The Murder on the Links/Chapter 22

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For a moment or two I sat as though frozen, the photograph still in my hand. Then, summoning all my courage to appear unmoved, I handed it back. At the same time, I stole a quick glance at Poirot. Had he noticed anything? But to my relief he did not seem to be observing me. Anything unusual in my manner had certainly escaped him.

He rose briskly to his feet.

“We have no time to lose. We must make our departure with all despatch. All is well—the sea it will be calm!”

In the bustle of departure, I had no time for thinking, but once on board the boat, secure from Poirot’s observation (he, as usual, was “practising the method most excellent of Laverguier”) I pulled myself together, and attacked the facts dispassionately. How much did Poirot know? Was he aware that my acquaintance of the train and Bella Duveen were one and the same? Why had he gone to the Hôtel du Phare? On my behalf as I had believed? Or had I only fatuously thought so, and was this visit undertaken with a deeper and more sinister purpose?

But in any case, why was he bent on finding this girl? Did he suspect her of having seen Jack Renauld commit the crime? Or did he suspect—but that was impossible! The girl had no grudge against the elder Renauld, no possible motive for wishing his death. What had brought her back to the scene of the murder? I went over the facts carefully. She must have left the train at Calais where I parted from her that day. No wonder I had been unable to find her on the boat. If she had dined in Calais, and then taken a train out to Merlinville, she would have arrived at the Villa Geneviève just about the time that Françoise said. What had she done when she left the house just after ten? Presumably either gone to an hotel, or returned to Calais. And then? The crime had been committed on Tuesday night. On Thursday morning, she was once more in Merlinville. Had she ever left France at all? I doubted it very much. What kept her there—the hope of seeing Jack Renauld? I had told her (as at the time we believed) that he was on the high seas en route to Buenos Ayres. Possibly she was aware that the Anzora had not sailed. But to know that she must have seen Jack. Was that what Poirot was after? Had Jack Renauld, returning to see Marthe Daubreuil, come face to face instead with Bella Duveen, the girl he had heartlessly thrown over?

I began to see daylight. If that were indeed the case, it might furnish Jack with the alibi he needed. Yet under those circumstances his silence seemed difficult to explain. Why could he not have spoken out boldly? Did he fear for this former entanglement of his to come to the ears of Marthe Daubreuil? I shook my head, dissatisfied. The thing had been harmless enough, a foolish boy and girl affair, and I reflected cynically that the son of a millionaire was not likely to be thrown over by a penniless French girl, who moreover loved him devotedly, without a much graver cause.

Altogether I found the affair puzzling and unsatisfactory. I disliked intensely being associated with Poirot in hunting this girl down, but I could not see any way of avoiding it, without revealing everything to him, and this, for some reason, I was loath to do.

Poirot reappeared brisk and smiling at Dover, and our journey to London was uneventful. It was past nine o’clock when we arrived, and I supposed that we should return straight away to our rooms and do nothing till the morning. But Poirot had other plans.

“We must lose no time, mon ami. The news of the arrest will not be in the English papers until the day after tomorrow, but still we must lose no time.”

I did not quite follow his reasoning, but I merely asked how he proposed to find the girl.

“You remember Joseph Aarons, the theatrical agent? No? I assisted him in a little matter of a Japanese wrestler. A pretty little problem, I must recount it to you one day. He, without doubt, will be able to put us in the way of finding out what we want to know.”

It took us some time to run Mr. Aarons to earth, and it was after midnight when we finally managed it. He greeted Poirot with every evidence of warmth, and professed himself ready to be of service to us in any way.

“There’s not much about the profession I don’t know,” he said, beaming genially.

Eh bien, M. Aarons, I desire to find a young girl called Bella Duveen.”

“Bella Duveen. I know the name, but for the moment I can’t place it. What’s her line?”

“That I do not know—but here is her photograph.”

Mr. Aarons studied it for a moment, then his face lighted.

“Got it!” He slapped his thigh. “The Dulcibella Kids, by the Lord!”

“The Dulcibella Kids?”

“That’s it. They’re sisters. Acrobats, dancers and singers. Give quite a good little turn. They’re in the provinces somewhere, I believe—if they’re not resting. They’ve been on in Paris for the last two or three weeks.”

“Can you find out for me exactly where they are?”

“Easy as a bird. You go home, and I’ll send you round the dope in the morning.”

With this promise we took leave of him. He was as good as his word. About eleven o’clock the following day, a scribbled note reached us.

“The Dulcibella Sisters are on at the Palace in Coventry. Good luck to you.”

