The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at thetime as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, inview of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked,both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an accountof the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence thesensational rumours which still persist.
I will therefore briefly set down the circumstances which led to mybeing connected with the affair.
I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending somemonths in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’ssick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to makeup my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seenvery little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known himparticularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for onething, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though,I had often stayed at Styles, his mother’s place in Essex.
We had a good yarn about old times, and it ended in his inviting medown to Styles to spend my leave there.
“The mater will be delighted to see you again—after all those years,”he added.
“Your mother keeps well?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”
I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, whohad married John’s father when he was a widower with two sons, had beena handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her. She certainly couldnot be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic,autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and socialnotoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the LadyBountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerablefortune of her own.
Their country-place, Styles Court, had been purchased by Mr. Cavendishearly in their married life. He had been completely under his wife’sascendancy, so much so that, on dying, he left the place to her for herlifetime, as well as the larger part of his income; an arrangement thatwas distinctly unfair to his two sons. Their step-mother, however, hadalways been most generous to them; indeed, they were so young at thetime of their father’s remarriage that they always thought of her astheir own mother.
Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as adoctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived athome while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had anymarked success.
John practised for some time as a barrister, but had finally settleddown to the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married twoyears ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though Ientertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his motherto increase his allowance, which would have enabled him to have a homeof his own. Mrs. Cavendish, however, was a lady who liked to make herown plans, and expected other people to fall in with them, and in thiscase she certainly had the whip hand, namely: the purse strings.
John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage andsmiled rather ruefully.
“Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you,Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—youremember Evie?”
“Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum,companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not preciselyyoung and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”
“You were going to say——?”
“Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being asecond cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seemparticularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is anabsolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard,and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottonedto him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s alwaysrunning a hundred societies?”
“Well, of course the war has turned the hundreds into thousands. Nodoubt the fellow was very useful to her. But you could have knocked usall down with a feather when, three months ago, she suddenly announcedthat she and Alfred were engaged! The fellow must be at least twentyyears younger than she is! It’s simply bare-faced fortune hunting; butthere you are—she is her own mistress, and she’s married him.”
“It must be a difficult situation for you all.”
“Difficult! It’s damnable!”
Thus it came about that, three days later, I descended from the trainat Styles St. Mary, an absurd little station, with no apparent reasonfor existence, perched up in the midst of green fields and countrylanes. John Cavendish was waiting on the platform, and piloted me outto the car.
“Got a drop or two of petrol still, you see,” he remarked. “Mainlyowing to the mater’s activities.”
The village of Styles St. Mary was situated about two miles from thelittle station, and Styles Court lay a mile the other side of it. Itwas a still, warm day in early July. As one looked out over the flatEssex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, itseemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a greatwar was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayedinto another world. As we turned in at the lodge gates, John said:
“I’m afraid you’ll find it very quiet down here, Hastings.”
“My dear fellow, that’s just what I want.”
“Oh, it’s pleasant enough if you want to lead the idle life. I drillwith the volunteers twice a week, and lend a hand at the farms. My wifeworks regularly ‘on the land’. She is up at five every morning to milk,and keeps at it steadily until lunchtime. It’s a jolly good life takingit all round—if it weren’t for that fellow Alfred Inglethorp!” Hechecked the car suddenly, and glanced at his watch. “I wonder if we’vetime to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital bynow.”
“Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”
“No, Cynthia is a protégée of my mother’s, the daughter of an oldschoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came acropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother cameto the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. Sheworks in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”
As he spoke the last words, we drew up in front of the fine old house.A lady in a stout tweed skirt, who was bending over a flower bed,straightened herself at our approach.
“Hullo, Evie, here’s our wounded hero! Mr. Hastings—Miss Howard.”
Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had animpression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was apleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manlyin its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, withfeet to match—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation,I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
“Weeds grow like house afire. Can’t keep even with ’em. Shall press youin. Better be careful.”
“I’m sure I shall be only too delighted to make myself useful,” Iresponded.
“Don’t say it. Never does. Wish you hadn’t later.”
“You’re a cynic, Evie,” said John, laughing. “Where’s tea to-day—insideor out?”
“Out. Too fine a day to be cooped up in the house.”
“Come on then, you’ve done enough gardening for to-day. ‘The laboureris worthy of his hire’, you know. Come and be refreshed.”
