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Unformatted text preview: The Unexpected Quest I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men
who can sit calmly in their deck-chairs and, on arrival,
wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings
together without fuss and disembark. Personally, I
can never manage this. From the moment I get on board
I feel that the time is too short to settle down to anything.
I move my suitcases from one spot to another,
and if I go down to the saloon for a meal. I bolt my food
with an uneasy feeling that the boat may arrive unexpectedly
whilst I am below. Perhaps all this is merely a
legacy from one's short leaves in the war, when it
seemed a matter of such importance to secure a place
near the gangway, and to be amongst the first to disembark
lest one should waste precious minutes of one's
three or five days' leave.
2 Agatha Christie
On this particular July morning, as I stood by the rail
and watched the white cliffs of Dover drawing nearer, I
marvelled at the passengers who could sit calmly in their
chairs and never even raise their eyes for the first sight
of the native land. Yet perhaps their case was different
from mine. Doubtless many of them had only crossed to
Paris for the week-end, whereas I had spent the last year and a half on a ranch in the Argentine. I had prospered
there, and my wife and I had both enjoyed^the free and
easy life of the South American continent, nevertheless
it was with a lump in my throat that I watched the
familiar shore draw nearer and nearer.
I had landed in France two days before, transacted
some necessary business, and was now en route for London.
I should be there some months--time enough to
look up old friends, and one old friend in particular. A
little man with an egg-shaped head and green eyes-Hercule Poirot! I proposed to take him completely by
surprise. My last letter from the Argentine had given no
hint of my intended voyage--indeed, that had been decided
upon hurriedly as a result of certain business
complications--and I spent many amused moments picturing
to myself his delight and stupefaction on beholding
He, I knew, was not likely to be far from his headquarters.
The time when his cases had drawn him from
one end of England to the other was past. His fame had
spread, and no longer would he allow one case to absorb
all his time. He aimed more and more, as time went on,
at being considered a "consulting detective"--as much
a specialist as a Harley Street physician. He had always
scoffed at the popular idea of the human bloodhound
who assumed wonderful disguises to track criminals, and who paused at every footprint to measure it.
THE BIG FOUR 3
"No, my friend Hastings," he would say; "we leave
that to Giraud and his friends. Hercule Poirot's methods are his own. Order and method, and 'the little
cells.' Sitting at ease in our own arm-chairs we see the
things that these others overlook, and we do not jump
to the conclusion like the worthy Japp."
No; there was little fear of finding Hercule Poirot far
On arrival in London, I deposited my luggage at an
hotel and drove straight on to the old address. What
poignant memories it brought back to me! I hardly
waited to greet my old landlady, but hurried up the
stairs two at a time and rapped on Poirot's door.
"Enter, then," cried a familiar voice from within.
I strode in. Poirot stood facing me. In his arms he
carried a small valise, which he dropped with a crash on
"Mon ami, Hastings!" he cried. "Mon ami, Hastings!" And, rushing forward, he enveloped me in a capacious
embrace. Our conversation was incoherent and inconsequent.
Ejaculations, eager questions, incomplete
answers, messages from my wife, explanations as to my
journey, were all jumbled up together. "I suppose there's some one in my old rooms?" I
asked at last, when we had calmed down somewhat.
"I'd love to put up here again with you."
Poirot's face changed with startling suddenness.
"Mon Dieu! but what a chance epouvantable. Regard
around you, my friend."
For the first time I took note of my surroundings.
Against the wall stood a vast ark of a trunk of prehistoric
design. Near to it were placed a number of suitcases,
ranged neatly in order of size from large to small.
every day I say to myself, I will write nothing in my letters--but
oh! the surprise of the good Hastings when he
* 'But when are you going?''
Poirot looked at his watch.
"In an hour's time."
"I thought you always said nothing would induce you
to make a long sea voyage?"
Poirot closed his eyes and shuddered.
"Speak not of it to me, my friend. My doctor, he
assures me that one dies not of it--and it is for the one
time only; you understand, that never--never shall I
He pushed me into a chair.
"Come, I will tell you how it all came about. Do you know who is the richest man in the world? Richer even
than Rockefeller? Abe Ryland."
"The American Soap King?"
"Precisely. One of his secretaries approached me.
There is some very considerable, as you would call it,
hocus-pocus going on in connection with a big company
in Rio. He wished me to investigate matters on the spot.
I refused. I told him that if the facts were laid before
me, I would give him my expert opinion. But that he
professed himself unable to do. I was to be put in
possession of the facts only on my arrival out there.
Normally, that would have closed the matter. To dictate
to Hercule Poirot is sheer impertinence. But the sum of
THE BIG FOUR 5
fered was so stupendous 1that for the first time inn my life
I was tempted by mere money. It was a compettence--a
fortune! And there was a second attraction--_you, my
friend. For this last year and a half I have beein a very
lonely old man. I thought to myself. Why not? I am
beginning to weary of this unending solving otf foolish
problems. I have achieved sufficient fame. Let me take
this money and settle down somewhere near my old
I was quite affected by this token of Poirot's regard.
"So I accepted," he continued, "and in am hour's
time I must leave to catch the boat train. One of life's little ironies, is it not? But I will admit to you, Hastings,
that had not the money offered been so big, I might
have hesitated, for just lately I have begun a little investigation
of my own. Tell me, what is commonly meant
by the phrase, 'The Big Four'?"
"I suppose it had its origin at the Versailles Conference,
and then there's the famous 'Big Four' in the
film world, and the term is used by hosts of smaller
"I see," said Poirot thoughtfully. "I have come
across the phrase, you understand, under certain circumstances
where none of those explanations would
apply. It seems to refer to a gang of international criminals
or something of that kind; only--"
"Only what?" I asked, as he hesitated.
"Only that I fancy that it is something on a large
scale. Just a little idea of mine, nothing more. Ah, but I
must complete my packing. The time advances."
"Don't go," I urged. "Cancel your passage and come
out on the same boat with me."
Poirot drew himself up and glanced at me reproachfully. "Ah, it is that you do not understand! I have passed
6 Agatha Christie
my word, you comprehend--the word of Hercule Poirot. Nothing but a matter of life or death could
detain me now." "And that's not likely to occur," I murmured ruefully.
"Unless at the eleventh hour 'the door opens and
the unexpected guest comes in.' "
I quoted the old saw with a slight laugh, and then, in
the pause that succeeded it, we both started as a sound
came from the inner room.
"What's that?" I cried.
"Ma/o»7" retorted Poirot. "It sounds very like your 'unexpected guest' in my bedroom."
"But how can any one be in there? There's no door
except into this room."
"Your memory is excellent, Hastings. Now for the
"The window! But it's a burglar, then? He must have
had a stiff climb of it--1 should say it was almost impossible." I had risen to my feet and was striding in the direction
of the door when the sound of a fumbling at the handle
from the other side arrested me.
The door swung slowly open. Framed in the doorway
stood a man. He was coated from head to foot with dust
and mud; his face was thin and emaciated. He stared at
us for a moment, and then swayed and fell. Poirot hurried
to his side, then he looked up and spoke to me.
I dashed some brandy into a glass and brought it. Poirot managed to administer a little, and together we
raised him and carried him to the couch. In a few minutes
he opened his eyes and looked round him with an
almost vacant stare.
"What is it you want, monsieur?" said Poirot.
THE BIG FOUR 7
The man opened his lips and spoke in a queer mechanical
"M. Hercule Poirot, 14 Farraway Street."
"Yes, yes; I am he."
The man did not seem to understand, and merely
repeated in exactly the same tone:-"M. Hercule Poirot, 14 Farraway Street."
Poirot tried him with several questions. Sometimes
the man did not answer at all; sometimes he repeated the
same phrase. Poirot made a sign to me to ring up on the
"Get Dr. Ridgeway to come round."
The doctor was in luckily; and as his house was only
just round the corner, few minutes elapsed before he
came bustling in.
"What's all this, eh?"
Poirot gave a brief explanation, and the doctor
started examining our strange visitor, who seemed quite
unconscious of his presence or ours.
"H'm!" said Dr. Ridgeway, when he had finished. "Curious case."
"Brain fever?" I suggested.
The doctor immediately snorted with contempt.
"Brain fever! Brain fever! No such thing as brain
fever. An invention of novelists. No; the man's had a
shock of some kind. He's come here under the force of a
persistent idea--to find M. Hercule Poirot, 14 Farraway
Street--and he repeats those words mechanically without
in the least knowing what they mean."
"Aphasia?" I said eagerly.
This suggestion did not cause the doctor to snort
quite as violently as my last one had done. He made
no answer, but handed the man a sheet of paper and a
8 Agatha Christie
"Let's see what he'll do with that," he remarked.
The man did nothing with it for some moments, then
he suddenly began to write feverishly. With equal suddenness
he stopped and let both paper and pencil fall to
the ground. The doctor picked it up, and shook his
"Nothing here. Only the figure 4 scrawled a dozen
times, each one bigger than the last. Wants to write 14
Farraway Street, I expect. It's an interesting case--very
interesting. Can you possibly keep him here until this afternoon? I'm due at the hospital now, but I'll come
back this afternoon and make all arrangements about
him. It's too interesting a case to be lost sight of."
I explained Poirot's departure and the fact that I proposed
to accompany him to Southampton.
"That's all right. Leave the man here. He won't get
into mischief. He's suffering from complete exhaustion.
Will probably sleep for eight hours on end. I'll have a
word with that excellent Mrs. Funnyface of yours, and
tell her to keep an eye on him."
And Dr. Ridgeway bustled out with his usual celerity.
Poirot hastily completed his packing, with one eye on
"The time, it marches with a rapidity unbelievable.
Come now, Hastings, you cannot say that I have left
you with nothing to do. A most sensational problem.
The man from the unknown. Who is he? What is he?
Ah, sapristi, but I would give two years of my life to
have this boat go to-morrow instead of to-day. There is
something here very curious--very interesting. But one
must have time--time. It may be days--or even months
--before he will be able to tell us what he came to tell."
"I'll do my best, Poirot," I assured him. "I'll try to
be an efficient substitute."
THE BIG FOUR 9
"Yees." His rejoinder struck me as being a shade doubtful. I
picked up the sheet of paper.
"If I were writing a story," I said lightly, "I should
weave this in with your latest idiosyncrasy and call it The Mystery of the Big Four." I tapped the
figures as I spoke.
And then I started, for our invalid, roused suddenly
from his stupor, sat up in his chair and said clearly and
He had the look of a man suddenly awakened from
sleep. Poirot made a sign to me not to speak. The man
went on. He spoke in a clear, high voice, and something
in his enunciation made me feel that he was quoting
from some written report or lecture.
"Li Chang Yen may be regarded as representing the
brains of the Big Four. He is the controlling and motive
force. I have designated him, therefore, as Number
One. Number Two is seldom mentioned by name. He is
represented by an 'S' with two lines through it--the sign
for a dollar; also by two stripes and a star. It may be
conjectured, therefore, that he is an American subject,
and that he represents the power of wealth. There seems
no doubt that Number Three is a woman, and her nationality
French. It is possible that she may be one of the
sirens of the demi-monde, but nothing is known definitely. Number Four--"
His voice faltered and broke. Poirot leant forward.
"Yes," he prompted eagerly. "Number Four?"
His eyes were fastened on the man's face. Some overmastering
terror seemed to be gaining the day; the
features were distorted and twisted.
"The destroyer," gasped the man. Then, with a final
10 Agatha Christie
convulsive movement, he fell back in a dead faint.
"Mon Dieu!" whispered Poirot, "I was right then. I
He interrupted me.
"Carry him on to the bed in my room. I have not a
minute to lose if I would catch my train. Not that I want
to catch it. Oh, that I could miss it with a clear conscience!
But I gave my word. Come, Hastings!"
Leaving our mysterious visitor in the charge of Mrs.
Pearson, we drove away, and duly caught the train by
the skin of our teeth. Poirot was alternately silent and
loquacious. He would sit staring out of the window like
a man lost in a dream, apparently not hearing a word
that I said to him. Then, reverting to animation suddenly,
he would shower injunctions and commands
upon me, and urge the necessity of constant marconigrams. We
had a long fit of silence just after we passed Woking.
The train, of course, did not stop anywhere until
Southhampton; but just here it happened to be held up
by a signal.
"Ah! Sacr6 mille tonnerres!" cried Poirot suddenly.
"But I have been an imbecile. I see clearly at last. It is
undoubtedly the blessed saints who stopped the train.
Jump, Hastings, but jump, I tell you."
In an instant he had unfastened the carriage door,
and jumped out on the line.
"Throw out the suit-cases and jump yourself."
I obeyed him. Just in time. As I alighted beside him,
the train moved on.
"And now Poirot," I said, in some exasperation,
"perhaps you will tell me what all this is about."
"It is, my friend, that I have seen the light."
THE BIG FOUR 11
"That," I said. "is very illuminating to me."
"It should be," said Poirot, "but I fear—I very much
fear that it is not. If you can carry two of these valises, I
think I can manage the rest."
^Tfie Man from tde asylum Fortunately the train had stopped near a station. A
short walk brought us to a garage where we were able to
obtain a car, and half an hour later we were spinning
rapidly back to London. Then, and not till then, did
Poirot deign to satisfy my curiosity.
"You do not see? No more did I. But I see now.
Hastings, / was being got out of the way."
"Yes. Very cleverly. Both the place and the method
were chosen with great knowledge and acumen. They
were afraid of me."
"Those four geniuses who have banded themselves
together to work outside the law. A Chinaman, an
American, a Frenchwoman, and—another. Pray the
good God we arrive back in time, Hastings."
"You think there is danger to our visitor?"
"I am sure of it."
Mrs. Pearson greeted us on arrival. Brushing aside
her ecstasies of astonishment on beholding Poirot, we
asked for information. It was reassuring. No one had
called, and our guest had not made any sign.
With a sigh of relief we went up to the rooms. Poirot
crossed the outer one and went through to the inner one.
Then he called me, his voice strangely agitated. "Hastings, he's dead."
I came running to join him. The man was lying as we
had left him, but he was dead, and had been dead some
time. I rushed out for a doctor. Ridgeway, I knew,
would not have returned yet. I found one almost immediately,
and brought him back with me.
"He's dead right enough, poor chap. Tramp you've
been befriending, eh?"
"Something of the kind," said Poirot evasively.
"What was the cause of death, doctor?"
"Hard to say. Might have been some kind of fit.
There are signs of asphyxiation. No gas laid on, is
"No, electric light--nothing else."
"And both windows wide open, too. Been dead about
two hours, I should say. You'll notify the proper
people, won't you?"
He took his departure. Poirot did some necessary
telephoning. Finally, somewhat to my surprise, he rang
up our old friend Inspector Japp, and asked him if he
could possibly come round.
No sooner were these proceedings completed than
Mrs. Pearson appeared, her eyes as round as saucers.
"There's a man here from 'Anwell--from the
'Sylum. Did you ever? Shall I show him up?"
We signified assent, and a big burly man in uniform was ushered in.
THE BIG FOUR 15
" 'Morning, gentlemen," he said cheerfully. "I've
got reason to believe you've got one of my birds here.
Escaped last night, he did."
"He was here," said Poirot quietly.
"Not got away again, has he?" asked the keeper,
with some concern.
"He is dead."
The man looked more relieved than otherwise.
"You don't say so. Well, I dare say it's best for all
" 'Omicidal, d'you mean? Oh, no. 'Armless enough.
Persecution mania very acute. Full of secret societies
from China that had got him shut up. They're all the
"How long had he been shut up?" asked Poirot.
"A matter of two years now."
"I see," said Poirot quietly. "It never occurred to
anybody that he might--be sane?"
The keeper permitted himself to laugh.
"If he was sane, what would he be doing in a lunatic
asylum? They all say they're sane, you know." Poirot said no more. He took the man in to see the
body. The identification came immediately.
"That's him--right enough," said the keeper callously;
"funny sort of bloke, ain't he? Well, gentlemen,
I had best go off now and make arrangements under the
circumstances. We won't trouble you with the corpse
much longer. If there's a hinquest, you will have to appear
at it, I dare say. Good morning, sir."
With a rather uncouth bow he shambled out of the
A few minutes later Japp arrived. The Scotland Yard
Inspector was jaunty and dapper as usual.
