I had called in at my friend Poirot’s rooms to find him sadly overworked. So much had he become the rage that every rich woman who had mislaid a bracelet or lost a pet kitten rushed to secure the services of the great Hercule Poirot. My little friend was a strange mixture of Flemish thrift and artistic fervour. He accepted many cases in which he had little interest owing to the first instinct being predominant.
He also undertook cases in which there was a little or no monetary reward sheerly because the problem involved interested him. The result was that, as I say, he was overworking himself. He admitted as much himself, and I found little difficulty in persuading him to accompany me for a week’s holiday to that well-known South Coast resort, Ebermouth.
We had spent four very agreeable days when Poirot came to me, an open letter in his hand.
“Mon ami, you remember my friend Joseph Aarons, the theatrical agent?”
I assented after a moment’s thought. Poirot’s friends are so many and so varied, and range from dustmen to dukes.
“Eh bien, Hastings, Joseph Aarons finds himself at Charlock Bay. He is far from well, and there is a little affair that it seems is worrying him. He begs me to go over and see him. I think, mon ami, that I must accede to his request. He is a faithful friend, the good Joseph Aarons, and has done much to assist me in the past.”
“Certainly, if you think so,” I said. “I believe Charlock Bay is a beautiful spot, and as it happens I’ve never been there.”
“Then we combine business with pleasure,” said Poirot. “You will inquire the trains, yes?”
“It will probably mean a change or two,” I said with a grimace. “You know what these cross-country lines are. To go from the South Devon coast to the North Devon coast is sometimes a day’s journey.”
However, on inquiry, I found that the journey could be accomplished by only one change at Exeter and that the trains were good. I was hastening back to Poirot with the information when I happened to pass the offices of the Speedy cars and saw written up:
Tomorrow. All-day excursion to Charlock Bay. Starting 8:30 through some of the most beautiful scenery in Devon.
I inquired a few particulars and returned to the hotel full of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I found it hard to make Poirot share my feelings.
“My friend, why this passion for the motor coach? The train, see you, it is true? The tyres, they do not burst; the accidents, they do not happen. One is not incommoded by too much air. The windows can be shut and no draughts admitted.”
I hinted delicately that the advantage of fresh air was what attracted me most to the motor-coach scheme.
“And if it rains? Your English climate is so uncertain.”
“There’s a hood and all that. Besides, if it rains badly, the excursion doesn’t take place.”
“Ah!” said Poirot. “Then let us hope that it rains.”
“Of course, if you feel like that and. . . .”
“No, no, mon ami. I see that you have set your heart on the trip. Fortunately, I have my greatcoat with me and two mufflers.” He sighed. “But shall we have sufficient time at Charlock Bay?”
“Well, I’m afraid it means staying the night there. You see, the tour goes round by Dartmoor. We have lunch at Monkhampton. We arrive at Charlock Bay about four o’clock, and the coach starts back at five, arriving here at ten o’clock.”
“So!” said Poirot. “And there are people who do this for pleasure! We shall, of course, get a reduction of the fare since we do not make the return journey?”
“I hardly think that’s likely.”
“You must insist.”
“Come now, Poirot, don’t be mean. You know you’re coining money.”
“My friend, it is not the meanness. It is the business sense. If I were a millionaire, I would pay only what was just and right.”
As I had foreseen, however, Poirot was doomed to fail in this respect. The gentleman who issued tickets at the Speedy office was calm and unimpassioned but adamant. His point was that we ought to return. He even implied that we ought to pay extra for the privilege of leaving the coach at Charlock Bay.
Defeated, Poirot paid over the required sum and left the office.
“The English, they have no sense of money,” he grumbled. “Did you observe a young man, Hastings, who paid over the full fare and yet mentioned his intention of leaving the coach at Monkhampton?”
“I don’t think I did. As a matter of fact. . . .”
“You were observing the pretty young lady who booked No. 5, the next seat to ours. Ah! Yes, my friend, I saw you. And that is why when I was on the point of taking seats No. 13 and 14—which are in the middle and as well sheltered as it is possible to be—you rudely pushed yourself forward and said that 3 and 4 would be better.”
