Chapter V. "It Isn't Strychnine, Is It?"
"Where did you find this?" I asked Poirot, in lively curiosity.
"In the waste-paper basket. You recognise the handwriting?"
"Yes, it is Mrs. Inglethorp's. But what does it mean?"
Poirot shrugged his shoulders.
"I cannot say--but it is suggestive."
A wild idea flashed across me. Was it possible that Mrs. Inglethorp's mind was deranged? Had she some fantastic idea of demoniacal possession? And, if that were so, was it not also possible that she might have taken her own life?
I was about to expound these theories to Poirot, when his own words distracted me.
"Come," he said, "now to examine the coffee-cups!"
"My dear Poirot! What on earth is the good of that, now that we know about the coco?"
"Oh, la la! That miserable coco!" cried Poirot flippantly.
He laughed with apparent enjoyment, raising his arms to heaven in mock despair, in what I could not but consider the worst possible taste.
"And, anyway," I said, with increasing coldness, "as Mrs. Inglethorp took her coffee upstairs with her, I do not see what you expect to find, unless you consider it likely that we shall discover a packet of strychnine on the coffee tray!"
Poirot was sobered at once.
"Come, come, my friend," he said, slipping his arms through mine. "Ne vous fachez pas! Allow me to interest myself in my coffee-cups, and I will respect your coco. There! Is it a bargain?"
He was so quaintly humorous that I was forced to laugh; and we went together to the drawing-room, where the coffee-cups and tray remained undisturbed as we had left them.
Poirot made me recapitulate the scene of the night before, listening very carefully, and verifying the position of the various cups.
"So Mrs. Cavendish stood by the tray--and poured out. Yes. Then she came across to the window where you sat with Mademoiselle Cynthia. Yes. Here are the three cups. And the cup on the mantel-piece, half drunk, that would be Mr. Lawrence Cavendish's. And the one on the tray?"
"John Cavendish's. I saw him put it down there."
"Good. One, two, three, four, five--but where, then, is the cup of Mr. Inglethorp?"
"He does not take coffee."
"Then all are accounted for. One moment, my friend."
With infinite care, he took a drop or two from the grounds in each cup, sealing them up in separate test tubes, tasting each in turn as he did so. His physiognomy underwent a curious change. An expression gathered there that I can only describe as half puzzled, and half relieved.
"Bien!" he said at last. "It is evident! I had an idea--but clearly I was mistaken. Yes, altogether I was mistaken. Yet it is strange. But no matter!"
And, with a characteristic shrug, he dismissed whatever it was that was worrying him from his mind. I could have told him from the beginning that this obsession of his over the coffee was bound to end in a blind alley, but I restrained my tongue. After all, though he was old, Poirot had been a great man in his day.
"Breakfast is ready," said John Cavendish, coming in from the hall. "You will breakfast with us, Monsieur Poirot?"
Poirot acquiesced. I observed John. Already he was almost restored to his normal self. The shock of the events of the last night had upset him temporarily, but his equable poise soon swung back to the normal. He was a man of very little imagination, in sharp contrast with his brother, who had, perhaps, too much.
Ever since the early hours of the morning, John had been hard at work, sending telegrams--one of the first had gone to Evelyn Howard--writing notices for the papers, and generally occupying himself with the melancholy duties that a death entails.
"May I ask how things are proceeding?" he said. "Do your investigations point to my mother having died a natural death-- or--or must we prepare ourselves for the worst?"
"I think, Mr. Cavendish," said Poirot gravely, "that you would do well not to buoy yourself up with any false hopes. Can you tell me the views of the other members of the family?"
"My brother Lawrence is convinced that we are making a fuss over nothing. He says that everything points to its being a simple case of heart failure."
"He does, does he? That is very interesting--very interesting," murmured Poirot softly. "And Mrs. Cavendish?"
A faint cloud passed over John's face.
"I have not the least idea what my wife's views on the subject are."
