The Murder on the Links/Chapter 23
After a moment of stress, such as I have just described, reaction is bound to set in. I retired to rest that night on a note of triumph, but I awoke to realize that I was by no means out of the wood. True, I could see no flaw in the alibi I had so suddenly conceived. I had but to stick to my story, and I failed to see how Bella could be convicted in face of it. It was not as though there was any old friendship between us that could be raked up, and which might lead them to suspect that I was committing perjury. It could be proved that in actual fact I had only seen the girl on three occasions. No, I was still satisfied with my idea—had not even Poirot admitted that it defeated him?
But there I felt the need of treading warily. All very well for my little friend to admit himself momentarily nonplussed. I had far too much respect for his abilities to conceive of him as being content to remain in that position. I had a very humble opinion of my wits when it came to matching them against his. Poirot would not take defeat lying down. Somehow or other, he would endeavour to turn the tables on me, and that in the way, and at the moment, when I least expected it.
We met at breakfast the following morning as though nothing had happened. Poirot’s good temper was imperturbable, yet I thought I detected a film of reserve in his manner which was new. After breakfast, I announced my intention of going out for a stroll. A malicious gleam shot through Poirot’s eyes.
“If it is information you seek, you need not be at the pains of deranging yourself. I can tell you all you wish to know. The Dulcibella Sisters have cancelled their contract, and have left Coventry for an unknown destination.”
“Is that really so, Poirot?”
“You can take it from me, Hastings. I made inquiries the first thing this morning. After all, what else did you expect?”
True enough, nothing else could be expected under the circumstances. Cinderella had profited by the slight start I had been able to assure her, and would certainly not lose a moment in removing herself from the reach of the pursuer. It was what I had intended and planned. Nevertheless, I was aware of being plunged into a network of fresh difficulties.
I had absolutely no means of communicating with the girl, and it was vital that she should know the line of defence that had occurred to me, and which I was prepared to carry out. Of course it was possible that she might try to send word to me in some way or another, but I hardly thought it likely. She would know the risk she ran of a message being intercepted by Poirot, thus setting him on her track once more. Clearly her only course was to disappear utterly for the time being.
But, in the meantime, what was Poirot doing? I studied him attentively. He was wearing his most innocent air, and staring meditatively into the far distance. He looked altogether too placid and supine to give me reassurance. I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was. His quiescence alarmed me. Observing a troubled quality in my glance, he smiled benignantly.
“You are puzzled, Hastings? You ask yourself why I do not launch myself in pursuit?”
“Well—something of the kind.”
“It is what you would do, were you in my place. I understand that. But I am not of those who enjoy rushing up and down a country seeking a needle in a haystack, as you English say. No—let Mademoiselle Bella Duveen go. Without doubt, I shall be able to find her when the time comes. Until then, I am content to wait.”
I stared at him doubtfully. Was he seeking to mislead me? I had an irritating feeling that, even now, he was master of the situation. My sense of superiority was gradually waning. I had contrived the girl’s escape, and evolved a brilliant scheme for saving her from the consequences of her rash act—but I could not rest easy in my mind. Poirot’s perfect calm awakened a thousand apprehensions.
“I suppose, Poirot,” I said rather diffidently, “I mustn’t ask what your plans are? I’ve forfeited the right.”
“But not at all. There is no secret about them. We return to France without delay.”
“Precisely—‘we!’ You know very well that you cannot afford to let Papa Poirot out of your sight. Eh, is it not so, my friend? But remain in England by all means if you wish—”
I shook my head. He had hit the nail on the head. I could not afford to let him out of my sight. Although I could not expect his confidence after what had happened, I could still check his actions. The only danger to Bella lay with him. Giraud and the French police were indifferent to her existence. At all costs I must keep near Poirot.
Poirot observed me attentively as these reflections passed through my mind, and gave a nod of satisfaction.
“I am right, am I not? And as you are quite capable of trying to follow me, disguised with some absurdity such as a false beard—which every one would perceive, bien entendu—I much prefer that we should voyage together. It would annoy me greatly that any one should mock themselves at you.”
“Very well, then. But it’s only fair to warn you—”
“I know—I know all. You are my enemy! Be my enemy then. It does not worry me at all.”
“So long as it’s all fair and above-board, I don’t mind.”
“You have to the full the English passion for ‘fair-play!’ Now your scruples are satisfied, let us depart immediately. There is no time to be lost. Our stay in England has been short but sufficient. I know—what I wanted to know.”
The tone was light, but I read a veiled menace into the words.
“Still—” I began, and stopped.
“Still—as you say! Without doubt you are satisfied with the part you are playing. Me, I preoccupy myself with Jack Renauld.”
Jack Renauld! The words gave me a start. I had completely forgotten that aspect of the case. Jack Renauld, in prison, with the shadow of the guillotine looming over him! I saw the part I was playing in a more sinister light. I could save Bella—yes, but in doing so I ran the risk of sending an innocent man to his death.
I pushed the thought from me with horror. It could not be. He would be acquitted. Certainly he would be acquitted! But the cold fear came back. Suppose he were not? What then? Could I have it on my conscience—horrible thought! Would it come to that in the end? A decision. Bella or Jack Renauld? The promptings of my heart were to save the girl I loved at any cost to myself. But, if the cost were to another, the problem was altered.
What would the girl herself say? I remembered that no word of Jack Renauld’s arrest had passed my lips. As yet she was in total ignorance of the fact that her former lover was in prison charged with a hideous crime which he had not committed. When she knew, how would she act? Would she permit her life to be saved at the expense of his? Certainly she must do nothing rash. Jack Renauld might, and probably would, be acquitted without any intervention on her part. If so, good. But if he was not. … That was the terrible, the unanswerable problem. I fancied that she ran no risk of the extreme penalty. The circumstances of the crime were quite different in her case. She could plead jealousy and extreme provocation, and her youth and beauty would go for much. The fact that by a tragic mistake it was old Mr. Renauld, and not his son, who paid the penalty would not alter the motive of the crime. But in any case, however lenient the sentence of the Court, it must mean a long term of imprisonment.
No, Bella must be protected. And, at the same time, Jack Renauld must be saved. How this was to be accomplished I did not see clearly. But I pinned my faith to Poirot. He knew. Come what might, he would manage to save an innocent man. He must find some pretext other than the real one. It might be difficult, but he would manage it somehow. And with Bella unsuspected, and Jack Renauld acquitted, all would end satisfactorily.
So I told myself repeatedly, but at the bottom of my heart there still remained a cold fear.