“Really, Poirot,” I said, blushing.
“Auburn hair—always the auburn hair!”
“At any rate, she was more worth looking at than an odd young man.”
“That depends upon the point of view. To me, the young man was interesting.”
Something rather significant in Poirot’s tone made me look at him quickly. “Why? What do you mean?”
“Oh, do not excite yourself. Shall I say that he interested me because he was trying to grow a moustache and as yet the result is poor.” Poirot stroked his own magnificent moustache tenderly. “It is an art,” he murmured, “the growing of the moustache! I have sympathy for all who attempt it.”
It is always difficult with Poirot to know when he is serious and when he is merely amusing himself at one’s expense. I judged it safest to say no more.
The following morning dawned bright and sunny. A really glorious day! Poirot, however, was taking no chances. He wore a woolly waistcoat, a mackintosh, a heavy overcoat, and two mufflers, in addition to wearing his thickest suit. He also swallowed two tablets of “Anti-grippe” before starting and packed a further supply.
We took a couple of small suitcases with us. The pretty girl we had noticed the day before had a small suitcase, and so did the young man whom I gathered to have been the object of Poirot’s sympathy. Otherwise, there was no luggage. The four pieces were stowed away by the driver, and we all took our places.
Poirot, rather maliciously, I thought, assigned me the outside place as “I had the mania for the fresh air” and himself occupied the seat next to our fair neighbour. Presently, however, he made amends. The man in seat 6 was a noisy fellow, inclined to be facetious and boisterous, and Poirot asked the girl in a low voice if she would like to change seats with him. She agreed gratefully, and the change having been effected, she entered into conversation with us and we were soon all three chattering together merrily.
She was evidently quite young, not more than nineteen, and as ingenuous as a child. She soon confided to us the reason for her trip. She was going, it seemed, on business for her aunt who kept a most interesting antique shop in Ebermouth.
This aunt had been left in very reduced circumstances on the death of her father and had used her small capital and a houseful of beautiful things which her father had left her to start in business. She had been extremely successful and had made quite a name for herself in the trade. This girl, Mary Durrant, had come to be with her aunt and learn the business and was very excited about it—much preferring it to the other alternative—becoming a nursery governess or companion.
Poirot nodded interest and approval to all this.
“Mademoiselle will be successful, I am sure,” he said gallantly. “But I will give her a little word of advice. Do not be too trusting, mademoiselle. Everywhere in the world there are rogues and vagabonds, even it may be on this very coach of ours. One should always be on the guard, suspicious!”
She stared at him openmouthed, and he nodded sapiently.
“But yes, it is as I say. Who knows? Even I who speak to you may be a malefactor of the worst description.”
And he twinkled more than ever at her surprised face.
We stopped for lunch at Monkhampton, and, after a few words with the waiter, Poirot managed to secure us a small table for three close by the window. Outside, in a big courtyard, about twenty char-a-bancs were parked—char-a-bancs which had come from all over the country. The hotel dining room was full, and the noise was rather considerable.
“One can have altogether too much of the holiday spirit,” I said with a grimace.
Mary Durrant agreed. “Ebermouth is quite spoiled in the summers nowadays. My aunt says it used to be quite different. Now one can hardly get along the pavements for the crowd.”
“But it is good for business, mademoiselle.”
“Not for ours particularly. We sell only rare and valuable things. We do not go in for cheap bric-a-brac. My aunt has clients all over England. If they want a particular period table or chair, or a certain piece of china, they write to her, and, sooner or later, she gets it for them. That is what has happened in this case.”
We looked interested and she went on to explain. A certain American gentleman, Mr. J. Baker Wood, was a connoisseur and collector of miniatures. A very valuable set of miniatures had recently come into the market, and Miss Elizabeth Penn—Mary’s aunt—had purchased them. She had written to Mr. Wood describing the miniatures and naming a price. He had replied at once, saying that he was prepared to purchase if the miniatures were as represented and asking that someone should be sent with them for him to see where he was staying at Charlock Bay. Miss Durrant had accordingly been despatched, acting as representative for the firm.
