Chapter III. The Night of the Tragedy
To make this part of my story clear, I append the following plan of the first floor of Styles. The servants’ rooms are reached through the door B. They have no communication with the right wing, where the Inglethorps’ rooms were situated.
It seemed to be the middle of the night when I was awakened by Lawrence Cavendish. He had a candle in his hand, and the agitation of his face told me at once that something was seriously wrong.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, sitting up in bed, and trying to collect my scattered thoughts.
“We are afraid my mother is very ill. She seems to be having some kind of fit. Unfortunately she has locked herself in.”
“I’ll come at once.”
I sprang out of bed; and, pulling on a dressing-gown, followed Lawrence along the passage and the gallery to the right wing of the house.
John Cavendish joined us, and one or two of the servants were standing round in a state of awe-stricken excitement. Lawrence turned to his brother.
“What do you think we had better do?”
Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.
John rattled the handle of Mrs. Inglethorp’s door violently, but with no effect. It was obviously locked or bolted on the inside. The whole household was aroused by now. The most alarming sounds were audible from the interior of the room. Clearly something must be done.
“Try going through Mr. Inglethorp’s room, sir,” cried Dorcas. “Oh, the poor mistress!”
Suddenly I realized that Alfred Inglethorp was not with us—that he alone had given no sign of his presence. John opened the door of his room. It was pitch dark, but Lawrence was following with the candle, and by its feeble light we saw that the bed had not been slept in, and that there was no sign of the room having been occupied.
We went straight to the connecting door. That, too, was locked or bolted on the inside. What was to be done?
“Oh, dear, sir,” cried Dorcas, wringing her hands, “what ever shall we do?”
“We must try and break the door in, I suppose. It’ll be a tough job, though. Here, let one of the maids go down and wake Baily and tell him to go for Dr. Wilkins at once. Now then, we’ll have a try at the door. Half a moment, though, isn’t there a door into Miss Cynthia’s rooms?”
“Yes, sir, but that’s always bolted. It’s never been undone.”
“Well, we might just see.”
He ran rapidly down the corridor to Cynthia’s room. Mary Cavendish was there, shaking the girl—who must have been an unusually sound sleeper—and trying to wake her.
In a moment or two he was back.
“No good. That’s bolted too. We must break in the door. I think this one is a shade less solid than the one in the passage.”
We strained and heaved together. The framework of the door was solid, and for a long time it resisted our efforts, but at last we felt it give beneath our weight, and finally, with a resounding crash, it was burst open.
We stumbled in together, Lawrence still holding his candle. Mrs. Inglethorp was lying on the bed, her whole form agitated by violent convulsions, in one of which she must have overturned the table beside her. As we entered, however, her limbs relaxed, and she fell back upon the pillows.
John strode across the room, and lit the gas. Turning to Annie, one of the housemaids, he sent her downstairs to the dining-room for brandy. Then he went across to his mother whilst I unbolted the door that gave on the corridor.
I turned to Lawrence, to suggest that I had better leave them now that there was no further need of my services, but the words were frozen on my lips. Never have I seen such a ghastly look on any man’s face. He was white as chalk, the candle he held in his shaking hand was sputtering onto the carpet, and his eyes, petrified with terror, or some such kindred emotion, stared fixedly over my head at a point on the further wall. It was as though he had seen something that turned him to stone. I instinctively followed the direction of his eyes, but I could see nothing unusual. The still feebly flickering ashes in the grate, and the row of prim ornaments on the mantelpiece, were surely harmless enough.
The violence of Mrs. Inglethorp’s attack seemed to be passing. She was able to speak in short gasps.
“Better now—very sudden—stupid of me—to lock myself in.”
A shadow fell on the bed and, looking up, I saw Mary Cavendish standing near the door with her arm around Cynthia. She seemed to be supporting the girl, who looked utterly dazed and unlike herself. Her face was heavily flushed, and she yawned repeatedly.
“Poor Cynthia is quite frightened,” said Mrs. Cavendish in a low clear voice. She herself, I noticed, was dressed in her white land smock. Then it must be later than I thought. I saw that a faint streak of daylight was showing through the curtains of the windows, and that the clock on the mantelpiece pointed to close upon five o’clock.
A strangled cry from the bed startled me. A fresh access of pain seized the unfortunate old lady. The convulsions were of a violence terrible to behold. Everything was confusion. We thronged round her, powerless to help or alleviate. A final convulsion lifted her from the bed, until she appeared to rest upon her head and her heels, with her body arched in an extraordinary manner. In vain Mary and John tried to administer more brandy. The moments flew. Again the body arched itself in that peculiar fashion.
At that moment, Dr. Bauerstein pushed his way authoritatively into the room. For one instant he stopped dead, staring at the figure on the bed, and, at the same instant, Mrs. Inglethorp cried out in a strangled voice, her eyes fixed on the doctor:
“Alfred—Alfred——” Then she fell back motionless on the pillows.
With a stride, the doctor reached the bed, and seizing her arms worked them energetically, applying what I knew to be artificial respiration. He issued a few short sharp orders to the servants. An imperious wave of his hand drove us all to the door. We watched him, fascinated, though I think we all knew in our hearts that it was too late, and that nothing could be done now. I could see by the expression on his face that he himself had little hope.
Finally he abandoned his task, shaking his head gravely. At that moment, we heard footsteps outside, and Dr. Wilkins, Mrs. Inglethorp’s own doctor, a portly, fussy little man, came bustling in.