16 Agatha Christie
"Here I am Moosior Poirot. What can I do for you?
Thought you were off to the coral strands of somewhere
or other today?"
"My good Japp, I want to know if you have ever seen
this man before."
He led Japp into the bedroom. The inspector stared
down at the figure on the bed with a puzzled face.
"Let me see now--he seems sort of familiar--and I
pride myself on my memory, too. Why, God bless my
soul, it's Mayerling!"
"And who is--or was--Mayerling?"
"Secret Service chap--not one of our people. Went to
Russia five years ago. Never heard of again. Always thought the Bolshies had done him in."
"It all fits in," said Poirot, when Japp had taken his
leave, "except for the fact that he seems to have died a
He stood looking down on the motionless figure with
a dissatisfied frown. A puff of wind set the window-curtains
flying out, and he looked up sharply.
"I suppose you opened the windows when you laid
him down on the bed, Hastings?''
"No, I didn't," I replied. "As far as I remember,
they were shut."
Poirot lifted his head suddenly.
"Shut--and now they are open. What can that
"Somebody came in that way," I suggested.
"Possibly," agreed Poirot, but he spoke absently and
without conviction. After a minute or two he said:
"That is not exactly the point I had in mind, Hastings.
If only one window was open it would not intrigue
me so much. It is both windows being open that strikes
me as curious."
THE BIG FOUR 17
He hurried into the other room.
"The sitting-room window is open, too. That also we
left shut. Ah!" He bent over the dead man, examining the corners of
the mouth minutely. Then he looked up suddenly.
"He has been gagged, Hastings. Gagged and then
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, shocked. "I suppose
we shall find out all about it from the postmortem."
"We shall find out nothing. He was killed by inhaling
strong prussic acid. It was jammed right under his nose.
Then the murderer went away again, first opening all
the windows. Hydrocyanic acid is exceedingly volatile,
but it has a pronounced smell of bitter almonds. With
no trace of the smell to guide them, and no suspicion of
foul play, death would be put down to some natural
cause by the doctors. So this man was in the Secret Service,
Hastings. And five years ago he disappeared in
"The last two years he's been in the Asylum," I said.
"But what of the three years before that?"
Poirot shook his head, and then caught my arm.
"The clock, Hastings, look at the clock."
I followed his gaze to the mantelpiece. The dock had
stopped at four o'clock.
"Mon ami, some one has tampered with it. It had still
three days to run. It is an eight-day clock, you comprehend?" "But what should they want to do that for? Some idea of a false scent by making the crime appear to have
taken place at four o'clock?"
"No, no; rearrange your ideas, mon ami. Exercise
your little gray cells. You are Mayerling. You hear
something, perhaps--and you know well enough that
18 Agatha Christie
your doom is sealed. You have just time to leave a sign. Four o'clock, Hastings. Number Four, the
destroyer. Ah! an idea!"
He rushed into the other room and seized the telephone.
He asked for Hanwell.
"You are the Asylum, yes7 I understand there has
been an escape to-day? What is that you say? A little
moment, if you please. Will you repeat that? Ah! parfaitement."
hung up the receiver, and turned to me.
"You heard, Hastings? There has been no escape."
"But the man who came--the keeper?" I said.
"I wonder--I very much wonder."
"Number Four--the destroyer."
I gazed at Poirot dumbfounded. A minute or two
after, on recovering my voice, I said:-"We shall know him again, anywhere, that's one
thing. He was a man of very pronounced personality."
"Was he, mon amf! I think not. He was burly and
bluff and red-faced, with a thick moustache and a hoarse voice. He will be none of those things by this
time, and for the rest, he has nondescript eyes, nondescript
ears, and a perfect set of false teeth. Identification
is not such an easy matter as you seem to think. Next
"You think there will be a next time?" I interrupted.
Poirot's face grew very grave.
"It is a duel to the death, won ami. You and I on the
one side, the Big Four on the other. They have won the
first trick; but they have failed in their plan to get me
out of the way, and in the future they have to reckon
with Hercule Poirot!"
J^zr .More ^ibout^i Cdang 'Yen
For a day or two after our visit from the fake Asylum
attendant I was in some hopes that he might return, and
I refused to leave the flat even for a moment. As far as I
could see, he had no reason to suspect that we had penetrated
his disguise. He might, I thought, return and try
to remove the body, but Poirot scoffed at my reasoning.
"Afon ami," he said, "if you wish you may wait in to
put salt on the little bird's tail, but for me I do not waste my time so."
"Well then, Poirot," I argued, "why did he run the
risk of coming at all. If he intended to return later for
the body, I can see some point in his visit. He would at
least be removing the evidence against himself; as it is,
he does not seem to have gained anything."
Poirot shrugged his most Gallic shrug. "But you do
not see with the eyes of Number Four, Hastings," he
said. "You talk of evidence, but what evidence have we
20 Agatha Christie
against him? True, we have a body, but we have no
proof even that the man was murdered--prussic acid,
when inhaled, leaves no trace. Again, we can find no
one who saw any one enter the flat during our absence,
and we have found out nothing about the movements of
our late friend, Mayerling....
"No, Hastings, Number Four has left no trace, and
he knows it. His visit we may call a reconnaisance. Perhaps
he wanted to make quite sure that Mayerling was
dead, but more likely, I think, he came to see Hercule
Poirot, and to have speech with the adversary whom
alone he must fear."
Poirot's reasoning appeared to me typically egotistical,
but I forbore to argue.
"And what about the inquest?" I asked. "I suppose you will explain things clearly there, and let the police
have a full description of Number Four."
"And to what end? Can we produce anything to impress
a coroner's jury of your solid Britishers? Is our
description of Number Four of any value? No; we shall
allow them to call it 'Accidental Death,' and may be,
although I have not much hope, our clever murderer
will pat himself on the back that he deceived Hercule
Poirot in the first round."
Poirot was right as usual. We saw no more of the man
from the asylum, and the inquest, at which I gave evidence,
but which Poirot did not even attend, aroused no
As, in view of his intended trip to South America,
Poirot had wound up his affairs before my arrival, he
had at this time no cases on hand, but although he spent
most of his time in the flat I could get little out of him.
He remained buried in an arm-chair, and discouraged
my attempts at conversation.
And then one morning, about a week after the murTHE BIG FOUR ^\
der, he asked me if I would care to accompany him of*
a visit he wished to make. I was pleased, for I felt h^ was making a mistake in trying to work things out
so en' tirely on his own, and I wished to discuss the case will*
him. But I found he was not communicative. Even when
I asked where we were going, he would not answer. Poirot loves being mysterious. He will never part with
a piece of information until the last possible moment. Ii»
this instance, having taken successively a 'bus and twy
trains, and arrived in the neighbourhood of one of Loa" don's most depressing southern suburbs, he
at last to explain matters.
"We go, Hastings, to see the one man in England
who knows most of the underground life of China."
"Indeed! Who is he?"
"A man you have never heard of--a Mr. John Ingles.
To all intents and purposes, he is a retired Civil Servant
of mediocre intellect, with a house full of Chinese curios
with which he bores his friends and acquaintances.
Nevertheless, I am assured by those who should know
that the only man capable of giving me the information
I seek is this same John Ingles."
A few moments more saw us ascending the steps of
The Laurels, as Mr. Ingles's residence was called. Personally,
I did not notice a laurel bush of any kind, so
deduced that it had been named according to the usual
obscure nomenclature of the suburbs.
We were admitted by an impassive-faced Chinese
servant and ushered into the presence of his master. Mr.
Ingles was a squarely-built man, somewhat yellow of
countenance, with deep-set eyes that were oddly reflective
in character. He rose to greet us, setting aside an open letter which he had held in his hand. He referred to
it after his greeting.
"Sit down, won't you? Halsey tells me that you want
22 Agatha Christie
some information and that I may be useful to you in the
"That is so, monsieur. I ask of you if you have any
knowledge of a man named Li Chang Yen?"
"That's rum--very rum indeed. How did you come
to hear about the man?"
"You know him, then?"
"I've met him once. And I know something of him-not quite as much as I should like to. But it surprises me
that any one else in England should even have heard of
him. He's a great man in his way--mandarin class and
all that, you know--but that's not the crux of the matter.
There's good reason to suppose that he's the man
behind it all."
"Everything. The world-wide unrest, the labour
troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions
that break out in some. There are people, not scaremongers,
who know what they are talking about, and
they say that there is a force behind the scenes which
aims at nothing less then the disintegration of civilisation. In Russia, you know, there were many signs
that Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets whose every
action was dictated by another's brain. I have no definite
proof that would count with you, but I am quite
convinced that this brain was Li Chang Yen's."
"Oh, come," I protested, "isn't that a bit farfetched?
How would a Chinaman cut any ice in
Poirot frowned at me irritably.
"For you, Hastings," he said, "everything is farfetched
that comes not from your own imagination; for
me, I agree with this gentleman. But continue, I pray,
"What exactly he hopes to get out of it all I cannot
THE BIG FOUR 23
pretend to say for certain," went on Mr. Ingles; "but I
assume his disease is one that has attacked great brains
from the time of Akbar and Alexander to Napoleon—a
lust for power and personal supremacy. Up to modern
times armed force was necessary for conquest, but in
this century of unrest a man like Li Chang Yen can use
other means. I have evidence that he has unlimited
money behind him for bribery and propaganda, and
there are signs that he controls some scientific force
more powerful than the world has dreamed of."
Poirot was following Mr. Ingles's words with the closest attention.
"And in China?" he asked. "He moves there too?"
The other nodded in emphatic assent.
"There," he said, "although I can produce no proof
that would count in a court of law, I speak from my
own knowledge. I know personally every man who
counts for anything in China to-day, and this I can tell
you: the men who loom most largely in the public eye
are men of little or no personality. They are marionettes
who dance to the wires pulled by a master hand, and
that hand is Li Chang Yen's. His is the controlling brain
of the East to-day. We don't understand the East—we
never shall; but Li Chang Yen is its moving spirit. Not
that he comes out into the limelight—oh, not at all; he
never moves from his palace in Pekin. But he pulls
strings—that's it, pulls strings—and things happen far
"And is there no one to oppose him?" asked Poirot.
Mr. Ingles leant forward in his chair.
"Four men have tried in the last four years," he said
slowly; "men of character, and honesty, and brain
power. Any one of them might in time have interfered
with his plans." He paused.
"Well? "I queried.
24 Agatha Christie "Well. they are dead. One wrote an article, and mentioned
Li Chang Yen's name in connection with the riots
in Pekin, and within two days he was stabbed in the
street. His murderer was never caught. The offences of
the other two were similar. In a speech or an article, or
in conversation, each linked Li Chang Yen's name with
rioting or revolution and within a week of his indiscretion
each was dead. One was poisoned; one died of
cholera, an isolated case--not part of an epidemic; and
one was found dead in his bed. The cause of the last
death was never determined, but I was told by a doctor
who saw the corpse that it was burnt and shrivelled as though a wave of electrical energy of incredible
had passed through it."
"And Li Chang Yen?" inquired Poirot. "Naturally
nothing is traced to him, but there are signs, eh?"
Mr. Ingles shrugged.
"Oh, signs--yes, certainly. And once I found a man
who would talk, a brilliant young Chinese chemist who
was a protege of Li Chang Yen's. He came to me one
day, this chemist, and I could see that he was on the
verge of a nervous breakdown. He hinted to me of experiments
on which he'd been engaged in Li Chang
Yen's palace under the mandarin's direction--experiments
on coolies in which the most revolting disregard
for human life and suffering had been shown. His nerve had completely broken, and he was in the most pitiable
state of terror. I put him to bed in a top room of my
own house, intending to question him the next day-and that, of course, was stupid of me."
"How did they get him?" demanded Poirot.
"That I shall never know. I woke that night to find
my house in flames, and was lucky to escape with my
life. Investigation showed that a fire of amazing intenTHE BIG FOUR 25
sity had broken out on the top floor, and the remains of
my young chemist friend were charred to a cinder."
I could see from the earnestness with which he had
been speaking that Mr. Ingles was a man mounted on
his hobby horse, and evidently he, too, realised that he
had been carried away, for he laughed apologetically.
"But, of course," he said, "I have no proofs, and
you, like the others, will merely tell me that I have a bee
in my bonnet."
"On the contrary," said Poirot quietly, "we have
every reason to believe your story. We ourselves are
more than a little interested in Li Chang Yen."
"Very odd your knowing about him. Didn't fancy a
soul in England had ever heard of him. I'd rather like to
know how you did come to hear of him--if it's not indiscreet." "Not in the least, monsieur. A man took refuge in my rooms. He was suffering badly from shock, but he
managed to tell us enough to interest us in this Li Chang
Yen. He described four people--the Big Four--an
organisation hitherto undreamed of. Number One is Li
Chang Yen, Number Two is an unknown American,
Number Three an equally unknown Frenchwoman,
Number Four may be called the executive of the organisation--/Ae
destroyer. My informant died. Tell me,
monsieur, is that phrase known to you at all? The Big
"Not in connection with Li Chang Yen. No, I can't
say it is. But I've heard it, or read it, just lately--and in
some unusual connection too. Ah, I've got it."
He rose and went across to an inlaid lacquer cabinet
--an exquisite thing, as even I could see. He returned
with a letter in his hand.
"Here you are. Note from an old sea-faring man I ran
26 Agatha Christie
against once in Shanghai. Hoary old reprobate—maudlin
with drink by now, I should say. I took this to be the
ravings of alcoholism."
He read it aloud:—
"dear sir,—You may not remember me, but
you did me a good turn once in Shanghai. Do me
another now. I must have money to get out of the country. I'm well hid here, I hope, but any day they
may get me. The Big Four, I mean. It's life or
death. I've plenty of money, but I daren't get at it,
for fear of putting them wise. Send me a couple of
hundred in notes. I'll repay it faithful—I swear to
that.—Your servant, sir,
"jonathan whalley .''
"Dated from Granite Bungalow, Hoppaton, Dartmoor.
I'm afraid I regarded it as rather a crude method
of relieving me of a couple of hundred which I can ill
spare. If it's any use to you—" He held it out.
"Je vous remercie, monsieur. I start for Hoppaton a
"Dear me, this is very interesting. Supposing I came
along too? Any objection?"
"I should be charmed to have your company, but we
must start at once. We shall not reach Dartmoor until
close on nightfall, as it is."
John Ingles did not delay us more than a couple of
minutes, and soon we were in the train moving out of
Paddington bound for the West Country. Hoppaton
was a small village clustering in a hollow right on the
fringe of the moorland. It was reached by a nine-mile
drive from Moretonhamstead. It was about eight
o'clock when we arrived; but as the month was July, the
daylight was still abundant. THE BIG FOUR 27
We drove into the narrow street of the village and
then stopped to ask our way of an old rustic.
"Granite Bungalow," said the old man reflectively,
"it be Granite BungaW you do want? Eh?"
We assured him that this was what we did want.
The old man pointed to a small gray cottage at the
end of the street.
"There be ('Bungalow. Do yee want to see t'lnspector?"
Inspector?" asked Poirot sharply; "what do
"Haven't yee heard about t'murder, then? A shocking
business t'was seemingly. Pools of blood, they do
"Mow Dieu!" murmured Poirot. "This Inspector of
yours, I must see him at once.''
Five minutes later we were closeted with Inspector
Meadows. The Inspector was inclined to be stiff at first,
but at the magic name of Inspector Japp of Scotland
Yard, he unbent.
"Yes, sir; murdered this morning. A shocking business.
They 'phoned to Moreton, and I came out at once.
Looked a mysterious thing to begin with. The old man
--he was about seventy, you know, and fond of his glass, from all I hear--was lying on the floor of the
living-room. There was a bruise on his head and his
throat was cut from ear to ear. Blood all over the place,
as you can understand. The woman who cooks for him,
Betsy Andrews, she told us that her master had several
little Chinese jade figures, that he'd told her were very
valuable, and these had disappeared. That, of course,
looked like assault and robbery; but there were all sorts
of difficulties in the way of that solution. The old fellow
had two people in the house; Betsy Andrews, who is a
Hoppaton woman, and a rough kind of manservant,
28 Agatha Christie
Robert Grant. Grant had gone to the farm to fetch the
milk, which he does every day, and Betsy had stepped
out to have a chat with a neighbour. She was only away
twenty minutes--between ten and half-past--and the
crime must have been done then. Grant returned to the
house first. He went in by the back door, which was
open--no one locks up doors round here--not in broad
daylight, at all events--put the milk in the larder, and
went into his own room to read the paper and have a
smoke. Had no idea anything unusual had occurred--at
least, that's what he says. Then Betsy comes in, goes
into the living-room, sees what's happened, and lets out
a screech to wake the dead. That's all fair and square.