“They’re lovely things, of course,” she said. “But I can’t imagine anyone paying all that money for them. Five hundred pounds! Just think of it! They’re by Cosway. Is it Cosway I mean? I get so mixed up in these things.”
Poirot smiled. “You are not yet experienced, eh, mademoiselle?”
“I’ve had no training,” said Mary ruefully. “We weren’t brought up to know about old things. It’s a lot to learn.”
She sighed. Then suddenly, I saw her eyes widen in surprise. She was sitting facing the window, and her glance now was directed out of that window, into the courtyard. With a hurried word, she rose from her seat and almost ran out of the room. She returned in a few moments, breathless and apologetic.
“I’m so sorry rushing off like that. But I thought I saw a man taking my suitcase out of the coach. I went flying after him, and it turned out to be his own. It’s one almost exactly like mine. I felt like such a fool. It looked as though I were accusing him of stealing it.”
She laughed at the idea.
Poirot, however, did not laugh. “What man was it, mademoiselle? Describe him to me.”
“He had on a brown suit. A thin weedy young man with a very indeterminate moustache.”
“Aha,” said Poirot. “Our friend of yesterday, Hastings. You know this young man, mademoiselle? You have seen him before?”
“No, never. Why?”
“Nothing. It is rather curious—that is all.”
He relapsed into silence and took no further part in the conversation until something Mary Durrant said caught his attention.
“Eh, mademoiselle, what is that you say?”
“I said that on my return journey I should have to be careful of ‘malefactors’, as you call them. I believe Mr. Wood always pays for things in cash. If I have five hundred pounds in notes on me, I shall be worth some malefactor’s attention.”
She laughed but Poirot did not respond. Instead, he asked her what hotel she proposed to stay at in Charlock Bay.
“The Anchor Hotel. It is small and not expensive, but quite good.”
“So!” said Poirot. “The Anchor Hotel. Precisely where Hastings here has made up his mind to stay. How odd!”
He twinkled at me.
“You are staying long in Charlock Bay?” asked Mary.
“One night only. I have business there. You could not guess, I am sure, what my profession is, mademoiselle?”
I saw Mary consider several possibilities and reject them—probably from a feeling of caution. At last, she hazarded the suggestion that Poirot was a conjurer. He was vastly entertained.
“Ah! But it is an idea that! You think I take the rabbits out of the hat? No, mademoiselle. Me, I am the opposite of a conjurer. The conjurer, he makes things disappear. Me, I make things that have disappeared, reappear.” He leaned forward dramatically so as to give the words full effect. “It is a secret, mademoiselle, but I will tell you, I am a detective!”
He leaned back in his chair pleased with the effect he had created. Mary Durrant stared at him spellbound. But any further conversation was barred for the braying of various horns outside announced that the road monsters were ready to proceed.
As Poirot and I went out together I commented on the charm of our luncheon companion. Poirot agreed.
“Yes, she is charming. But, also rather silly?”
“Do not be outraged. A girl may be beautiful and have auburn hair and yet be silly. It is the height of foolishness to take two strangers into her confidence as she has done.”
“Well, she could see we were all right.”
“That is imbecile, what you say, my friend. Anyone who knows his job—naturally he will appear ‘all right.’ That little one she talked of being careful when she would have five hundred pounds in money with her. But she has five hundred pounds with her now.”
“Exactly. In miniatures. And between one and the other, there is no great difference, mon ami.”
“But no one knew about them except us.”
“And the waiter and the people at the next table. And, doubtless, several people in Ebermouth! Mademoiselle Durrant, she is charming, but, if I were Miss Elizabeth Penn, I would first of all instruct my new assistant in the common sense.” He paused and then said in a different voice: “You know, my friend, it would be the easiest thing in the world to remove a suitcase from one of those char-a-bancs while we were all at luncheon.”
“Oh, come, Poirot, somebody will be sure to see.”
“And what would they see? Somebody removing his luggage. It would be done in an open and aboveboard manner, and it would be nobody’s business to interfere.”