In a few words Dr. Bauerstein explained how he had happened to be passing the lodge gates as the car came out, and had run up to the house as fast as he could, whilst the car went on to fetch Dr. Wilkins. With a faint gesture of the hand, he indicated the figure on the bed.
“Ve—ry sad. Ve—ry sad,” murmured Dr. Wilkins. “Poor dear lady. Always did far too much—far too much—against my advice. I warned her. Her heart was far from strong. ‘Take it easy,’ I said to her, ‘Take—it—easy’. But no—her zeal for good works was too great. Nature rebelled. Na—ture—re—belled.”
Dr. Bauerstein, I noticed, was watching the local doctor narrowly. He still kept his eyes fixed on him as he spoke.
“The convulsions were of a peculiar violence, Dr. Wilkins. I am sorry you were not here in time to witness them. They were quite—tetanic in character.”
“Ah!” said Dr. Wilkins wisely.
“I should like to speak to you in private,” said Dr. Bauerstein. He turned to John. “You do not object?”
We all trooped out into the corridor, leaving the two doctors alone, and I heard the key turned in the lock behind us.
We went slowly down the stairs. I was violently excited. I have a certain talent for deduction, and Dr. Bauerstein’s manner had started a flock of wild surmises in my mind. Mary Cavendish laid her hand upon my arm.
“What is it? Why did Dr. Bauerstein seem so—peculiar?”
I looked at her.
“Do you know what I think?”
“Listen!” I looked round, the others were out of earshot. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I believe she has been poisoned! I’m certain Dr. Bauerstein suspects it.”
“What?” She shrank against the wall, the pupils of her eyes dilating wildly. Then, with a sudden cry that startled me, she cried out: “No, no—not that—not that!” And breaking from me, fled up the stairs. I followed her, afraid that she was going to faint. I found her leaning against the bannisters, deadly pale. She waved me away impatiently.
“No, no—leave me. I’d rather be alone. Let me just be quiet for a minute or two. Go down to the others.”
I obeyed her reluctantly. John and Lawrence were in the dining-room. I joined them. We were all silent, but I suppose I voiced the thoughts of us all when I at last broke it by saying:
“Where is Mr. Inglethorp?”
John shook his head.
“He’s not in the house.”
Our eyes met. Where was Alfred Inglethorp? His absence was strange and inexplicable. I remembered Mrs. Inglethorp’s dying words. What lay beneath them? What more could she have told us, if she had had time?
At last we heard the doctors descending the stairs. Dr. Wilkins was looking important and excited, and trying to conceal an inward exultation under a manner of decorous calm. Dr. Bauerstein remained in the background, his grave bearded face unchanged. Dr. Wilkins was the spokesman for the two. He addressed himself to John:
“Mr. Cavendish, I should like your consent to a post-mortem.”
“Is that necessary?” asked John gravely. A spasm of pain crossed his face.
“Absolutely,” said Dr. Bauerstein.
“You mean by that——?”
“That neither Dr. Wilkins nor myself could give a death certificate under the circumstances.”
John bent his head.
“In that case, I have no alternative but to agree.”
“Thank you,” said Dr. Wilkins briskly. “We propose that it should take place to-morrow night—or rather to-night.” And he glanced at the daylight. “Under the circumstances, I am afraid an inquest can hardly be avoided—these formalities are necessary, but I beg that you won’t distress yourselves.”
There was a pause, and then Dr. Bauerstein drew two keys from his pocket, and handed them to John.
“These are the keys of the two rooms. I have locked them and, in my opinion, they would be better kept locked for the present.”
The doctors then departed.
I had been turning over an idea in my head, and I felt that the moment had now come to broach it. Yet I was a little chary of doing so. John, I knew, had a horror of any kind of publicity, and was an easygoing optimist, who preferred never to meet trouble half-way. It might be difficult to convince him of the soundness of my plan. Lawrence, on the other hand, being less conventional, and having more imagination, I felt I might count upon as an ally. There was no doubt that the moment had come for me to take the lead.
“John,” I said, “I am going to ask you something.”
“You remember my speaking of my friend Poirot? The Belgian who is here? He has been a most famous detective.”
“I want you to let me call him in—to investigate this matter.”
“What—now? Before the post-mortem?”
“Yes, time is an advantage if—if—there has been foul play.”
“Rubbish!” cried Lawrence angrily. “In my opinion the whole thing is a mare’s nest of Bauerstein’s! Wilkins hadn’t an idea of such a thing, until Bauerstein put it into his head. But, like all specialists, Bauerstein’s got a bee in his bonnet. Poisons are his hobby, so of course he sees them everywhere.”
I confess that I was surprised by Lawrence’s attitude. He was so seldom vehement about anything.
“I can’t feel as you do, Lawrence,” he said at last. “I’m inclined to give Hastings a free hand, though I should prefer to wait a bit. We don’t want any unnecessary scandal.”
“No, no,” I cried eagerly, “you need have no fear of that. Poirot is discretion itself.”
“Very well, then, have it your own way. I leave it in your hands. Though, if it is as we suspect, it seems a clear enough case. God forgive me if I am wronging him!”
I looked at my watch. It was six o’clock. I determined to lose no time.
Five minutes’ delay, however, I allowed myself. I spent it in ransacking the library until I discovered a medical book which gave a description of strychnine poisoning.