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Chapter 8 - An Unexpected Meeting

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« on: November 12, 2022, 03:28:36 am »

We were up at the Villa betimes next morning. The man on guard at the gate did not bar our way this time. Instead, he respectfully saluted us, and we passed on to the house. The maid Léonie was just coming down the stairs, and seemed not averse to the prospect of a little conversation.

Poirot inquired after the health of Mrs. Renauld.

Léonie shook her head.

“She is terribly upset, la pauvre dame! She will eat nothing—but nothing! And she is as pale as a ghost. It is heartrending to see her. Ah, par exemple, it is not I who would grieve like that for a man who had deceived me with another woman!”

Poirot nodded sympathetically.

“What you say is very just, but what will you? The heart of a woman who loves will forgive many blows. Still, undoubtedly there must have been many scenes of recrimination between them in the last few months?”

Again Léonie shook her head.

“Never, monsieur. Never have I heard Madame utter a word of protest—of reproach, even! She had the temper and disposition of an angel—quite different to Monsieur.”

“Monsieur Renauld had not the temper of an angel?”

“Far from it. When he enraged himself, the whole house knew of it. The day that he quarrelled with M. Jack—ma foi! they might have been heard in the market place, they shouted so loud!”

“Indeed,” said Poirot. “And when did this quarrel take place?”

“Oh! it was just before M. Jack went to Paris. Almost he missed his train. He came out of the library, and caught up his bag which he had left in the hall. The automobile, it was being repaired, and he had to run for the station. I was dusting the salon, and I saw him pass, and his face was white—white—with two burning spots of red. Ah, but he was angry!”

Léonie was enjoying her narrative thoroughly.

“And the dispute, what was it about?”

“Ah, that I do not know,” confessed Léonie. “It is true that they shouted, but their voices were so loud and high, and they spoke so fast, that only one well acquainted with English could have comprehended. But Monsieur, he was like a thundercloud all day! Impossible to please him!”

The sound of a door shutting upstairs cut short Léonie’s loquacity.

“And Françoise who awaits me!” she exclaimed, awakening to a tardy remembrance of her duties. “That old one, she always scolds.”

“One moment, mademoiselle. The examining magistrate, where is he?”

“They have gone out to look at the automobile in the garage. Monsieur the commissary had some idea that it might have been used on the night of the murder.”

Quelle idée,” murmured Poirot, as the girl disappeared.

“You will go out and join them?”

“No, I shall await their return in the salon. It is cool there on this hot morning.”

This placid way of taking things did not quite commend itself to me.

“If you don’t mind—” I said, and hesitated.

“Not in the least. You wish to investigate on your own account, eh?”

“Well, I’d rather like to have a look at Giraud, if he’s anywhere about, and see what he’s up to.”

“The human foxhound,” murmured Poirot, as he leaned back in a comfortable chair, and closed his eyes. “By all means, my friend. Au revoir.”

I strolled out of the front door. It was certainly hot. I turned up the path we had taken the day before. I had a mind to study the scene of the crime myself. I did not go directly to the spot, however, but turned aside into the bushes, so as to come out on the links some hundred yards or so further to the right. If Giraud were still on the spot, I wanted to observe his methods before he knew of my presence. But the shrubbery here was much denser, and I had quite a struggle to force my way through. When I emerged at last on the course, it was quite unexpectedly and with such vigour that I cannoned heavily into a young lady who had been standing with her back to the plantation.

She not unnaturally gave a suppressed shriek, but I, too, uttered an exclamation of surprise. For it was my friend of the train, Cinderella!

The surprise was mutual.

“You,” we both exclaimed simultaneously.

The young lady recovered herself first.

“My only Aunt!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“For the matter of that, what are you?” I retorted.

“When last I saw you, the day before yesterday, you were trotting home to England like a good little boy. Have they given you a season ticket to and fro, on the strength of your M.P.?”

I ignored the end of the speech.

“When last I saw you,” I said, “you were trotting home with your sister, like a good little girl. By the way, how is your sister?”

A flash of white teeth rewarded me.

“How kind of you to ask! My sister is well, I thank you.”

“She is here with you?”

“She remained in town,” said the minx with dignity.

“I don’t believe you’ve got a sister,” I laughed. “If you have, her name is Harris!”

“Do you remember mine?” she asked, with a smile.

“Cinderella. But you’re going to tell me the real one now, aren’t you?”