“Do you mean—Poirot, are you hinting—But that fellow in the brown suit—it was his own suitcase?”
Poirot frowned. “So it seems. All the same, it is curious, Hastings, that he should have not removed his suitcase before, when the car first arrived. He has not lunched here, you notice.”
“If Miss Durrant hadn’t been sitting opposite the window, she wouldn’t have seen him,” I said slowly.
“And since it was his own suitcase, that would not have mattered,” said Poirot. “So let us dismiss it from our thoughts, mon ami.”
Nevertheless, when we had resumed our places and were speeding along once more, he took the opportunity of giving Mary Durrant a further lecture on the dangers of indiscretion which she received meekly enough but with the air of thinking it all rather a joke.
We arrived at Charlock Bay at four o’clock and were fortunate enough to be able to get rooms at the Anchor Hotel—a charming old-world inn in one of the side streets.
Poirot had just unpacked a few necessaries and was applying a little cosmetic to his moustache preparatory to going out to call upon Joseph Aarons when there came a frenzied knocking at the door. I called “Come in,” and, to my utter amazement, Mary Durrant appeared, her face white and large tears standing in her eyes.
“I do beg your pardon—but—but the most awful thing has happened. And you did say you were a detective?” This to Poirot.
“What has happened, mademoiselle?”
“I opened my suitcase. The miniatures were in a crocodile despatch case—locked, of course. Now, look!”
She held out a small square crocodile-covered case. The lid hung loose. Poirot took it from her. The case had been forced; great strength must have been used. The marks were plain enough. Poirot examined it and nodded.
“The miniatures?” he asked, though we both knew the answer well enough.
“Gone. They’ve been stolen. Oh, what shall I do?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “My friend is Hercule Poirot. You must have heard of him. He’ll get them back for you if anyone can.”
“Monsieur Poirot. The great Monsieur Poirot.”
Poirot was vain enough to be pleased at the obvious reverence in her voice. “Yes, my child,” he said. “It is I, myself. And you can leave your little affair in my hands. I will do all that can be done. But I fear—I much fear—that it will be too late. Tell me, was the lock of your suitcase forced also?”
She shook her head.
“Let me see it, please.”
We went together to her room, and Poirot examined the suitcase closely. It had obviously been opened with a key.
“Which is simple enough. These suitcase locks are all much of the same pattern. Eh bien, we must ring up the police and we must also get in touch with Mr. Baker Wood as soon as possible. I will attend to that myself.”
I went with him and asked what he meant by saying it might be too late. “Mon cher, I said today that I was the opposite of the conjurer—that I make the disappearing things reappear—but suppose someone has been beforehand with me. You do not understand? You will in a minute.”
He disappeared into the telephone box. He came out five minutes later looking very grave. “It is as I feared. A lady called upon Mr. Wood with the miniatures half an hour ago. She represented herself as coming from Miss Elizabeth Penn. He was delighted with the miniatures and paid for them forthwith.”
“Half an hour ago—before we arrived here.”
Poirot smiled rather enigmatically. “The Speedy cars are quite speedy, but a fast motor from, say, Monkhampton would get here a good hour ahead of them at least.”
“And what do we do now?”
“The good Hastings—always practical. We inform the police, do all we can for Miss Durrant, and—yes, I think decidedly, we have an interview with Mr. J. Baker Wood.”
We carried out this programme. Poor Mary Durrant was terribly upset, fearing her aunt would blame her.
“Which she probably will,” observed Poirot, as we set out for the Seaside Hotel where Mr. Wood was staying. “And with perfect justice. The idea of leaving five hundred pounds’ worth of valuables in a suitcase and going to lunch! All the same, mon ami, there are one or two curious points about the case. That despatch box, for instance, why was it forced?”
“To get out the miniatures.”
“But was not that a foolishness? Say our thief is tampering with the luggage at lunchtime under the pretext of getting out his own. Surely it is much simpler to open the suitcase, transfer the despatch case unopened to his own suitcase, and get away, than to waste the time forcing the lock?”