The answer brought a momentary stiffness in its train. John broke the rather awkward silence by saying with a slight effort:
"I told you, didn't I, that Mr. Inglethorp has returned?"
Poirot bent his head.
"It's an awkward position for all of us. Of course one has to treat him as usual--but, hang it all, one's gorge does rise at sitting down to eat with a possible murderer!"
Poirot nodded sympathetically.
"I quite understand. It is a very difficult situation for you, Mr. Cavendish. I would like to ask you one question. Mr. Inglethorp's reason for not returning last night was, I believe, that he had forgotten the latch-key. Is not that so?"
"I suppose you are quite sure that the latch-key was forgotten--that he did not take it after all?"
"I have no idea. I never thought of looking. We always keep it in the hall drawer. I'll go and see if it's there now."
Poirot held up his hand with a faint smile.
"No, no, Mr. Cavendish, it is too late now. I am certain that you would find it. If Mr. Inglethorp did take it, he has had ample time to replace it by now."
"But do you think----"
"I think nothing. If anyone had chanced to look this morning before his return, and seen it there, it would have been a valuable point in his favour. That is all."
John looked perplexed.
"Do not worry," said Poirot smoothly. "I assure you that you need not let it trouble you. Since you are so kind, let us go and have some breakfast."
Every one was assembled in the dining-room. Under the circumstances, we were naturally not a cheerful party. The reaction after a shock is always trying, and I think we were all suffering from it. Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual, yet I could not help wondering if this self-control were really a matter of great difficulty. There were no red eyes, no signs of secretly indulged grief. I felt that I was right in my opinion that Dorcas was the person most affected by the personal side of the tragedy.
I pass over Alfred Inglethorp, who acted the bereaved widower in a manner that I felt to be disgusting in its hypocrisy. Did he know that we suspected him, I wondered. Surely he could not be unaware of the fact, conceal it as we would. Did he feel some secret stirring of fear, or was he confident that his crime would go unpunished? Surely the suspicion in the atmosphere must warn him that he was already a marked man.
But did every one suspect him? What about Mrs. Cavendish? I watched her as she sat at the head of the table, graceful, composed, enigmatic. In her soft grey frock, with white ruffles at the wrists falling over her slender hands, she looked very beautiful. When she chose, however, her face could be sphinx-like in its inscrutability. She was very silent, hardly opening her lips, and yet in some queer way I felt that the great strength of her personality was dominating us all.
And little Cynthia? Did she suspect? She looked very tired and ill, I thought. The heaviness and languor of her manner were very marked. I asked her if she were feeling ill, and she answered frankly:
"Yes, I've got the most beastly headache."
"Have another cup of coffee, mademoiselle?" said Poirot solicitously. "It will revive you. It is unparalleled for the mal de tete." He jumped up and took her cup.
"No sugar," said Cynthia, watching him, as he picked up the sugar-tongs.
"No sugar? You abandon it in the war-time, eh?"
"No, I never take it in coffee."
"Sacre!" murmured Poirot to himself, as he brought back the replenished cup.
Only I heard him, and glancing up curiously at the little man I saw that his face was working with suppressed excitement, and his eyes were as green as a cat's. He had heard or seen something that had affected him strongly--but what was it? I do not usually label myself as dense, but I must confess that nothing out of the ordinary had attracted my attention.
In another moment, the door opened and Dorcas appeared.
"Mr. Wells to see you, sir," she said to John.
I remembered the name as being that of the lawyer to whom Mrs. Inglethorp had written the night before.
John rose immediately.
"Show him into my study." Then he turned to us. "My mother's lawyer," he explained. And in a lower voice: "He is also Coroner--you understand. Perhaps you would like to come with me?"
We acquiesced and followed him out of the room. John strode on ahead and I took the opportunity of whispering to Poirot:
"There will be an inquest then?"
Poirot nodded absently. He seemed absorbed in thought; so much so that my curiosity was aroused.
"What is it? You are not attending to what I say."
