The Murder on the Links/Chapter 21

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In a measured voice, Poirot began his exposition.

“It seems strange to you, mon ami, that a man should plan his own death? So strange, that you prefer to reject the truth as fantastic, and to revert to a story that is in reality ten times more impossible. Yes, M. Renauld planned his own death, but there is one detail that perhaps escapes you—he did not intend to die.”

I shook my head, bewildered.

“But no, it is all most simple really,” said Poirot kindly. “For the crime that M. Renauld proposed a murderer was not necessary, as I told you, but a body was. Let us reconstruct, seeing events this time from a different angle.

“Georges Conneau flies from justice—to Canada. There, under an assumed name he marries, and finally acquires a vast fortune in South America. But there is a nostalgia upon him for his own country. Twenty years have elapsed, he is considerably changed in appearance, besides being a man of such eminence that no one is likely to connect him with a fugitive from justice many years ago. He deems it quite safe to return. He takes up his headquarters in England, but intends to spend the summers in France. And ill fortune, that obscure justice which shapes men’s ends, and will not allow them to evade the consequences of their acts, takes him to Merlinville. There, in the whole of France, is the one person who is capable of recognizing him. It is, of course, a gold mine to Madame Daubreuil, and a gold mine of which she is not slow to take advantage. He is helpless, absolutely in her power. And she bleeds him heavily.

“And then the inevitable happens. Jack Renauld falls in love with the beautiful girl he sees almost daily, and wishes to marry her. That rouses his father. At all costs, he will prevent his son marrying the daughter of this evil woman. Jack Renauld knows nothing of his father’s past, but Madame Renauld knows everything. She is a woman of great force of character, and passionately devoted to her husband. They take counsel together. Renauld sees only one way of escape—death. He must appear to die, in reality escaping to another country where he will start again under an assumed name, and where Madame Renauld, having played the widow’s part for a while, can join him. It is essential that she should have control of the money, so he alters his will. How they meant to manage the body business originally, I do not know—possibly an art student’s skeleton—and a fire or something of the kind, but long before their plans have matured an event occurs which plays into their hands. A rough tramp, violent and abusive, finds his way into the garden. There is a struggle, M. Renauld seeks to eject him, and suddenly the tramp, an epileptic, falls down in a fit. He is dead. M. Renauld calls his wife. Together they drag him into the shed—as we know, the event had occurred just outside—and they realize the marvellous opportunity that has been vouchsafed them. The man bears no resemblance to M. Renauld, but he is middle-aged, of a usual French type. That is sufficient.

“I rather fancy that they sat on the bench up there, out of earshot from the house, discussing matters. Their plan was quickly made. The identification must rest solely on Madame Renauld’s evidence. Jack Renauld and the chauffeur (who had been with his master two years) must be got out of the way. It was unlikely that the French women servants would go near the body, and in any case Renauld intended to take measures to deceive any one not likely to appreciate details. Masters was sent off, a telegram despatched to Jack, Buenos Ayres being selected to give credence to the story that Renauld had decided upon. Having heard of me, as a rather obscure elderly detective, he wrote his appeal for help knowing that, when I arrived, the production of the letter would have a profound effect upon the examining magistrate—which, of course, it did.

“They dressed the body of the tramp in a suit of M. Renauld’s and left his ragged coat and trousers by the door of the shed, not daring to take them into the house. And then, to give credence to the tale Madame Renauld was to tell, they drove the aeroplane dagger through his heart. That night, M. Renauld will first bind and gag his wife, and then, taking a spade, will dig a grave in that particular spot of ground where he knows a—how do you call it? bunkair?—is to be made. It is essential that the body should be found—Madame Daubreuil must have no suspicions. On the other hand, if a little time elapses, any dangers as to identity will be greatly lessened. Then, M. Renauld will don the tramp’s rags, and shuffle off to the station, where he will leave, unnoticed, by the 12:10 train. Since the crime will be supposed to have taken place two hours later, no suspicion can possibly attach to him.

“You see now his annoyance at the inopportune visit of the girl Bella. Every moment of delay is fatal to his plans. He gets rid of her as soon as he can, however. Then, to work! He leaves the front door slightly ajar to create the impression that the assassins left that way. He binds and gags Madame Renauld, correcting his mistake of twenty-two years ago, when the looseness of the bonds caused suspicion to fall upon his accomplice, but leaving her primed with essentially the same story as he had invented before, proving the unconscious recoil of the mind against originality. The night is chilly, and he slips on an overcoat over his underclothing, intending to cast it into the grave with the dead man. He goes out by the window, smoothing over the flower bed carefully, and thereby furnishing the most positive evidence against himself. He goes out on to the lonely golf links, and he digs—and then—”

“Yes?”

“And then,” said Poirot gravely, “the justice that he has so long eluded overtakes him. An unknown hand stabs him in the back. … Now, Hastings, you understand what I mean when I talk of two crimes. The first crime, the crime that M. Renauld, in his arrogance, asked us to investigate (ah, but he made a famous mistake there! He misjudged Hercule Poirot!) is solved. But behind it lies a deeper riddle. And to solve that will be difficult—since the criminal in his wisdom, has been content to avail himself of the devices prepared by M. Renauld. It has been a particularly perplexing and baffling mystery to solve. A young hand, like Giraud, who does not place any reliance on the psychology, is almost certain to fail.”