Some one got in whilst those two were out, and did the poor old man in. But it struck me at once that he must
be a pretty cool customer. He'd have to come right up
the village street, or creep through some one's back
yard. Granite Bungalow has got houses all round it, as
you can see. How was it that no one had seen him?"
The Inspector paused with a flourish.
"Aha, I perceive your point," said Poirot. "To continue?" "Well, sir, fishy, I said to myself--fishy. And I began
to look about me. Those jade figures, now. Would a
common tramp ever suspect that they were valuable?
Anyway, it was madness to try such a thing in broad
daylight. Suppose the old man had yelled for help?"
"I suppose. Inspector," said Mr. Ingles, "that the
bruise on the head was inflicted before death?"
"Quite right, sir. First knocked him silly, the murderer
did, and then cut his throat. That's clear enough.
But how the dickens did he come or go? They notice
strangers quick enough in a little place like this. It came
to me all at once--nobody did come. I took a good look
round. It had rained the night before, and there were
THE BIG FOUR 29
footprints clear enough going in and out of the kitchen.
In the living-room there were two sets of footprints only
(Betsy Andrews' stopped at the door)--Mr. Whalley's (he was wearing carpet slippers) and another man's. The
other man had stepped in the blood-stains, and I traced
his bloody footprints--I beg your pardon, sir."
"Not at all," said Mr. Ingles, with a faint smile; "the
adjective is perfectly understood."
"I traced them to the kitchen--but not beyond. Point
Number One. On the lintel of Robert Grant's door was
a faint smear--a smear of blood. That's point Number
Two. Point Number Three was when I got hold of
Grant's boots--which he had taken off--and fitted
them to the marks. That settled it. It was an inside job. I
warned Grant and took him into custody; and what do
you think I found packed away in his portmanteau? The
little jade figures and a ticket-of-leave. Robert Grant
was also Abraham Biggs, convicted for felony and
housebreaking five years ago."
The Inspector paused triumphantly.
"What do you think of that, gentlemen?"
"I think," said Poirot, "that it appears a very clear
case--of a surprising clearness, in fact. This Biggs, or
Grant, he must be a man very foolish and uneducated,
"Oh, he is that--a rough, common sort of fellow. No
idea of what a footprint may mean."
"Clearly he reads not the detective fiction! Well, Inspector,
I congratulate you. We may look at the scene of the crime. Yes?"
"I'll take you there myself this minute. I'd like you to
see those footprints."
"I, too, should like to see them. Yes, yes, very interesting,
We set out forthwith. Mr. Ingles and the Inspector
30 Agatha Christie
forged ahead. I drew Poirot back a little so as to be able
to speak to him out of the Inspector's hearing.
"What do you really think, Poirot. Is there more in
this than meets the eye?"
"That is just the question, mon ami. Whalley says
plainly enough in his letter that the Big Four are on his
track, and we know, you and I, that the Big Four is no
bogey for the children. Yet everything seems to say that
this man Grant committed the crime. Why did he do so?
For the sake of the little jade figures? Or is he an agent
of the Big Four? I confess that this last seems more
likely. However valuable the jade, a man of that class
was not likely to realise the fact—at any rate, not to the
point of committing murder for them. (That, par
exemple, ought to have struck the Inspector.) He could
have stolen the jade and made off with it instead of
committing a brutal and quite purposeless murder. Ah,
yes; I fear our Devonshire friend has not used his little gray cells. He has measured footprints, and has omitted
to reflect and arrange his ideas with the necessary order
^e Importance of a JLeQ of .Mutton
The Inspector drew a key from his pocket and unlocked
the door of Granite Bungalow. The day had been fine
and dry, so our feet were not likely to leave any prints;
nevertheless, we wiped them carefully on the mat before
A woman came up out of the gloom and spoke to the
Inspector, and he turned aside. Then he spoke over his
"Have a good look round, Mr. Poirot, and see all
there is to be seen. I'll be back in about ten minutes. By
the way, here's Grant's boot. I brought it along with me
for you to compare the impressions."
We went into the living-room, and the sound of the
Inspector's footsteps died away outside. Ingles was attracted
immediately by some Chinese curios on a table
in the corner, and went over to examine them. He
seemed to take no interest in Poirot's doings. I, on the
32 Agatha Christie
other hand, watched him with breathless interest. The floor was covered with a dark-green linoleum which
was ideal for showing up footprints. A door at the farther
end led into the small kitchen. From there another
door led into the scullery (where the back door was
situated), and another into the bedroom which had been
occupied by Robert Grant. Having explored the ground,
Poirot commented upon it in a low running monologue.
"Here is where the body lay; that big dark stain and
the splashes all around mark the spot. Traces of carpet
slippers and 'number nine' boots, you observe, but all
very confused. Then two sets of tracks leading to and
from the kitchen; whoever the murderer was, he came in
that way. You have the boot, Hastings? Give it to me."
He compared it carefully with the prints. "Yes, both
made by the same man, Robert Grant. He came in that
way, killed the old man, and went back to the kitchen.
He had stepped in the blood; see the stains he left as he
went out? Nothing to be seen in the kitchen--all the
village has been walking about in it. He went into his
own room--no, first he went back again to the scene of
the crime--was that to get the little jade figures? Or had
he forgotten something that might incriminate him?"
"Perhaps he killed the old man the second time he
went in?" I suggested.
"Mais non, you do not observe. On one of the outgoing footmarks stained with blood there is superimposed
an ingoing one. I wonder what he went back for--the
little jade figures as an afterthought? It is all ridiculous
"Well, he's given himself away pretty hopelessly."
"N'est-ce pas? I tell you, Hastings, it goes against
reason. It offends my little gray cells. Let us go into his
bedroom--ah, yes; there is the smear of blood on the
THE BIG POUR 33
lintel and just a trace of footmarks--the bloodstained.
Robert Grant's footmarks, and his only, near the body
--Robert Grant the only man who went near the house.
Yes, it must be so."
"What about the old woman?" I said suddenly. "She
was in the house alone after Grant had gone for the
milk. She might have killed him and then gone out. Her
feet would leave no prints if she hadn't been outside."
"Very good, Hastings. I wondered whether that hypothesis
would occur to you. I had already thought of
it and rejected it. Betsy Andrews is a local woman, well
known hereabouts. She can have no connection with the
Big Four; and, besides, old Whalley was a powerful
fellow, by all accounts. This is a man's work--not a
"I suppose the Big Four couldn't have had some
diabolical contrivance concealed in the ceiling--something which descended automatically and cut the old
man's throat and was afterwards drawn up again?"
"Like Jacob's ladder? I know, Hastings, that you
have an imagination of the most fertile--but I implore
of you to keep it within bounds."
I subsided, abashed. Poirot continued to wander
about, poking into rooms and cupboards with a profoundly
dissatisfied expression on his face. Suddenly he
uttered an excited yelp, reminiscent of a Pomeranian
dog. I rushed to join him. He was standing in the larder
in a dramatic attitude. In his hand he was brandishing a
leg of mutton!
"My dear Poirot!" I cried. "What is the matter?
Have you suddenly gone mad?"
"Regard, I pray you, this mutton. But regard it
I regarded it as closely as I could, but could see
34 Agatha Christie
nothing unusual about it. It seemed to me a very ordinary
leg of mutton. I said as much. Poirot threw me a
"But do you not see this--and this--and this--"
He illustrated each "this" with a jab at the unoffending
joint, dislodging small icicles as he did so.
Poirot had just accused me of being imaginative, but I now felt that he was far more wildly so than I had ever
been. Did he seriously think these slivers of ice were
crystals of a deadly poison? That was the only construction
I could put upon his extraordinary agitation.
"It's frozen meat," I explained gently. "Imported,
you know. New Zealand."
He stared at me for a moment or two and then broke
into a strange laugh.
"How marvellous is my friend Hastings! He knows
everything--but everything! How do they say--Inquire
Within Upon Everything. That is my friend Hastings."
He flung down the leg of mutton onto its dish again
and left the larder. Then he looked through the window.
"Here comes our friend the Inspector. It is well. I
have seen all I want to see here." He drummed on the
table absent-mindedly, as though absorbed in calculation,
and then asked suddenly, "What is the day of the
"Monday," I said, rather astonished. "What--?"
"Ah! Monday, is it? A bad day of the week. To commit
a murder on a Monday is a mistake."
Passing back to the living-room, he tapped the glass
on the wall and glanced at the thermometer.
"Set fair, and seventy degrees Fahrenheit. An orthodox
English summer's day."
Ingles was still examining various pieces of Chinese pottery.
THE BIG FOUR 35
"You do not take much interest in this inquiry, monsieur?"
The other gave a slow smile.
"It's not my job, you see. I'm a connoisseur of some
things, but not of this. So I just stand back and keep out
of the way. I've learnt patience in the East."
The Inspector came bustling in, apologising for having
been so long away. He insisted on taking us over
most of the ground again, but finally we got away.
"I must appreciate your thousand politenesses. Inspector,"
said Poirot, as we were walking down the
village street again. "There is just one more request I
should like to put to you."
"You want to see the body, perhaps, sir?"
"Oh, dear me, no! I have not the least interest in the
body. I want to see Robert Grant."
"You'll have to drive back with me to Moreton to see
"Very well, I will do so. But I must see him and be
able to speak to him alone."
The Inspector caressed his upper lip.
"Well, I don't know about that, sir."
"I assure you that if you can get through to Scotland Yard you will receive full authority."
"I've heard of you, of course, sir, and I know you've
done us a good turn now and again. But it's very irregular." "Nevertheless, it is necessary," said Poirot calmly.
"It is necessary for this reason--Grant is not the
"What? Who is. then?"
"The murderer was, I should fancy, a youngish man.
He drove up to Granite Bungalow in a trap, which he
left outside. He went in, committed the murder, came
36 Agatha Christie
out, and drove away again. He was bare-headed, and
his clothing was slightly bloodstained."
"But--but the whole village would have seen him!"
"Not under certain circumstances."
"Not if it was dark, perhaps; but the crime was committed
in broad daylight."
Poirot merely smiled.
"And the horse and trap, sir--how could you tell
that? Any amount of wheeled vehicles have passed
along outside. There's no mark of one in particular to
"Not with the eyes of the body, perhaps; but with the
eyes of the mind, yes."
The Inspector touched his forehead significantly with a grin at me. I was utterly bewildered, but I had faith in
Poirot. Further discussion ended in our all driving back
to Moreton with the Inspector. Poirot and I were taken
to Grant, but a constable was to be present during the
interview. Poirot went straight to the point.
"Grant, I know you to be innocent of this crime. Relate
to me in your own words exactly what happened."
The prisoner was a man of medium height, with a
somewhat unpleasing cast of features. He looked a jailbird
if ever a man did.
"Honest to God, I never did it," he whined. "Some
one put those little glass figures amongst my traps. It
was a frame-up, that's what it was. I went straight to my
rooms when I came in, like I said. I never knew a thing
till Betsy screeched out. S'welp me, God, I didn't."
"If you can't tell me the truth, that is the end of it."
"You did go into the room--you did know your
master was dead; and you were just preparing to make a
THE BIG FOUR 37
bolt of it when the good Betsy made her terrible discovery." The man stared at Poirot with a dropped jaw.
"Come now, is it not so? I tell you solemnly--on my word of honour--that to be frank now is your only
"I'll risk it," said the man suddenly. "It was just as
you say. I came in, and went straight to the master--and
there he was, dead on the floor and blood all round.
Then I got the wind up proper. They'd ferret out my
record, and for a certainty they'd say it was me as had
done him in. My only thought was to get away--at
once--before he was found--"
"And the jade figures?"
The man hesitated.
"You took them by a kind of reversion to instinct, as
it were? You had heard your master say that they were
valuable, and you felt you might as well go the whole
hog. That, I understand. Now, answer me this. Was it
the second time that you went into the room that you
took the figures?"
"I didn't go in a second time. Once was enough for
"You are sure of that?"
"Good. Now, when did you come out of prison?"
"Two months ago."
"How did you obtain this job?"
"Through one of them Prisoners' Help Societies. Bloke met me when I came out."
"What was he like?"
"Not exactly a parson, but looked like one. Soft
black hat and mincing way of talking. Got a broken
38 Agatha Christie
front tooth. Spectacled chap. Saunders his name was.
Said he hoped I was repentant, and that he'd find me a
good post. I went to old Whalley on his recommendation." Poirot rose once more.
"I thank you. I know all now. Have patience." He
paused in the doorway and added: "Saunders gave you
a pair of boots, didn't he?"
Grant looked very astonished.
"Why, yes, he did. But how did you know?"
"It is my business to know things," said Poirot
After a word or two to the Inspector, the three of us
went to the White Hart and discussed eggs and bacon
and Devonshire cider.
"Any elucidations yet?" asked Ingles, with a smile.
"Yes, the case is clear enough now; but, see you, I
shall have a good deal of difficulty in proving it.
Whalley was killed by order of the Big Four--but not by
Grant. A very clever man got Grant the post and deliberately planned to make him the scapegoat--an easy
matter with Grant's prison record. He gave him a pair
of boots, one of two duplicate pairs. The other he kept
himself. It was all so simple. When Grant is out of the
house, and Betsy is chatting in the village (which she
probably did everyday of her life), he drives up wearing
the duplicate boots, enters the kitchen, goes through
into the living-room, fells the old man with a blow, and
then cuts his throat. Then he returns to the kitchen,
removes the boots, puts on another pair, and, carrying
the first pair, goes out to his trap and drives off again."
Ingles looked steadily at Poirot.
"There's a catch in it still. Why did nobody see
"Ah! That is where the cleverness of Number Four, I
THE BIG FOUR 39
am convinced, comes in. Everybody saw him—and yet
nobody saw him. You see, he drove up in a butcher's
I uttered an exclamation.
"The leg of mutton?"
"Exactly, Hastings, the leg of mutton. Everybody
swore that no one had been to Granite Bungalow that
morning, but, nevertheless, I found in the larder a leg of
mutton, still frozen. It was Monday, so the meat must
have been delivered that morning; for if on Saturday, in this hot weather, it would not have remained frozen
over Sunday. So some one had been to the Bungalow,
and a man on whom a trace of blood here and there
would attract no attention."
"Damned ingenious!" cried Ingles approvingly.
"Yes, he is clever. Number Four."
' 'As clever as Hercule Poirot?'' I murmured.
My friend threw me a glance of dignified reproach.
"There are some jests that you should not permit
yourself, Hastings," he said sententiously. "Have I not
saved an innocent man from being sent to the gallows?
That is enough for one day."
of a Scientist
Personally, I don't think that, even when a jury had acquitted
Robert Grant, alias Biggs, of the murder of
Jonathan Whalley, Inspector Meadows was entirely
convinced of his innocence. The case which he had built
up against Grant--the man's record, the jade which he
had stolen, the boots which fitted the footprints so exactly--was to his matter-of-fact mind too complete to
be easily upset; but Poirot, compelled much against his
inclination to give evidence, convinced the jury. Two
witnesses were produced who had seen a butcher's cart
drive up to the bungalow on that Monday morning, and
the local butcher testified that his cart only called there
on Wednesdays and Fridays.
A woman was actually found who, when questioned,
remembered seeing the butcher's man leaving the bungalow,
but she could furnish no useful description of
him. The only impression he seemed to have left on her
42 Agatha Christie
mind was that he was clean-shaven, of medium height,
and looked exactly like a butcher's man. At this description
Poirot shrugged his shoulders philosophically.
"It is as I tell you, Hastings," he said to me, after the
trial. "He is an artist, this one. He disguises himself not
with the false beard and the blue spectacles. He alters
his features, yes; but that is the least part. For the time
being he is the man he would be. He lives in his part."