“Well,” said Miss Howard, drawing off her gardening gloves, “I’minclined to agree with you.”
She led the way round the house to where tea was spread under the shadeof a large sycamore.
A figure rose from one of the basket chairs, and came a few steps tomeet us.
“My wife, Hastings,” said John.
I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall,slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense ofslumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderfultawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’sthat I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed,which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit inan exquisitely civilised body—all these things are burnt into mymemory. I shall never forget them.
She greeted me with a few words of pleasant welcome in a low clearvoice, and I sank into a basket chair feeling distinctly glad that Ihad accepted John’s invitation. Mrs. Cavendish gave me some tea, andher few quiet remarks heightened my first impression of her as athoroughly fascinating woman. An appreciative listener is alwaysstimulating, and I described, in a humorous manner, certain incidentsof my Convalescent Home, in a way which, I flatter myself, greatlyamused my hostess. John, of course, good fellow though he is, couldhardly be called a brilliant conversationalist.
At that moment a well remembered voice floated through the open Frenchwindow near at hand:
“Then you’ll write to the Princess after tea, Alfred? I’ll write toLady Tadminster for the second day, myself. Or shall we wait until wehear from the Princess? In case of a refusal, Lady Tadminster mightopen it the first day, and Mrs. Crosbie the second. Then there’s theDuchess—about the school fête.”
There was the murmur of a man’s voice, and then Mrs. Inglethorp’s rosein reply:
“Yes, certainly. After tea will do quite well. You are so thoughtful,Alfred dear.”
The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsomewhite-haired old lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features,stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion ofdeference in his manner.
Mrs. Inglethorp greeted me with effusion.
“Why, if it isn’t too delightful to see you again, Mr. Hastings, afterall these years. Alfred, darling, Mr. Hastings—my husband.”
I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling”. He certainly struck arather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. Itwas one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He woregold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. Itstruck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely outof place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous. Heplaced a wooden hand in mine and said:
“This is a pleasure, Mr. Hastings.” Then, turning to his wife: “Emilydearest, I think that cushion is a little damp.”
She beamed fondly on him, as he substituted another with everydemonstration of the tenderest care. Strange infatuation of anotherwise sensible woman!
With the presence of Mr. Inglethorp, a sense of constraint and veiledhostility seemed to settle down upon the company. Miss Howard, inparticular, took no pains to conceal her feelings. Mrs. Inglethorp,however, seemed to notice nothing unusual. Her volubility, which Iremembered of old, had lost nothing in the intervening years, and shepoured out a steady flood of conversation, mainly on the subject of theforthcoming bazaar which she was organizing and which was to take placeshortly. Occasionally she referred to her husband over a question ofdays or dates. His watchful and attentive manner never varied. From thevery first I took a firm and rooted dislike to him, and I flattermyself that my first judgments are usually fairly shrewd.
Presently Mrs. Inglethorp turned to give some instructions aboutletters to Evelyn Howard, and her husband addressed me in hispainstaking voice:
“Is soldiering your regular profession, Mr. Hastings?”
“No, before the war I was in Lloyd’s.”
“And you will return there after it is over?”
“Perhaps. Either that or a fresh start altogether.”
Mary Cavendish leant forward.
“What would you really choose as a profession, if you could justconsult your inclination?”
“Well, that depends.”
“No secret hobby?” she asked. “Tell me—you’re drawn to something?Everyone is—usually something absurd.”
“You’ll laugh at me.”
“Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective!”
“The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
“Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfullydrawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famousdetective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow.He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter ofmethod. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressedrather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, butwonderfully clever.”
“Like a good detective story myself,” remarked Miss Howard. “Lots ofnonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in last chapter. Everyonedumbfounded. Real crime—you’d know at once.”
“There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes,” I argued.
“Don’t mean the police, but the people that are right in it. Thefamily. You couldn’t really hoodwink them. They’d know.”
“Then,” I said, much amused, “you think that if you were mixed up in acrime, say a murder, you’d be able to spot the murderer right off?”
“Of course I should. Mightn’t be able to prove it to a pack of lawyers.But I’m certain I’d know. I’d feel it in my fingertips if he came nearme.”
“It might be a ‘she’,” I suggested.
“Might. But murder’s a violent crime. Associate it more with a man.”