"It is true, my friend. I am much worried."
"Because Mademoiselle Cynthia does not take sugar in her coffee."
"What? You cannot be serious?"
"But I am most serious. Ah, there is something there that I do not understand. My instinct was right."
"The instinct that led me to insist on examining those coffee-cups. Chut! no more now!"
We followed John into his study, and he closed the door behind us.
Mr. Wells was a pleasant man of middle-age, with keen eyes, and the typical lawyer's mouth. John introduced us both, and explained the reason of our presence.
"You will understand, Wells," he added, "that this is all strictly private. We are still hoping that there will turn out to be no need for investigation of any kind."
"Quite so, quite so," said Mr. Wells soothingly. "I wish we could have spared you the pain and publicity of an inquest, but of course it's quite unavoidable in the absence of a doctor's certificate."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Clever man, Bauerstein. Great authority on toxicology, I believe."
"Indeed," said John with a certain stiffness in his manner. Then he added rather hesitatingly: "Shall we have to appear as witnesses--all of us, I mean?"
"You, of course--and ah--er--Mr.--er--Inglethorp."
A slight pause ensued before the lawyer went on in his soothing manner:
"Any other evidence will be simply confirmatory, a mere matter of form."
A faint expression of relief swept over John's face. It puzzled me, for I saw no occasion for it.
"If you know of nothing to the contrary," pursued Mr. Wells, "I had thought of Friday. That will give us plenty of time for the doctor's report. The post-mortem is to take place to-night, I believe?"
"Then that arrangement will suit you?"
"I need not tell you, my dear Cavendish, how distressed I am at this most tragic affair."
"Can you give us no help in solving it, monsieur?" interposed Poirot, speaking for the first time since we had entered the room.
"Yes, we heard that Mrs. Inglethorp wrote to you last night. You should have received the letter this morning."
"I did, but it contains no information. It is merely a note asking me to call upon her this morning, as she wanted my advice on a matter of great importance."
"She gave you no hint as to what that matter might be?"
"That is a pity," said John.
"A great pity," agreed Poirot gravely.
There was silence. Poirot remained lost in thought for a few minutes. Finally he turned to the lawyer again.
"Mr. Wells, there is one thing I should like to ask you--that is, if it is not against professional etiquette. In the event of Mrs. Inglethorp's death, who would inherit her money?"
The lawyer hesitated a moment, and then replied:
"The knowledge will be public property very soon, so if Mr. Cavendish does not object----"
"Not at all," interpolated John.
"I do not see any reason why I should not answer your question. By her last will, dated August of last year, after various unimportant legacies to servants, etc., she gave her entire fortune to her stepson, Mr. John Cavendish."
"Was not that--pardon the question, Mr. Cavendish--rather unfair to her other stepson, Mr. Lawrence Cavendish?"
"No, I do not think so. You see, under the terms of their father's will, while John inherited the property, Lawrence, at his stepmother's death, would come into a considerable sum of money. Mrs. Inglethorp left her money to her elder stepson, knowing that he would have to keep up Styles. It was, to my mind, a very fair and equitable distribution."
Poirot nodded thoughtfully.
"I see. But I am right in saying, am I not, that by your English law that will was automatically revoked when Mrs. Inglethorp remarried?"
Mr. Wells bowed his head.
"As I was about to proceed, Monsieur Poirot, that document is now null and void."
"Hein!" said Poirot. He reflected for a moment, and then asked: "Was Mrs. Inglethorp herself aware of that fact?"
"I do not know. She may have been."
"She was," said John unexpectedly. "We were discussing the matter of wills being revoked by marriage only yesterday."
"Ah! One more question, Mr. Wells. You say 'her last will.' Had Mrs. Inglethorp, then, made several former wills?"
"On an average, she made a new will at least once a year," said Mr. Wells imperturbably. "She was given to changing her mind as to her testamentary dispositions, now benefiting one, now another member of her family."