“You’re marvellous, Poirot,” I said, with admiration. “Absolutely marvellous. No one on earth but you could have done it!”

I think my praise pleased him. For once in his life, he looked almost embarrassed.

“Ah, then you no longer despise poor old Papa Poirot? You shift your allegiance back from the human foxhound?”

His term for Giraud never failed to make me smile.

“Rather. You’ve scored over him handsomely.”

“That poor Giraud,” said Poirot, trying unsuccessfully to look modest. “Without doubt it is not all stupidity. He has had la mauvaise chance once or twice. That dark hair coiled round the dagger, for instance. To say the least, it was misleading.”

“To tell you the truth, Poirot,” I said slowly, “even now I don’t quite see—whose hair was it?”

“Madame Renauld’s of course. That is where la mauvaise chance came in. Her hair, dark originally, is almost completely silvered. It might just as easily have been a grey hair—and then, by no conceivable effort could Giraud have persuaded himself it came from the head of Jack Renauld! But it is all of a piece. Always the facts must be twisted to fit the theory! Did not Giraud find the traces of two persons, a man and a woman, in the shed? And how does that fit in with his reconstruction of the case? I will tell you—it does not fit in, and so we shall hear no more of them! I ask you, is that a methodical way of working? The great Giraud! The great Giraud is nothing but a toy balloon—swollen with its own importance. But I, Hercule Poirot, whom he despises, will be the little pin that pricks the big balloon—comme ça!” And he made an expressive gesture. Then, calming down, he resumed:

“Without doubt, when Madame Renauld recovers, she will speak. The possibility of her son being accused of the murder never occurred to her. How should it, when she believed him safely at sea on board the Anzora? Ah! voilà une femme, Hastings! What force, what self-command! She only made one slip. On his unexpected return: ‘It does not matter—now.’ And no one noticed—no one realized the significance of those words. What a terrible part she has had to play, poor woman. Imagine the shock when she goes to identify the body and, instead of what she expects, sees the actual lifeless form of the husband she has believed miles away by now. No wonder she fainted! But since then, despite her grief and her despair, how resolutely she has played her part, and how the anguish of it must wring her. She cannot say a word to set us on the track of the real murderers. For her son’s sake, no one must know that Paul Renauld was Georges Conneau, the criminal. Final and most bitter blow, she has admitted publicly that Madame Daubreuil was her husband’s mistress—for a hint of blackmail might be fatal to her secret. How cleverly she dealt with the examining magistrate when he asked her if there was any mystery in her husband’s past life. ‘Nothing so romantic, I am sure, M. le juge.’ It was perfect, the indulgent tone, the soupçon of sad mockery. At once M. Hautet felt himself foolish and melodramatic. Yes, she is a great woman! If she loved a criminal, she loved him royally!”

Poirot lost himself in contemplation.

“One thing more, Poirot, what about the piece of lead piping?”

“You do not see? To disfigure the victim’s face so that it would be unrecognizable. It was that which first set me on the right track. And that imbecile of a Giraud, swarming all over it to look for match ends! Did I not tell you that a clue of two feet long was quite as good as a clue of two inches?”

“Well, Giraud will sing small now,” I observed hastily, to lead the conversation away from my own shortcomings.

“As I said before, will he? If he has arrived at the right person by the wrong method, he will not permit that to worry him.”

“But surely—” I paused as I saw the new trend of things.

“You see, Hastings, we must now start again. Who killed M. Renauld? Some one who was near the Villa just before twelve o’clock that night, some one who would benefit by his death—the description fits Jack Renauld only too well. The crime need not have been premeditated. And then the dagger!”

I started, I had not realized that point.

“Of course,” I said. “The second dagger we found in the tramp was Mrs. Renauld’s. There were two, then.”

“Certainly, and, since they were duplicates, it stands to reason that Jack Renauld was the owner. But that would not trouble me so much. In fact I have a little idea as to that. No, the worst indictment against him is again psychological—heredity, mon ami, heredity! Like father, like son—Jack Renauld, when all is said or done, is the son of Georges Conneau.”

His tone was grave and earnest, and I was impressed in spite of myself.

“What is your little idea that you mentioned just now?” I asked.

For answer, Poirot consulted his turnip-faced watch, and then asked:

“What time is the afternoon boat from Calais?”

“About five, I believe.”

“That will do very well. We shall just have time.”

“You are going to England?”

“Yes, my friend.”

“Why?”

“To find a possible—witness.”

“Who?”

With a rather peculiar smile upon his face, Poirot replied:

“Miss Bella Duveen.”

“But how will you find her—what do you know about her?”

“I know nothing about her—but I can guess a good deal. We may take it for granted that her name is Bella Duveen, and since that name was faintly familiar to M. Stonor, though evidently not in connection with the Renauld family, it is probable that she is on the stage. Jack Renauld was a young man with plenty of money, and twenty years of age. The stage is sure to have been the home of his first love. It tallies, too, with M. Renauld’s attempt to placate her with a cheque. I think I shall find her all right—especially with the help of this.”

And he brought out the photograph I had seen him take from Jack Renauld’s drawer. “With love from Bella,” was scrawled across the corner, but it was not that which held my eyes fascinated. The likeness was not first rate—but for all that it was unmistakable to me. I felt a cold sinking, as though some unutterable calamity had befallen me.

It was the face of Cinderella.