“Not in a case of poisoning.” Mrs. Cavendish’s clear voice startled me.“Dr. Bauerstein was saying yesterday that, owing to the generalignorance of the more uncommon poisons among the medical profession,there were probably countless cases of poisoning quite unsuspected.”
“Why, Mary, what a gruesome conversation!” cried Mrs. Inglethorp. “Itmakes me feel as if a goose were walking over my grave. Oh, there’sCynthia!”
A young girl in V.A.D. uniform ran lightly across the lawn.
“Why, Cynthia, you are late to-day. This is Mr. Hastings—Miss Murdoch.”
Cynthia Murdoch was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life andvigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the greatloose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of thehand she held out to claim her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes shewould have been a beauty.
She flung herself down on the ground beside John, and as I handed her aplate of sandwiches she smiled up at me.
“Sit down here on the grass, do. It’s ever so much nicer.”
I dropped down obediently.
“You work at Tadminster, don’t you, Miss Murdoch?”
“For my sins.”
“Do they bully you, then?” I asked, smiling.
“I should like to see them!” cried Cynthia with dignity.
“I have got a cousin who is nursing,” I remarked. “And she is terrifiedof ‘Sisters’.”
“I don’t wonder. Sisters _are_, you know, Mr. Hastings. They simp-ly_are_! You’ve no idea! But I’m not a nurse, thank heaven, I work in thedispensary.”
“How many people do you poison?” I asked, smiling.
Cynthia smiled too.
“Oh, hundreds!” she said.
“Cynthia,” called Mrs. Inglethorp, “do you think you could write a fewnotes for me?”
“Certainly, Aunt Emily.”
She jumped up promptly, and something in her manner reminded me thather position was a dependent one, and that Mrs. Inglethorp, kind as shemight be in the main, did not allow her to forget it.
My hostess turned to me.
“John will show you your room. Supper is at half-past seven. We havegiven up late dinner for some time now. Lady Tadminster, our Member’swife—she was the late Lord Abbotsbury’s daughter—does the same. Sheagrees with me that one must set an example of economy. We are quite awar household; nothing is wasted here—every scrap of waste paper, even,is saved and sent away in sacks.”
I expressed my appreciation, and John took me into the house and up thebroad staircase, which forked right and left half-way to differentwings of the building. My room was in the left wing, and looked outover the park.
John left me, and a few minutes later I saw him from my window walkingslowly across the grass arm in arm with Cynthia Murdoch. I heard Mrs.Inglethorp call “Cynthia” impatiently, and the girl started and ranback to the house. At the same moment, a man stepped out from theshadow of a tree and walked slowly in the same direction. He lookedabout forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Someviolent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my windowas he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in thefifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s youngerbrother, Lawrence Cavendish. I wondered what it was that had broughtthat singular expression to his face.
Then I dismissed him from my mind, and returned to the contemplation ofmy own affairs.
The evening passed pleasantly enough; and I dreamed that night of thatenigmatical woman, Mary Cavendish.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was full of theanticipation of a delightful visit.
I did not see Mrs. Cavendish until lunch-time, when she volunteered totake me for a walk, and we spent a charming afternoon roaming in thewoods, returning to the house about five.
As we entered the large hall, John beckoned us both into thesmoking-room. I saw at once by his face that something disturbing hadoccurred. We followed him in, and he shut the door after us.
“Look here, Mary, there’s the deuce of a mess. Evie’s had a row withAlfred Inglethorp, and she’s off.”
John nodded gloomily.
“Yes; you see she went to the mater, and—Oh,—here’s Evie herself.”
Miss Howard entered. Her lips were set grimly together, and she carrieda small suit-case. She looked excited and determined, and slightly onthe defensive.
“At any rate,” she burst out, “I’ve spoken my mind!”
“My dear Evelyn,” cried Mrs. Cavendish, “this can’t be true!”
Miss Howard nodded grimly.
“True enough! Afraid I said some things to Emily she won’t forget orforgive in a hurry. Don’t mind if they’ve only sunk in a bit. Probablywater off a duck’s back, though. I said right out: ‘You’re an oldwoman, Emily, and there’s no fool like an old fool. The man’s twentyyears younger than you, and don’t you fool yourself as to what hemarried you for. Money! Well, don’t let him have too much of it. FarmerRaikes has got a very pretty young wife. Just ask your Alfred how muchtime he spends over there.’ She was very angry. Natural! I went on,‘I’m going to warn you, whether you like it or not. That man would assoon murder you in your bed as look at you. He’s a bad lot. You can saywhat you like to me, but remember what I’ve told you. He’s a bad lot!’”