Certainly I was compelled to admit that the man who
had visited us from Hanwell had fitted in exactly with
my idea of what an Asylum attendant should look like. I
should never for a moment have dreamt of doubting
that he was genuine. It was all a little discouraging, and our experience on
Dartmoor did not seem to have helped us at all. I said as
much to Poirot, but he would not admit that we had
"We progress," he said; "we progress. At every contact
with this man we learn a little of his mind and his
methods. Of us and our plans he knows nothing."
"And there, Poirot." I protested, "he and I seem to
be in the same boat. You don't seem to me to have any
plans, you seem to sit and wait for him to do something." Poirot smiled.
"Mon ami, you do not change. Always the same
Hastings, who would be up and at their throats. Perhaps,"
he added, as a knock sounded on the door, "you
have here your chance; it may be our friend who
enters." And he laughed at my disappointment when
Inspector Japp and another man entered the room.
"Good evening, moosior," said the Inspector.
"Allow me to introduce Captain Kent of the United
States Secret Service."
Captain Kent was a tall, lean American, with a
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 43
singularly impassive face which looked as though it had
been carved out of wood. "Pleased to meet you, gentlemen," he murmured, as
he shook hands jerkily.
Poirot threw an extra log on the fire, and brought forward
more easy-chairs. I brought out glasses and the
whisky and soda. The captain took a deep draught, and
"Legislation in your country is still sound," he
"And now to business," said Japp. "Moosior Poirot
here made a certain request to me. He was interested in
some concern that went by the name of the Big Four,
and he asked me to let him know at any time if I came
across a mention of it in my official line of business. I
didn't take much stock in the matter, but I remembered
what he said, and when the captain here came over with
rather a curious story, I said at once, 'We'll go round to
Moosior Polrot's.' "
Poirot looked across at Captain Kent, and the American
took up the tale.
"You may remember reading, M. Poirot, that a
number of torpedo boats and destroyers were sunk by
being dashed upon the rocks off the American coast. It
was just after the Japanese earthquake, and the explanation
given was that the disaster was the result of
a tidal wave. Now, a short time ago, a round-up was
made of certain crooks and gunmen, and with them were captured some papers which put an entirely new
face upon the matter. They appeared to refer to some
organisation called the 'Big Four,' and gave an incomplete
description of some powerful wireless installation
--a concentration of wireless energy far beyond anything
so far attempted, and capable of focusing a beam
of great intensity upon some given spot. The claims
44 Agatha Christie
made for this invention seemed manifestly absurd, but I
turned them in to headquarters for what they were
worth, and one of our highbrow professors got busy on
them. Now it appears that one of your British scientists
read a paper upon the subject before the British Association.
His colleagues didn't think great shakes of it, by
all accounts, thought it far-fetched and fanciful, but
your scientist stuck to his guns, and declared that he
himself was on the eve of success in his experiments."
"Eh, bien?" demanded Poirot, with interest.
"It was suggested that I should come over here and
get an interview with this gentleman. Quite a young
fellow, he is, Halliday by name. He is the leading authority
on the subject, and I was to get from him
whether the thing suggested was anyway possible."
"And was it?" I asked eagerly.
"That's just what I don't know. I haven't seen Mr. Halliday--and I'm not likely to, by all accounts."
"The truth of the matter is," said Japp, shortly, '' Halliday's disappeared.''
"Two months ago."
"Was his disappearance reported?"
"Of course it was. His wife came to us in a great
state. We did what we could, but I knew all along it
would be no good."
"Never is--when a man disappears that way." Japp
"So Halliday disappeared in Paris?"
"Yes. Went over there on scientific work--so he said.
Of course, he'd have to say something like that. But you
know what it means when a man disappears over there.
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 45
Either it's Apache work, and that's the end of it--or
else its voluntary disappearance--and that's a great deal
the commoner of the two, I can tell you. Gay Paree and
all that, you know. Sick of home life. Halliday and his
wife had had a tiff before he started, which all helps to
make it a pretty clear case.''
"I wonder," said Poirot thoughtfully.
The American was looking at him curiously. "Say, mister," he drawled, "what's this Big Four
"The Big Four," said Poirot, "is an international
organisation which has at its head a Chinaman. He is
known as Number One. Number Two is an American.
Number Three is a Frenchwoman. Number Four, the
'Destroyer,' is an Englishman."
"A Frenchwoman, eh?" The American whistled.
"And Halliday disappeared in France. Maybe there's
something in this. What's her name?"
"I don't know. I know nothing about her."
"But it's a mighty big proposition, eh?" suggested
Poirot nodded, as he arranged the glasses in a neat
row on the tray. His love of order was as great as ever.
"What was the idea in sinking those boats? Are the
Big Four a German stunt?''
"The Big Four are for themselves--and for themselves
only, M. Ie Capitaine. Their aim is world domination." The American burst out laughing, but broke off at
the sight of Poirot's serious face.
"You laugh, monsieur." said Poirot, shaking a finger
at him. "You reflect not--you use not the little gray
cells of the brain. Who are these men who send a portion of your navy to destruction simply as a trial of their
power? For that was all it was. Monsieur, a test of this
46 Agatha Christie
new force of magnetical attraction which they hold."
"Go on with you, moosior," said Japp good-humouredly.
"I've read of super criminals many a time,
but I've never come across them. Well, you've heard
Captain Kent's story. Anything further I can do for
"Yes, my good friend. You can give me the address
of Mrs. Halliday--and also a few words of introduction
to her if you will be so kind."
Thus it was that the following day saw us bound
for Chetwynd Lodge, near the village of Chobham in
Mrs. Halliday received us at once, a tall, fair woman,
nervous and eager in manner. With her was her little
girl, a beautiful child of five.
Poirot explained the purpose of our visit.
"Oh! Monsieur Poirot, I am so glad, so thankful. I
have heard of you, of course. You will not be like these
Scotland Yard people, who will not listen or try to
understand. And the French Police are just as bad-worse, I think. They are all convinced that my husband
has gone off with some other woman. But he wasn't like
that! All he thought of in life was his work. Half our quarrels came from that. He cared for it more than he
did for me."
"Englishmen, they are like that," said Poirot soothingly.
"And if it is not work, it is the games, the sport.
All those things they take au grand serieux. Now,
madame, recount to me exactly, in detail, and as methodically
as you can, the exact circumstances of your
"My husband went to Paris on Thursday, the 20th of
July. He was to meet and visit various people there connected
with his work, amongst them Madame Olivier."
Poirot nodded at the mention of the famous French
THE BIO FOUR 47
woman chemist, who had eclipsed even Madame Curie
in the brilliance of her achievements. She had been
decorated by the French Government, and was one of
the most prominent personalities of the day.
"He arrived there in the evening and went at once to
the Hotel Castiglione in the Rue de Castiglione. On the
following morning, he had an appointment with Professor
Bourgoneau, which he kept. His manner was normal
and pleasant. The two men had a most interesting
conversation, and it was arranged that he should witness some experiments in the professor's laboratory on the
following day. He lunched alone at the Cafe Royal,
went for a walk in the Bois, and then visited Madame
Olivier at her house at Passy. There, also, his manner
was perfectly normal. He left about six. Where he dined
is not known, probably alone at some restaurant. He
returned to the hotel about eleven o'clock and went
straight up to his room, after inquiring if any letters had
come for him. On the following morning, he walked out
of the hotel, and has not been seen again."
"At what time did he leave the hotel? At the hour
when he would normally leave it to keep his appointment
at Professor Bourgoneau's laboratory?"
"We do not know. He was not remarked leaving the
hotel. But no petit dejeuner was served to him, which
seems to indicate that he went out early."
"Or he might, in fact, have gone out again after he
came in the night before?"
"I do not think so. His bed had been slept in, and the
night porter would have remembered any one going out
at that hour."
"A very just observation, madame. We may take it,
then, that he left early on the following morning--and
that is reassuring from one point of view. He is not
likely to have fallen a victim to any Apache assault at
48 Agatha Christie that hour. His baggage, now, was it all left behind?"
Mrs. Halliday seemed rather reluctant to answer, but
at last she said:-"No--he must have taken one small suit-case with
"H'm," said Poirot thoughtfully, "I wonder where
he was that evening. If we knew that, we should know a
great deal. Whom did he meet?--there lies the mystery.
Madame, myself I do not of necessity accept the view of
the police; with them is it always 'Cherchez la femme.' Yet it is clear that something occurred that night to
your husband's plans. You say he asked for letters on
returning to the hotel. Did he receive any?"
"One only, and that must have been the one I wrote
him on the day he left England."
Poirot remained sunk in thought for a full minute,
then he rose briskly to his feet.
"Well, madame, the solution of the mystery lies in
Paris, and to find it I myself journey to Paris on the instant." "It is all a long time ago, monsieur."
"Yes, yes. Nevertheless, it is there that we must
He turned to leave the room, but paused with his
hand on the door.
"Tell me, madame, do you ever remember your husband mentioning the phrase, 'The Big Four'?"
"The Big Four," she repeated thoughtfully. "No, I
can't say I do."
^e "Woman on tde Stairs
That was all that could be elicited from Mrs. Halliday.
We hurried back to London, and the following day saw
us en route for the Continent. With rather a rueful
smile, Poirot observed:—
"This Big Four, they make me to bestir myself, mon
ami. I run up and down, all over the ground, like our
old friend 'the human foxhound.' "
"Perhaps you'll meet him in Paris," I said, knowing
that he referred to a certain Giraud, one of the most
trusted detectives of the Surete, whom he had met on a
Poirot made a grimace. "I devoutly hope not. He
loved me not, that one."
"Won't it be a very difficult task?" I asked. "To find
out what an unknown Englishman did on an evening
two months ago?"
"Very difficult, mon ami. But, as you know well, dif40
50 Agatha Christie ficulties rejoice the heart of Hercule Poirot."
"You think the Big Four kidnapped him?"
Our inquiries necessarily went over old ground, and
we learnt little to add to what Mrs. Halliday had already
told us. Poirot had a lengthy interview with Professor
Bourgoneau, during which he sought to elicit whether
Halliday had mentioned any plan of his own for the
evening, but we drew a complete blank.
Our next source of information was the famous Madame
Olivier. I was quite excited as we mounted the
steps of her villa at Passy. It has always seemed to me
extraordinary that a woman should go so far in the
scientific world. I should have thought a purely masculine
brain was needed for such work.
The door was opened by a young lad of seventeen or
thereabouts, who reminded me vaguely of an acolyte, so
ritualistic was his manner. Poirot had taken the trouble
to arrange our interview beforehand, as he knew Madame
Olivier never received any one without an appointment,
being immersed in research work most of
We were shown into a small salon, and presently the
mistress of the house came to us there. Madame Olivier
was a very tall woman, her tallness accentuated by the
long white overall she wore, and a coif like a nun's that shrouded her head. She had a long pale face, and wonderful
dark eyes that burnt with a light almost fanatical.
She looked more like a priestess of old than a modern
Frenchwoman. One cheek was disfigured by a scar, and
I remembered that her husband and co-worker had been
killed in an explosion in the laboratory three years before,
and that she herself had been terribly burned.
Ever since then she had shut herself away from the
world, and plunged with fiery energy into the work of
THE BIG FOUR 51
scientific research. She received us with cold politeness.
"I have been interviewed by the police many times, messieurs. I think it hardly likely that I can help you,
since I have not been able to help them."
"Madame, it is possible that I shall not ask you quite
the same questions. To begin with, of what did you talk
together, you and M. Halliday?"
She looked a trifle surprised.
"But of his work! His work--and also mine."
"Did he mention to you the theories he had embodied
recently in his paper read before the British Association?" "Certainly he did. It was chiefly of those we spoke."
"His ideas were somewhat fantastic, were they not?"
asked Poirot carelessly.
"Some people have thought so. I do not agree." "You considered them practicable?"
"Perfectly practicable. My own line of research has
been somewhat similar, though not undertaken with the
same end in view. I have been investigating the gamma rays emitted by the substance usually known as
Radium C., a product of Radium emanation, and in doing
so I have come across some very interesting magnetical
phenomena. Indeed, I have a theory as to the actual
nature of the force we call magnetism, but it is not yet
time for my discoveries to be given to the world. Mr.
Halliday's experiments and views were exceedingly interesting
Poirot nodded. Then he asked a question which surprised
"Madame, where did you converse on these topics. In
"No, monsieur. In the laboratory."
"May I see it?"
52 Agatha Christie
She led the way to the door from which she had
entered. It opened on a small passage. We passed
through two doors and found ourselves in the big laboratory,
with its array of beakers and crucibles and a
hundred appliances of which I did not even know the
names. There were two occupants, both busy with some
experiment. Madame Olivier introduced them. "Mademoiselle Claude, one of my assistants." A tall,
serious-faced young girl bowed to us. "Monsieur Henri,
an old and trusted friend."
The young man, short and dark, bowed jerkily.
Poirot looked round him. There were two other doors
besides the one by which we had entered. One, madame
explained, led into the garden, the other into a smaller
chamber also devoted to research. Poirot took all this
in, then declared himself ready to return to the salon.
"Madame, were you alone with M. Halliday during
"Yes, monsieur. My two assistants were in the
smaller room next door."
"Could your conversation be overheard--by them or
any one else?"
Madame reflected, then shook her head.
"I do not think so. I am almost sure it could not. The
doors were all shut."
"Could any one have been concealed in the room?"
"There is the big cupboard in the corner--but the
idea is absurd."
"Pas tout d fait, madame. One thing more: did M.
Halliday make any mention of his plans for the evening?" "He said nothing whatever, monsieur."
"I thank you, madame, and I apologise for disturbing you. Pray do not trouble--we can find our way
THE BIG FOUR 53
We stepped out into the hall. A lady was just entering
the front door as we did so. She ran quickly up the
stairs, and I was left with an impression of the heavy
mourning that denotes a French widow.
"A most unusual type of woman, that," remarked
Poirot, as we walked away.
"Madame Olivier? Yes, she--"
"Mais non, not Madame Olivier. Cela va sans dire! There are not many geniuses of her stamp in the
No, I referred to the other lady--the lady on the stairs."
"I didn't see her face," I said, staring. "And I hardly
see how you could have done. She never looked at us."
"That is why I said she was an unusual type," said
Poirot placidly. "A woman who enters her home--for I
presume that it is her home since she enters with a
key--and runs straight upstairs without even looking at
two strange visitors in the hall to see who they are, is a very unusual type of woman--quite unnatural, in
fact. Mille tonnerres! what is that?"
He dragged me back--just in time. A tree had crashed
down on to the side walk, just missing us. Poirot stared
at it, pale and upset.
"It was a near thing that! But clumsy, all the same-for I had no suspicion--at least hardly any suspicion. Yes, but for my quick eyes, the eyes of a cat, Hercule
Poirot might now be crushed out of existence--a terrible
calamity for the world. And you, too, mon ami-- though that would not be such a national catastrophe."
"Thank you," I said coldly. "And what are we going
to do now?"
"Do?" cried Poirot. "We are going to think. Yes,
here and now, we are going to exercise our little gray
cells. This M. Halliday now, was he really in Paris? Yes,
for Professor Bourgoneau, who knows him, saw and
spoke to him."
54 Agatha Christie
"What on earth are you driving at?" I cried.
"That was Friday morning. He was last seen at eleven
Friday night--but was he seen then?"
"A night porter--who had not previously seen Halliday.
A man comes in, sufficiently like Halliday--we
may trust Number Four for that--asks for letters, goes
upstairs, packs a small suit-case, and slips out the next
morning. Nobody saw Halliday all that evening--no,
because he was already in the hands of his enemies. Was
it Halliday whom Madame Olivier received? Yes, for
though she did not know him by sight, an impostor
could hardly deceive her on her own special subject. He
came here, he had his interview, he left. What happened
next?" Seizing me by the arm, Poirot was fairly dragging me
back to the villa.
"Now, mon ami, imagine that it is the day after the
disappearance, and that we are tracking footprints. You
love footprints, do you not? See--here they go, a
man's, Mr. Halliday's. ... He turns to the right as we
did, he walks briskly--ah! other footsteps following
behind--very quickly--small footsteps, a woman's.
