The Big Four/Chapter 9

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The Yellow Jasmine Mystery

It was all very well for Poirot to say that we were acquiring information all the time and gaining an insight into our adversaries’ minds—I felt myself that I required some more tangible success than this.

Since we had come into contact with the Big Four, they had committed two murders, abducted Halliday, and had been within an ace of killing Poirot and myself; whereas so far we had hardly scored a point in the game.

Poirot treated my complaints lightly.

“So far, Hastings,” he said, “they laugh. That is true, but you have a proverb, have you not: ‘He laughs best who laughs at the end’? And at the end, mon ami, you shall see.

“You must remember, too ,” he added, “that we deal with no ordinary criminal, but with the second greatest brain in the world.”

I forbore to pander to his conceit by asking the obvious question. I knew the answer, at least I knew what Poirot’s answer would be, and instead I tried without success to elicit some information as to what steps he was taking to track down the enemy. As usual he had kept me completely in the dark as to his movements, but I gathered that he was in touch with secret service agents in India, China, and Russia, and, from his occasional bursts of self-glorification, that he was at least progressing in his favourite game of gauging his enemy’s mind.

He had abandoned his private practice almost entirely, and I know that at this time he refused some remarkably handsome fees. True, he would sometimes investigate cases which intrigued him, but he usually dropped them the moment he was convinced that they had no connection with the activities of the Big Four.

This attitude of his was remarkably profitable to our friend, Inspector Japp. Undeniably he gained much kudos for solving several problems in which his success was really due to a half-contemptuous hint from Poirot.

In return for such service Japp supplied full details of any case which he thought might interest the little Belgian, and when he was put in charge of what the newspaper called “The Yellow Jasmine Mystery,” he wired Poirot, asking him whether he would care to come down and look into the case.

It was in response to this wire that, about a month after my adventure in Abe Ryland’s house, we found ourselves alone in a railway compartment whirling away from the smoke and dust of London, bound for the little town of Market Handford in Worcestershire, the seat of the mystery.

Poirot leant back in his corner.

“And what exactly is your opinion of the affair, Hastings?”

I did not at once reply to his question; I felt the need of going warily.

“It all seems so complicated,” I said cautiously.

“Does it not?” said Poirot delightedly.

“I suppose our rushing off like this is a pretty clear sign that you consider Mr. Paynter’s death to be murder—not suicide or the result of an accident?”

“No, no; you misunderstand me, Hastings. Granting that Mr. Paynter died as the result of a particularly terrible accident, there are still a number of mysterious circumstances to be explained.”

“That was what I meant when I said it was all so complicated.”

“Let us go over all the main facts quietly and methodically. Recount them to me, Hastings, in an orderly and lucid fashion.”

I started forthwith, endeavouring to be as orderly and lucid as I could.

“We start,” I said, “with Mr. Paynter. A man of fifty-five, rich, cultured, and somewhat of a globe-trotter. For the last twelve years he has been little in England, but suddenly tiring of incessant travelling, he bought a small place in Worcestershire, near Market Handforth, and prepared to settle down. His first action was to write to his only relative, a nephew, Gerald Paynter, the son of his younger brother, and to suggest to him that he should come and make his home at Croftlands (as the place is called) with his uncle. Gerald Paynter, who is an impecunious young artist, was glad enough to fall in with the arrangement, and had been living with his uncle for about seven months when the tragedy occurred.”

“Your narrative style is masterly,” murmured Poirot. “I say to myself, it is a book that talks, not my friend Hastings.”

Paying no attention to Poirot, I went on, warming to the story.

“Mr. Paynter kept up a fair staff at Croftlands—six servants as well as his own Chinese body servant—Ah Ling.”

“His Chinese servant, Ah Ling,” murmured Poirot.

“On Tuesday last, Mr. Paynter complained of feeling unwell after dinner, and one of the servants was despatched to fetch the doctor. Mr. Paynter received the doctor in his study, having refused to go to bed. What passed between them was not then known, but before Doctor Quentin left, he asked to see the house keeper, and mentioned that he had given Mr. Paynter a hypodermic injection as his heart was in a very weak state, recommended that he should not be disturbed, and then proceeded to ask some rather curious questions about the servants—how long they had been there, from whom they had come, etc.

“The housekeeper answered these questions as best she could, but was rather puzzled as to their purport. A terrible discovery was made on the following morning. One of the house maids, on descending, was met by a sickening odour of burned flesh which seemed to come from her master’s study. She tried the door, but it was locked on the inside. With the assistance of Gerald Paynter and the Chinaman that was soon broken in, but a terrible sight greeted them. Mr. Paynter had fallen forward into the gas fire, and his face and head were charred beyond recognition.

“Of course, at the moment, no suspicion was aroused as to its being anything but a ghastly accident. If blame attached to any one, it was to Doctor Quentin for giving his patient a narcotic and leaving him in such a dangerous position. And then a rather curious discovery was made.

“There was a newspaper on the floor, lying where it had slipped from the old man’s knees. On turning it over, words were found to be scrawled across it, feebly traced in ink. A writing-table stood close to the chair in which Mr. Paynter had been sitting, and the forefinger of the victim’s right hand was ink-stained up to the second joint. It was clear that, too weak to hold a pen, Mr. Paynter had dipped his finger in the ink-pot and managed to scrawl these two words across the surface of the newspaper he held—but the words themselves seemed utterly fantastic: Yellow Jasmine—just that and nothing more.