Without more ado, we started for Coventry. Poirot made no inquiries at the theatre, but contented himself with booking stalls for the variety performance that evening.

The show was wearisome beyond words—or perhaps it was only my mood that made it seem so. Japanese families balanced themselves precariously, would-be fashionable men, in greenish evening dress and exquisitely slicked hair, reeled off society patter and danced marvellously, stout prima donnas sang at the top of the human register, a comic comedian endeavoured to be Mr. George Robey and failed signally.

At last the number went up which announced the Dulcibella Kids. My heart beat sickeningly. There she was—there they both were, the pair of them, one flaxen haired, one dark, matching as to size, with short fluffy skirts and immense buster brown bows. They looked a pair of extremely piquant children. They began to sing. Their voices were fresh and true, rather thin and music-hally, but attractive.

It was quite a pretty little turn. They danced neatly, and did some clever little acrobatic feats. The words of their songs were crisp and catchy. When the curtain fell, there was a full meed of applause. Evidently the Dulcibella Kids were a success.

Suddenly I felt that I could remain no longer. I must get out into the air. I suggested leaving to Poirot.

“Go by all means, mon ami. I amuse myself, and will stay to the end. I will rejoin you later.”

It was only a few steps from the theatre to the hotel. I went up to the sitting-room, ordered a whisky and soda, and sat drinking it, staring meditatively into the empty grate. I heard the door open, and turned my head, thinking it was Poirot. Then I jumped to my feet. It was Cinderella who stood in the doorway. She spoke haltingly, her breath coming in little gasps.

“I saw you in front. You and your friend. When you got up to go, I was waiting outside and followed you. Why are you here—in Coventry? What were you doing there to-night? Is the man who was with you the—the detective?”

She stood there, the cloak she had wrapped round her stage dress slipping from her shoulders. I saw the whiteness of her cheeks under the rouge, and heard the terror in her voice. And in that moment I understood everything—understood why Poirot was seeking her, and what she feared, and understood at last my own heart. …

“Yes,” I said gently.

“Is he looking for—me?” she half whispered.

Then, as I did not answer for a moment, she slipped down by the big chair, and burst into violent, bitter weeping.

I knelt down by her, holding her in my arms, and smoothing the hair back from her face.

“Don’t cry, child, don’t cry, for God’s sake. You’re safe here. I’ll take care of you. Don’t cry, darling. Don’t cry. I know—I know everything.”

“Oh, but you don’t!”

“I think I do.” And after a moment, as her sobs grew quieter, I asked: “It was you who took the dagger, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“That was why you wanted me to show you round? And why you pretended to faint?”

Again she nodded. It was a strange thought to come to me at the moment, but it shot into my mind that I was glad her motive was what it had been—rather than the idle and morbid curiosity I had accused her of at the time. How gallantly she had played her part that day, inwardly racked with fear and trepidation as she must have been. Poor little soul, bearing the burden of a moment’s impetuous action.

“Why did you take the dagger?” I asked presently.

She replied as simply as a child:

“I was afraid there might be finger-marks on it.”

“But didn’t you remember that you had worn gloves?”

She shook her head as though bewildered, and then said slowly:

“Are you going to give me up to—to the Police?”

“Good God! no.”

Her eyes sought mine long and earnestly, and then she asked in a little quiet voice that sounded afraid of itself:

“Why not?”

It seemed a strange place and a strange time for a declaration of love—and God knows, in all my imagining, I had never pictured love coming to me in such a guise. But I answered simply and naturally enough:

“Because I love you, Cinderella.”

She bent her head down, as though ashamed, and muttered in a broken voice:

“You can’t—you can’t—not if you knew—” And then, as though rallying herself, she faced me squarely, and asked:

“What do you know, then?”

“I know that you came to see Mr. Renauld that night. He offered you a cheque and you tore it up indignantly. Then you left the house—” I paused.

“Go on—what next?”

“I don’t know whether you knew that Jack Renauld would be coming that night, or whether you just waited about on the chance of seeing him, but you did wait about. Perhaps you were just miserable, and walked aimlessly—but at any rate just before twelve you were still near there, and you saw a man on the golf links—”

Again I paused. I had leapt to the truth in a flash as she entered the room, but now the picture rose before me even more convincingly. I saw vividly the peculiar pattern of the overcoat on the dead body of Mr. Renauld, and I remembered the amazing likeness that had startled me into believing for one instant that the dead man had risen from the dead when his son burst into our conclave in the salon.

“Go on,” repeated the girl steadily.