See, she catches him up--a slim young woman, in a
widow's veil. 'Pardon, monsieur, Madame Olivier desires
that I recall you.' He stops, he turns. Now where
would the young woman take him? She does not wish to
be seen walking with him. Is it coincidence that she
catches up with him just where a narrow alleyway
opens, dividing two gardens. She leads him down it. 'It
is shorter this way, monsieur.' On the right is the garden
of Madame Olivier's villa, on the left the garden of
another villa--and from that garden, mark you, the tree
fell--so nearly on us. Garden doors from both open on
THE BIG FOUR 55
the alley. The ambush is there. Men pour out, overpower
him, and carry him into the strange villa."
"Good gracious, Poirot," I cried, "are you pretending
to see all this?"
"I see it with the eyes of the mind, mon ami. So, and only so, could it have happened. Come, let us go back to
"You want to see Madame Olivier again?"
Poirot gave a curious smile.
"No, Hastings, I want to see the face of the lady on
"Who do you think she is, a relation of Madame
"More probably a secretary--and a secretary engaged
not very long ago."
The same gentle acolyte opened the door to us.
"Can you tell me," said Poirot, "the name of the
lady, the widow lady, who came in just now?"
"Madame Veroneau? Madame's secretary?"
"That is the lady. Would you be so kind as to ask her
to speak to us for a moment."
The youth disappeared. He soon reappeared.
"I am sorry. Madame Veroneau must have gone out
"I think not," said Poirot quietly. "Will you give her
my name, M. Hercule Poirot, and say that it is important
I should see her at once, as I am just going to the
Again our messenger departed. This time the lady
descended. She walked into the salon. We followed her.
She turned and raised her veil. To my astonishment I recognised our old antagonist, the Countess Rossakoff,
a Russian countess, who had engineered a particularly
smart jewel robbery in London.
56 Agatha Christie
"As soon as I caught sight of you in the hall, I feared
the worst," she observed plaintively.
"My dear Countess Rossakoff--"
She shook her head.
"Inez Veroneau now," she murmured. "A Spaniard,
married to a Frenchman. What do you want of me, M.
Poirot? You are a terrible man. You hunted me from
London. Now, I suppose, you will tell our wonderful
Madame Olivier about me, and hunt me from Paris?
We poor Russians, we must live, you know."
"It is more serious than that, madame," said Poirot
watching her. "I propose to enter the villa next door, and release M. Halliday, if he is still alive. I know
everything, you see."
I saw her sudden pallor. She bit her lip. Then she
spoke with her usual decision.
"He is still alive--but he is not at the villa. Come,
monsieur, I will make a bargain with .you. Freedom for
me--and M. Halliday, alive and well, for you."
"I accept," said Poirot. "I was about to propose the
same bargain myself. By the way, are the Big Four your
employers, madame?" Again I saw that deathly pallor creep over her face,
but she left his question unanswered.
Instead, "You permit me to telephone?" she asked,
and crossing to the instrument she rang up a number.
"The number of the villa," she explained, "where our
friend is now imprisoned. You may give it to the
police--the nest will be empty when they arrive. Ah! I
am through. Is that you, Andre? It is I, Inez. The little
Belgian knows all. Send Halliday to the hotel, and clear
She replaced the receiver, and came towards us, smiling. "You will accompany us to the hotel, madame."
THE BIG FOUR 57
"Naturally. I expected that."
I got a taxi, and we drove off together. I could see by
Poirot's face that he was perplexed. The thing was
almost too easy. We arrived at the hotel. The porter
came up to us.
"A gentleman has arrived. He is in your rooms. He
seems very ill. A nurse came with him, but she has left."
"That is all right," said Poirot, "he is a friend of
We went upstairs together. Sitting in a chair by the
window was a haggard young fellow who looked in the
last stages of exhaustion. Poirot went over to him. "Are you John Halliday?" The man nodded. "Show
me your left arm. John Halliday has a mole just below
the left elbow."
The man stretched out his arm. The mole was there.
Poirot bowed to the countess. She turned and left the
A glass of brandy revived Halliday somewhat.
"My God!" he muttered. "I have been through hell
--hell. . . . Those fiends are devils incarnate. My wife,
where is she? What does she think? They told me that
she would believe--would believe--"
"She does not," said Poirot firmly. "Her faith in you
has never wavered. She is waiting for you--she and the
"Thank God for that. I can hardly believe that I am
free once more."
"Now that you are a little recovered, monsieur, I
should like to hear the whole story from the beginning."
Halliday looked at him with an indescribable expression. "I remember--nothing," he said.
"Have you ever heard of the Big Four?"
58 Agatha Christie
"Something of them," said Poirot dryly. "You do not know what I know. They have unlimited
power. If I remain silent, I shall be safe--if I say one
word--not only I, but my nearest and dearest will suffer
unspeakable things. It is no good arguing with me. / know.... I remember--nothing."
And, getting up, he walked from the room.
Poirot's face wore a baffled expression.
"So it is like that, is it?" he muttered. "The Big Four
win again. What is that you are holding in your hand,
I handed it to him.
"The countess scribbled it before she left," I explained. He read it.
"Signed with her initials--I.V. Just a coincidence,
perhaps, that they also stand for Four. \ wonder,
Hastings, I wonder."
^iX«-<5«- -»-»Xi^ 7
G^e "Radium Sieves
On the night of his release, Halliday slept in the room
next to ours at the hotel, and all night long I heard him
moaning and protesting in his sleep. Undoubtedly his
experience in the villa had broken his nerve, and in the
morning we failed completely to extract any information
from him. He would only repeat his statement about the unlimited power at the disposal of the Big
Four, and his assurance of the vengeance which would
follow if he talked.
After lunch he departed to rejoin his wife in England,
but Poirot and I remained behind in Paris. I was all
for energetic proceedings of some kind or other, and
Poirot's quiescence annoyed me.
"For Heaven's sake, Poirot," I urged, "let us be up
and at them."
"Admirable, mon ami, admirable! Up where, and at
whom? Be precise, I beg of you."
60 Agatha Christie
"At the Big Four, of course."
'' Cela va sans dire. But how would you set about it? "
"The police," I hazarded doubtfully.
"They would accuse us of romancing. We have nothing
to go upon--nothing whatever. We must wait."
"Wait for what?"
"Wait for them to make a move. See now, in England
you all comprehend and adore Ie boxe. If one man does
not make a move, the other must, and by permitting the
adversary to make the attack one learns something
about him. That is our part--to let the other side make the attack."
"You think they will?" I said doubtfully.
"I have no doubt whatever of it. To begin with, see,
they try to get me out of England. That fails. Then, in
the Dartmoor affair, we step in and save their victim
from the gallows. And yesterday, once again, we interfere
with their plans. Assuredly, they will not leave
the matter there."
As I reflected on this, there was a knock on the door.
Without waiting for a reply, a man stepped into the
room and closed the door behind him. He was a tall,
thin man, with a slightly hooked nose and a sallow complexion.
He wore an overcoat buttoned up to his chin,
and a soft hat well pulled down over his eyes.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, for my somewhat unceremonious
entry," he said in a soft voice, "but my business
is of a rather unorthodox nature."
Smiling, he advanced to the table and sat down by it.
I was about to spring up, but Poirot restrained me with
"As you say, monsieur, your entry is somewhat unceremonious.
Will you kindly state your business?"
THE BIG FOUR 61
"My dear M. Poirot, it is very simple. You have been
annoying my friends."
"In what way?" "Come, come. Monsieur Poirot. You do not seriously
ask me that? You know as well as I do."
"It depends, monsieur, upon who these friends of
Without a word, the man drew from his pocket a
cigarette case, and, opening it, took out four cigarettes
and tossed them on the table. Then he picked them up
and returned them to his case, which he replaced in his
"Aha!" said Poirot, "so it is like that, is it? And
what do your friends suggest?"
"They suggest, monsieur, that you should employ
your talents--your very considerable talents--in the
detection of legitimate crime--return to your former
avocations, and solve the problems of London society
"A peaceful programme," said Poirot. "And supposing
I do not agree?"
The man made an eloquent gesture.
"We should regret it, of course, exceedingly," he
said. "So would all the friends and admirers of the great
M. Hercule Poirot. But regrets, however poignant, do
not bring a man to life again."
"Put very delicately," said Poirot, nodding his head.
"And supposing I--accept?" "In that case I am empowered to offer you--compensation." He drew out a pocket-book, and threw ten notes on
the table. They were for ten thousand francs each.
"That is merely as a guarantee of our good faith," he
said. "Ten times that amount will be paid you."
I 62 Agatha Christie
"Good God," I cried, springing up, "you dare to
"Sit down, Hastings," said Poirot autocratically.
"Subdue your so beautiful and honest nature and sit
down. To you, monsieur, I will say this. What is to prevent
me ringing up the police and giving you into their
custody, whilst my friend here prevents you from escaping?" "By all means do so if you think it advisable," said
our visitor calmly.
"Oh! look here, Poirot," I cried. "I can't stand this.
Ring up the police and have done with it."
Rising swiftly, I strode to the door and stood with my
back against it.
"It seems the obvious course," murmured Poirot, as
though debating with himself.
"But you distrust the obvious, eh?" said our visitor,
smiling. "Go on, Poirot," I urged.
"It will be your responsibility, mon ami."
As he lifted the receiver, the man made a sudden, catlike
jump at me. I was ready for him. In another minute
we were locked together, staggering round the room.
Suddenly I felt him slip and falter. I pressed my advantage. He went down before me. And then, in the
very flush of victory, an extraordinary thing happened.
I felt myself flying forwards. Head first, I crashed into
the wall in a complicated heap. I was up in a minute, but
the door was already closing behind my late adversary. I
rushed to it and shook it, it was locked on the outside. I
seized the telephone from Poirot.
"Is that the bureau? Stop a man who is coming out.
A tall man, with a buttoned-up overcoat and a soft hat.
He is wanted by the police."
THE BIG FOUR 63
Very few minutes elapsed before we heard a noise in
the corridor outside. The key was turned and the door flung open. The manager himself stood in the
"The man--you have got him?" I cried.
"No, monsieur. No one has descended."
"You must have passed him."
"We have passed no one, monsieur. It is incredible
that he can have escaped."
"You have passed some one, I think," said Poirot, in
his gentle voice. "One of the hotel staff, perhaps?" "Only a waiter carrying a tray, monsieur."
"Ah!" said Poirot, in a tone that spoke infinities.
"So that was why he wore his overcoat buttoned up
to his chin," mused Poirot, when we had finally got rid
of the excited hotel officials.
"I'm awfully sorry, Poirot," I murmured, rather crestfallen. "I thought I'd downed him all right."
"Yes, that was a Japanese trick, I fancy. Do not distress
yourself, mon ami. All went according to plan-his plan. That is what I wanted."
"What's this?" I cried, pouncing on a brown object
that lay on the floor.
It was a slim pocket-book of brown leather, and had
evidently fallen from our visitor's pocket during his
struggle with me. It contained two receipted bills in the
name of M. Felix Laon, and a folded-up piece of paper
which made my heart beat faster. It was a half sheet of
note-paper on which a few words were scrawled in pencil
but they were words of supreme importance.
"The next meeting of the council will be on Friday at
34 Rue des Echelles at 11 a.m."
It was signed with a big figure 4.
And to-day was Friday, and the clock on the mantelpiece
showed the hour to be 10.30.
64 Agatha Christie
"My God, what a chance!" I cried. "Fate is playing into our hands. We must start at once--though. What
"So that was why he came," murmured Poirot. "I
see it all now."
"See what? Come on, Poirot, don't stay daydreaming
Poirot looked at me, and slowly shook his head, smiling
as he did so.
" 'Will you walk into my parlour, said the spider to
the fly?' That is your little English nursery rhyme, is it
not? No, no--they are subtle--but not so subtle as Hercule
"What on earth are you driving at, Poirot?"
"My friend, I have been asking myself the reason of
this morning's visit. Did our visitor really hope to succeed
in bribing me? Or, alternatively, in frightening me
into abandoning my task? It seemed hardly credible.
Why, then, did he come? And now I see the whole plan
--very neat--very pretty--the ostensible reason to bribe
or frighten me--the necessary struggle which he took no
pains to avoid, and which should make the dropped
pocket-book natural and reasonable--and finally--the
pitfall! Rue des Eschelles, 11 a.m.? I think not, mon
ami\ One does not catch Hercule Poirot as easily as
"Good heavens," I gasped. Poirot was frowning to himself.
"There is still one thing I do not understand."
"What is that?"
"The time, Hastings--the time. If they wanted to decoy
me away, surely night time would be better? Why
this early hour? Is it possible that something is about to
happen this morning? Something which they are anxious
Hercule Poirot should not know about?"
THE BIG FOUR 65
He shook his head.
"We shall see. Here I sit, mon ami. We do not stir out
this morning. We await events here."
It was at half-past eleven exactly that the summons
came. A. petit bleu. Poirot tore it open, then handed it to
me. It was from Madame Olivier, the world-famous
scientist, whom we had visited yesterday in connection
with the Halliday case. It asked us to come out to Passy
We obeyed the summons without an instant's delay.
Madame Olivier received us in the same small salon. I
was struck anew with the wonderful power of this
woman, with her long nun's face and burning eyes--this
brilliant successor of Becquerel and the Curies. She
came to the point at once.
"Messieurs, you interviewed me yesterday about the disappearance of M. Halliday. I now learn that you
returned to the house a second time, and asked to see
my secretary, Inez Veroneau. She left the house with
you, and has not returned here since."
"Is that all, madame?"
"No, monsieur, it is not. Last night the laboratory
was broken into, and several valuable papers and memoranda
were stolen. The thieves had a try for something
more precious still, but luckily they failed to open
the big safe."
"Madame, these are the facts of the case. Your late
secretary, Madame Veroneau, was really the Countess
Rossakoff, an expert thief, and it was she who was
responsible for the disappearance of M. Halliday. How
long had she been with you?"
"Five months, monsieur. What you say amazes me."
"It is true, nevertheless. These papers, were they easy
to find? Or do you think an inside knowledge was
66 Agatha Christie
"It is rather curious that the thieves knew exactly
where to look. You think Inez--"
"Yes, I have no doubt that it was upon her information
that they acted. But what is this precious thing that
the thieves failed to find? Jewels?"
Madame Olivier shook her head with a faint smile. "Something much more precious than that, monsieur."
She looked round her, then bent forward, lowering
her voice. "Radium, monsieur."
"Yes, monsieur. I am now at the crux of my experiments.
I possess a small portion of radium myself-more has been lent to me for the process I am at work
upon. Small though the actual quantity is, it comprises a
large amount of the world's stock and represents a value
of millions of francs."
"And where is it?"
"In its leaden case in the big safe--the safe purposely
appears to be of an old and worn-out pattern, but it is
really a triumph of the safe-makers' art. That is probably
why the thieves were unable to open it."
"How long are you keeping this radium in your possession?" "Only for two days more, monsieur. Then my experiments
will be concluded."
Poirot's eyes brightened.
"And Inez Veroneau is aware of the fact? Good- then our friends will come back. Not a word of me to
any one, madame. But rest assured, I will save your
radium for you. You have a key of the door leading
from the laboratory to the garden?"
"Yes, monsieur. Here it is. I have a duplicate for myself. And here is the key of the garden door leading
out into the alleyway between this villa and the next
THE BIO FOUR 67
"I thank you, madame. To-night, go to bed as usual,
have no fears, and leave all to me. But not a word to any
one--not to your two assistants--Mademoiselle Claude
and Monsieur Henri, is it not?--particularly not a word
Poirot left the villa rubbing his hands in great
"What are we going to do now?" I asked.
"Now, Hastings, we are about to leave Paris--for
"We will pack our effects, have lunch, and drive to
"But the radium?"
"I said we were going to leave for England--I did not
say we were going to arrive there. Reflect a moment,
Hastings. It is quite certain that we are being watched
and followed. Our enemies must believe that we are going
back to England, and they certainly will not believe
that unless they see us get on board the train and start."
"Do you mean we are to slip off again at the last
minute?" "No, Hastings. Our enemies will be satisfied with
nothing less than a bonafide departure."
"But the train doesn't stop until Calais?"
"It will stop if it is paid to do so."
"Oh, come now, Poirot--surely you can't pay an express
to stop--they'd refuse."
"My dear friend, have you never remarked the little
handle--the signale d'arret-- penalty for improper use,
100 francs, I think?"
"Oh! you are going to pull that?"