“He had to make sure the miniatures were inside.”
Poirot did not look convinced, but, as we were just being shown into Mr. Wood’s suite, we had no time for more discussion.
I took an immediate dislike to Mr. Baker Wood.
He was a large vulgar man, very much overdressed and wearing a diamond solitaire ring. He was blustering and noisy.
Of course, he’d not suspected anything amiss. Why should he? The woman said she had the miniatures all right. Very fine specimens, too! Had he the numbers of the notes? No, he hadn’t. And who was Mr.—er—Poirot, anyway, to come asking him all these questions?
“I will not ask you anything more, monsieur, except for one thing. A description of the woman who called upon you. Was she young and pretty?”
“No, sir, she was not. Most emphatically not. A tall woman, middle-aged, grey hair, blotchy complexion and a budding moustache. A siren? Not on your life.”
“Poirot,” I cried, as we took our departure. “A moustache. Did you hear?”
“I have the use of my ears, thank you, Hastings!”
“But what a very unpleasant man.”
“He has not the charming manner, no.”
“Well, we ought to get the thief all right,” I remarked. “We can identify him.”
“You are of such a naïve simplicity, Hastings. Do you not know that there is such a thing as an alibi?”
“You think he will have an alibi?”
Poirot replied unexpectedly: “I sincerely hope so.”
“The trouble with you is,” I said, “that you like a thing to be difficult.”
“Quite right, mon ami. I do not like—how do you say it—the bird who sits!”
Poirot’s prophecy was fully justified. Our travelling companion in the brown suit turned out to be a Mr. Norton Kane. He had gone straight to the George Hotel at Monkhampton and had been there during the afternoon. The only evidence against him was that of Miss Durrant who declared that she had seen him getting out his luggage from the car while we were at lunch.
“Which in itself is not a suspicious act,” said Poirot meditatively.
After that remark, he lapsed into silence and refused to discuss the matter any further, saying when I pressed him, that he was thinking of moustaches in general, and that I should be well advised to do the same.
I discovered, however, that he had asked Joseph Aarons—with whom he spent the evening—to give him every detail possible about Mr. Baker Wood. As both men were staying at the same hotel, there was a chance of gleaning some stray crumbs of information. Whatever Poirot learned, he kept to himself, however.
Mary Durrant, after various interviews with the police, had returned to Ebermouth by an early morning train. We lunched with Joseph Aarons, and after lunch, Poirot announced to me that he had settled the theatrical agent’s problem satisfactorily, and that we could return to Ebermouth as soon as we liked. “But not by road, mon ami; we go by rail this time.”
“Are you afraid of having your pocket picked, or of meeting another damsel in distress?”
“Both those affairs, Hastings, might happen to me on the train. No, I am in haste to be back in Ebermouth, because I want to proceed with our case.”
“But, yes, my friend. Mademoiselle Durrant appealed to me to help her. Because the matter is now in the hands of the police, it does not follow that I am free to wash my hands of it. I came here to oblige an old friend, but it shall never be said of Hercule Poirot that he deserted a stranger in need!” And he drew himself up grandiloquently.
“I think you were interested before that,” I said shrewdly. “In the office of cars, when you first caught sight of that young man, though what drew your attention to him I don’t know.”
“Don’t you, Hastings? You should. Well, well, that must remain my little secret.”
We had a short conversation with the police inspector in charge of the case before leaving. He had interviewed Mr. Norton Kane, and told Poirot in confidence that the young man’s manner had not impressed him favourably. He had blustered, denied, and contradicted himself.
“But just how the trick was done, I don’t know,” he confessed. “He could have handed the stuff to a confederate who pushed off at once in a fast car. But that’s just theory. We’ve got to find the car and the confederate and pin the thing down.”
Poirot nodded thoughtfully.
“Do you think that was how it was done?” I asked him, as we were seated in the train.
“No, my friend, that was not how it was done. It was cleverer than that.”
“Won’t you tell me?”
“Not yet. You know—it is my weakness—I like to keep my little secrets till the end.”
