Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions. He had enjoyed his brioche and his cup of hot chocolate. Unusually, for he was a creature of habit and rarely varied his breakfast routine, he had asked his valet, George, to make him a second cup of chocolate. While he was awaiting it, he glanced again at the morning’s post which lay on his breakfast table.
Meticulously tidy as always, he had placed the discarded envelopes in one neat pile. They had been opened very carefully, with the paper-knife in the form of a miniature sword which his old friend Hastings had given him for a birthday many years ago. A second pile contained those communications he found of no interest – circulars, mostly – which in a moment he would ask George to dispose of. The third pile consisted of those letters which would require an answer of some kind, or at least an acknowledgement.
These would be dealt with after breakfast, and in any case not before ten o’clock. Poirot thought it not quite professional to begin a routine working day before ten. When he was on a case – ah, well, of course that was different. He remembered that once he and Hastings had set out well before dawn in order to… But, no, Poirot did not want his thoughts to dwell on the past. The happy past. Their last case, involving an international crime organization known as The Big Four, had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and Hastings had returned to the Argentine, his wife and his ranch. Though his old friend was temporarily back in London on business connected with the ranch, it was highly unlikely that Poirot and he would find themselves working together again to solve a crime. Was that why Hercule Poirot was feeling restless on this fine spring morning in May 1934?
Ostensibly retired, he had been lured out of that retirement more than once when an especially interesting problem had been presented to him. He had enjoyed being on the scent again, with Hastings by his side to act as a kind of sounding board for his ideas and theories. But nothing of professional interest had presented itself to Poirot for several months. Were there no imaginative crimes and criminals any more? Was it all violence and brutality, the kind of sordid murder or robbery which was beneath his, Poirot’s, dignity to investigate?
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival, silently at his elbow, of George – with that second and welcome cup of chocolate. Welcome not only because Poirot would enjoy the rich, sweet taste, but also because it would enable him to postpone, for a few more minutes, the realization that the day, a fine sunny morning, stretched before him with nothing more exciting in prospect than a constitutional in the park and a walk through Mayfair to his favourite restaurant in Soho, where he would lunch alone on – what, now? – perhaps a little pate to begin, and then the sole bonne femme, followed by…
He became aware that George, having placed the chocolate on the table, was addressing him. The impeccable and imperturbable George, an intensely English, rather wooden-faced individual, had been with Poirot for some time now, and was all that he wished in the way of a valet.
Completely incurious, and extraordinarily reluctant to express a personal opinion on any subject, George was a mine of information about the English aristocracy, and as fanatically neat as the great detective himself. Poirot had more than once said to him, “You press admirably the trousers, George, but the imagination, you possess it not.”
Imagination, however, Hercule Poirot possessed in abundance. The ability to press a pair of trousers properly was, in his opinion, a rare accomplishment. Yes, he was indeed fortunate in having George to look after him.
“- and so I took the liberty, sir, of promising that you would return the call this morning,” George was saying.
“I do beg your pardon, my dear George,” replied Poirot. “My attention was wandering. Someone has telephoned, you say?”
“Yes, sir. It was last night, sir, while you were out at the theatre with Mrs Oliver. I had retired to bed before you arrived home, and thought it unnecessary to leave a message for you at that late hour.” “Who was it who called?”
“The gentleman said he was Sir Claud Amory, sir. He left his telephone number, which would appear to be somewhere in Surrey. The matter, he said, was a somewhat delicate one, and when you rang you were not to give your name to anyone else, but were to insist on speaking to Sir Claud himself.”
“Thank you, George. Leave the telephone number on my desk,” said Poirot. “I shall ring Sir Claud after I have perused this morning’s Times. It is still a trifle early in the morning for telephoning, even on somewhat delicate matters.”
George bowed and departed, while Poirot slowly finished his cup of chocolate and then repaired to the balcony with that morning’s newspaper.
A few minutes later The Times had been laid aside. The international news was, as usual, depressing. That terrible Hitler had turned the German courts into branches of the Nazi party, the Fascists had seized power in Bulgaria and, worst of all, in Poirot’s own country, Belgium, forty-two miners were feared dead after an explosion at a mine near Mons. The home news was little better. Despite the misgivings of officials, women competitors at Wimbledon were to be allowed to wear shorts this summer. Nor was there much comfort in the obituaries, for people Poirot’s age and younger seemed intent on dying.
His newspaper abandoned, Poirot lay back in his comfortable wicker chair, his feet on a small stool. Sir Claud Amory, he thought to himself. The name struck a chord, surely? He had heard it somewhere. Yes, this Sir Claud was well-known in some sphere or other. But what was it? Was he a politician? A barrister? A retired civil servant? Sir Claud Amory. Amory.