"Or rather a friend of mine, Pierre Combeau, will do
so. Then, while he is arguing with the guard, and making
a big scene, and all the train is agog with interest,
68 Agatha Christie
you and I will fade quietly away."
We duly carried out Poirot's plan. Pierre Combeau,
an old crony of Poirot's, and who evidently knew my
little friend's methods pretty well, fell in with the arrangements.
The communication cord was pulled just as
we got to the outskirts of Paris. Combeau "made a
scene" in the most approved French fashion and Poirot
and I were able to leave the train without any one being
interested in our departure. Our first proceeding was to
make a considerable change in our appearance. Poirot
had brought the materials for this with him in a small case. Two loafers in dirty blue blouses were the result.
We had dinner in an obscure hostelry, and started back
to Paris afterwards.
It was close on eleven o'clock when we found ourselves
once more in the neighbourhood of Madame
Olivier's villa. We looked up and down the road before
slipping into the alleyway. The whole place appeared to
be perfectly deserted. One thing we could be quite certain
of, no one was following us.
"I do not expect them to be here yet," whispered
Poirot to me. "Possibly they may not come until tomorrow
night, but they know perfectly well that there
are only two nights on which the radium will be there."
Very cautiously we turned the key in the garden door.
It opened noiselessly and we stepped into the garden.
And then, with complete unexpectedness, the blow
fell. In a minute we were surrounded, gagged and
bound. At least ten men must have been waiting for us.
Resistance was useless. Like two helpless bundles we
were lifted up and carried along. To my intense astonishment,
they took us towards the house and not away
from it. With a key they opened the door into the laboratory
and carried us into it. One of the men stooped
down before the big safe. The door of it swung open. I
THE BIG FOUR 69
felt an unpleasant sensation down my spine. Were they going to bundle us into it, and leave us there to asphyxiate
However, to my amazement, I saw that from the inside
of the safe steps led down beneath the floor. We
were thrust down this narrow way and eventually came
out into a big subterranean chamber. A woman stood
there, tall and imposing, with a black velvet mask covering
her face. She was clearly in command of the situation
by her gestures of authority. The men slung us
down on the floor and left us--alone with the mysterious
creature in the mask. I had no doubt who she was.
This was the unknown Frenchwoman--Number Three
of the Big Four.
She knelt down beside us and removed the gags, but
left us bound, then rising and facing us, with a sudden
swift gesture she removed her mask.
It was Madame Olivier!
"M. Poirot," she said, in a low mocking tone. "The
great, the wonderful, the unique M. Poirot. I sent a
warning to you yesterday morning. You chose to disregard
it--you thought you could pit your wits against
US. And now, you are here!"
There was a cold malignity about her that froze me to
the marrow. It was so at variance with the burning fire
of her eyes. She was mad--mad--with the madness of genius!
Poirot said nothing. His jaw had dropped, and he was
staring at her.
"Well," she said softly, "this is the end. WE cannot
permit our plans to be interfered with. Have you any
last request to make?"
Never before, or since, have I felt so near death.
Poirot was magnificent. He neither flinched nor paled,
just stared at her with unabated interest.
70 Agatha Christie
"Your psychology interests me enormously, madame,"
he said quietly. "It is a pity that I have so short
a time to devote to studying it. Yes, I have a request
to make. A condemned man is always allowed a last
smoke, I believe. I have my cigarette case on me. If you
would permit--" He looked down at his bonds.
"Ah, yes!" she laughed. "You would like me to untie
your hands, would you not? You are clever, M. Hercule
Poirot, I know that. I shall not untie your hands--but I
will find you a cigarette."
She knelt down by him, extracted his cigarette case,
took out a cigarette, and placed it between his lips.
"And now a match," she said, rising.
"It is not necessary, madame." Something in his
voice startled me. She, too, was arrested.
"Do not move, I pray of you, madame. You will regret it if you do. Are you acquainted at all with the
properties of cuare? The South American Indians use it
as an arrow poison. A scratch with it means death.
Some tribes use a little blow-pipe--I, too, have a little
blow-pipe constructed so as to look exactly like a
cigarette. I have only to blow. ... Ah! you start. Do not
move, madame. The mechanism of this cigarette is most
ingenious. One blows--and a tiny dart resembling a
fishbone flies through the air--to find its mark. You
do not wish to die, madame. Therefore, I beg of you,
release my friend Hastings from his bonds. I cannot use
my hands, but I can turn my head--so--you are still
covered, madame. Make no mistake, I beg of you."
Slowly, with shaking hands, and rage and hate convulsing
her face, she bent down and did his bidding. I
was free. Poirot's voice gave me instructions.
"Your bonds will now do for the lady, Hastings. That
is right. Is she securely fastened? Then release me, I
pray of you. It is a fortunate circumstance she sent away
THE BIG FOUR 71
her henchmen. With a little luck we may hope to find
the way out unobstructed."
In another minute, Poirot stood by my side. He
bowed to the lady.
"Hercule Poirot is not killed so easily, madame. I wish you goodnight."
The gag prevented her from replying, but the murderous
gleam in her eyes frightened me. I hoped devoutly
that we should never fall into her power again.
Three minutes later we were outside the villa, and
hurriedly traversing the garden. The road outside was
deserted, and we were soon clear of the neighbourhood.
Then Poirot broke out.
"I deserve all that that woman said to me. I am a
triple imbecile, a miserable animal, thirty-six times
an idiot. I was proud of myself for not falling into their
trap. And it was not even meant as a trap--except exactly
in the way in which I fell into it. They knew
I would see through it--they counted on my seeing
through it. This explains all--the ease with which they
surrendered Halliday--everything. Madame Olivier was
the ruling spirit--Vera Rossakoff only her lieutenant.
Madame needed Halliday's ideas--she herself had the
necessary genius to supply the gaps that perplexed him.
Yes, Hastings, we know now who Number Three is-the woman who is probably the greatest scientist in the
world! Think of it. The brain of the East, the science of
the West--and two others whose identities we do not yet
know. But we must find out. To-morrow we will return
to London and set about it."
"You are not going to denounce Madame Olivier to the police?"
"I should not be believed. That woman is one of the
idols of France. And we can prove nothing. We are
lucky if she does not denounce us."
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74 Agatha Christie
sented by an S with two lines through it--the sign for a dollar, also by two stripes and a star. It may be conjectured
therefore that he is an American subject, and that
he represents the power of wealth.' Add to those words
the fact that Ryland offered me a huge sum to tempt me
out of England--and--and what about it, Hastings?"
"You mean," I said, staring, "that you suspect Abe
Ryland, the multi-millionaire, of being Number Two of
the Big Four."
"Your bright intellect has grasped the idea, Hastings.
Yes, I do. The tone in which you said multimillionaire
was eloquent--but let me impress upon you one fact-this thing is being run by men at the top--and Mr.
Ryland has the reputation of being no beauty in his
business dealings. An able, unscrupulous man, a man
who has all the wealth that he needs, and is out for
There was undoubtedly something to be said for
Poirot's view. I asked him when he had made up his
mind definitely upon the point.
"That is just it. I am not sure. I cannot be sure. Mon
ami, I would give anything to know. Let me but place
Number Two definitely as Abe Ryland, and we draw
nearer to our goal."
hi "He has just arrived in London, I see by this," I said,
tapping the letter. "Shall you call upon him, and make your apologies in person?"
"I might do so."
Two days later, Poirot returned to our rooms in a
state of boundless excitement. He grasped me by both
hands in his most impulsive manner.
"My friend, an occasion stupendous, unprecedented,
never to be repeated, has presented itself! But there is
danger, grave danger. I should not even ask you to attempt
THE BIG FOUR 75
If Poirot was trying to frighten me, he was going the
wrong way to work, and so I told him. Becoming less incoherent,
he unfolded his plan.
It seemed that Ryland was looking for an English
secretary, one with a good social manner and presence.
It was Poirot's suggestion that I should apply for the
"I would do it, myself, mon ami," he explained
apologetically. "But, see you, it is almost impossible
for me to disguise myself in the needful manner. I speak
the English very well--except when I am excited--but
hardly so as to deceive the ear; and even though I were
to sacrifice my moustaches, I doubt not but that I
should still be recognisable as Hercule Poirot."
I doubted it also, and declared myself ready and willing
to take up the part and penetrate into Ryland's household.
"Ten to one he won't engage me anyway," I remarked. "Oh, yes, he will. I will arrange for you such testimonials
as shall make him lick his lips. The Home
Secretary himself shall recommend you."
This seemed to be carrying things a bit far, but Poirot
waved aside my remonstrances.
"Oh, yes, he will do it. I investigated for him a little
matter which might have caused a grave scandal. All
was solved with discretion and delicacy, and now, as
you would say, he perches upon my hand like the little
bird and pecks the crumbs."
Our first step was to engage the services of an artist in
"make-up." He was a little man, with a quaint birdlike
turn of the head, not unlike Poirot's own. He considered
me some time in silence, and then fell to work.
When I looked at myself in the glass half an hour afterwards,
I was amazed. Special shoes caused me to stand
'6 Agatha Christie
at least two inches taller, and the coat I wore was arranged so as to give me a long, lank, weedy look.
eyebrows had been cunningly altered, giving a totally different expression to my face, I wore pads in m}
cheeks, and the deep tan of my face was a thing of the
past. My moustache had gone, and a gold tooth wa;
prominent on one side of my mouth. "Your name," said Poirot, "is Arthur Neville. Goc
guard you, my friend--for I fear that you go intc perilous places."
It was with a beating heart that I presented myself a
the Savoy, at an hour named by Mr. Ryland, and askec
to see the great man.
After being kept waiting a minute or two, I was shown upstairs to his suite.
Ryland was sitting at a table. Spread out in front o;
him was a letter which I could see out of the tail of m] eye was in the Home Secretary's handwriting. It
first sight of the American millionaire, and, in spite o:
myself, I was impressed. He was tall and lean, with <
jutting out chin and slightly hooked nose. His eyes glit
tered cold and gray behind penthouse brows. He hac thick grizzled hair, and a long black cigar (withou
which, I learned later, he was never seen) protruded rak
ishly from the corner of his mouth.
"Siddown," he grunted.
I sat. He tapped the letter in front of him.
"According to this piece here, you're the goods al
right, and I don't need to look further. Say, are you wel
up in the social matters?"
I said that I thought I could satisfy him in tha
"I mean to say, if I have a lot of dooks and earls ai viscounts
and suchlike down to the country place I' ' gotten, you'll be able to sort them out all right and p'i
THE BIG FOUR 77
them where they should be round the dining table?" "Oh! quite easily," I replied, smiling.
We exchanged a few more preliminaries, and then I
found myself engaged. What Mr. Ryland wanted was a
secretary conversant with English society, as he already
had an American secretary and a stenographer with
Two days later I went down to Hatton Chase, the
seat of the Duke of Loamshire, which the American
millionaire had rented for a period of six months.
My duties gave me no difficulty whatever. At one
period of my life I had been private secretary to a busy
member of Parliament, so I was not called upon to
assume a role unfamiliar to me. Mr. Ryland usually
entertained a large party over the week-end, but the
middle of the week was comparatively quiet. I saw very
little of Mr. Appleby, the American secretary, but he
seemed a pleasant, normal young American, very efficient
in his work. Of Miss Martin, the stenographer, I
saw rather more. She was a pretty girl of about twentythree
or four, with auburn hair and brown eyes that
could look mischievous enough upon occasion, though
they were usually cast demurely down. I had an idea
that she both disliked and distrusted her employer,
though, of course, she was careful never to hint at anything
of the kind, but the time came when I was unexpectedly
taken into her confidence. I had, of course, carefully scrutinised all the members
of the household. One or two of the servants had been
newly engaged, one of the footmen, I think, and some
of the housemaids. The butler, the housekeeper, and the
chef were the duke's own staff, who had consented to
remain on in the establishment. The housemaids I dismissed
as unimportant; I scrutinised James, the second
footman, very carefully; but it was clear that he was
78 Agatha Christie
an under-footman and an under-footman only. He had,
indeed, been engaged by the butler. A person of whom I
was far more suspicious was Deaves, Ryland's valet,
whom he had brought over from New York with him.
An Englishman by birth, with an irreproachable manner,
I yet harboured vague suspicions about him.
I had been at Hatton Chase three weeks, and not an
incident of any kind had arisen which I could lay my
finger on in support of our theory. There was no trace
of the activities of the Big Four. Mr. Ryland was a man
of overpowering force and personality, but I was coming
to believe that Poirot had made a mistake when he
associated him with that dread organisation. I even
heard him mention Poirot in a casual way at dinner one
"Wonderful little man, they say. But he's a quitter. How do I know? I put him on a deal, and he turned me
down the last minute. I'm not taking any more of your
Monsieur Hercule Poirot."
It was at moments such as these that I felt my cheek
pads most wearisome!
And then Miss Martin told me a rather curious story.
Ryland had gone to London for the day, taking Appleby
with him. Miss Martin and I were strolling together
in the garden after tea. I liked the girl very much, she
was so unaffected and so natural. I could see that there
was something on her mind, and at last out it came.
"Do you know. Major Neville," she said, "I am
really thinking of resigning my post here."
I looked somewhat astonished, and she went on hur
"Oh! I know it's a wonderful job to have got, in a
way. I suppose most people would think me a fool to
throw it up. But I can't stand abuse. Major Neville. To
be sworn at like a trooper is more than I can bear. No
THE BIG FOUR 79
gentleman would do such a thing.''
"Has Ryland been swearing at you?"
"Of course, he's always rather irritable and shorttempered.
That one expects. It's all in the day's work.
But to fly into such an absolute fury—over nothing at all. He really looked as though he could have murdered
me! And, as I say, over nothing at all!"
"Tell me about it?" I said, keenly interested.
"As you know, I open all Mr. Ryland's letters. Some
I hand on to Mr. Appleby, others I deal with myself, but
I do all the preliminary sorting. Now there are certain
letters that come, written on blue paper, and with a tiny
4 marked on the corner—I beg your pardon, did you
I had been unable to repress a stifled exclamation, but
I hurriedly shook my head, and begged her to continue.
"Well, as I was saying, these letters come, and there
are strict orders that they are never to be opened, but to
be handed over to Mr. Ryland intact. And, of course, I
always do so. But there was an unusually heavy mail
yesterday morning, and I was opening the letters in a
terrific hurry. By mistake I opened one of these letters.
As soon as I saw what I had done, I took it to Mr.
Ryland and explained. To my utter amazement he flew
into the most awful rage. As I tell you, I was quite
"What was there in the letter, I wonder, to upset him
"Absolutely nothing—that's just the curious part of
it. I had read it before I discovered my mistake. It was quite short. I can still remember it word for word, and
there was nothing in it that could possibly upset any
"You can repeat it, you say?" I encouraged her.
80 Agatha Christie
"Yes." She paused a minute and then repeated
slowly, whilst I noted down the words unobtrusively,
the following:-"dear sir,--The essential thing now, I should
say, is to see the property. If you insist on the
quarry being included, then seventeen thousand
seems reasonable. 11% commission too much, 4%
Miss Martin went on:-"Evidently about some property Mr. Ryland was
thinking of buying. But really, I do feel that a man who
can get into a rage over such a trifle is, well, dangerous.
What do you think I ought to do. Major Neville?
You've more experience of the world than I have."
I soothed the girl down, pointed out to her that Mr.
Ryland had probably been suffering from the enemy of
his race--dyspepsia. In the end I sent her away quite
comforted. But I was not so easily satisfied myself.
When the girl had gone, and I was alone, I took out my notebook, and ran over the letter which I had jotted
down. What did it mean--this apparently innocentsounding
missive? Did it concern some business deal
which Ryland was undertaking, and was he anxious that
no details about it should leak out until it was carried
through? That was a possible explanation. But I remembered
the small figure 4 with which the envelopes
were marked, and I felt that, at last, I was on the track
of the thing we were seeking.
I puzzled over the letter all that evening, and most of
the next day--and then suddenly the solution came to
me. It was so simple, too. The figure 4 was the clue.
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 81
Read every fourth word in the letter, and an entirely different
message appeared. "Essential should see you
quarry seventeen eleven four."
The solution of the figures was easy. Seventeen stood
for the seventeenth of October--which was tomorrow,
eleven was the time, and four was the signature--either
referring to the mysterious Number Four himself--or
else it was the "trade-mark" so to speak, of the Big
Four. The quarry was also intelligible. There was a big
disused quarry on the estate about half a mile from the
house--a lonely spot, ideal for a secret meeting.
