discover that senior policemen were such nincompoops, incapable of solving even the simplest mystery without the help of a group of conceited, loud-mouthed ten-year-olds. My curiosity on this point was, in fact, the beginning of my fascination with the police force—an interest that led directly to my choice of career. Strangely, it had not occurred to me before that I had Athelinda Playford to thank for this. During the course of my journey to Lillieoak, I had read another of her novels, to refresh my memory, and found that my youthful judgement had been accurate: the finale was very much a case of Sergeant Halfwit and Inspector Imbecile getting a thorough ticking-off from precocious Shrimp Seddon for being stumped by a perfectly obvious trail of clues that even Shrimp’s fat, long-haired dog, Anita, had managed to interpret correctly. The sun was about to set when I arrived at five o’clock in the afternoon, but it was still light enough for me to observe my rather spectacular surroundings. As I stood in front of Lady Playford’s grand Palladian mansion on the banks of the Argideen river in Clonakilty—with formal gardens behind me, fields to the left and what looked like the edge of a forest on my right—I was aware of endless space—the uninterrupted blues and greens of the natural world. I had known before setting off from London that the Lillieoak estate was eight hundred acres, but it was only now that I understood what that meant: no shared margins of your own world and that of anyone else if you did not desire it; nothing and nobody pressing in on you or hovering nearby the way they did in the city. It was no wonder, really, that Lady Playford knew nothing of the way policemen conducted themselves. As I breathed in the freshest air I had ever inhaled, I found myself hoping I was right about the reason I had been invited here. Given the opportunity, I thought, I would happily suggest that a little realism would significantly improve Lady Playford’s books. Perhaps Shrimp Seddon and her gang, in the next one, could work in cooperation with a more competent police force … Lillieoak’s front door opened. A butler peered out at me. He was of medium height and build, with thinning grey hair and lots of creases and lines around his eyes, but nowhere else. The effect was of an old man’s eyes inserted into a much younger man’s face. The butler’s expression was odder still. It suggested that he needed to impart vital information in order to protect me from something unfortunate, but could not do so, for it was a matter of the utmost delicacy. I waited for him to introduce himself or invite me into the house. He did neither. Eventually I said, ‘My name is Edward Catchpool. I have just arrived from England. I believe Lady Playford is expecting me.’ My suitcases were by my feet. He looked at them, then looked over his shoulder; he repeated this sequence twice. There was no verbal accompaniment to any of it. Eventually, he said, ‘I will have your belongings taken to your room, sir.’ ‘Thank you.’ I frowned. This really was most peculiar—more so than I can describe, I fear. Though the butler’s statement was perfectly ordinary, he conveyed a sense of so much more left unsaid—an air of ‘In the circumstances, this is, I am afraid, the most I can divulge.’ ‘Was there something else?’ I asked. The face tightened. ‘Another of Lady Playford’s … guests awaits you in the drawing room, sir.’ ‘Another?’ I had assumed I was to be the only one. My question appeared to repel him. I failed to see the point of contention, and was considering allowing my impatience to show when I heard a door opening inside the house, and a voice I recognized. ‘Catchpool! Mon cher ami!’ ‘Poirot?’ I called out. To the butler I said, ‘Is that Hercule Poirot?’ I pushed open the door and walked into the house, tired of waiting to be invited in out of the cold. I saw an elaborately tiled floor of the sort you might see in a palace, a grand wooden staircase, too many doors and corridors for a newcomer to take in, a grandfather clock, the mounted head of a deer on one wall. The poor creature looked as if it was smiling, and I smiled back at it. Despite being dead and detached from its body, the deer’s head was more welcoming than the butler. ‘Catchpool!’ Again came the voice. ‘Look here, is Hercule Poirot in this house?’ I asked more insistently. This time the butler replied with a reluctant nod, and moments later the Belgian moved into view at a pace that, for him, was fast. I could not help chuckling at the egg-shaped head and the shiny shoes, both so familiar, and of course the unmistakable moustaches. ‘Catchpool! What a pleasure to find you here too!’ ‘I was about to say the same to you. Was it you, by any chance, wanting to see me in the drawing room?’ ‘Yes, yes. It was I.’ ‘I thought so. Good, then you can lead me there. What on earth is going on? Has something happened?’ ‘Happened? No. What should have happened?’ ‘Well …’ I turned round. Poirot and I were alone, and my suitcases had vanished. ‘From the butler’s guarded manner, I wondered if—’ ‘Ah, yes, Hatton. Pay no attention to him, Catchpool. His manner, as you call it, is without cause. It is simply his character.’ ‘Are you sure? It’s an odd sort of character to have.’ ‘Oui. Lady Playford explained him to me shortly after I arrived this afternoon. I asked her the same questions you ask me, thinking something must have occurred that the butler thought it was not his place to discuss. She said Hatton becomes this way after being in service for so long. He has seen many things that it would not have been prudent for him to mention, and so now, Lady Playford tells me, it is his preference to say as little as possible. She too finds it frustrating. “He cannot part with the most basic information—what time will dinner be served? When will the coal be delivered?—without behaving as if I’m trying to wrestle from him a closely guarded and explosive family secret,” she complained to me. “He has lost what judgement he once had, and is now unable to distinguish between outrageous indiscretion and saying anything at all,” she said.’ ‘Then why does she not engage a new butler?’ ‘That, also, is a question I asked. We think alike, you and I.’ ‘Well, did she give you an answer?’ ‘She is fascinated to monitor the development of Hatton’s personality, and to see how he will further refine his habits in the future.’ I made an exasperated face, wondering when someone would appear with the offer of a cup of tea. At that moment, the house shook, then stilled, then shook again. I was about to say ‘What on earth …?’ when I noticed, at the top of the staircase, the largest man I had ever seen. He was on his way down. He had straw-coloured hair and a jowly face, and his head looked as tiny as a pebble balanced atop his planet-sized body. Loud creaking noises came from beneath his feet as he moved, and I feared he might put one of them clean through the wood. ‘Do you hear that appalling noise?’ he demanded of us without introducing himself. ‘Steps shouldn’t groan when you stand on them. Isn’t that what they’re for—to be stood on?’ ‘It is,’ Poirot agreed. ‘Well?’ said the man unnecessarily. He had been given his answer. ‘I tell you, they don’t make staircases like they used to. The craftsmanship’s all gone.’ Poirot smiled politely, then took my arm and steered me to the left, whispering, ‘It is the fault of his appetite that the stairs groan. Still, he is a lawyer—if I were that staircase, I would obtain legal advice.’ It was not until he smiled that I realized it was supposed to be a joke. I followed him into what I assumed was the drawing room, which was large and had a big stone fireplace that was too near the door. No fire burned in the grate, and it was colder in here than it had been in the hall. The room was much longer than it was wide, and the many armchairs were positioned in a sort of messy row at one end and an equally untidy cluster at the other. This arrangement of furniture accentuated the room’s rectangular shape and made for a rather divided effect. There were French windows at the far end. The curtains had not been drawn for the night, though it was dark outside—and darker for the time of day in Clonakilty than in London, I noticed. Poirot closed the drawing room door. At last, I took a proper look at my old friend. He looked plumper than when I had last seen him, and his moustache seemed larger and more prominent, at least from across the room. As he moved towards me, I decided that in fact he looked exactly the same, and rather it was I whose imagination had shrunk him to a manageable size. ‘What a great pleasure to see you, mon ami! I could not believe it when I arrived and Lady Playford told me that you were to be among the guests for the week.’ His pleasure was evident, and I felt a pang of guilt because my own feelings were less straightforward. I was heartened by his good spirits and relieved that he did not seem in the least disappointed in me. In Poirot’s presence, it is easy to feel that one is a disappointing specimen. ‘You did not know I was coming until you arrived here today?’ I asked. ‘Non. I must ask you at once, Catchpool. Why are you here?’ ‘For the same reason as you are, I should think. Athelinda Playford wrote and asked me to come. It is not every day that one is invited to spend a week in the home of a famous writer. I read a few of her books as a child, and—’ ‘No, no. You misunderstand me. I chose to come for the same reason—though I have not read any of her books. Please do not tell her so. What I meant to ask was, why does Lady Playford want us here, you and me? I imagined she had perhaps invited Hercule Poirot because, like her, he is the most famous and acclaimed in his field. Now I know that cannot be so, for you are here also. I wonder … Lady Playford must have read about the business in London, the Bloxham Hotel.’ Having no desire to discuss the business in question, I said, ‘Before I knew I would meet you here, I fancied she had invited me to ask me about police matters, so that she can get the detail right in her books. They would certainly benefit from a more realistic—’ ‘Oui, oui, biensûr. Tell me, Catchpool, do you have with you the letter of invitation?’ ‘Hm?’ ‘Sent to you by Lady Playford.’ ‘Oh, yes. It’s in my pocket.’ I fished it out and handed it to him. He cast his eye over it and passed it back to me, saying, ‘It is the same as the one sent to me. It reveals nothing. Maybe you are right. I wonder if she wishes to consult us in our professional capacities.’ ‘But … you have seen her, you said. Did you not ask her?’ ‘Mon ami, what sort of oafish guest demands of his hostess on arrival, “What do you want from me?” It would be impolite.’ ‘She did not volunteer any information? A hint?’ ‘There was barely time. I arrived only a few minutes before she had to go to her study to prepare for a meeting with her lawyer.’ ‘The one who was on the stairs? The, er, rather large gentleman?’ ‘Mr Orville Rolfe? No, no. He is a lawyer too, but the one with whom Lady Playford had a meeting at four o’clock was a different man. I saw him also. His name is Michael Gathercole. One of the tallest men I have met. He looked very uncomfortable about having to carry himself around.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Only that he gave the impression of wishing he could discard his own skin.’ ‘Oh. I see.’ I did not see at all, but I feared that asking for further clarification would have the opposite effect. Poirot shook his head. ‘Come, take off your coat and sit,’ he said. ‘It is a puzzle. Particularly when one considers who else is here.’ ‘I wonder if it would be possible to ask someone to bring some tea,’ I said, looking around. ‘I would have expected the butler to have sent a maid by now, if Lady Playford is busy.’ ‘I insisted upon no interruptions. I had some refreshments upon arrival, and soon drinks will be served in this room, I am told. We do not have long, Catchpool.’ ‘Long? For what?’ ‘If you would sit, you would learn for what.’ Poirot gave a little smile. He had never sounded more reasonable. With some trepidation, I sat. CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_0096b200-39da-5800-83ed-99c2b14ca633) A Particular Interest in Death (#ulink_0096b200-39da-5800-83ed-99c2b14ca633) ‘I must tell you who else is here,’ said Poirot. ‘You and I are not the only guests, mon ami. Altogether, including Lady Playford, there are eleven of us at Lillieoak. If one counts the servants as well, there are three more: Hatton the butler, a maid named Phyllis, and the cook, Brigid. The question is: ought we to count the servants?’ ‘Count them as what? Or for what? What are you talking about, Poirot? Are you here to conduct a study of the population of County Cork—how many inhabitants per house, that sort of thing?’ ‘I have missed your sense of humour, Catchpool, but we must be serious. As I say, we do not have long. Soon—within the half hour—someone will disturb us to prepare for the serving of drinks. Now, listen. At Lillieoak, apart from ourselves and the servants, there is our hostess, Lady Playford, the two lawyers we have talked about—Gathercole and Rolfe. There is also Lady Playford’s secretary, Joseph Scotcher, a nurse by the name of Sophie Bourlet—’ ‘A nurse?’ I perched on the arm of a chair. ‘Is Lady Playford in poor health, then?’ ‘No. Let me finish. Also here are Lady Playford’s two children, the wife of one and the young gentleman friend of the other. In fact, I believe Mr Randall Kimpton and Miss Claudia Playford are engaged to be married. She lives at Lillieoak. He is visiting from England. An American by birth, but also an Oxford man, I think Lady Playford said.’ ‘So you got all of this from her?’ ‘You will discover when you meet her that she is able to convey much in a short space of time, all with great colour and speed.’ ‘I see. That sounds alarming. Still, it’s comforting to know that someone in this house is capable of speech—given the butler, I mean. Have you reached the end of your inventory of people?’ ‘Yes, but I have not yet named the last two. Mademoiselle Claudia’s brother, Lady Playford’s son, is Harry, the sixth Viscount Playford of Clonakilty. He too I have already met. He lives here with his wife Dorothy, who is referred to by all as Dorro.’ ‘All right. And why is it so important that we list these people before we all gather for drinks? Incidentally, I should like to find my room and run a flannel over my face before the evening’s activities get underway, so—’ ‘Your face is clean enough,’ said Poirot with authority. ‘Turn around and look at what is mounted above the door.’ I did so, and saw angry eyes, a big black nose and an open mouth full of fangs. ‘Good gracious, what the devil is that?’ ‘The stuffed head of a leopard cub—the handiwork of Harry, Viscount Playford. He is a practitioner of taxidermy.’ Poirot frowned and added, ‘An enthusiastic one, who tries to persuade strangers that no other hobby is likely to provide the same satisfaction.’ ‘So the deer’s head in the hall must be his too,’ I said. ‘I told him I do not have the necessary implements or knowledge for the stuffing of animals. He said I would need only some wire, a penknife, needle and thread, hemp and arsenic. I thought it judicious not to tell him that I would also need not to find the idea repellent.’ I smiled. ‘A hobby involving arsenic would hardly appeal to a detective who has solved murders caused by that very poison.’ ‘This is what I want to talk to you about, mon ami. Death. Viscount Playford’s hobby is one that is all about the dead. Animals, not people—but they are still dead.’ ‘Assuredly. I don’t see what the relevance is, though.’ ‘You remember the name Joseph Scotcher—I mentioned it a moment ago.’ ‘Lady Playford’s secretary, yes?’ ‘He is dying. From Bright’s disease of the kidneys. That is why the nurse, Sophie Bourlet, lives here—to tend to his needs as an invalid.’ ‘I see. So the secretary and the nurse both live at Lillieoak?’ Poirot nodded. ‘Now we have three people gathered here who, one way or another, are involved closely with death. And then there is you, Catchpool. And me. We both have encountered many cases of violent death in the course of our work. Mr Randall Kimpton, who plans to marry Claudia Playford—what work do you think he does?’ ‘Does it involve death? Is he an undertaker? A chiseller of gravestones?’ ‘He is a pathologist for the police in the county of Oxfordshire. He too works closely with death. Eh bien, do you wish to ask me about Mr Gathercole and Mr Rolfe?’ ‘No need. Lawyers deal with the affairs of the dead every day.’ ‘That is particularly true of the firm of Gathercole and Rolfe, which is well known for its specialism: the estates and testamentary dispositions of the wealthy. Catchpool, surely you see by now?’ ‘And what of Claudia Playford and Dorro, the Viscount’s wife? What are their connections to death? Does one of them slaughter livestock while the other embalms corpses?’ ‘You joke about this,’ said Poirot gravely. ‘You do not think it is interesting that so many people with a particular interest in death, either private or professional, are gathered here at Lillieoak at the same time? Me, I would like to know what Lady Playford has in mind. I cannot believe it is accidental.’ ‘Well, she might have some sort of game planned for after dinner. Being a writer of mysteries, I imagine she wants to keep us all in suspense. You did not answer my question about Dorro and Claudia.’ ‘I can think of nothing appropriate to our theme that applies to them,’ Poirot admitted after a moment. ‘Then I call it a coincidence! Now, if I’m to wash my face and hands before dinner—’ ‘Why do you avoid me, mon ami?’ I stopped inches from the door. It had been foolish of me to suppose that, since he had not mentioned it at once, he would not raise the matter at all. ‘I thought you and I were les bons amis.’ ‘We are. I have been confoundedly busy, Poirot.’ ‘Ah, busy! You would like me to believe that is all it is.’ I glanced towards the door. ‘I am going to track down that silent butler and threaten him with all manner of mutiny if he does not show me to my room immediately,’ I muttered. ‘You Englishmen! However strong the emotion, however fierce the fury, stronger still is the desire to smother it, to pretend it was never there at all.’ At that moment the door opened and a woman of between—at a guess—thirty and thirty-five walked in, wearing a sequined green dress and a white stole. In fact, she did not so much walk as slink in, making me think instantly of a cat on the prowl. There was a supercilious air about her, as if walking into a room in an ordinary fashion would be beneath her. She seemed to be using every movement of her body to indicate her superiority over whomever else happened to be in the vicinity—in this instance, Poirot and me. She was also almost unnaturally beautiful: exquisitely arranged hair of a rich brown colour, a perfect oval of a face, mischievous cat-like brown eyes with thick lashes, shapely eyebrows, and cheekbones as sharp as knives. She was an impressive sight to behold, and obviously aware of her charms. There was also a viciousness about her that communicated itself before she had spoken a word. ‘Oh,’ she said, hand on hip. ‘I see. Guests, but no drinks. Would that it were the other way round! I suppose I am early.’ Poirot rose to his feet and introduced himself, and then me. I shook the woman’s chilly, elegant hand. She did not respond with a ‘Delighted to meet you’ or anything of that sort. ‘I am Claudia Playford. Daughter of the famous novelist, sister of Viscount Playford. Older sister, as it happens. The title landed on my younger brother and not me, simply because he is a man. Where is the sense in that? I would make a far better viscount than him. Frankly, a buttered teacake would make a better viscount than Harry. Well? Do you think it’s fair?’ ‘I have never given it any thought,’ I said truthfully. She turned to Poirot. ‘What about you?’ ‘If you were to have the title immediately, would you then say, “Now that I have what I want, I am completely happy and content?”’ Claudia raised her chin haughtily. ‘I would say no such thing, for fear of sounding like a silly child from a fairy tale. Besides, who says I am unhappy? I am very happy, and I was talking not about contentment but about what is fair. Are you not supposed to have a brilliant mind, Monsieur Poirot? Perhaps you left it in London.’ ‘No, it travelled with me, mademoiselle. And if you are one of the few people in this world who can sincerely say, “I am very happy”, then I promise you this: life has been fairer to you than it has to most people.’ She scowled. ‘I was talking about me and my brother and nobody else. If you cared about playing fair, you would confine your assessment of the situation to the two of us. Instead, you sneakily introduce a nameless crowd of thousands to support your argument—because you know you can win only by distortion!’ The door opened again and a dark-haired man entered, dressed for dinner. Claudia clasped her hands together and sighed rapturously, as if she had feared he might not arrive but here he was, to save her from some terrible fate. ‘Darling!’ The contrast between her demeanour now and her rudeness to me and Poirot could not have been greater. The newcomer was handsome and clean-cut, with a ready and engaging smile and almost-black hair that fell over his forehead on one side. ‘There you are, dearest one!’ he said as Claudia ran into his embrace. ‘I have been looking everywhere for you.’ He had the most perfect teeth I had ever seen. It was hard to believe that they grew naturally in his mouth. ‘And here, by the look of it, are some of our guests—how marvellous! Welcome, one and all.’ ‘You are in no position to welcome anybody, darling,’ Claudia told him with mock sternness. ‘You are a guest too, remember.’ ‘Let’s say I did it on your behalf, then.’ ‘Impossible. I should have said something quite different.’ ‘You have been saying it most eloquently, mademoiselle,’ Poirot reminded her. ‘Have you been divinely beastly to them, dearest one? Take no notice of her, gentlemen.’ He extended his hand. ‘Kimpton. Dr Randall Kimpton. Pleasure to meet you both.’ He had a remarkable manner when speaking—so much so that I noticed it straight away, and I am sure Poirot did too. Kimpton’s eyes seemed to flare and subside as his lips moved. These wide-eyed flares were only seconds apart, and appeared to want to convey enthusiastic emphasis. One was left with the impression that every third or fourth word he uttered was a source of delight to him. I could have sworn that Poirot had told me Claudia’s chap was American. There was no trace of an accent, or at least not one that I could detect. As I was thinking this, Poirot said, ‘It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dr Kimpton. But … Lady Playford told me that you were from Boston in America?’ ‘Indeed I am. I expect you mean that I don’t sound American. Well, I should hope not! I took the opportunity to divest myself of all the unsavoury trappings the moment I landed at the University of Oxford. It doesn’t do to sound anything but English at Oxford, you know.’ ‘Randall has a talent for divesting himself of trappings, don’t you, darling?’ said Claudia rather sharply. ‘What? Oh!’ Kimpton looked unhappy. His demeanour had completely changed. So had hers, for that matter. She stared at him as might a schoolteacher at a disobedient pupil, apparently waiting for him to speak. Finally he said quietly, ‘Dearest one, do not break my heart by reminding me of my most reprehensible mistake. Gentlemen, I was once, momentarily, foolish enough—having gone to great lengths to persuade this extraordinary woman to become my wife—I was foolish enough to doubt my own wishes and—’ ‘Nobody is interested in your regrets and recriminations, Randall,’ Claudia said, cutting him off. ‘Apart from me—I never tire of hearing of them. And I warn you, you will need to reproach yourself a good deal more in my presence before I agree to set a wedding date.’ ‘Dearest one, I shall do nothing but reproach, accuse and vilify myself from now until the day I die!’ Kimpton said earnestly, eyes flaring. The two of them might have forgotten entirely that Poirot and I were there. ‘Good. Then I see no immediate need to divest myself of you.’ Claudia smiled suddenly, as if she had only ever been teasing him. Kimpton seemed to inflate with confidence once again. He took her hand and kissed it. ‘A wedding date will be set, my dearest one—and soon!’ ‘Will it, indeed?’ Claudia laughed merrily. ‘We shall see about that. In any case, I admire your determination. There is no other man on earth who could win me over twice. Or, probably, even once.’ ‘No other man would be as obsessed or devoted as I, my divine dearest one.’ ‘That I can believe,’ said Claudia. ‘I did not imagine I could ever be induced to wear this ring again, yet here I am, wearing it.’ She took a moment to examine the large diamond on the third finger of her left hand. I thought I heard her sigh then, but the sound was masked by that of the door opening a third time. A young maid stood in the doorway. Her fair hair was arranged in a bun that she patted nervously as she spoke. ‘I’m to prepare the room for drinks,’ she muttered. Claudia Playford leaned towards me and Poirot and said in a loud whisper, ‘Make sure to sniff before you drink. Phyllis is as scatter-witted as they come. I can’t imagine why we still have her. She wouldn’t know the difference between port and bathwater.’ CHAPTER 4 (#ulink_c524e7de-e040-59e2-b90e-19c1127e4804) An Unexpected Admirer (#ulink_c524e7de-e040-59e2-b90e-19c1127e4804) A phenomenon I have had cause to notice time and again in both my professional and my social life is that when one meets a large group of people all at once, one somehow knows—as if by otherworldly instinct—which of them one will enjoy speaking to and which are worth avoiding. So it was that when I returned, after dressing for dinner, to a drawing room full of many more people, I knew instantly that I should endeavour to end up standing next to the lawyer Poirot had described to me, Michael Gathercole. He was taller than even the average tall man, and stood slightly stooped as if to minimize his height. Poirot was quite right: Gathercole did indeed look as if his physical self was a cause of discomfort to him. His arms hung restlessly by his sides, and each time he moved even slightly, it looked as if he was trying rather clumsily and impatiently to shake something off—something unfortunate that had attached itself to him, but that no one else could see. He was not handsome in the usual sense of the word. His face made me think of a faithful dog that had been kicked too often by its owner and was certain it would happen again. All the same, he looked by far the cleverest of my new acquaintances. The other newcomers to the drawing room were also as Poirot had advertised, more or less. Lady Playford was telling a complicated anecdote to nobody in particular as she entered. She made as imposing an impression as I had expected, with a loud, melodic voice and her hair in a sort of coiled leaning tower. After her came the planet-sized lawyer, Orville Rolfe; then Viscount Harry Playford, a blond-haired young man with a flat, square face and an amiable if distant smile—as if he had felt chipper about something once and had been trying ever since to recollect the cause of his good cheer. His wife Dorro was a tall woman with features that brought to mind a bird of prey and a long neck with a deep hollow at its base. One could have set down a teacup in that hollow and it would have nestled there quite satisfactorily. The last two to arrive for drinks were Joseph Scotcher, Lady Playford’s secretary, and a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman. I assumed she was the nurse, Sophie Bourlet, for she had pushed Scotcher into the room in a wheelchair. She had a kindly smile that looked, at the same time, efficient—as if she had decided that a smile of this exact sort would be suitable for the occasion—and a modest manner. Of everyone in the room, she was the one to whom one might go with a practical problem. She carried a bundle of papers under one arm, I noticed, and as soon as she had the chance, she put them down on a small writing desk by one of the windows. Having done so, she approached Lady Playford and said something to her. Lady Playford looked over at the papers on the desk and nodded. I wondered if, in the face of Scotcher’s declining vigour, Sophie had taken over some of the secretarial duties at Lillieoak. She was dressed more like a secretary than a nurse. All the other women wore evening gowns, but Sophie looked as if she had dressed smartly for a meeting at the office. Scotcher was as light, in his physical appearance, as his nurse was dark. His hair was the colour of spun gold, and his skin was pale. He had delicate features, almost like a girl’s, and looked dangerously thin: a fading angel. I wondered if he had been sturdier before his health failed. I managed to put myself in front of Gathercole reasonably swiftly, and the usual introductions followed. He turned out to be friendlier than he had looked from a distance. He told me he had first discovered Athelinda Playford’s Shrimp Seddon books in the orphanage that had housed him for most of his childhood, and that he was now her lawyer. He spoke of her with admiration and a little awe. ‘You are evidently extremely fond of her,’ I remarked at one point and he replied, ‘Everybody is who has read her work. She is, I believe, a genius.’ I thought about the profoundly unconvincing Sergeant Halfwit and Inspector Imbecile, and decided it would be injudicious to criticize the creative efforts of my host when she was standing only a few feet away. ‘A lot of the big houses belonging to English families were burnt to the ground in the recent … unpleasant business over here.’ I nodded. It was not something that an Englishman at the beginning of a week’s holiday in Clonakilty cared to discuss. ‘No one came near Lillieoak,’ said Gathercole. ‘Lady Playford’s books are so well loved that even the lawless hordes could not bring themselves to attack her home—or else they were restrained by those better than themselves, to whom the name Athelinda Playford means something.’ This sounded unlikely to me. What lawless horde, after all, would cancel its plans to wreak havoc on account of Shrimp Seddon and her fictional chums? Was young Shrimp really so influential? Could her fat, long-haired dog, Anita, bring a smile to the face of an angry rebel and make him forget all about the cause? I doubted it. ‘I see you are unconvinced,’ said Gathercole. ‘What you forget is that people fall for Lady Playford’s books as children. That sort of attachment is difficult, later, to talk yourself out of, no matter what your political affiliation might be.’ He spoke as an orphan, I reminded myself; Shrimp Seddon and her gang were probably the closest thing he had had to a family. An orphan … It struck me that this was another connection between a guest at Lillieoak and death. Michael Gathercole’s parents had died. Did Poirot know? Although of course Gathercole was already connected—by his firm’s specialism, the estates of the wealthy. And—I was a fool!—everybody in the world has a relative who has died. Poirot’s idea of a death-themed gathering was ludicrous, I decided. Gathercole left me to go and refill his glass. Behind me, Harry Playford was talking enthusiastically to Orville Rolfe about taxidermy. I did not care to hear a step-by-step account of his method, so I crossed the room and listened instead to Randall Kimpton’s conversation with Poirot. ‘I hear you set great store by psychology in your solving of crimes, what?’ ‘I do.’ ‘Ah! Well, if you will permit me, I should like to disagree with you. Psychology is so intangible a thing. Who knows if it is even real?’ ‘It is real, monsieur. Let me assure you, it is real.’ ‘Is it? I do not deny that people have thoughts in their heads, of course, but the notion that one can deduce anything from one’s assumptions about what those thoughts might be and why they are there—I’m not convinced by that, I’m afraid. And even when a murderer confirms that you’re right—even when he says, “Quite so. I did it because I was wild with jealousy, or because the old lady I coshed over the head reminded me of a nanny who was cruel to me”—how do you know the blighter’s telling the truth?’ This was accompanied by many a triumphant eye-flare, each one seeming to revel in the superiority of Kimpton’s arguments. The doctor sounded, furthermore, as if he was not about to drop or change the subject. I thought of what Claudia had said about him winning her over twice and wondered if there had been an element of browbeating involved. She did not seem the type who would allow herself to be coerced, but all the same … there was something frightening about the unswerving and arrogant determination exuded by Kimpton—to win, to prevail, to be right. Perhaps, after all, it would be more relaxing to listen to Harry describing how he had removed the dead leopard’s brain. I was saved by Joseph Scotcher, who had been wheeled over to me by Sophie Bourlet. ‘You must be Catchpool,’ said Scotcher warmly. ‘I have so looked forward to meeting you.’ He extended a hand, and I shook it as gently as I could. His voice was more robust than his outward appearance had led me to expect. ‘You seem surprised that I know who you are. I have heard of you, of course. The Bloxham Hotel murders in London, February of this year.’ I felt as if I had been slapped in the face. Poor Scotcher; he could not have known his words would have this effect. ‘Sorry, I have neglected to introduce myself: Joseph Scotcher. And this is the light of my life—my nurse, friend and good luck charm, Sophie Bourlet. It is thanks to her and her alone that I am still here. A patient who has Sophie to look after him scarcely needs medicine.’ At these lavish compliments, the nurse looked overcome by emotion, and had to turn away. She loves him, I thought. She loves him and she cannot bear it. Scotcher said, ‘Cunningly, Sophie keeps me alive by refusing to become my wife.’ He winked at me. ‘You see, I can’t possibly die until she has agreed.’ Sophie turned back to face me with pink spots on her cheeks and her sensible smile restored. ‘Pay no attention, Mr Catchpool,’ she said. ‘The truth is that Joseph has never asked me to marry him. Not once.’ Scotcher laughed. ‘Only because if I were to go down on one knee, it is unlikely I should be able to rise again. It’s easy for the sun, but not so easy for me in my condition.’ ‘Rising or setting, Joseph, you shine more brightly than the sun ever could.’ ‘See what I mean, Catchpool? She is worth staying for, even though I have to contend with what I like to call my devilled kidneys.’ ‘Excuse me, gentlemen,’ said Sophie. She walked over to the writing desk, sat down at it and busied herself with the papers she had put there earlier. ‘What a selfish oaf I am!’ Scotcher declared. ‘You don’t want to talk about my kidneys, and I should far rather talk about you than about myself. It must be terribly difficult for you.’ He nodded in the direction of Poirot. ‘I was sorry to see the newspapers ridicule you so cruelly. It was almost as if they didn’t notice the part you played in wrapping up that nasty Bloxham affair. I hope you don’t object to the mention of it?’ ‘Not at all,’ I was obliged to say. ‘I read all about it, you see. The whole story. I found it fascinating—and without your brilliant deduction in the graveyard, the case might never have been solved. It seems to me that everybody missed that aspect of the matter.’ ‘They did, rather,’ I mumbled. Scotcher had left me with no alternative: I was forced to think once again about the killings that were known at the time—and doubtless always would be—as the Monogram Murders. The case had been solved most ingeniously by Poirot, but it had also attracted much unfortunate publicity—unfortunate if you were me, at any rate. Poirot came out of it all very well, but I was not so lucky. Newspapermen had accused me of being inadequate as a detective and relying too much on Poirot to get me out of a tight spot. Naïvely, I had made some remarks when interviewed that were a little too honest, about how I would have been lost without Poirot’s help, and these had appeared in the papers. A few letters were published asking why Edward Catchpool was employed by Scotland Yard if he couldn’t handle the work without bringing in a friend of his who was not even a policeman. In short, I became an object of ridicule for a few weeks, until everybody forgot about me. Since then—as I found myself telling Joseph Scotcher, who seemed truly to care about my predicament—my work had brought me into contact with another murder case, one that I was ultimately unable to solve, but this time I was praised for doing everything I could, and doggedly pursuing the elusive truth. I was astonished to read in the letters pages of the newspapers that I was a plucky hero; no one could have been braver or more conscientious than I had been—that was the general consensus. I drew the only possible conclusion: that I was better off failing alone than succeeding with the help of Hercule Poirot. That was why I had been avoiding him (I refrained from sharing this particular revelation with Joseph Scotcher): because I could not trust myself not to ask for help with the murder I had failed to solve. There was simply no way to explain this to Poirot that would not lead to him demanding to know all the details. ‘I’m sure many people noticed the shoddy way the newspapers treated you and thought it was jolly unfair,’ said Scotcher. ‘Indeed, I wish I had written a letter to the Times to that effect. I meant to, but—’ ‘You must concentrate on looking after yourself and not worry about me,’ I told him. ‘Well, you should know that I admire you inordinately,’ he said with a smile. ‘I could never have slotted that piece of the puzzle into place the way you did. It would not have occurred to me, nor to most people. You evidently have an extraordinary mind. Poirot too, of course.’ Embarrassed, I thanked him. I knew that my mind was nothing special and that Poirot would have solved the Bloxham Hotel murders with or without my solitary moment of insight, but I was nevertheless greatly heartened by Scotcher’s kind words. That he was dying made it all the more touching, somehow. I don’t mind admitting that I was quite overcome. A hush began to spread across the room, like a flood of silence. I turned and saw that Hatton the butler was standing in the doorway, looking as if there was something important that he must on no account tell us. ‘Oh!’ declared Lady Playford, who was standing with Sophie next to the writing desk. ‘Hatton has come to announce—or to hear me announce—that dinner is about to be served. Thank you, Hatton.’ The butler looked mortified to be accused of almost saying something to so many people. He gave a small bow and withdrew. As everyone moved towards the door, I hung back. Once I was alone in the room, I made for the writing desk. The pages laid upon it were handwritten and almost illegible, but I did see what I thought was ‘Shrimp’ in several places. There were two inks, blue and red: red circles around blue words. It seemed that Sophie was indeed doing some secretarial work for Lady Playford. I read a line that seemed to say ‘Shrimp a patch sever ration and the parasols.’ Or was it ‘parasite’? I gave up and went in search of dinner. CHAPTER 5 (#ulink_5bb0bd6b-b229-55a0-adcf-d668078dbbd1) Tears Before Dinner (#ulink_5bb0bd6b-b229-55a0-adcf-d668078dbbd1) I emerged from the drawing room with not the faintest idea of where to go, though distant voices coming from a certain direction gave me a clue. I was about to follow the sound of laughter and chatter when I heard, from the other side of the house, a more disturbing noise: loud sobbing. I stopped, wondering what was the best thing to do. I was famished after my long journey, having been offered nothing since I arrived, but I did not feel I could ignore a display of distress so close to where I stood. Scotcher’s kind words to me in the drawing room—and the knowledge that he, a complete stranger, held me in such high regard and that therefore there might be other strangers out there who did not think too badly of me—had made me feel altogether jollier and more buoyant than I had for a considerable time. I was determined to hunt down and be similarly kind to whomever was crying so piteously. Sighing, I went in search of the sobber and soon found her. It was the maid, Phyllis—the poor unfortunate described by Claudia as scatter-witted. She was sitting on the staircase, rubbing at her tears with her sleeve. ‘Here,’ I said, passing her a clean handkerchief. ‘It can’t be all that bad, surely.’ She looked up at me doubtfully. ‘She says it’s for me own good. Yells at me morning to night, she does—for me own good! I’ve had enough of me own good, if that’s what it is! I want to go home!’ ‘Are you new here, then?’ I asked her. ‘No. Been here four years. She’s worse every year! Every day, I sometimes think.’ ‘Who are you talking about?’ ‘Cook. “Get out of my kitchen!” she screams, when I’ve done nothing wrong. I can’t help it, I says to her—I try, but I can’t help it!’ ‘Oh dear. Well, look—’ ‘And then she comes after me, as if I’ve run away instead of been thrown out by her! “Where the blazes have you got to, girl? Dinner won’t serve itself!” She’ll be after me any second now, you watch!’ Was Phyllis supposed to be serving our dinner, then? She did not seem in a fit state to do so. This alarmed me more than her tears and tirades. I was starting to feel light-headed from hunger. ‘I would have run away by now if it weren’t for Joseph!’ Phyllis declared. ‘Joseph Scotcher?’ She nodded. ‘D’you know about him, Mr …?’ ‘Catchpool. Know what about him? Do you mean his state of health?’ ‘He hasn’t long. Crying shame, I call it.’ ‘Indeed.’ ‘He’s the only one as cares about me. Why can’t one of the others die? One of them as never so much as looks at me.’ ‘I say, steady on. You really ought not to—’ ‘Nasty snooty-nosed Claudia or bossy Dorro—they all look past me like I don’t exist, or talk to me like I’m dirt on their shoes! I swear it, once Joseph’s gone, I’ll be gone too. I couldn’t stay here without him. He says to me all the time, he says, “Phyllis, you have great strength and beauty inside you. Silly old Brigid’s not half the woman you are.” That’s Cook, that is—he calls her Brigid, which is her name. “She’s not a patch on you, Phyllis,” he says to me. He says, “That’s why she needs to shout and you don’t.” It’s the weakest as have to shout the loudest, make others suffer, he says.’ ‘I expect there is some truth in that.’ Phyllis giggled. ‘Did I say something funny?’ I asked. ‘Not you. Joseph. He says to me, he says, “Phyllis, I don’t have a kitchen, but if I ever do, if I am ever the proud owner of a kitchen …”—because that’s how he talks! Oh, it makes me laugh, the way he says things. And, d’you know, I think that pompous Randall Kimpton copies him, the way he comes out with things, but he’s not got Joseph’s charm and he’ll never have it, no matter how he tries. “If I am ever the proud owner of a kitchen,” Joseph says to me, he says, “I hereby solemnly swear that I shall never throw you out of it. On the contrary, I should want you to be in it all of the time and not least because I cannot so much as poach an egg!” See what I mean? He’s so kind, is Joseph. I only stay for him.’ Joseph Scotcher appeared to know precisely what to say in order to make others feel better. It was jolly decent of him to take the trouble, I thought—with strangers like me who happened to be visiting; with the servants. As for Phyllis’s contention that Randall Kimpton had it in mind to copy Scotcher, I found that rather puzzling. Kimpton struck me as very much himself and the sort of purposeful, fully formed chap who had always been that same self. From what little I had seen of him, I could not imagine him changing course for anybody. Well, perhaps for his beloved Claudia—but certainly not for Joseph Scotcher. Still, I had to concede that Phyllis probably knew both men far better than I did. I wondered how many ripples of discomfort at Lillieoak Scotcher had been skilfully smoothing away since he had arrived. How would the other inhabitants of the house manage after his death? Some people were more virtuous and self-sacrificing than others, there was no doubt about it. Claudia Playford, for instance, struck me as a woman who would do and say nothing for the benefit of anyone but herself. At that moment the floor beneath me started to shake. Phyllis leapt to her feet. ‘She’s coming!’ she whispered, frantic. ‘Don’t say I’ve told you anything or she’ll have my guts for garters!’ A short, compact barrel of a woman came into view, stomping towards us. She had a red face and curly, iron-grey hair that formed a stiff sort of circle around her head, like a wire crown. ‘There you are!’ She wiped her chunky red hands on her apron. ‘I’ve got better things to do than run around looking for you! Do you think the dinner’s going to grow legs and walk to the dining room on its own? Do you?’ ‘No, Cook.’ ‘No, Cook! Then get in there and serve it like a good girl!’ Phyllis scuttled away. I tried to make my escape at the same time, but Brigid moved to block my way. After looking me up and down for a few seconds, she said, ‘Meeting with the likes of you, bottom of the stairs when there’s no one about—just what that girl needs! On and on she goes about that Scotcher fellow—wasting her time, whichever way you slice it—but next time, not when I’m trying to get dinner started, if you don’t mind.’ I think my mouth might well have fallen open. Before I could protest, Brigid was marching away at speed, shaking the ground as she went. CHAPTER 6 (#ulink_a1c9482f-28d3-5408-9bd8-70cd89cbc9e7) The Announcement (#ulink_a1c9482f-28d3-5408-9bd8-70cd89cbc9e7) I had expected to be last to the dining room, but I arrived to find everybody speculating about what had become of Athelinda Playford. Her place at the head of the table was unoccupied. ‘Were you not with her?’ Dorro Playford demanded of me, as if I jolly well ought to have been. I told her that I had been talking to Phyllis and had not seen Lady Playford. ‘Dorro, stop being a harridan,’ said Randall Kimpton as I sat down between Orville Rolfe and Sophie Bourlet. ‘Piece of advice, Catchpool: never answer one of Dorro’s questions—she will quickly come up with another nineteen at least. Whistle and look the other way. It’s the only sensible approach.’ I took a sip from my water glass to avoid having to respond. I would have reached for one of the wine glasses, but they had not yet been filled. ‘Well, I would like to know where she has disappeared to!’ A flush had spread across Dorro’s cheeks. ‘Was she not only just with us? We were all in the drawing room together. She was there. You all saw her! And I didn’t notice her go anywhere else. Did anybody?’ Still looking at me, Kimpton said loudly out of one side of his mouth, ‘Do not answer, I warn you.’ The door opened and Lady Playford entered the room with her hair in a different arrangement from before—one I could not begin to describe if I tried for a hundred years. She looked as elegant as the room we were in, which was perfectly square with a high ceiling and red and gold curtains and chandeliers. It was considerably more aesthetically pleasing than the drawing room. This must have been intended by the architect as the main room of the house, I thought. I wondered if Lady Playford agreed. Harry waited until his mother was halfway to the table before saying, ‘Look, here she is! Hello, old girl.’ ‘Yes. Here she is,’ said Claudia. ‘Isn’t it fortunate that nobody panicked?’ ‘Panic?’ Lady Playford laughed. ‘Who would panic, and why?’ ‘I simply wanted to know where you had got to,’ Dorro said stiffly. ‘Dinner is delayed, and we have had no explanation.’ ‘Well, that’s easy enough,’ said Lady Playford. ‘The cause of the delay is what it always is: Brigid and Phyllis have had another pointless squabble. I heard the distant and sadly familiar sound of a mewling maid and, since I knew it would mean no food for the foreseeable future, I took the opportunity to do something different with my hair. It was too tight before.’ ‘Then why wear it in that style in the first place?’ ‘Is that another question, Dorro?’ said Kimpton. ‘You know, I might keep a tally tonight. And every night. How else will we know when you set a new record?’ Dorro said quietly, ‘One day, Randall, you will learn that being foul and being amusing are not the same thing.’ ‘Come now, let us not carp at one another,’ said Joseph Scotcher. ‘We have guests, after all—some who have not visited Lillieoak before. Monsieur Poirot, Mr Catchpool, I do hope you are enjoying your stay so far.’ I made the appropriate response. I certainly was not bored at Lillieoak, and I was pleased to encounter Poirot again now that I was over the shock of it, but was I enjoying this evening? I felt as if I would have had to stand outside myself and watch for clues in order to attempt an accurate answer. Poirot replied to the effect that he was having the most wonderful time, and it was not every day that one received an invitation from a famous writer. Lady Playford said, ‘I cannot abide the word “famous”.’ ‘She prefers “popular”, “esteemed”, “acclaimed” or “renowned”,’ said Kimpton. ‘Don’t you, Athie?’ ‘I am certain that all of those adjectives apply.’ Poirot smiled. ‘I prefer a simpler one,’ said Scotcher. ‘Is that because using long words aggravates your kidneys?’ Claudia asked him. What an unpleasant remark! I thought. Vicious, really. Astonishingly, no one reacted to it at all. ‘I prefer the adjective “best”,’ Scotcher went on as if nothing had happened, looking at Lady Playford. ‘Oh, Joseph!’ She pretended to scold him, but it was plain to see that she was delighted by the compliment. I was startled to find Claudia staring at me. The longer she did so, the more I felt as if I had unwittingly fallen into a dangerous machine and might never climb out. She said, ‘Joseph has told us all that he does not wish to be treated as an invalid. Therefore, I treat him as I treat everybody else.’ ‘Yes, appallingly,’ said Kimpton with a grin. ‘Sorry, dearest one—you know I don’t mean a word of it. And your treatment of me is exemplary, so who am I to complain?’ Claudia smiled coquettishly at him. I made up my mind: no, I was not enjoying myself. While Scotcher explained to Poirot that it was an honour for a humble man like himself to be secretary to the great Athelinda Playford, Claudia rather pointedly started a conversation of her own with Kimpton. Dorro took the opportunity to berate Harry for having failed to intercede on her behalf when Kimpton had attacked her—‘Steady on, old girl! Hardly an attack, eh? Little bit of harmless teasing!’—and soon we were not one large group but many small ones, all conducting separate conversations. Mercifully, the first course arrived not long afterwards, served ineptly by a red-eyed Phyllis. I noticed that Scotcher made a point of breaking away from his conversation with Poirot and turning to thank her fulsomely as she put down his portion of what Lady Playford described as ‘good old traditional English mutton broth’. The way she said it made me think it must be her favourite thing to eat in the world. It smelled delicious, and I tucked in as soon as was decent. The conversation died down as we applied ourselves to eating. Beside me, a loud creak came from Orville Rolfe’s chair as he adjusted his position. ‘Is your chair all right, Catchpool?’ he asked. ‘Mine is wobbly. There was a time when a chap making a chair would build it to last. Not any more! Everything made nowadays is flimsy and disposable.’ ‘Many people say so,’ I replied tactfully. ‘Well?’ said Rolfe. It was evidently a habit of his to demand an answer immediately after receiving one. ‘I agree with you,’ I said, hoping that would put an end to the matter. I felt as uncomfortable as I would have if we were discussing his size, and irritated that I should be embarrassed while he seemed perfectly all right. He finished his soup before anybody else, looked around and said, ‘Is there more? I don’t know why modern bowls are made so small—do you, Catchpool? This one’s shallow enough to be a side plate.’ ‘I think they are probably a standard size.’ ‘Well?’ Rolfe adjusted his position again, giving rise to more loud creaking. I prayed his chair would last for the duration of the meal. Joseph Scotcher was still talking to Poirot about Lady Playford’s books. ‘As a detective, you more than most will find them a delight,’ he said. ‘I am looking forward to reading many during my stay here,’ Poirot told him. ‘It was my intention to read one or two before I arrived, but alas, it was not to be.’ Scotcher looked concerned. ‘I hope you have not been unwell,’ he said. ‘No, nothing of that sort. I was engaged to offer my opinion on a case of murder in Hampshire and … let us say, it became complicated and frustrating.’ ‘I trust your efforts were successful in the end,’ said Scotcher. ‘A chap like you is surely a stranger to failure.’ ‘Which novel of Lady Playford’s would you recommend that I read first?’ Poirot asked. That was interesting, I thought. Like Scotcher, I could not imagine Poirot failing to solve a case, and I had expected him to say something about the business in Hampshire having reached a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, he had altogether changed the subject. ‘Oh, you must start with Shrimp Seddon and the Lady in the Suit,’ said Scotcher. ‘It’s not the first, but it’s the most straightforward and, in my humble opinion, the best introduction to Shrimp. It’s also the first one I read, so I am sentimental about it for that reason.’ ‘No,’ said Michael Gathercole. He had been talking to Lady Playford and Sophie Bourlet, but now he addressed Poirot. ‘One must read them in chronological order.’ ‘Oui, I think I would prefer to do so,’ Poirot agreed. ‘Then, like Michael here, you must be frightfully conventional,’ said Lady Playford with a twinkle in her eye. ‘Joseph’s clever theory is that it’s better to read books in the wrong order, if they are a series. He says—’ ‘Let him tell us himself, since we have the benefit of his company tonight,’ said Claudia. ‘We will have plenty of time to remember his wise words once he’s dead, after all.’ ‘Claudia!’ said her mother. ‘That is quite enough!’ Sophie Bourlet had covered her mouth with her napkin and was blinking away tears. Scotcher, however, was laughing. ‘Sincerely, I do not mind. Laughing about a thing takes the sting out of it, I find. Claudia and I understand one another well.’ ‘Oh, we certainly do.’ Claudia smiled at him. There was something about her smile, too. Not exactly flirtatiousness, but something … knowing. That was the only way I could describe it to myself. ‘And in fact, doctors and the terminally ill joke about death all the time,’ said Scotcher. ‘Is that not so, Kimpton?’ Kimpton said coldly, ‘It is. I tend not to participate, however. I believe death ought to be taken seriously.’ Was he chastising Scotcher for mocking the idea of his own demise? Or for being overly familiar with Claudia? It was hard to tell. To Poirot, Scotcher said, ‘My theory is simply this: when you read the Shrimp books in the wrong order, you meet Shrimp and Podge and the gang not at the beginning of their story, but in the middle. Certain things have already happened to them, and if you want to find out more about their histories, you have to read the earlier books. Now, to my mind, this is much more faithful to real life. For example, here I am meeting the great Hercule Poirot for the first time! I know only what I see of him and what he says to me in the present moment. But if I find him interesting enough—and I most certainly do—then I will endeavour to learn more about his past adventures. That was how I felt about Shrimp Seddon after reading The Lady in the Suit. It’s terribly ingenious, Poirot, and contains the best Shrimp moment of all: when she discovers that “hirsute” is another word for hairy, and realizes there is no lady in a suit! There never was!’ ‘You have just given away the resolution of the mystery,’ said Gathercole impatiently. ‘Why should Monsieur Poirot read it now that you’ve spoilt it for him?’ ‘Don’t be silly, Michael,’ Lady Playford waved away his objection. ‘There are many intricacies to that story about which Joseph has said nothing. I should hope that nobody would read one of my books only to find out the answer. Monsieur Poirot, I am sure, is no philistine. It’s the working out, and the psychology, that matters.’ ‘Not you as well, Athie,’ Kimpton grumbled. ‘Psychology! Hobby for degenerates—that’s all it is.’ Scotcher appeared to regret his words. ‘Gathercole is quite right. How cloth-headed of me to reveal such a pivotal moment. I am aghast at my own stupidity. I allowed my love for Lady Playford’s work to carry me quite away. I forgot myself.’ Gathercole, at the other end of the table, was shaking his head in apparent disgust. Poirot said, ‘I am not a philistine, but I enjoy a mystery and I prefer to try to work out the solution myself. Is that wrong, Lady Playford? Surely that is the point of a mystery?’ ‘Oh, yes. I mean, it is, but …’ She looked doubtful. ‘I do hope the chicken arrives soon,’ she said, glancing towards the door. Dorro said very quietly and without expression, ‘Nothing Joseph does is wrong. The opposite rule applies to me.’ It was not clear whether she intended to criticize herself or her mother-in-law. ‘Of course you prefer not to have the mystery ruined for you by a fool like me,’ said Scotcher. ‘What appalling carelessness on my part. A million apologies, Monsieur Poirot. Though I must insist that you withhold your forgiveness indefinitely. Some sins are not deserving of pardon.’ Claudia threw her head back and laughed. ‘Oh, Joseph, you are a scream!’ ‘I wish Phyllis would clear away the first course and bring the entrée,’ said Lady Playford. ‘I have an announcement to make, but let us see dinner on the table first.’ ‘I see—an announcement that requires an amply lined stomach, is it?’ Kimpton teased. As soon as Phyllis had served what we were told was Brigid’s finest dish, Chicken à la Rose, Lady Playford stood up. ‘Please, do not wait,’ she said. ‘I have something to say to you all. Many of you won’t like it one bit, and nothing is ever better on an empty stomach.’ ‘I do so agree,’ said Orville Rolfe. ‘Well?’ He set about his chicken with a ferocious enthusiasm. Lady Playford waited until a few more knives and forks had started to move before saying, ‘This afternoon I made a new will.’ Dorro made a choking noise. ‘What? A new will? Why? How is it different from the old one?’ ‘I assume that is what we are about to hear,’ said Claudia. ‘Do tell, dearest Mama!’ ‘Do you know about this, Claudia?’ Dorro fussed. ‘You sound as if you do!’ ‘Most of you will be shocked by what I am about to say.’ Lady Playford’s words sounded rehearsed. ‘I must ask you all to trust me. I have confidence that all will be well.’ ‘Out with it, Athie,’ said Kimpton. In the silent ten or so seconds that followed—perhaps it was not even as long as that; it certainly felt far longer—I was acutely aware of the jagged breathing of everybody around the table. Dorro’s long neck twitched and she gulped several times. She seemed barely able to sit still. Lady Playford said, ‘According to the provisions of my new will—made this afternoon and witnessed by Michael Gathercole and Hatton—everything I own is to go to Joseph Scotcher upon my death.’ ‘What!’ Dorro’s voice shook. Her thin lips were twisted in terror, as if she had come face to face with a grisly spectre invisible to the rest of us. ‘By everything, you mean …?’ Claudia prompted. She appeared unruffled; Kimpton too. They had an air about them of people watching a pantomime and rather enjoying it. ‘I mean everything,’ Lady Playford said. ‘The Lillieoak estate, my houses in London, everything. All that I own.’ CHAPTER 7 (#ulink_23519932-88e8-576f-8e9e-6b2ae08cc7b3) The Reaction (#ulink_23519932-88e8-576f-8e9e-6b2ae08cc7b3) Scotcher rose to his feet so quickly, his chair crashed to the floor. He looked suddenly pale, as if he had heard bad news. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I never asked or expected … Please … There is no need …’ ‘Joseph, are you all right?’ Sophie stood, ready to hurry over to him. ‘Here, give him this.’ Kimpton, on her left, handed her his water glass. ‘He looks as if he needs it.’ The nurse was soon by Scotcher’s side. She placed one of her hands under his elbow, as if to hold him upright. ‘It’s always so upsetting to discover a vast fortune is one day to be yours,’ Kimpton remarked drily. ‘Has everybody gone mad?’ Dorro said. ‘Joseph is dying. He will be dead and buried before he has a chance to inherit anything! Is this some sort of cruel trick?’ ‘I am entirely serious,’ said Lady Playford. ‘Michael will confirm it.’ Gathercole nodded. ‘It is true.’ Claudia smiled. ‘I ought to have been able to guess. I imagine you have wanted to do this for some time, Mother. Though I’m surprised you cut off Harry, your favourite child.’ ‘I do not have a favourite, Claudia, as well you know.’ ‘Not in the family, no,’ her daughter murmured. ‘Golly, this is a bit of a surprise,’ said Harry, wide-eyed. It was the first comment he had made. Poirot, I noticed, was as still as a statue. Orville Rolfe took the opportunity to jab me in the ribs—if you could call it a jab, from so amply padded an elbow—and say, ‘This chicken is excellent, Catchpool. Superb. Brigid is to be congratulated. Well? Tuck in, I should.’ I’m afraid I could not persuade myself to reply. ‘Isn’t it rather pointless to leave one’s money to someone who is about to die, when one is not likely to die oneself for a good many years?’ Kimpton asked Lady Playford. ‘Randall is right,’ said Scotcher. ‘You all know my predicament. Please, Athie, you have been so … There is really no need …’ A complete sentence appeared to be too much for him. He looked ravaged. Sophie picked up the chair that Scotcher had knocked to the floor. Having helped him back into a seated position, she handed him the glass of water. ‘Drink as much as you can,’ she urged. ‘You will feel better.’ Scotcher was barely able to hold the glass; Sophie had to help him steer it towards his mouth. I found the whole spectacle curious. Of course Lady Playford’s news would come as a shock, but why should it distress Scotcher to such an extent? Would not a puzzled ‘How silly, when I will not live to inherit and we all know it perfectly well’ have been more appropriate to the occasion? Dorro stood up. Her mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. She clutched at her dress. ‘Why do you hate me, Athie? You must know that Harry and I are the only ones who will suffer, and I cannot believe you hate your own son! Is this punishment for my failure to bear a child? Claudia doesn’t need your money—she is about to marry into one of the richest families in the world.’ Kimpton caught me looking at him. He smiled as if to say, ‘Didn’t know, did you? It’s true: I am quite as rich as Dorro makes me out to be.’ ‘So it must be me that you seek to harm!’ she went on. ‘Harry and me. Have you not cruelly deprived us already of what was rightfully ours? I know it was your doing and not the wish of Harry’s late father, God rest his soul.’ ‘What nonsense you invent,’ said Lady Playford. ‘Hate you, indeed—rubbish! As for your reference to my late husband’s will, you have, I am afraid, mistaken your own feelings of disappointment for cruelty on my part.’ Kimpton said, ‘Dorro, surely if Scotcher dies before Athie, everything will go to you and Harry as before. So why worry?’ ‘Mr Gathercole, is it true what Randall says?’ Dorro asked. I was still reflecting upon the mention of the late Viscount Playford’s will. What was the story, I wondered. Even in the midst of this unusual scene and amid the airing of family grievances, one could hardly say to Dorro, ‘What did you mean about Harry’s father’s will?’ ‘Yes,’ Michael Gathercole confirmed. ‘If Scotcher were to predecease Lady Playford, it would be exactly as if the terms of the old will still applied.’ ‘You see, Dorro?’ said Kimpton. ‘No need to worry.’ ‘I wish to understand why this change was made,’ Dorro insisted, still clutching at her dress. She would rip the skirt in a moment if she kept it up. ‘Why leave everything to a man who will soon be rotting in the earth?’ ‘Oh, now, that was bitter!’ said Scotcher. ‘I feel bitter!’ Turning to Lady Playford, Dorro pleaded, ‘What will Harry and I do? How will we manage? You must put this right at once!’ ‘I for one am glad to have proof at last,’ said Claudia. ‘I quite agree that proof at last is the grail,’ said Kimpton. ‘But proof of what, dearest one?’ ‘Of how little we matter to Mother.’ ‘Apart from him.’ Dorro jabbed an accusing finger at Scotcher. ‘And he isn’t even family!’ At that moment, I happened to glance at Gathercole. What I saw caused me nearly to fall off my chair. His face was a deep, mottled red, and his lips trembled. Evidently he struggled to contain a powerful rage, or it might have been great anguish. Never have I seen a man look more likely to explode. No one else appeared to have noticed. ‘I’m an old woman, and you, Joseph, are a young man,’ said Lady Playford. ‘I neither wish nor intend to outlive you. I am accustomed to getting what I want, you see. Hence my decision. It is well known among the best doctors that the psychological has a profound influence upon the physical, and so I have given you something to live for—something that many would kill for.’ ‘Psychology again!’ grumbled Kimpton. ‘Now an improved mood can cure a pair of shrivelled brown kidneys! We doctors are surplus to requirements.’ ‘You are disgusting, Randall,’ said Dorro. ‘Whatever will our guests think?’ ‘Is it “shrivelled” and “brown” that you object to?’ Kimpton asked her. ‘Would you mind explaining why those words are more offensive than “rotting in the earth”?’ ‘Shut up!’ cried Sophie Bourlet. ‘If you could only hear yourselves! You are monsters, the lot of you!’ ‘It is human nature that is the monster, not anybody at this table,’ said Lady Playford. ‘Tomorrow you will come with me to my doctor, Joseph. There’s none finer. He can cure you if anyone can. Don’t protest! It’s all arranged.’ ‘But there can be no cure for me. You know this, dear Athie. I have explained.’ ‘I shall not believe it until I hear it from my own doctor. Not all medical men are equally intelligent and capable, Joseph. It is a profession that risks attracting those who find sickness and weakness attractive.’ ‘I know what must be done.’ Dorro clapped her hands together. ‘Joseph must make a will naming Harry and Claudia as the beneficiaries. Mr Gathercole, Mr Rolfe, you will assist with this, won’t you? Can it be done, quickly? I don’t see why it should not be done! You evidently do not wish to steal from this family, Joseph—and I believe it would be theft if you were to allow what is rightfully ours to be left to you without putting in place—’ ‘That is enough, Dorro,’ Lady Playford said firmly. ‘Joseph, please take no notice. Theft! The very idea! It is no such thing.’ ‘And what of Harry and me? We will starve! We will have nowhere to live! Where will we go? Have you made no provision for us at all? Oh, do not bother to answer! It gives you pleasure, does it not, to see me squirm and beg!’ ‘What an extraordinary thing to say,’ Lady Playford observed mildly. ‘This is about Nicholas!’ Dorro babbled on, wild-eyed. ‘In your mind, you have turned Joseph into Nicholas—your dead little boy, come back to life! The resemblance is quite apparent: both fair-haired and blue-eyed, both weak and sickly. But Nicholas cannot be brought back from the grave by this new will of yours! Nicholas, I am afraid, is stone-cold dead and will remain so!’ All movement at the table ceased. A few seconds later, without a word, Lady Playford left the dining room, closing the door quietly behind her. ‘All those children you never had, Dorro?’ said Kimpton. ‘Lucky blighters, I should say.’ ‘Indeed,’ said Claudia. ‘Imagine.’ ‘Mr Gathercole, Mr Rolfe—go after her, please.’ Dorro gestured frantically towards the door. ‘Make her see sense!’ ‘I’m afraid I cannot do as you ask,’ said Gathercole tonelessly. Whatever inner crisis had gripped him before seemed to have passed; he looked composed once again. He averted his eyes as he addressed Dorro, as if she were a gruesome spectacle that, once seen, might haunt a fellow for ever. ‘Lady Playford is certain of her wishes in this matter, and I am satisfied that she is of sound mind.’ ‘Mr Rolfe, you must tackle her, then, if Mr Gathercole is too lily-livered to try.’ ‘Do not disturb Lady Playford, please,’ said Poirot. ‘She will wish to be alone for a while.’ Claudia laughed. ‘Listen to him! He only arrived this afternoon, yet he talks with such authority about my mother.’ Harry Playford leaned forward and addressed Scotcher, ‘How do you feel about all this, old boy? Bit rum, what?’ ‘Harry, you must believe me. I neither asked for this, nor hoped for it—ever. I do not want it! Though I am, of course, deeply moved to learn that dear Athie cares for me to this extent, I never imagined …’ He grimaced and changed course. ‘I should very much like to understand what is behind it, that is all. I cannot truly believe that she envisages a cure for me.’ ‘You say you do not want it—then write down your wishes on a piece of paper!’ said Dorro. ‘That is all you need do! Write down that you want everything to go to me and Harry, and we will sign our names as witnesses.’ ‘All to go to you and Harry?’ said Claudia. ‘What was it you said to Joseph about not even being family?’ ‘I meant to you and Harry.’ Dorro blushed. ‘You must forgive me. I scarcely know what I am saying! All I want is to make this right!’ ‘You spoke of my wishes, Dorro,’ said Scotcher. ‘I have only one wish. Sophie … I would kneel if I could, but I am feeling particularly unwell after all this commotion. Sophie, would you do me the great honour of agreeing to become my wife, as soon as it can be arranged? That is all I want.’ ‘Oh!’ Sophie exclaimed, taking a step back. ‘Oh, Joseph! Are you sure you want this? You have had a shock. Maybe you should wait before—’ ‘I have never been more certain of anything in my life, my dearest one.’ ‘That is what I call Claudia,’ Kimpton muttered. ‘Kindly invent your own endearments, Scotcher.’ ‘What would you know about kindness?’ Sophie turned on him. ‘What would any of you know about it?’ ‘We should all leave you and Mr Scotcher alone, mademoiselle,’ said Poirot. ‘Come—let us give them some privacy.’ Privacy! That was rich, coming from Poirot, the world’s most zealous interferer in other people’s romantic affairs. ‘You are taking this proposal of marriage seriously, then, Monsieur Poirot?’ asked Claudia. ‘You do not wonder what is the point of it when Joseph has only weeks to live? Surely a sensible invalid would rather not be concerned with arduous wedding preparations.’ ‘You are as bad as Randall! You are heartless tormentors, both of you!’ Loathing seemed to pour from Sophie’s eyes as she stared at Kimpton and Claudia. ‘Heartless?’ said Kimpton. ‘Incorrect. I have the valves, the chambers, the arteries that make a heart. My blood is pumped around my body in the same way yours is.’ He turned to Poirot. ‘This is what your psychology does, my friend—it has us all speaking as if muscle tissue were capable of finer feelings. Believe me, Sophie, when you’ve opened up as many bodies as I have and seen the hearts inside them—’ ‘Will you stop talking about disgusting, blood-soaked organs, while our plates are heaped with meat?’ Dorro spat at him. ‘I cannot bear the sight of it, nor the smell.’ She pushed away her plate. None of us had managed to eat very much, apart from Orville Rolfe, who had wolfed his entire dinner within a few seconds of it being placed in front of him. ‘Dearest Sophie,’ said Scotcher. ‘Randall and Claudia are right: I do not have long to go. But I should like to spend what time I have left with you, as your faithful and loving husband. If you will have me, that is.’ The sound of a strangled cry, cut off at its mid-point, made everyone look up. It had come from nobody in the room. ‘Which nosy so-and-so has his or her waxy lug-hole pressed up against the door?’ said Kimpton loudly. We all heard the flurry of footsteps as the listener ran away. ‘Joseph, you know I love you more than anything,’ said Sophie. She sounded—and it struck me as rather odd—as if she was pleading with him. ‘You know I would do anything for you.’ ‘Well, then!’ Scotcher smiled. At least, I think it was a smile. He appeared to be in a certain amount of pain. ‘Monsieur Poirot is right,’ said Sophie. ‘We should be sensible and discuss this in private.’ Two by two, the rest of us filed out of the room. Claudia and Kimpton went first, then Harry and Dorro. Ahead of Poirot and me were Gathercole and Rolfe. I overheard Rolfe’s complaint that he had been promised a lemon chiffon cake for pudding; how, now that he had been forced away from the table, was he to be served this cake, and could Mr Scotcher not have been a little less inconsiderate and postponed his proposal until dinner was properly concluded? As for me, I had completely lost my appetite. ‘I need fresh air,’ I muttered to Poirot. ‘Sorry. I know you find that incomprehensible.’ ‘Non, mon ami,’ he replied. ‘Tonight, I comprehend it only too well.’ CHAPTER 8 (#ulink_676a2fe4-941f-5786-a86c-ddc1ca1984b9) A Stroll in the Gardens (#ulink_676a2fe4-941f-5786-a86c-ddc1ca1984b9) The first thing I did, as Poirot and I stepped outside, was gulp in air as if I’d been starved of it. There was something stifling about Lillieoak, something that made me want to escape its confines. ‘This is the best time of day to walk in a garden,’ said Poirot. ‘When it is dark and one sees no plants or flowers.’ I laughed. ‘Are you being deliberately silly? No gardener would agree with you.’ ‘I like to savour the smell of a garden I cannot see. Do you smell it? The pine, and the lavender—oh, yes, very strongly the lavender. The nose is as important as the eyes. Ask any horticulturalist.’ Poirot chuckled. ‘I think that if you and I were to meet the one who created this garden, I would make the more favourable impression upon him.’ ‘I expect you think that about anyone the two of us might meet, whether they were a gardener or a postman,’ I said curtly. ‘Who was at the door?’ ‘Pardon?’ ‘Someone was listening at the door—someone who made an unhappy exclamation immediately after Joseph Scotcher asked the nurse Sophie to marry him.’ ‘Yes, and who then ran away.’ ‘Who was it, do you think?’ ‘Well, we know it was nobody in the dining room—so not you, me, Harry, Dorro, Claudia, Kimpton. It wasn’t the two lawyers, Gathercole and Rolfe. It wasn’t poor old Joseph Scotcher, whose running days are over, and nor was it his nurse, Sophie. That leaves Lady Playford, who had left the room by then, Brigid the cook, Hatton the butler, Phyllis the maid. It could have been any of them. I am inclined to believe it was Phyllis—she is besotted with Scotcher. She told me so herself, before dinner.’ ‘And that is why you arrived late to the dining room?’ ‘Yes, it was.’ Poirot nodded. ‘Shall we walk a little?’ he suggested. ‘I can see the path now. It goes all the way around the lawn and will bring us back to the house.’ ‘I have no wish to be brought back,’ I told him. I did not want to walk a neat square on a paved path. I should have liked to stride out across the grass, with no thought about how or when I would return. ‘You are wrong,’ Poirot told me as we set off on the safe route of his choosing. ‘About what?’ ‘The listener at the door who ran away—yes, it could have been Lady Playford, or the maid Phyllis, or Hatton, but it could not have been Brigid the cook. I caught a glimpse of her when I first arrived. I doubt she could move so quickly, and her tread would be heavier.’ ‘Yes. Now that I think of it, the footsteps had a light and nimble aspect.’ ‘Nimble is an interesting word. It suggests youth.’ ‘I know. Which makes me think … It must have been Phyllis. As I said: we know she is enamoured of Scotcher. And she’s young and sprightly, isn’t she? No one else is—no one who might have been listening outside that door. Hatton and Lady Playford are both older and move more slowly.’ ‘So it was Phyllis,’ Poirot seemed content to agree. ‘Let us move on to our next question. Why would Lady Playford decide to change her will in such a peculiar way?’ ‘She told us why. She hopes that Scotcher’s unconscious mind will exert its powerful influence—’ ‘That is senseless,’ Poirot dismissed my answer, only half-expressed. ‘Kidney failure is kidney failure. The prospect of all the riches in the world cannot reverse a terminal illness that has nearly run its course. Lady Playford is a woman of considerable intelligence, therefore she knows this. I do not believe that was her reason.’ He stopped walking in order to disagree with himself. ‘Although the ability of people to believe what they hope is true is without limit, mon ami. If Lady Playford loves Joseph Scotcher very much, perhaps …’ I waited to see if he would say more. When it was clear he did not intend to, I said, ‘I think you were right the first time. If there’s one thing I know about Athelinda Playford from her books, it’s that she thinks of all kinds of peculiar motives and schemes that no one else would ever dream up. I think she was playing a game at the dinner table. She strikes me as the sort who would enjoy games.’ ‘You think it is not real, this will that leaves her entire estate to Scotcher?’ We had started to move again. ‘No, I think it is,’ I said. What did I mean? I considered it carefully. ‘Making it real is part of her game. She’s serious, all right—but that doesn’t mean she isn’t toying with everybody.’ ‘For what reason, mon ami? For revenge, perhaps? The desire to punish—though not so severely as she might? A most interesting allusion was made to the late Viscount Playford’s will. I wonder …’ ‘Yes, I have been wondering about it too.’ ‘I think I can guess what happened. Usually the family estate passes to the son, the new Viscount. Yet in this instance that evidently did not happen. Lady Playford, as we heard this evening, is the owner of the Lillieoak estate and of several houses in London. Therefore … an unusual arrangement must have been made by the late Viscount Playford. It is possible that he and Lady Playford did not believe the young Harry to be capable of taking on such a responsibility—’ ‘If that was their worry, one could scarcely blame them,’ I interjected. ‘Harry does rather give the impression of having a suet pudding between his ears, doesn’t he?’ Poirot murmured his agreement, then said, ‘Or perhaps the reluctance of Lady Playford and her late husband had more to do with their daughter-in-law, who has shown her vicious streak most clearly in the short time we have known her.’ ‘What do you mean about Lady Playford wanting to punish, but not too severely?’ ‘Let us say that she does not wish to disinherit her children—that would be too extreme. At the same time, it infuriates her that they take her for granted. Perhaps they are not as attentive as they might be. So she makes a new will leaving everything to Joseph Scotcher. She knows he will not outlive her—her new arrangements make no difference to him, apart from as a gesture. Now her children and her daughter-in-law will be nervous for the remainder of Scotcher’s life, in case she should happen to die before him—after all, accidents do happen. When Scotcher dies from his illness, they will all breathe a sigh of relief and never again take for granted that everything belonging to Lady Playford will one day be theirs. They might treat her more considerately thereafter.’ ‘I don’t like that theory at all,’ I said. ‘Accidents do happen, and I cannot believe that Lady Playford would make so imprecise a plan. If she wanted her estate to go to her children, she would not take even the tiniest risk. As you say, she could fall down the stairs and break her neck tomorrow and everything would go to Scotcher.’ I expected Poirot to argue the point, but he did not. We walked for a while in silence. My legs were starting to ache from the effort of adjusting my pace to match his. Someone ought to make a competitive sport out of trying to walk excessively slowly; it tests muscles of which one was previously unaware. ‘I have an outlandish hypothesis,’ I said. ‘Imagine that Lady Playford has reason to believe one of her children intends to kill her.’ ‘Ah!’ ‘You’ve already thought of this, I suppose.’ ‘Non, mon ami. Continue.’ ‘She is worried about her dying secretary, Joseph Scotcher. As a sort of mother figure to him, which is very likely how she sees herself—he is an orphan, and she lost a child—she doesn’t want to die while he is alive and needs her. She hopes to stay alive in order to be of help and comfort to him during his final illness. At the same time, she knows her power is limited; if Harry or Claudia—or Dorro or Randall Kimpton for that matter—is serious about killing her, she might not be able to prevent it.’ ‘So she changes her will to ensure that her would-be killer waits until Scotcher is dead before killing her?’ said Poirot. ‘Yes. She calculates that they would wait, in order to make sure of getting their hands on her money, the houses, the land. Exactly. And after Scotcher is dead, why should she care if she lives or dies? Her husband has already passed on, and losing Scotcher will be like losing a child all over again.’ ‘Why would Lady Playford not go to the police if she believed her life was in danger?’ ‘That is a good point. Yes, she would, most probably. Which makes my exciting theory pure bunkum.’ I heard a little laugh beside me. Poirot, like Athelinda Playford, enjoyed playing games with people. ‘You give up too easily, Catchpool. Lady Playford is not a young woman, as we have discussed. Many at her age do not like to travel. So, she did not go to the police. Instead, she brought the police to her. You, mon ami. And she did better than that: she brought to her home the great detective Hercule Poirot.’ ‘You think there is something in my hypothesis, then?’ ‘It is possible. It would be hard for a mother to say of one of her children, “He plans to kill me,” especially to a stranger. She might try instead to push away the unbearable truth and approach the matter in a less direct fashion. Also, she may be unsure; she may lack the proof. Did you notice any interesting reactions to the news of the changed will?’ ‘Knocked everyone for six, didn’t it? Caused a great to-do, and I doubt we’ve heard the end of it either.’ ‘Not everyone seemed knocked for the six,’ Poirot said. ‘Do you mean Harry Playford? Yes, you’re right. He appeared equally unmoved by his wife’s distress, by her cruel words about his dead brother, Nicholas, and by his mother’s anguished departure that followed. I should say that Harry Playford is an even keel sort of fellow who could find himself at the centre of an earthquake and barely notice. He strikes me as neither bright nor sensitive. I mean … gosh, that sounded rather harsher than I intended it to!’ ‘I agree, mon ami. So we can put to one side for the time being Harry Playford’s unusual reaction and say that it is probably not unusual for him. I suspect that he has come to rely on his wife to express all the emotion for the two of them.’ ‘Yes, Dorro does enough fretting for twelve people,’ I concurred. ‘You asked about unusual reactions—I don’t suppose you noticed Gathercole’s? He seemed to be struggling to contain some terrible grief or fury that threatened to burst forth. There was a moment, I confess, when I feared his efforts would fail and it would all come out, whatever it was.’ ‘You describe it very well,’ said Poirot. ‘However, it was not the announcement of the new will that upset Mr Gathercole. Remember, he had known for some hours and was perfectly composed when we all sat down at the table. So what altered his mood?’ ‘I’ve been puzzling over that very question,’ I said. ‘What happened that he might not have been prepared for? I suppose Scotcher’s reaction was unexpected: he did not seem glad of the new arrangements at all, did he?’ ‘Understandably, he did not. Scotcher is close to death. What can he gain from this new will? Nothing. He will not live to see the money, so it spells only trouble for him—resentment from Dorro, from Claudia … which is why I wonder.’ ‘What do you wonder?’ ‘Lady Playford’s intention—perhaps it is not to benefit Scotcher but to incommode him. To cause him distress and inconvenience. That, after all, is the effect that we observed, and Lady Playford seems to be a person whose aim would not miss.’ ‘What if she and Joseph Scotcher have jointly concocted some kind of plot?’ I said. ‘Why do you suggest it?’ asked Poirot. We had reached the far side of the lawn, the spot that offered the best view of Lillieoak. People were supposed to stop here and admire the house. ‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s only that their behaviour struck me as similar somehow. Lady Playford leaves everything to a dying man who will not benefit from her generosity. Joseph Scotcher proposes marriage to a girl who, if she accepts him, will get deathbed duty instead of the romantic dream, before becoming a widow. In both cases, the promise of everything—one’s dreams come true—but a vastly different and more desolate reality.’ ‘That is an interesting observation,’ said Poirot as we walked on. ‘Yet I can imagine the desire to marry the one you love growing more urgent as life departs. There is great consolation in the symbolic union.’ ‘What if Nurse Sophie ends up with the lot?’ I said. ‘While I think of the grand romantic gestures, you think of practicalities, n’est-ce pas?’ ‘You have not considered it? If he marries her, and Lady Playford dies before he does, to whom would her estate go? To Sophie, as Scotcher’s wife.’ ‘Catchpool. What is that noise?’ We stopped. It seemed to be coming from the bushes to our right: the distinct sound of a person weeping that soon gave way to an intermittent hissing noise. ‘What on earth is that?’ I asked Poirot. ‘Frenzied whispering. Lower your voice, or they will hear us, if they have not already.’ It was obvious as soon as he said it that the hissing I had heard was the sound of a frightened person trying to communicate quietly but urgently. ‘There must be two of them out here,’ I whispered. ‘Shall we look for them?’ ‘In these gardens?’ Poirot made a dismissive noise. ‘It would be more profitable to look for a particular leaf—the first one you saw when you arrived here.’ ‘People are easier to find than leaves,’ I said. ‘Not when you and I are strangers to these paths and others are not. No, we will return to the house. There is work for us to do. We must make ourselves busy. Once we are inside, we will be able to see who is there and who is not. That is more productive than looking for the needle in the hay.’ ‘What did you mean about us having work to do?’ I asked. ‘What sort of work?’ ‘I know now why we were invited here, you and I. It was not for our congenial company. Non, pas du tout. We are here to use our little grey cells. It is all part of Lady Playford’s plan.’ Before I had a chance to ask ‘What plan?’ Poirot added quietly, as if as an afterthought, ‘We are here in order to prevent a murder.’ CHAPTER 9 (#ulink_f4e1815a-f54a-561c-a317-2ff6a8952d00) King John (#ulink_f4e1815a-f54a-561c-a317-2ff6a8952d00) Hatton admitted us to the house. Predictably, he said nothing, though his bearing suggested that all three of us might benefit from the pretence that Poirot and I had not ventured outside and then needed to be let in again. We went first to the dining room, which was empty, then to the drawing room. Here we found Harry, Dorro, Claudia and Randall Kimpton. A fire blazed in the grate, yet the room was still cold. All were seated and drinking what looked like brandy, apart from Kimpton. He had been fixing himself a drink, but after filling the glass he handed it to Poirot, who raised it to his nose. Whatever it was, it did not meet with his approval. He set it down on the nearest table without taking a sip. Kimpton was busy pouring a drink for me and so failed to notice. ‘Have you heard any news?’ Dorro asked, leaning forward. Her anxious eyes flitted from me to Poirot and back again. ‘News of what, madame?’ ‘Joseph Scotcher’s proposal of marriage to Sophie Bourlet. We left them alone in the dining room—well, it seemed tactful—but we have not seen or heard from them since. I had assumed they would join us in here. I should like to know the outcome.’ ‘How delightful that you care, Dorro,’ said Kimpton. He lit a cigarette. Harry Playford took a silver case out of his pocket and lit one of his own. ‘She said yes, naturally.’ Claudia yawned. ‘I don’t see how anyone can think it in doubt. They will certainly marry, assuming the grim reaper allows sufficient time. It’s terribly like The Mikado, isn’t it? Do you know it, Monsieur Poirot? The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? Wonderful music—killingly funny, too. Nanki-Poo wants to marry Yum-Yum, but the only way he can is if he agrees to be beheaded by Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, after exactly a month. He agrees, of course, because he adores Yum-Yum.’ ‘Good chap,’ said Kimpton. ‘I should marry you even if it meant having my head chopped off in a month, dearest one.’ ‘And then I should have a dilemma—whether to keep your head or your body,’ said Claudia. ‘I think, all things considered, the head.’ What an alarming and illogical remark, I thought. Kimpton, to whom it had been addressed, seemed charmed by it. ‘Why not keep both, my divine girl?’ he asked. ‘Is there a rule forbidding it?’ ‘I think there must be, or else it’s no fun at all,’ said Claudia. ‘Yes! If I refuse to choose between lifeless head and bloodless body, both will be taken away and burned, and I will have neither. I choose the head!’ ‘My mind is flattered, at the same time as sending signals to my extremities of great offence taken. I don’t mind telling you it’s a tricky balancing act, even for a brain as sophisticated as mine.’ Claudia threw back her head and laughed. I found this entire exchange astonishing, and—if I am to be honest—rather repulsive. Dorro seemed to agree with me. ‘Can you not stop?’ She covered her face with her hands. ‘Can the two of you never stop? A terrible thing has happened. This is no time to be frivolous.’ ‘I disagree,’ said Kimpton. ‘Frivolity is free, after all. Heiresses and paupers may enjoy it alike.’ ‘You are beastly, Randall.’ Dorro stared at him with loathing in her eyes. ‘Harry, have you nothing to say?’ ‘We’ll all feel better after a snifter or two,’ said Harry matter-of-factly, looking down at the contents of his glass. Kimpton took his drink and crossed the room to stand behind Claudia’s chair. He leaned down, kissed her forehead, and said, ‘“He is the half part of a blessed man/Left to be finished by such as she/And she a fair divided excellence, Whose fullness of perfection lies in him.”’ Claudia groaned. ‘Shakespeare’s infernal King John. It is endlessly tiresome. I prefer your ideas to Mr Shakespeare’s, darling—they are more original.’ ‘Where are the others?’ asked Poirot. ‘All in bed, I expect,’ said Claudia. ‘Mr Gathercole and Mr Rolfe have said goodnight. I cannot think why they should wish to extricate themselves, when the Playford family fun has barely started.’ ‘I heard Mr Rolfe say he was feeling unwell,’ said Dorro. ‘Poor Scotcher looked sick as a dog too,’ said Harry. ‘I’m sure Sophie has tucked him up in his nice warm deathbed,’ Claudia said. ‘Stop it! Stop it at once, I can’t bear it.’ Dorro’s voice shook. ‘I shall say what I like,’ Claudia told her. ‘Unlike you, Dorro, I know when there is a funny side and when there is none. Harry, how would you like to stuff Joseph’s corpse and stick him up on the wall?’ I saw Poirot recoil at this, and I could hardly blame him. Did Randall Kimpton, a doctor, seriously intend to marry a woman who thought a man’s tragic death was something to laugh about? Dorro slammed her drink down on the table beside her. She folded her hands into fists, but couldn’t keep her fingers still; they wriggled like worms. ‘There is not a soul who cares about me,’ she cried. ‘Even you do not care, Harry.’ ‘Hm?’ Her husband inspected her for a few seconds before saying, ‘Buck up, old girl. We’ll muddle along.’ ‘You’re a fine one to be offended by a little deathbed joke, Dorro.’ Claudia narrowed her eyes at her sister-in-law. ‘Mother is sobbing in her room, I am sure, thanks to your harsh words. You accused her of trying to turn Joseph into Nicholas and make a substitute son of him. That is quite untrue.’ ‘Don’t! I could tear out my tongue!’ Dorro crumpled. No longer puffed up with indignation, she began to cry. ‘I was beside myself, and it … it came out of me. I did not choose to say it.’ ‘Yet say it you did,’ said Kimpton cheerfully. ‘“Stone-cold dead”, I believe it was.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/agata-kristi/closed-casket-the-new-hercule-poirot-mystery/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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