“Is the end going to be soon?”
“Very soon now.”
We arrived in Ebermouth a little after six and Poirot drove at once to the shop which bore the name “Elizabeth Penn.” The establishment was closed, but Poirot rang the bell, and presently Mary herself opened the door, and expressed surprise and delight at seeing us.
“Please come in and see my aunt,” she said.
She led us into a back room. An elderly lady came forward to meet us; she had white hair and looked rather like a miniature herself with her pink-and-white skin and her blue eyes. Round her rather bent shoulders she wore a cape of priceless old lace.
“Is this the great Monsieur Poirot?” she asked in a low charming voice. “Mary has been telling me. I could hardly believe it. And you will really help us in our trouble. You will advise us?”
Poirot looked at her for a moment, then bowed.
“Mademoiselle Penn—the effect is charming. But you should really grow a moustache.”
Miss Penn gave a gasp and drew back.
“You were absent from business yesterday, were you not?”
“I was here in the morning. Later I had a bad headache and went directly home.”
“Not home, mademoiselle. For your headache you tried the change of air, did you not? The air of Charlock Bay is very bracing, I believe.”
He took me by the arm and drew me towards the door. He paused there and spoke over his shoulder.
“You comprehend, I know everything. This little—farce—it must cease.”
There was a menace in his tone. Miss Penn, her face ghastly white, nodded mutely. Poirot turned to the girl.
“Mademoiselle,” he said gently, “you are young and charming. But participating in these little affairs will lead to that youth and charm being hidden behind prison walls—and I, Hercule Poirot, tell you that that will be a pity.”
Then he stepped out into the street and I followed him, bewildered.
“From the first, mon ami, I was interested. When that young man booked his place as far as Monkhampton only, I saw the girl’s attention suddenly riveted on him. Now why? He was not of the type to make a woman look at him for himself alone. When we started on the coach, I had a feeling that something would happen. Who saw the young man tampering with the luggage? Mademoiselle and mademoiselle only, and remember she chose that seat—a seat facing the window—a most unfeminine choice.
“And then she comes to us with the tale of robbery—the despatch box forced which makes not the common sense, as I told you at the time.
“And what is the result of it all? Mr. Baker Wood has paid over good money for stolen goods. The miniatures will be returned to Miss Penn. She will sell them and will have made a thousand pounds instead of five hundred. I make the discreet inquiries and learn that her business is in a bad state—touch and go. I say to myself—the aunt and niece are in this together.”
“Then you never suspected Norton Kane?”
“Mon ami! With that moustache? A criminal is either clean-shaven or he has a proper moustache that can be removed at will. But what an opportunity for the clever Miss Penn—a shrinking elderly lady with a pink-and-white complexion as we saw her. But if she holds herself erect, wears large boots, alters her complexion with a few unseemly blotches and—crowning touch—adds a few sparse hairs to her upper lip. What then? A masculine woman, says Mr. Wood and ‘a man in disguise’ say we at once.”
“She really went to Charlock yesterday?”
“Assuredly. The train, as you may remember telling me, left here at eleven and got to Charlock Bay at two o’clock. Then the return train is even quicker—the one we came by. It leaves Charlock at four-five and gets here at six-fifteen. Naturally, the miniatures were never in the despatch case at all. That was artistically forced before being packed. Mademoiselle Mary has only to find a couple of mugs who will be sympathetic to her charm and champion beauty in distress. But one of the mugs was no mug—he was Hercule Poirot!”
I hardly liked the inference. I said hurriedly: “Then when you said you were helping a stranger, you were wilfully deceiving me. That’s exactly what you were doing.”
“Never do I deceive you, Hastings. I only permit you to deceive yourself. I was referring to Mr. Baker Wood—a stranger to these shores.” His face darkened. “Ah! When I think of that imposition, that iniquitous overcharge, the same fare single to Charlock as return, my blood boils to protect the visitor! Not a pleasant man, Mr. Baker Wood, not, as you would say, sympathetic. But a visitor! And we visitors, Hastings, must stand together. Me, I am all for the visitors!”