She shook her head with a wicked look.

“Not even why you’re here?”

“Oh, that! I suppose you’ve heard of members of my profession ‘resting.’ ”

“At expensive French watering-places?”

“Dirt cheap if you know where to go.”

I eyed her keenly.

“Still, you’d no intention of coming here when I met you two days ago?”

“We all have our disappointments,” said Miss Cinderella sententiously. “There now, I’ve told you quite as much as is good for you. Little boys should not be inquisitive. You’ve not yet told me what you’re doing here? Got the M.P. in tow, I suppose, doing the gay boy on the beach.”

I shook my head. “Guess again. You remember my telling you that my great friend was a detective?”


“And perhaps you’ve heard about this crime—at the Villa Geneviève—?”

She stared at me. Her breast heaved, and her eyes grew wide and round.

“You don’t mean—that you’re in on that?

I nodded. There was no doubt that I had scored heavily. Her emotion, as she regarded me, was only too evident. For some few seconds, she remained silent, staring at me. Then she nodded her head emphatically.

“Well, if that doesn’t beat the band! Tote me round. I want to see all the horrors.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I say. Bless the boy, didn’t I tell you I doted on crimes? What do you think I’m imperilling my ankles for in high-heeled shoes over this stubble? I’ve been nosing round for hours. Tried the front way in, but that old stick-in-the-mud of a French gendarme wasn’t taking any. I guess Helen of Troy, and Cleopatra, and Mary, Queen of Scots, rolled in one wouldn’t cut ice with him! It’s a real piece of luck happening on you this way. Come on, show me all the sights.”

“But look here—wait a minute—I can’t. Nobody’s allowed in. They’re awfully strict.”

“Aren’t you and your friend the big bugs?”

I was loath to relinquish my position of importance.

“Why are you so keen?” I asked weakly. “And what is it you want to see.”

“Oh, everything! The place where it happened, and the weapon, and the body, and any finger-prints or interesting things like that. I’ve never had a chance of being right in on a murder like this before. It’ll last me all my life?”

I turned away, sickened. What were women coming to nowadays? The girl’s ghoulish excitement nauseated me. I had read of the mobs of women who besieged the law courts when some wretched man was being tried for his life on the capital charge. I had sometimes wondered who these women were. Now I knew. They were of the likeness of Cinderella, young, yet obsessed with a yearning for morbid excitement, for sensation at any price, without regard to any decency or good feeling. The vividness of the girl’s beauty had attracted me in spite of myself, yet at heart I retained my first impression of disapproval and dislike. I thought of my mother, long since dead. What would she have said of this strange modern product of girlhood? The pretty face with the paint and powder, and the ghoulish mind behind!

“Come off your high horse,” said the lady suddenly. “And don’t give yourself airs. When you got called to this job, did you put your nose in the air and say it was a nasty business, and you wouldn’t be mixed up in it?”

“No, but—”

“If you’d been here on a holiday, wouldn’t you be nosing round just the same as I am? Of course you would.”

“I’m a man. You’re a woman.”

“Your idea of a woman is some one who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric. But you will show me round, won’t you? You see, it might make a big difference to me.”

“In what way?”

“They’re keeping all the reporters out. I might make a big scoop with one of the papers. You don’t know how much they pay for a bit of inside stuff.”

I hesitated. She slipped a small soft hand into mine.

Please—there’s a dear.”

I capitulated. Secretly, I knew that I should rather enjoy the part of showman. After all, the moral attitude displayed by the girl was none of my business. I was a little nervous as to what the examining magistrate might say, but I reassured myself by the reflection that no harm could possibly be done.

We repaired first to the spot where the body had been discovered. A man was on guard there, who saluted respectfully, knowing me by sight, and raised no question as to my companion. Presumably he regarded her as vouched for by me. I explained to Cinderella just how the discovery had been made, and she listened attentively, sometimes putting an intelligent question. Then we turned our steps in the direction of the Villa. I proceeded rather cautiously, for, truth to tell, I was not at all anxious to meet any one. I took the girl through the shrubbery round to the back of the house where the small shed was. I recollected that yesterday evening, after relocking the door, M. Bex had left the key with the sergent de ville Marchaud, “in case M. Giraud should require it while we are upstairs.” I thought it quite likely that the Sûreté detective, after using it, had returned it to Marchaud again. Leaving the girl out of sight in the shrubbery, I entered the house. Marchaud was on duty outside the door of the salon. From within came the murmur of voices.