"Suppose," suggested Poirot, "that, unknown to you, she had made a new will in favour of some one who was not, in any sense of the word, a member of the family--we will say Miss Howard, for instance--would you be surprised?"
"Not in the least."
"Ah!" Poirot seemed to have exhausted his questions.
I drew close to him, while John and the lawyer were debating the question of going through Mrs. Inglethorp's papers.
"Do you think Mrs. Inglethorp made a will leaving all her money to Miss Howard?" I asked in a low voice, with some curiosity.
"Then why did you ask?"
John Cavendish had turned to Poirot.
"Will you come with us, Monsieur Poirot? We are going through my mother's papers. Mr. Inglethorp is quite willing to leave it entirely to Mr. Wells and myself."
"Which simplifies matters very much," murmured the lawyer. "As technically, of course, he was entitled----" He did not finish the sentence.
"We will look through the desk in the boudoir first," explained John, "and go up to her bedroom afterwards. She kept her most important papers in a purple despatch-case, which we must look through carefully."
"Yes," said the lawyer, "it is quite possible that there may be a later will than the one in my possession."
"There is a later will." It was Poirot who spoke.
"What?" John and the lawyer looked at him startled.
"Or, rather," pursued my friend imperturbably, "there was one."
"What do you mean--there was one? Where is it now?"
"Yes. See here." He took out the charred fragment we had found in the grate in Mrs. Inglethorp's room, and handed it to the lawyer with a brief explanation of when and where he had found it.
"But possibly this is an old will?"
"I do not think so. In fact I am almost certain that it was made no earlier than yesterday afternoon."
"What?" "Impossible!" broke simultaneously from both men.
Poirot turned to John.
"If you will allow me to send for your gardener, I will prove it to you."
"Oh, of course--but I don't see----"
Poirot raised his hand.
"Do as I ask you. Afterwards you shall question as much as you please."
"Very well." He rang the bell.
Dorcas answered it in due course.
"Dorcas, will you tell Manning to come round and speak to me here."
We waited in a tense silence. Poirot alone seemed perfectly at his ease, and dusted a forgotten corner of the bookcase.
The clumping of hobnailed boots on the gravel outside proclaimed the approach of Manning. John looked questioningly at Poirot. The latter nodded.
"Come inside, Manning," said John, "I want to speak to you."
Manning came slowly and hesitatingly through the French window, and stood as near it as he could. He held his cap in his hands, twisting it very carefully round and round. His back was much bent, though he was probably not as old as he looked, but his eyes were sharp and intelligent, and belied his slow and rather cautious speech.
"Manning," said John, "this gentleman will put some questions to you which I want you to answer."
"Yes sir," mumbled Manning.
Poirot stepped forward briskly. Manning's eye swept over him with a faint contempt.
"You were planting a bed of begonias round by the south side of the house yesterday afternoon, were you not, Manning?"
"Yes, sir, me and Willum."
"And Mrs. Inglethorp came to the window and called you, did she not?"
"Yes, sir, she did."
"Tell me in your own words exactly what happened after that."
"Well, sir, nothing much. She just told Willum to go on his bicycle down to the village, and bring back a form of will, or such-like--I don't know what exactly--she wrote it down for him."
"Well, he did, sir."
"And what happened next?"
"We went on with the begonias, sir."
"Did not Mrs. Inglethorp call you again?"
"Yes, sir, both me and Willum, she called."
"She made us come right in, and sign our names at the bottom of a long paper--under where she'd signed."
"Did you see anything of what was written above her signature?" asked Poirot sharply.
"No, sir, there was a bit of blotting paper over that part."
"And you signed where she told you?"
"Yes, sir, first me and then Willum."
"What did she do with it afterwards?"
"Well, sir, she slipped it into a long envelope, and put it inside a sort of purple box that was standing on the desk."
"What time was it when she first called you?"
"About four, I should say, sir."
"Not earlier? Couldn't it have been about half-past three?"