The balcony faced the morning sun, and Poirot found it warm enough to bask in for a moment or two. Soon it would become too warm for him, for he was no sunworshipper.
“When the sun drives me inside,” he mused, “then I will exert myself and consult the Who’s Who. If this Sir Claud is a person of some distinction, he will surely be included in that so admirable volume. If he is not -“
The little detective gave an expressive shrug of his shoulders. An inveterate snob, he was already predisposed in Sir Claud’s favour by virtue of his title. If he were to be found in Who’s Who, a volume in which the details of Poirot’s own career could also be discovered, then perhaps this Sir Claud was someone with a valid claim on his, Hercule Poirot’s, time and attention.
A quickening of curiosity and a sudden cool breeze combined to send Poirot indoors. Entering his library, he went to a shelf of reference books and took down the thick red volume whose title, Who’s Who, was embossed in gold on its spine. Turning the pages, he came to the entry he sought, and read aloud.
AMORY, Sir Claud (Herbert); Kt. 1927;
- 24 Nov. 1878. m. 1907, Helen Graham (d. 1929);
Educ: Weymouth Gram. Sch.; King’s Coll., London.
Research Physicist GEC Laboratories, 1905;
RAE Famborough (Radio Dept.), 1916;
Air Min. Research Establishment, Swanage, 1921;
demonstrated a new Principle for accelerating particles: the travelling wave linear accelerator, 1924.
Awarded Monroe Medal of Physical Soc. Publications; papers in learned journals.
Address: Abbot’s Cleve, nr. Market Cleve, Surrey. T; Market Cleve 304.
“Ah, yes,” Poirot mused. “The famous scientist.”
He remembered a conversation he had had some months previously with a member of His Majesty’s government, after Poirot had retrieved some missing documents whose contents could have proved embarrassing. They had talked of security, and the politician had admitted that security measures in general were not sufficiently stringent.
“For instance,” he had said, “what Sir Claud Amory is working on now is of such fantastic importance in any future war – but he refuses to work under laboratory conditions where he and his invention can be properly guarded. Insists on working alone at his house in the country. No security at all. Frightening.”
I wonder, Poirot thought to himself as he replaced Who’s Who on the bookshelf, I wonder – can Sir Claud want to engage Hercule
Poirot to be a tired old watchdog? The inventions of war, the secret weapons, they are not for me. If Sir Claud –
The telephone in the next room rang, and Poirot could hear George answering it. A moment later, the valet appeared.
“It’s Sir Claud Amory again, sir,” he said.
Poirot went to the phone.
“Hallo. It is Hercule Poirot who speaks,” he announced into the mouthpiece.
“Poirot? We’ve not met, though we have acquaintances in common. My name is Amory, Claud Amory -“
“I have heard of you, of course, Sir Claud,” Poirot responded.
“Look here, Poirot. I’ve got a devilishly tricky problem on my hands. Or rather, I might have. I can’t be certain. I’ve been working on a formula to bombard the atom – I won’t go into details, but the Ministry of Defence regards it as of the utmost importance. My work is now complete, and I’ve produced a formula from which a new and deadly explosive can be made. I have reason to suspect that a member of my household is attempting to steal the formula. I can’t say any more now, but I should be greatly obliged if you would come down to Abbot’s Cleve for the weekend, as my house-guest. I want you to take the formula back with you to London, and hand it over to a certain person at the Ministry. There are good reasons why a Ministry courier can’t do the job. I need someone who is ostensibly an unobtrusive, unscientific member of the public but who is also astute enough -“
Sir Claud talked on. Hercule Poirot, glancing across at the reflection in the mirror of his bald, egg-shaped head and his elaborately waxed moustache, told himself that he had never before, in a long career, been considered unobtrusive, nor did he so consider himself. But a weekend in the country and a chance to meet the distinguished scientist could be agreeable, plus, no doubt, the suitably expressed thanks of a grateful government – and merely for carrying in his pocket from Surrey to Whitehall an obscure, if deadly, scientific formula.
“I shall be delighted to oblige you, my dear Sir Claud,” he interrupted. “I shall arrange to arrive on Saturday afternoon, if that is convenient to you, and return to London, with whatever you wish me to take with me, on Monday morning. I look forward greatly to making your acquaintance.”
Curious, he thought, as he replaced the receiver. Foreign agents might well be interested in Sir Claud’s formula, but could it really be the case that someone in the scientist’s own household -? Ah well, doubtless more would be revealed during the course of the weekend.
“George,” he called, “please take my heavy tweed suit and my dinner jacket and trousers to the cleaner’s. I must have them back by Friday, as I am going to the Country for the Weekend.” He made it sound like the Steppes of Central Asia and for a lifetime.