“Monsieur desires Hautet? He is within. He is again interrogating Françoise.”

“No,” I said hastily, “I don’t want him. But I should very much like the key of the shed outside if it is not against regulations.”

“But certainly, monsieur.” He produced it. “Here it is. M. le juge gave orders that all facilities were to be placed at your disposal. You will return it to me when you have finished out there, that is all.”

“Of course.”

I felt a thrill of satisfaction as I realized that in Marchaud’s eyes, at least, I ranked equally in importance with Poirot. The girl was waiting for me. She gave an exclamation of delight as she saw the key in my hand.

“You’ve got it then?”

“Of course,” I said coolly. “All the same, you know, what I’m doing is highly irregular.”

“You’ve been a perfect duck, and I shan’t forget it. Come along. They can’t see us from the house, can they?”

“Wait a minute.” I arrested her eager advance. “I won’t stop you if you really wish to go in. But do you? You’ve seen the grave, and the grounds, and you’ve heard all the details of the affair. Isn’t that enough for you? This is going to be gruesome, you know, and—unpleasant.”

She looked at me for a moment with an expression that I could not quite fathom. Then she laughed.

“Me for the horrors,” she said. “Come along.”

In silence we arrived at the door of the shed. I opened it and we passed in. I walked over to the body, and gently pulled down the sheet as M. Bex had done the preceding afternoon. A little gasping sound escaped from the girl’s lips, and I turned and looked at her. There was horror on her face now, and those debonair high spirits of hers were quenched utterly. She had not chosen to listen to my advice, and she was punished now for her disregard of it. I felt singularly merciless towards her. She should go through with it now. I turned the corpse gently over.

“You see,” I said, “he was stabbed in the back.”

Her voice was almost soundless.

“With what?”

I nodded towards the glass jar.

“That dagger.”

Suddenly the girl reeled, and then sank down in a heap. I sprang to her assistance.

“You are faint. Come out of here. It has been too much for you.”

“Water,” she murmured. “Quick. Water. …”

I left her, and rushed into the house. Fortunately none of the servants were about, and I was able to secure a glass of water unobserved and add a few drops of brandy from a pocket flask. In a few minutes I was back again. The girl was lying as I had left her, but a few sips of the brandy and water revived her in a marvellous manner.

“Take me out of here—oh, quickly, quickly!” she cried, shuddering.

Supporting her with my arm I led her out into the air, and she pulled the door to behind her. Then she drew a deep breath.

“That’s better. Oh, it was horrible! Why did you ever let me go in?”

I felt this to be so feminine that I could not forbear a smile. Secretly, I was not dissatisfied with her collapse. It proved that she was not quite so callous as I had thought her. After all she was little more than a child, and her curiosity had probably been of the unthinking order.

“I did my best to stop you, you know,” I said gently.

“I suppose you did. Well, good-bye.”

“Look here, you can’t start off like that—all alone. You’re not fit for it. I insist on accompanying you back to Merlinville.”

“Nonsense. I’m quite all right now.”

“Supposing you felt faint again? No, I shall come with you.”

But this she combated with a good deal of energy. In the end, however, I prevailed so far as to be allowed to accompany her to the outskirts of the town. We retraced our steps over our former route, passing the grave again, and making a detour on to the road. Where the first straggling line of shops began, she stopped and held out her hand.

“Good-bye, and thank you ever so much for coming with me.”

“Are you sure you’re all right now?”

“Quite, thanks. I hope you won’t get into any trouble over showing me things?”

I disclaimed the idea lightly.

“Well, good-bye.”

“Au revoir,” I corrected. “If you’re staying here, we shall meet again.”

She flashed a smile at me.

“That’s so. Au revoir, then.”

“Wait a second, you haven’t told me your address?”

“Oh, I’m staying at the Hôtel du Phare. It’s a little place, but quite good. Come and look me up tomorrow.”

“I will,” I said, with perhaps rather unnecessary empressement.

I watched her out of sight, then turned and retraced my steps to the Villa. I remembered that I had not relocked the door of the shed. Fortunately no one had noticed the oversight, and turning the key I removed it and returned it to the sergent de ville. And, as I did so, it came upon me suddenly that though Cinderella had given me her address I still did not know her name.
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