“I fancy his back was to you—but you recognized him, or thought you recognized him. The gait and the carriage were familiar to you, and the pattern of his overcoat.” I paused. “You told me in the train on the way from Paris that you had Italian blood in your veins, and that you had nearly got into trouble once with it. You used a threat in one of your letters to Jack Renauld. When you saw him there, your anger and jealousy drove you mad—and you struck! I don’t believe for a minute that you meant to kill him. But you did kill him, Cinderella.”

She had flung up her hands to cover her face, and in a choked voice she said:

“You’re right … you’re right … I can see it all as you tell it.” Then she turned on me almost savagely. “And you love me? Knowing what you do, how can you love me?”

“I don’t know,” I said a little wearily. “I think love is like that—a thing one cannot help. I have tried, I know—ever since the first day I met you. And love has been too strong for me.”

And then suddenly, when I least expected it, she broke down again, casting herself down on the floor and sobbing wildly.

“Oh, I can’t!” she cried. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know which way to turn. Oh, pity me, pity me, some one, and tell me what to do!”

Again I knelt by her, soothing her as best I could.

“Don’t be afraid of me, Bella. For God’s sake don’t be afraid of me. I love you, that’s true—but I don’t want anything in return. Only let me help you. Love him still if you have to, but let me help you as he can’t.”

It was as though she had been turned to stone by my words. She raised her head from her hands and stared at me.

“You think that?” she whispered. “You think that I love Jack Renauld?”

Then, half laughing, half crying, she flung her arms passionately round my neck, and pressed her sweet wet face to mine.

“Not as I love you,” she whispered. “Never as I love you!”

Her lips brushed my cheek, and then, seeking my mouth, kissed me again and again with a sweetness and fire beyond belief. The wildness of it—and the wonder, I shall not forget—no, not as long as I live!

It was a sound in the doorway that made us look up. Poirot was standing there looking at us.

I did not hesitate. With a bound I reached him and pinioned his arms to his sides.

“Quick,” I said to the girl. “Get out of here. As fast as you can. I’ll hold him.”

With one look at me, she fled out of the room past us. I held Poirot in a grip of iron.

Mon ami,” observed the latter mildly, “you do this sort of thing very well. The strong man holds me in his grasp and I am helpless as a child. But all this is uncomfortable and slightly ridiculous. Let us sit down and be calm.”

“You won’t pursue her?”

Mon Dieu! no. Am I Giraud? Release me, my friend.”

Keeping a suspicious eye upon him, for I paid Poirot the compliment of knowing that I was no match for him in astuteness, I relaxed my grip, and he sank into an arm-chair, feeling his arms tenderly.

“It is that you have the strength of a bull when you are roused, Hastings! Eh bien, and do you think you have behaved well to your old friend? I show you the girl’s photograph and you recognize it, but you never say a word.”

“There was no need if you knew that I recognized it,” I said rather bitterly. So Poirot had known all along! I had not deceived him for an instant.

“Ta-ta! You did not know that I knew that. And tonight you help the girl to escape when we have found her with so much trouble! Eh bien! it comes to this—are you going to work with me or against me, Hastings?”

For a moment or two I did not answer. To break with my old friend gave me great pain. Yet I must definitely range myself against him. Would he ever forgive me, I wondered? He had been strangely calm so far, but I knew him to possess marvellous self-command.

“Poirot,” I said, “I’m sorry. I admit I’ve behaved badly to you over this. But sometimes one has no choice. And in future I must take my own line.”

Poirot nodded his head several times.

“I understand,” he said. The mocking light had quite died out of his eyes, and he spoke with a sincerity and kindness that surprised me. “It is that, my friend, is it not? It is love that has come—not as you imagined it, all cock a hoop with fine feathers, but sadly, with bleeding feet. Well, well—I warned you. When I realized that this girl must have taken the dagger, I warned you. Perhaps you remember. But already it was too late. But, tell me, how much do you know?”

I met his eyes squarely.

“Nothing that you could tell me would be any surprise to me, Poirot. Understand that. But in case you think of resuming your search for Miss Duveen, I should like you to know one thing clearly. If you have any idea that she was concerned in the crime, or was the mysterious lady who called upon Mr. Renauld that night, you are wrong. I travelled home from France with her that day, and parted from her at Victoria that evening so that it is clearly impossible for her to have been in Merlinville.”

“Ah!” Poirot looked at me thoughtfully. “And you would swear to that in a court of law?”

“Most certainly I would.”

Poirot rose and bowed.

Mon ami! Vive l’amour! It can perform miracles. It is decidedly ingenious what you have thought of there. It defeats even Hercule Poirot!”