For a moment or two I was tempted to run the show myself. It would be such a feather in my cap, for once,
to have the pleasure of crowing over Poirot.
But in the end I overcame the temptation. This was a
big business--I had no right to play a lone hand, and
perhaps jeopardise our chances of success. For the first
time, we had stolen a march upon our enemies. We must
make good this time--and, disguise the fact as I might,
Poirot had the better brain of the two.
I wrote off post haste to him, laying the facts before
him, and explaining how urgent it was that we should
overhear what went on at the interview. If he liked to
leave it to me, well and good, but I gave him detailed instructions
how to reach the quarry from the station in
case he should deem it wise to be present himself.
I took the letter down to the village and posted it
myself. I had been able to communicate with Poirot
throughout my stay, by the simple expedient of posting
my letters myself, but we had agreed that he should not
attempt to communicate with me in case my letters
should be tampered with.
I was in a glow of excitement the following evening.
No guests were staying in the house, and I was busy with
Mr. Ryland in his study all the evening. I had foreseen
82 Agatha Christie
that this would be the case, which was why I had had no
hope of being able to meet Poirot at the station. I was, however, confident that I would be dismissed well before
Sure enough, just after- ten-thirty, Mr. Ryland
glanced at the clock, and announced that he was
"through." I took the hint and retired discreetly. I went
upstairs as though going to bed, but slipped quietly
down a side staircase and let myself out into the garden,
having taken the precaution to don a dark overcoat to
hide my white shirtfront.
I had gone some way down the garden when I
chanced to look over my shoulder. Mr. Ryland was just
stepping out from his study window into the garden. He was starting to keep the appointment. I
pace, so as to get a clear start. I arrived at the quarry
somewhat out of breath. There seemed no one about,
and I crawled into a thick tangle of bushes and awaited
Ten minutes later, just on the stroke of eleven,
Ryland stalked up, his hat over his eyes and the inevitable
cigar in his mouth. He gave a quick look round,
and then plunged into the hollows of the quarry below.
Presently I heard a low murmur of voices come up to
me. Evidently the other man--or men--whoever they
were, had arrived first at the rendezvous. I crawled cautiously
out of the bushes, and inch by inch, using the
utmost precaution against noise, I wormed myself down the steep path. Only a boulder now separated me from
the talking men. Secure in the blackness, I peeped round
the edge of it and found myself facing the muzzle of a
black, murderous-looking automatic!
"Hands up!" said Mr. Ryland succinctly. "I've been
waiting for you."
He was seated in the shadow of the rock, so that I
THE BIG FOUR 83
could not see his face, but the menace in his voice was
unpleasant. Then I felt a ring of cold steel on the back
of my neck, and Ryland lowered his own automatic.
"That's right, George," he drawled. "March him
Raging inwardly, I was conducted to a spot in the
shadows, where the unseen George (whom I suspected
of being the impeccable Deaves), gagged and bound me
Ryland spoke again in a tone which I had difficulty in
recognising, so cold and menacing was it.
"This is going to be the end of you two. You've got in
the way of the Big Four once too often. Ever heard of
land slides? There was one about here two years ago.
There's going to be another to-night. I've fixed that
good and square. Say, that friend of yours doesn't keep
his dates very punctually." A wave of horror swept over me. Poirot! In another
minute lie would walk straight into the trap. And I was
powerless to warn him. I could only pray that he had
elected to leave the matter in my hands, and had remained
in London. Surely, if he had been coming, he
would have been here by now.
With every minute that passed, my hopes rose.
Suddenly they were dashed to pieces. I heard footsteps--cautious
footsteps, but footsteps nevertheless. I
writhed in impotent agony. They came down the path,
paused, and then Poirot himself appeared, his head a
little on one side, peering into the shadows.
I heard the growl of satisfaction Ryland gave as he
raised the big automatic and shouted "Hands up."
Deaves sprang forward as he did so, and took Poirot in
the rear. The ambush was complete.
"Please to meet you, Mr. Hercule Poirot," said the
84 Agatha Christie
Poirot's self-possession was marvellous. He did not
turn a hair. But I saw his eyes searching in the shadows.
"My friend? He is here?"
"Yes, you are both in the trap—the trap of the Big
"A trap?" queried Poirot. "Say, haven't you tumbled to it yet?"
"I comprehend that there is a trap—yes," said Poirot
gently. "But you are in error, monsieur. It is you who
are in it—not I and my friend."
"What?" Ryland raised the big automatic, but I saw
his gaze falter.
"If you fire, you commit murder watched by ten pairs
of eyes, and you will be hanged for it. This place is surrounded—has
been for the last hour—by Scotland Yard
men. It is checkmate, Mr. Abe Ryland."
He uttered a curious whistle, and as though by magic,
the place was alive with men. They seized Ryland and
the valet and disarmed them. After speaking a few
words to the officer in charge, Poirot took me by the
arm, and led me away.
Once clear of the quarry he embraced me with vigour.
"You are alive—you are unhurt. It is magnificent.
Often have I blamed myself for letting you go."
"I'm perfectly all right," I said, disengaging myself.
"But I'm just a big fogged. You tumbled to their little
scheme, did you?"
"But I was waiting for it! For what else did I permit
you to go there? Your false name, your disguise, not for
a moment was it intended to deceive!"
"What?" I cried. "You never told me." "As I have frequently told you, Hastings, you have a
nature so beautiful and so honest that unless you are
yourself deceived, it is impossible for you to deceive
THE BIG FOUR 85
others. Good, then, you are spotted from the first, and
they do what I had counted on their doing--a mathematical certainty to any one who uses his gray cells
properly--use you as a decoy. They set the girl on-- By
the way, mon ami, as an interesting fact psychologically,
has she got red hair?"
"If you mean Miss Martin," I said coldly. "Her hair
is a delicate shade of auburn, but--"
"They are epatant-- these people? They have even
studied your psychology. Oh! yes, my friend. Miss Martin
was in the plot--very much so. She repeats the letter
to you, together with her tale of Mr. Ryland's wrath,
you write it down, you puzzle your brains--the cipher
is nicely arranged, difficult, but not too difficult--you
solve it, and you send for me."
"But what they do not know is that I am waiting for
just this very thing to happen. I go post haste to Japp
and arrange things. And so, as you see, all is triumph!"
I was not particularly pleased with Poirot, and I told
him so. We went back to London on a milk train in the
early hours of the morning, and a most uncomfortable
journey it was.
I was just out of my bath and indulging in pleasurable thoughts of breakfast when I heard Japp's voice in the
sitting-room. I threw on a bathrobe and hurried in.
"A pretty mare's nest you've got us into this time,"
Japp was saying. "It's too bad of you, M. Poirot. First
time I've ever known you take a toss."
Poirot's face was a study. Japp went on.
"There were we, taking all this Black Hand stuff
seriously--and all the time it was the footman."
"The footman?" I gasped.
"Yes, James, or whatever his name is. Seems he laid 'em a wager in the servants' hall that he could get
for the old man by his nibs--that's you. Captain
86 Agatha Christie
Hastings--and would hand him out a lot of spy stuff
about a Big Four gang."
"Impossible! "I cried.
"Don't you believe it. I marched our gentleman
straight to Hatton Chase, and there was the real Ryland
in bed and asleep, and the butler and the cook and God
knows how many of them to swear to the wager. Just a
silly hoax--that's all it was--and the valet is with him."
"So that was why he kept in the shadow," murmured
After Japp had gone we looked at each other.
"We know, Hastings," said Poirot at last. "Number
Two of the Big Four is Abe Ryland. The masquerading on the part of the footman was to ensure a way of retreat
in case of emergencies. And the footman--"
"Yes," I breathed.
"Number Four," said Poirot gravely.
''The Tellow Jasmine ^Mystery
It was all very well for Poirot to say that we were acquiring
information all the time and gaining an insight into
our adversaries' minds--I felt myself that I required
some more tangible success than this.
Since we had come into contact with the Big Four,
they had committed two murders, abducted Halliday,
and had been within an ace of killing Poirot and myself;
whereas so far we had hardly scored a point in the game.
Poirot treated my complaints lightly.
"So far, Hastings," he said, "they laugh. That is
true, but you have a proverb, have you not: 'He laughs
best who laughs at the end'? And at the end, mon ami, you shall see.
"You must remember, too," he added, "that we deal
with no ordinary criminal, but with the second greatest
brain in the world." 87
88 Agatha Christie
I forbore to pander to his conceit by asking the obvious
question. I knew the answer, at least I knew what
Poirot's answer would be, and instead I tried without
success to elicit some information as to what steps he
was taking to track down the enemy. As usual he had
kept me completely in the dark as to his movements,
but I gathered that he was in touch with secret service
agents in India, China, and Russia, and, from his occasional
bursts of self-glorification, that he was at least
progressing in his favourite game of gauging his
He had abandoned his private practice almost entirely,
and I know that at this time he refused some
remarkably handsome fees. True, he would sometimes
investigate cases which intrigued him, but he usually
dropped them the moment he was convinced that they
had no connection with the activities of the Big Four.
This attitude of his was remarkably profitable to our
friend, Inspector Japp. Undeniably he gained much
kudos for solving several problems in which his success
was really due to a half-contemptuous hint from Poirot.
In return for such service Japp supplied full details of
any case which he thought might interest the little
Belgian, and when he was put in charge of what the newspaper called "The Yellow Jasmine Mystery," he
wired Poirot, asking him whether he would care to come
down and look into the case.
It was in response to this wire that, about a month
after my adventure in Abe Ryland's house, we found
ourselves alone in a railway compartment whirling away
from the smoke and dust of London, bound for the
little town of Market Handford in Worcestershire, the seat of the mystery.
Poirot leant back in his corner.
THE BIG FOUR 89
"And what exactly is your opinion of the affair,
I did not at once reply to his question; I felt the need
of going warily.
"It all seems so complicated," I said cautiously.
"Does it not?" said Poirot delightedly.
"I suppose our rushing off like this is a pretty clear
sign that you consider Mr. Paynter's death to be murder
--not suicide or the result of an accident?"
"No, no; you misunderstand me, Hastings. Granting
that Mr. Paynter died as the result of a particularly terrible
accident, there are still a number of mysterious circumstances
to be explained."
"That was what I meant when I said it was all so complicated." "Let us go over all the main facts quietly and methodically.
Recount them to me, Hastings, in an orderly
and lucid fashion."
I started forthwith, endeavouring to be as orderly
and lucid as I could.
"We start," I said, "with Mr. Paynter. A man of
fifty-five, rich, cultured, and some'what of a globetrotter.
For the last twelve years he has been little in
England, but suddenly tiring of inces sant travelling, he
bought a small place in Worcestershire, near Market
Handford, and prepared to settle dov^n. His first action
was to write to his only relative, ^ nephew, Gerald
Paynter, the son of his younger brother, and to suggest
to him that he should come and make his home at Croftlands
(as the place is called) with [his uncle. Gerald
Paynter, who is an impecunious your-ig artist, was glad
enough to fall in with the arrangement, and had been
living with his uncle for about seven months when the
90 Agatha Christie
"Your narrative style is masterly," murmured Poirot.
"I say to myself, it is a book that talks, not my
Paying no attention to Poirot, I went on, warming to
"Mr. Paynter kept up a fair staff at Croftlands--six servants as well as his own Chinese body servant--Ah
"His Chinese servant, Ah Ling," murmured Poirot.
"On Tuesday last, Mr. Paynter complained of feeling
unwell after dinner, and one of the servants was despatched
to fetch the doctor. Mr. Paynter received the
doctor in his study, having refused to go to bed. What
passed between them was not then known, but before
Doctor Quentin left, he asked to see the housekeeper,
and mentioned that he had given Mr. Paynter a hypodermic
injection as his heart was in a very weak state,
recommended that he should not be disturbed, and then
proceeded to ask some rather curious questions about
the servants--how long they had been there, from
whom they had come, etc.
"The housekeeper answered these questions as best
she could, but was rather puzzled as to their purport. A
terrible discovery was made on the following morning.
One of the housemaids, on descending, was met by a
sickening odour of burned flesh which seemed to come
from her master's study. She tried the door, but it was
locked on the inside. With the assistance of Gerald
Paynter and the Chinaman that was soon broken in, but
a terrible sight greeted them. Mr. Paynter had fallen
forward into the gas fire, and his face and head were charred beyond recognition.
"Of course, at the moment, no suspicion was aroused
as to its being anything but a ghastly accident. If blame
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 91
attached to any one, it was to Doctor Quentin for giving
his patient a narcotic and leaving him in such a dangerous
position. And then a rather curious discovery was
"There was a newspaper on the floor, lying where it
had slipped from the old man's knees. On turning it
over, words were found to be scrawled across it, feebly
traced in ink. A writing-table stood close to the chair in
which Mr. Paynter had been sitting, and the forefinger
of the victim's right hand was ink-stained up to the second
joint. It was clear that, too weak to hold a pen, Mr.
Paynter had dipped his finger in the ink-pot and managed
to scrawl these two words across the surface of the
newspaper he held--but the words themselves seemed
utterly fantastic: Yellow Jasmine--just that and nothing
"Croftlands has a large quantity of yellow jasmine
growing up its walls, and it was thought that this dying
message had some reference to them, showing that the
poor old man's mind was wandering. Of course, the
newspapers, agog for anything out of the common,
took up the story hotly, calling it the Mystery of the Yellow Jasmine--though in all probability the words
are completely unimportant."
"They are unimportant, you say?" said Poirot.
"Well, doubtless, since you say so, it must be so."
I regarded him dubiously, but I could detect no
mockery in his eye.
"And then," I continued, "there came the excitements
of the inquest."
"This is where you lick your lips, I perceive."
"There was a certain amount of feeling evidenced
against Dr. Quentin. To begin with, he was not the regular
doctor, only a locum, putting in a month's work,
92 Agatha Christie
whilst Dr. Bolitho was away on a well-earned holiday.
Then it was felt that his carelessness was the direct cause
of the accident. But his evidence was little short of sensational.
Mr. Paynter had been ailing in health ever
since his arrival at Croftlands. Dr. Bolitho had attended
him for some time, but when Dr. Quentin first saw his
patient, he was mystified by some of the symptoms. He
had only attended him once before the night when he
was sent for after dinner. As soon as he was alone with
Mr. Paynter, the latter had unfolded a surprising tale.
To begin with, he was not feeling ill at all, he explained,
but the taste of some curry that he had been eating at dinner had struck him as peculiar. Making an excuse to
get rid of Ah Ling for a few minutes, he had turned the
contents of his plate into a bowl, and he now handed it
over to the doctor with injunctions to find out if there
were really anything wrong with it.
"In spite of his statement that he was not feeling ill,
the doctor noted that the shock of his suspicions had
evidently affected him, and that his heart was feeling it.
Accordingly he administered an injection--not of a narcotic,
but of strychnine.
"That, I think, completes the case--except for the crux of the whole thing--the fact that the uneaten
duly analysed, was found to contain enough powdered
opium to have killed two men!"
"And your conclusions, Hastings?" asked Poirot
"It's difficult to say. It might be an accident--the
fact that some one attempted to poison him the same
night might be merely a coincidence."
"But you don't think so? You prefer to believe
THE BIG FOUR 93
"Mon ami, you and I do not reason in the same way.
I am not trying to make up my mind between two opposite solutions--murder or accident--that will come
when we have solved the other problem--the mystery of
the 'Yellow Jasmine.' By the way, you have left out
"You mean the two lines at right angles to each other
faintly indicated under the words? I did not think they
could be of any possible importance."
"What you think is always so important to yourself,
Hastings. But let us pass from the mystery of the Yellow
Jasmine to the Mystery of the Curry."
"I know. Who poisoned it? Why? There are a hundred
questions one can ask. Ah Ling, of course, prepared
it. But why should he wish to kill his master? Is he
a member of a long, or something like that? One reads
of such things. The long of the Yellow Jasmine, perhaps.
Then there is Gerald Paynter."
I came to an abrupt pause.
"Yes," said Poirot, nodding his head. "There is
Gerald Paynter, as you say. He is his uncle's heir. He
was dining out that night, though."