Then, turning to the phone, he dialled a number and waited for a few moments before speaking.
“My dear Hastings,” he began, “would you not like to have a few days away from your business concerns in London? Surrey is very pleasant at this time of the year…”
Sir Claud Amory’s house, Abbot’s Cleve, stood just on the outskirts of the small town – or rather, overgrown village – of Market Cleve, about twenty-five miles southeast of London. The house itself, a large but architecturally nondescript Victorian mansion, was set amid an attractive few acres of gently undulating countryside, here and there heavily wooded. The gravel drive, from the gatehouse up to the front door of Abbot’s Cleve, twisted its way through trees and dense shrubbery. A terrace ran along the back of the house, with a lawn sloping down to a somewhat neglected formal garden.
On the Friday evening two days after his telephone conversation with Hercule Poirot, Sir Claud sat in his study, a small but comfortably furnished room on the ground floor of the house, on the east side. Outside, the light was beginning to fade. Sir Claud’s butler, Tredwell, a tall, lugubrious-looking individual with an impeccably correct manner, had sounded the gong for dinner two or three minutes earlier, and no doubt the family was now assembling in the dining-room on the other side of the hall.
Sir Claud drummed on the desk with his fingers, his habit when forcing himself to a quick decision. A man of medium height and build in his fifties, with greying hair brushed straight back from a high forehead and eyes of a piercingly cold blue, he now wore an expression in which anxiety was mixed with puzzlement.
There was a discreet knock on the study door, and Tredwell appeared in the doorway.
“Excuse me, Sir Claud. I wondered if perhaps you had not heard the gong -“
“Yes, yes, Tredwell, that’s all right. Would you tell them I shall be in very shortly? Say I’m caught on the phone. In fact, I am about to make a quick phone call. You may as well begin serving.”
Tredwell withdrew silently, and Sir Claud, taking a deep breath, pulled the telephone towards himself. Extracting a small addressbook from a drawer of his desk, he consulted it briefly and then picked up the receiver. He listened for a moment and then spoke.
“This is Market Cleve three-oh-four. I want you to get me a London number.” He gave the number, then sat back, waiting. The fingers of his right hand began to drum nervously on the desk.
Several minutes later, Sir Claud Amory joined the dinner party, taking his place at the head of the table, around which the six others were already seated. On Sir Claud’s right sat his niece, Barbara Amory, with Richard, her cousin and the only son of Sir
Claud, next to her. On Richard Amory’s right was a house-guest, Dr Carelli, an Italian. Continuing round, at the opposite end of the table to Sir Claud, sat Caroline Amory, his sister. A middle-aged spinster, she had run Sir Claud’s house for him ever since his wife died some years earlier. Edward Raynor, Sir Claud’s secretary, sat on Miss Amory’s right, with Lucia, Richard Amory’s wife, between him and the head of the household.
Dinner, on this occasion, was not at all festive. Caroline Amory made several attempts at small-talk with Dr Carelli, who answered her politely enough without offering much in the way of conversation himself. When she turned to address a remark to Edward Raynor, that normally polite and socially suave young man gave a nervous start, mumbled an apology and looked embarrassed. Sir Claud was as taciturn as he normally was at mealtimes, or perhaps even more so. Richard Amory cast an occasional anxious glance across the table at his wife, Lucia. Barbara Amory alone seemed in good spirits, and made spasmodic light conversation with her Aunt Caroline.
It was while Tredwell was serving the dessert course that Sir Claud suddenly addressed the butler, speaking loudly enough for all at the dinner-table to hear his words.
“Tredwell,” he said, “would you ring Jackson’s garage in Market Cleve, and ask them to send a car and driver to the station to meet the eight-fifty from London? A gentleman who is visiting us after dinner will be coming by that train.”
“Very well, Sir Claud,” replied Tredwell as he left. He was barely out of the room when Lucia, with a murmured apology, got up abruptly from the table and hurried out, almost colliding with the butler as he was about to close the door behind him.
Crossing the hall, she hurried along the corridor and proceeded to the large room at the back of the house. The library – as it was generally called – served normally as a drawing-room as well. It was a comfortable room rather than an elegant one. French windows opened from it onto the terrace, and another door led to Sir Claud’s study. On the mantelpiece, above a large open fireplace, stood an old-fashioned clock and some ornaments, as well as a vase of spills for use in lighting the fire.
The library furniture consisted of a tall bookcase with a tin box on the top of it, a desk with a telephone on it, a stool, a small table with gramophone and records, a settee, a coffee-table, an occasional table with book-ends and books on it, two upright chairs, an armchair and