"No, I shouldn't say so, sir. It would be more likely to be a bit after four--not before it."
"Thank you, Manning, that will do," said Poirot pleasantly.
The gardener glanced at his master, who nodded, whereupon Manning lifted a finger to his forehead with a low mumble, and backed cautiously out of the window.
We all looked at each other.
"Good heavens!" murmured John. "What an extraordinary coincidence."
"That my mother should have made a will on the very day of her death!"
Mr. Wells cleared his throat and remarked drily:
"Are you so sure it is a coincidence, Cavendish?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your mother, you tell me, had a violent quarrel with--some one yesterday afternoon----"
"What do you mean?" cried John again. There was a tremor in his voice, and he had gone very pale.
"In consequence of that quarrel, your mother very suddenly and hurriedly makes a new will. The contents of that will we shall never know. She told no one of its provisions. This morning, no doubt, she would have consulted me on the subject--but she had no chance. The will disappears, and she takes its secret with her to her grave. Cavendish, I much fear there is no coincidence there. Monsieur Poirot, I am sure you agree with me that the facts are very suggestive."
"Suggestive, or not," interrupted John, "we are most grateful to Monsieur Poirot for elucidating the matter. But for him, we should never have known of this will. I suppose, I may not ask you, monsieur, what first led you to suspect the fact?"
Poirot smiled and answered:
"A scribbled over old envelope, and a freshly planted bed of begonias."
John, I think, would have pressed his questions further, but at that moment the loud purr of a motor was audible, and we all turned to the window as it swept past.
"Evie!" cried John. "Excuse me, Wells." He went hurriedly out into the hall.
Poirot looked inquiringly at me.
"Miss Howard," I explained.
"Ah, I am glad she has come. There is a woman with a head and a heart too, Hastings. Though the good God gave her no beauty!"
I followed John's example, and went out into the hall, where Miss Howard was endeavouring to extricate herself from the voluminous mass of veils that enveloped her head. As her eyes fell on me, a sudden pang of guilt shot through me. This was the woman who had warned me so earnestly, and to whose warning I had, alas, paid no heed! How soon, and how contemptuously, I had dismissed it from my mind. Now that she had been proved justified in so tragic a manner, I felt ashamed. She had known Alfred Inglethorp only too well. I wondered whether, if she had remained at Styles, the tragedy would have taken place, or would the man have feared her watchful eyes?
I was relieved when she shook me by the hand, with her well remembered painful grip. The eyes that met mine were sad, but not reproachful; that she had been crying bitterly, I could tell by the redness of her eyelids, but her manner was unchanged from its old gruffness.
"Started the moment I got the wire. Just come off night duty. Hired car. Quickest way to get here."
"Have you had anything to eat this morning, Evie?" asked John.
"I thought not. Come along, breakfast's not cleared away yet, and they'll make you some fresh tea." He turned to me. "Look after her, Hastings, will you? Wells is waiting for me. Oh, here's Monsieur Poirot. He's helping us, you know, Evie."
Miss Howard shook hands with Poirot, but glanced suspiciously over her shoulder at John.
"What do you mean--helping us?"
"Helping us to investigate."
"Nothing to investigate. Have they taken him to prison yet?"
"Taken who to prison?"
"Who? Alfred Inglethorp, of course!"
"My dear Evie, do be careful. Lawrence is of the opinion that my mother died from heart seizure."
"More fool, Lawrence!" retorted Miss Howard. "Of course Alfred Inglethorp murdered poor Emily--as I always told you he would."
"My dear Evie, don't shout so. Whatever we may think or suspect, it is better to say as little as possible for the present. The inquest isn't until Friday."
"Not until fiddlesticks!" The snort Miss Howard gave was truly magnificent. "You're all off your heads. The man will be out of the country by then. If he's any sense, he won't stay here tamely and wait to be hanged."
John Cavendish looked at her helplessly.