“What did she say?”
Miss Howard made an extremely expressive grimace.
“‘Darling Alfred’—‘dearest Alfred’—‘wicked calumnies’ —‘wickedlies’—‘wicked woman’—to accuse her ‘dear husband!’ The sooner I lefther house the better. So I’m off.”
“But not now?”
For a moment we sat and stared at her. Finally John Cavendish, findinghis persuasions of no avail, went off to look up the trains. His wifefollowed him, murmuring something about persuading Mrs. Inglethorp tothink better of it.
As she left the room, Miss Howard’s face changed. She leant towards meeagerly.
“Mr. Hastings, you’re honest. I can trust you?”
I was a little startled. She laid her hand on my arm, and sank hervoice to a whisper.
“Look after her, Mr. Hastings. My poor Emily. They’re a lot ofsharks—all of them. Oh, I know what I’m talking about. There isn’t oneof them that’s not hard up and trying to get money out of her. I’veprotected her as much as I could. Now I’m out of the way, they’llimpose upon her.”
“Of course, Miss Howard,” I said, “I’ll do everything I can, but I’msure you’re excited and overwrought.”
She interrupted me by slowly shaking her forefinger.
“Young man, trust me. I’ve lived in the world rather longer than youhave. All I ask you is to keep your eyes open. You’ll see what I mean.”
The throb of the motor came through the open window, and Miss Howardrose and moved to the door. John’s voice sounded outside. With her handon the handle, she turned her head over her shoulder, and beckoned tome.
“Above all, Mr. Hastings, watch that devil—her husband!”
There was no time for more. Miss Howard was swallowed up in an eagerchorus of protests and good-byes. The Inglethorps did not appear.
As the motor drove away, Mrs. Cavendish suddenly detached herself fromthe group, and moved across the drive to the lawn to meet a tallbearded man who had been evidently making for the house. The colourrose in her cheeks as she held out her hand to him.
“Who is that?” I asked sharply, for instinctively I distrusted the man.
“That’s Dr. Bauerstein,” said John shortly.
“And who is Dr. Bauerstein?”
“He’s staying in the village doing a rest cure, after a bad nervousbreakdown. He’s a London specialist; a very clever man—one of thegreatest living experts on poisons, I believe.”
“And he’s a great friend of Mary’s,” put in Cynthia, the irrepressible.
John Cavendish frowned and changed the subject.
“Come for a stroll, Hastings. This has been a most rotten business. Shealways had a rough tongue, but there is no stauncher friend in Englandthan Evelyn Howard.”
He took the path through the plantation, and we walked down to thevillage through the woods which bordered one side of the estate.
As we passed through one of the gates on our way home again, a prettyyoung woman of gipsy type coming in the opposite direction bowed andsmiled.
“That’s a pretty girl,” I remarked appreciatively.
John’s face hardened.
“That is Mrs. Raikes.”
“The one that Miss Howard——”
“Exactly,” said John, with rather unnecessary abruptness.
I thought of the white-haired old lady in the big house, and that vividwicked little face that had just smiled into ours, and a vague chill offoreboding crept over me. I brushed it aside.
“Styles is really a glorious old place,” I said to John.
He nodded rather gloomily.
“Yes, it’s a fine property. It’ll be mine some day—should be mine nowby rights, if my father had only made a decent will. And then Ishouldn’t be so damned hard up as I am now.”
“Hard up, are you?”
“My dear Hastings, I don’t mind telling you that I’m at my wits’ endfor money.”
“Couldn’t your brother help you?”
“Lawrence? He’s gone through every penny he ever had, publishing rottenverses in fancy bindings. No, we’re an impecunious lot. My mother’salways been awfully good to us, I must say. That is, up to now. Sinceher marriage, of course——” he broke off, frowning.
For the first time I felt that, with Evelyn Howard, somethingindefinable had gone from the atmosphere. Her presence had speltsecurity. Now that security was removed—and the air seemed rife withsuspicion. The sinister face of Dr. Bauerstein recurred to meunpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled mymind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.