“Croftlands has a large quantity of yellow jasmine growing up its walls, and it was thought that this dying message had some reference to them, showing that the poor old man’s mind was wandering. Of course, the newspapers, agog for anything out of the common, took up the story hotly, calling it the Mystery of the Yellow Jasmine—though in all probability the words are completely unimportant.”

“They are unimportant, you say?” said Poirot. “Well, doubtless, since you say so, it must be so.”

I regarded him dubiously, but I could detect no mockery in his eye.

“And then,” I continued, “there came the excitements of the inquest.”

“This is where you lick your lips, I perceive.”

“There was a certain amount of feeling evidenced against Dr. Quentin. To begin with, he was not the regular doctor, only a locum, putting in a month’s work, whilst Dr. Bolitho was away on a well-earned holiday. Then it was felt that his carelessness was the direct cause of the accident. But his evidence was little short of sensational. Mr. Paynter had been ailing in health ever since his arrival at Croftlands. Dr. Bolitho had attended him for some time, but when Dr. Quentin first saw his patient, he was mystified by some of the symptoms. He had only attended him once before the night when he was sent for after dinner. As soon as he was alone with Mr. Paynter, the latter had unfolded a surprising tale. To begin with, he was not feeling ill at all, he explained, but the taste of some curry that he had been eating at dinner had struck him as peculiar. Making an excuse to get rid of Ah Ling for a few minutes, he had turned the contents of his plate into a bowl, and he now handed it over to the doctor with injunctions to find out if there were really anything wrong with it.

“In spite of his statement that he was not feeling ill, the doctor noted that the shock of his suspicions had evidently affected him, and that his heart was feeling it. Accordingly he administered an injection—not of a narcotic, but of strychnine.

“That, I think, completes the case—except for the crux of the whole thing—the fact that the uneaten curry, duly analysed, was found to contain enough powdered opium to have killed two men!”

I paused.

And your conclusions, Hastings?” asked Poirot quietly.

“It’s difficult to say. It might be an accident—the fact that some one attempted to poison him the same night might be merely a coincidence.”

But you don’t think so? You prefer to believe it—murder!”

Don’t you?"

Mon ami, you and I do not reason in the same way. I am not trying to make up my mind between two opposite solutions—murder or accident—that will come when we have solved the other problem—the mystery of the ‘Yellow Jasmine.’ By the way, you have left out something there.”

“You mean the two lines at right angles to each other faintly indicated under the words? I did not think they could be of any possible importance.”

“What you think is always so important to yourself, Hastings. But let us pass from the mystery of the Yellow Jasmine to the Mystery of the Curry.”

“I know. Who poisoned it? Why? There are a hundred questions one can ask. Ah Ling, of course, prepared it. But why should he wish to kill his master? Is he a member of a tong, or something like that. One reads of such things. The tong of the Yellow Jasmine, perhaps. Then there is Gerald Paynter.”

I came to an abrupt pause.

“Yes,” said Poirot, nodding his head. “There is Gerald Paynter, as you say. He is his uncle’s heir. He was dining out that night, though.”

“He might have got at some of the ingredients of the curry,” I suggested. “And he would take care to be out, so as not to have to partake of the dish.”

I think my reasoning rather impressed Poirot. He looked at me with a more respectful attention than he had given me so far.

“He returns late,” I mused, pursuing a hypothetical case. “Sees the light in his uncle’s study, enters, and, finding his plan has failed, thrusts the old man down into the fire.”

“Mr. Paynter, who was a fairly hearty man of fifty-five, would not permit himself to be burnt to death without a struggle, Hastings. Such a reconstruction is not feasible.”

“Well, Poirot,” I cried, “we’re nearly there, I fancy. Let us hear what you think?”

Poirot threw me a smile, swelled out his chest, and began in a pompous manner.

“Assuming murder, the question at once arises, why choose that particular method? I can think of only one reason—to confuse identity, the face being charred beyond recognition.”

“What?” I cried. “You think———”

“A moment’s patience, Hastings. I was going on to say that I examine that theory. Is there any ground for believing that the body is not that of Mr. Paynter? Is there any one else whose body it possibly could be? I examine these two questions and finally I answer them both in the negative.”

“Oh!” I said, rather disappointed. “And then?”

Poirot’s eyes twinkled a little.

And then I say to myself, “since there is here something that I do not understand, it would be well that I should investigate the matter. I must not permit myself to be wholly engrossed by the Big Four. Ah! we are just arriving. My little clothes brush, where does it hide itself? Here it is—brush me down, I pray you, my friend, and then I will perform the same service for you.”

“Yes,” said Poirot thoughtfully, as he put away the brush, “one must not permit oneself to be obsessed by one idea. I have been in danger of that. Figure to yourself, my friend, that even here, in this case, I am in danger of it. Those two lines you mentioned, a downstroke and a line at right angles to it, what are they but the beginning of a 4?”

“Good gracious, Poirot,” I cried, laughing.

“Is it not absurd? I see the hand of the Big Four everywhere. It is well to employ one’s wits in a totally different milieu. Ah ! there is Japp come to meet us.”