"I know what it is," she accused him, "you've been listening to the doctors. Never should. What do they know? Nothing at all--or just enough to make them dangerous. I ought to know--my own father was a doctor. That little Wilkins is about the greatest fool that even I have ever seen. Heart seizure! Sort of thing he would say. Anyone with any sense could see at once that her husband had poisoned her. I always said he'd murder her in her bed, poor soul. Now he's done it. And all you can do is to murmur silly things about 'heart seizure' and 'inquest on Friday.' You ought to be ashamed of yourself, John Cavendish."
"What do you want me to do?" asked John, unable to help a faint smile. "Dash it all, Evie, I can't haul him down to the local police station by the scruff of his neck."
"Well, you might do something. Find out how he did it. He's a crafty beggar. Dare say he soaked fly papers. Ask Cook if she's missed any."
It occurred to me very forcibly at that moment that to harbour Miss Howard and Alfred Inglethorp under the same roof, and keep the peace between them, was likely to prove a Herculean task, and I did not envy John. I could see by the expression of his face that he fully appreciated the difficulty of the position. For the moment, he sought refuge in retreat, and left the room precipitately.
Dorcas brought in fresh tea. As she left the room, Poirot came over from the window where he had been standing, and sat down facing Miss Howard.
"Mademoiselle," he said gravely, "I want to ask you something."
"Ask away," said the lady, eyeing him with some disfavour.
"I want to be able to count upon your help."
"I'll help you to hang Alfred with pleasure," she replied gruffly. "Hanging's too good for him. Ought to be drawn and quartered, like in good old times."
"We are at one then," said Poirot, "for I, too, want to hang the criminal."
"Him, or another."
"No question of another. Poor Emily was never murdered until he came along. I don't say she wasn't surrounded by sharks--she was. But it was only her purse they were after. Her life was safe enough. But along comes Mr. Alfred Inglethorp--and within two months--hey presto!"
"Believe me, Miss Howard," said Poirot very earnestly, "if Mr. Inglethorp is the man, he shall not escape me. On my honour, I will hang him as high as Haman!"
"That's better," said Miss Howard more enthusiastically.
"But I must ask you to trust me. Now your help may be very valuable to me. I will tell you why. Because, in all this house of mourning, yours are the only eyes that have wept."
Miss Howard blinked, and a new note crept into the gruffness of her voice.
"If you mean that I was fond of her--yes, I was. You know, Emily was a selfish old woman in her way. She was very generous, but she always wanted a return. She never let people forget what she had done for them--and, that way she missed love. Don't think she ever realized it, though, or felt the lack of it. Hope not, anyway. I was on a different footing. I took my stand from the first. 'So many pounds a year I'm worth to you. Well and good. But not a penny piece besides--not a pair of gloves, nor a theatre ticket.' She didn't understand--was very offended sometimes. Said I was foolishly proud. It wasn't that--but I couldn't explain. Anyway, I kept my self-respect. And so, out of the whole bunch, I was the only one who could allow myself to be fond of her. I watched over her. I guarded her from the lot of them, and then a glib-tongued scoundrel comes along, and pooh! all my years of devotion go for nothing."
Poirot nodded sympathetically.
"I understand, mademoiselle, I understand all you feel. It is most natural. You think that we are lukewarm--that we lack fire and energy--but trust me, it is not so."
John stuck his head in at this juncture, and invited us both to come up to Mrs. Inglethorp's room, as he and Mr. Wells had finished looking through the desk in the boudoir.
As we went up the stairs, John looked back to the dining-room door, and lowered his voice confidentially:
"Look here, what's going to happen when these two meet?"
I shook my head helplessly.
"I've told Mary to keep them apart if she can."
"Will she be able to do so?"
"The Lord only knows. There's one thing, Inglethorp himself won't be too keen on meeting her."
"You've got the keys still, haven't you, Poirot?" I asked, as we reached the door of the locked room.
Taking the keys from Poirot, John unlocked it, and we all passed in. The lawyer went straight to the desk, and John followed him.Next