"He might have got at some of the ingredients of the
curry," I suggested. "And he would take care to be out,
so as not to have to partake of the dish."
I think my reasoning rather impressed Poirot. He
looked at me with a more respectful attention than he
had given me so far. "He returns late," I mused, pursuing a hypothetical
case. "Sees the light in his uncle's study, enters, and,
finding his plan has failed, thrusts the old man down
into the fire."
"Mr. Paynter, who was a fairly hearty man of fifty
94 Agatha Christie
five, would not permit himself to be burnt to death
without a struggle, Hastings. Such a reconstruction is
"Well, Poirot," I cried, "we're nearly there, I fancy.
Let us hear what you think?"
Poirot threw me a smile, swelled out his chest, and
began in a pompous manner.
"Assuming murder, the question at once arises, why
choose that particular method? I can think of only one
reason--to confuse identity, the face being charred
"What?" I cried. "You think--"
"A moment's patience, Hastings. I was going on to
say that I examine that theory. Is there any ground for
believing that the body is not that of Mr. Paynter? Is
there any one else whose body it possibly could be? I examine
these two questions and finally I answer them
both in the negative."
"Oh!" I said, rather disappointed. "And then?"
Poirot's eyes twinkled a little. "And then I say to myself, 'since there is here something
that I do not understand, it would be well that I
should investigate the matter. I must not permit myself
to be wholly engrossed by the Big Four.' Ah! we are just
arriving. My little clothes brush, where does it hide
itself? Here it is--brush me down, I pray you, my
friend, and then I will perform the same service for
"Yes," said Poirot thoughtfully, as he put away the
brush, " one must not permit oneself to be obsessed by
one idea. I have been in danger of that. Figure to yourself,
my friend, that even here, in this case, I am in
danger of it. Those two lines you mentioned, a downstroke
and a line at right angles to it, what are they but
the beginning of a 4? "
THE BIG FOUR 95
"Good gracious, Poirot," I cried, laughing.
"Is it not absurd? I see the hand of the Big Four
everywhere. It is well to employ one's wits in a totally
different milieu. Ah! there is Japp come to meet us."
7fX«<«^ ">>? ">>><^ 10
The Scotland Yard Inspector was, indeed, waiting on
the platform, and greeted us warmly.
"Well, Moosior Poirot, this is good. Thought you'd
like to be let in on this. Tip-top mystery, isn't it?"
I read this aright as showing Japp to be completely
puzzled and hoping to pick up a pointer from Poirot.
Japp had a car waiting, and we drove up in it to
Croftlands. It was a square, white house, quite unpretentious,
and covered with creepers, including the starry
yellow jasmine. Japp looked up at it as we did.
"Must have been balmy to go writing that, poor old
cove," he remarked. "Hallucinations, perhaps, and
thought he was outside."
Poirot was smiling at him.
"Which was it, my good Japp?" he asked; "accident
98 Agatha Christie
The Inspector seemed a little embarrassed by the
"Well/if it weren't for that curry business, I'd be for
accident every time. There's no sense in holding a live
man's head in the fire--why, he'd scream the house
down." "Ah!" said Poirot in a low voice. "Fool that I have
been. Triple imbecile! You are a cleverer man than I am,
Japp was rather taken aback by the compliment-Poirot being usually given to exclusive self-praise. He
reddened and muttered something about there being a
lot of doubt about that.
He led the way through the house to the room where
the tragedy had occurred--Mr. Paynter's study. It was a
wide, low room, with book-lined walls and big leather
Poirot looked across at once to the window which
gave upon a gravelled terrace.
"The window, it was unlatched?" he asked.
"That's the whole point, of course. When the doctor
left this room, he merely closed the door behind him.
The next morning it was found locked. Who locked it?
Mr. Paynter? Ah Ling declares that the window was
closed and bolted. Dr. Quentin, on the other hand, has
an impression that it was closed, but not fastened, but
he won't swear either way. If he could, it would make a
great difference. If the man was murdered, some one
entered the room either through the door or the window
--if through the door, it was an inside job; if through
the window, it might have been any one. First thing when they had broken the door down, they flung the
window open, and the housemaid who did it thinks that
it wasn't fastened, but she's a precious bad witness- will remember anything you ask her to!"
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 99
"What about the key?"
"There you are again. It was on the floor among the
wreckage of the door. Might have fallen from the
keyhole, might have been dropped there by one of the
people who entered, might have been slipped underneath
the door from the outside."
"In fact everything is 'might have been'?"
"You've hit it, Moosior Poirot. That's just what it
Poirot was looking round him, frowning unhappily.
"I cannot see light," he murmured. "Just now--yes,
I got a gleam, but now all is darkness once more. I have
not the clue--the motive."
"Young Gerald Paynter had a pretty good motive,"
remarked Japp grimly. "He's been wild enough in his
time, I can tell you. And extravagant. You know what
artists are, too--no morals at all."
Poirot did not pay much attention to Japp's sweeping
strictures on the artistic temperament. Instead he smiled
"My good Japp, is it possible that you throw the mud
in my eyes? I know well enough that it is the Chinaman you suspect. But you are so artful. You want me to help
you--and yet you drag the red kipper across the trail."
Japp burst out laughing.
"That's you all over, Mr. Poirot. Yes, I'd bet on the
Chink, I'll admit it now. It stands to reason that it was
he who doctored the curry, and if he'd try once in an
evening to get his master out of the way, he'd try twice."
"I wonder if he would," said Poirot softly.
"But it's the motive that beats me. Some heathen
revenge or other, I suppose."
"I wonder," said Poirot again. "There has been no
robbery? Nothing has disappeared? No jewellery, or
money, or papers?"
100 Agatha Christie "No--that is, not exactly."
I pricked up my ears; so did Poirot.
"There's been no robbery, I mean," explained Japp.
"But the old boy was writing a book of some sort. We
only knew about it this morning when there was a letter
from the publishers asking about the manuscript. It was
just completed, it seems. Young Paynter and I have
searched high and low, but can't find a trace of it--he
must have hidden it away somewhere."
Poirot's eyes were shining with the green light I knew
so well. "How was it called, this book?" he asked.
"The Hidden Hand in China, I think it was called."
"Aha!" said Poirot, with almost a gasp. Then he said
quickly, "Let me see the Chinaman, Ah Ling."
The Chinaman was sent for and appeared, shuffling
along, with his eyes cast down, and his pigtail swinging.
His impassive face showed no trace of any kind of emotion. "Ah Ling," said Poirot, "are you sorry your master
"I welly sorry. He good master."
"You know who kill him?"
"I not know. I tell pleeceman if I know."
The questions and answers went on. With the same
impassive face. Ah Ling described how he had made the
curry. The cook had had nothing to do with it, he
declared, no hand had touched it but his own. I wondered
if he saw where his admission was leading him. He
stuck to it too, that the window to the garden was bolted
that evening. If it was open in the morning, his master
must have opened it himself. At last Poirot dismissed
"That will do, Ah Ling." Just as the Chinaman had
got to the door, Poirot recalled him. "And you know
THE BIG FOUR 101
nothing, you say, of the Yellow Jasmine?" "No, what should I know?"
"Nor yet of the sign that was written underneath it?"
Poirot leant forward as he spoke, and quickly traced
something on the dust of a little table. I was near
enough to see it before he rubbed it out. A down stroke,
a line at right angles, and then a second line down which
completed a big 4. The effect on the Chinaman was electrical.
For one moment his face was a mask of terror.
Then, as suddenly, it was impassive again, and repeating
his grave disclaimer, he withdrew.
Japp departed in search of young Paynter, and Poirot
and I were left alone together.
"The Big Four, Hastings," cried Poirot. "Once
again, the Big Four. Paynter was a great traveller. In his
book there was doubtless some vital information concerning
the doings of Number One, Li Chang Yen, the
head and brains of the Big Four."
"Hush, here they come."
Gerald Paynter was an amiable, rather weak-looking
young man. He had a soft brown beard, and a peculiar
flowing tie. He answered Poirot's questions readily
"I dined out with some neighbours of ours, the
Wycherlys," he explained. "What time did I get home? Oh, about eleven. I had a latch-key, you know. All the
servants had gone to bed, and I naturally thought my
uncle had done the same. As a matter of fact, I did think
I caught sight of that soft-footed Chinese beggar Ah
Ling just whisking round the corner of the hall, but I
fancy I was mistaken."
"When did you last see your uncle, Mr. Paynter? I
mean before you came to live with him."
"Oh! not since I was a kid of ten. He and his brother
102 Agatha Christie
(my father) quarrelled, you know."
"But he found you again with very little trouble, did
he not? In spite of all the years that had passed?"
"Yes, it was quite a bit of luck my seeing the lawyer's
Poirot asked no more questions.
Our next move was to visit Dr. Quentin. His story was
substantially the same as he had told at the inquest, and
he had little to add to it. He received us in his surgery,
having just come to the end of his consulting patients.
He seemed an intelligent man. A certain primness of
manner went well with his pince-nez, but I fancied that
he would be thoroughly modern in his methods.
"I wish I could remember about the window," he
said frankly. "But it's dangerous to think back, one
becomes quite positive about something that never existed. That's psychology, isn't it, M. Poirot? You see,
I've read all about your methods, and I may say I'm an
enormous admirer of yours. No, I suppose it's pretty
certain that the Chinaman put the powdered opium in
the curry, but he'll never admit it, and we shall never
know why. But holding a man down in a fire—that's
not in keeping with our Chinese friend's character, it
seems to me."
I commented on this last point to Poirot as we walked
down the main street of Market Handford.
"Do you think he let a confederate in?" I asked. "By
the way, I suppose Japp can be trusted to keep an eye on
him?" (The Inspector had passed into the police station
on some business or other.) "The emissaries of the Big
Four are pretty spry."
"Japp is keeping an eye on both of them," said
Poirot grimly. "They have been closely shadowed ever
since the body was discovered."
THE BIG FOUR 103
"Well, at any rate we know that Gerald Paynter had
nothing to do with it."
"You always know so much more than I do, Hastings,
that it becomes quite fatiguing."
"You old fox," I laughed. "You never will commit
yourself." "To be honest, Hastings, the case is now quite clear
to me--all but the words, Yellow Jasmine--and I am
coming to agree with you that they have no bearing on
the crime. In a case of this kind, you have got to make up your mind who is lying. I have done that. And
He suddenly darted from my side and entered an adjacent
bookshop. He emerged a few minutes later, hugging
a parcel. Then Japp rejoined us, and we all sought
quarters at the inn.
I slept late the next morning. When I descended to the
sitting-room reserved for us, I found Poirot already
there, pacing up and down, his face contorted with
"Do not converse with me," he cried, waving an agitated
hand. "Not until I know that all is well--that the
arrest is made. Ah! but my psychology has been weak.
Hastings, if a man writes a dying message, it is because
it is important. Every one has said--'Yellow Jasmine?
There is yellow jasmine growing up the house--it means
"Well, what does it mean? Just what it says. Listen."
He held up a little book he was holding.
"My friend, it struck me that it would be well to inquire
into the subject. What exactly is yellow jasmine?
This little book has told me. Listen."
He read. " 'Gelsemini Radix. Yellow Jasmine. Composition:
104 Agatha Christie
Alkaloids gelseminine CziHigNiOa, a potent poison
acting like coniine; gelsemine CnH^NOi, acting like
strychnine; gelsemic acid, etc. Gelsemium is a powerful
depressant to the central nervous system. At a late stage
in its action it paralyses the motor nerve endings, and in
large doses causes giddiness and loss of muscular power.
Death is due to paralysis of the respiratory centre.'
"You see, Hastings? At the beginning I had an inkling
of the truth when Japp made his remark about a
live man being forced into the fire. I realised then that it
was a dead man who was burned."
"But why? What was the point?"
"My friend, if you were to shoot a man, or stab a
man after he were dead, or even knock him on the head,
it would be apparent that the injuries were inflicted after
death. But with his head charred to a cinder, no one is
going to hunt about for obscure causes of death, and a
man who has apparently just escaped being poisoned at
dinner, is not likely to be poisoned just afterwards. Who is lying, that is always the question? I decided
"What?" I exclaimed.
"You are surprised, Hastings? Ah Ling knew of the existence of the Big Four, that was evident--so evident
that it was clear he knew nothing of their association
with the crime until that moment. Had he been the
murderer, he would have been able to retain his impassive
face perfectly. So I decided then, to believe Ah
Ling, and I fixed my suspicions on Gerald Paynter. It
seemed to me that Number Four would have found an
impersonation of a long lost nephew very easy."
"What!" I cried. "Number Four?"
"No, Hastings, not Number Four. As soon as I had
read up the subject of yellow jasmine, I saw the truth. In
fact, it leapt to the eye."
"As always," I said coldly, "it doesn't leap to mine."
"Because you will not use your little gray cells. Who
had a chance to tamper with the curry?"
"Ah Ling. No one else."
"No one else? What about the doctor?"
"But that was afterwards."
"Of course it was afterwards. There was no trace of
powdered opium in the curry served to Mr. Paynter, but
acting in obedience to the suspicions Dr. Quentin had
aroused, the old man eats none of it, and preserves it to
give to his medical attendant, whom he summons according
to plan. Dr. Quentin arrives, takes charge of the
curry, and gives Mr. Paynter an injection--of strychnine, he says, but really of yellow jasmine--a poisonous
dose. When the drug begins to take effect, he departs,
after unlatching the window. Then, in the night, he
returns by the window, finds the manuscript, and
shoves Mr. Paynter into the fire. He does not heed the
newspaper that drops to the floor and is covered by the
old man's body. Paynter knew what drug he had been
given, and strove to accuse the Big Four of his murder.
It is easy for Quentin to mix powdered opium with the
curry before handing it over to be analysed. He gives his
version of the conversation with the old man, and mentions
the strychnine injection casually, in case the mark
of the hypodermic needle is noticed. Suspicion at once is
divided between accident and the guilt of Ah Ling owing
to the poison in the curry."
"But Dr. Quentin cannot be Number Four?"
"I fancy he can. There is undoubtedly a real Dr.
Quentin who is probably abroad somewhere. Number
Four has simply masqueraded as him for a short time.
The arrangements with Dr. Bolitho were all carried out
by correspondence, the man who was to do locum originally
having been taken ill at the last minute."
At that minute, Japp burst in, very red in the face.
"You have got him?" cried Poirot anxiously.
Japp shook his head, very out of breath.
"Bolitho came back from his holiday this morning —recalled by telegram. No one knows who sent it. The
other man left last night. We'll catch him yet, though."
Poirot shook his head quietly.
"I think not," he said, and absent-mindedly he drew
a big 4 on the table with a fork. The Problem Poirot and I often dined at a small restaurant in Soho.
We were there one evening, when we observed a friend
at an adjacent table. It was Inspector Japp, and as there
was room at our table, he came and joined us. It was
some time since either of us had seen him.
"Never do you drop in to see us nowadays," declared
Poirot reproachfully. "Not since the affair of the Yellow
Jasmine have we met, and that is nearly a month
"I've been up north--that's why. How are things
with you? Big Four still going strong--eh?"
Poirot shook a finger at him reproachfully.
"Ah! you mock yourself at me--but the Big Four-they exist."
"Oh! I don't doubt that--but they're not the hub of
the universe, as you make out."
"My friend, you are very much mistaken. The greatest power for evil in the world to-day is this 'Big
Four.' To what end they are tending, no one knows, but
there has never been another such criminal organisation.
The finest brain in China at the head of it, an
American millionaire, and a French woman scientist as
members, and for the fourth--"
"I know--I know. Regular bee in your bonnet over it
all. It's becoming your little mania, Moosior Poirot.
Let's talk of something else for a change. Take any interest
"I have played it, yes."
"Did you see that curious business yesterday? Match
between two players of world-wide reputation, and one
died during the game?"
"I saw a mention of it. Dr. Savaronoff, the Russian
champion, was one of the players, and the other, who
succumbed to heart failure, was the brilliant young
American, Gilmour Wilson."
"Quite right. Savaronoff beat Rubinstein and became
Russian champion some years ago. Wilson is said to be
a second Capablanca."
"A very curious occurrence," mused Poirot. "If
I mistake not, you have a particular interest in the
Japp gave a rather embarrassed laugh. "You've hit it, Moosior Poirot. I'm puzzled. Wilson
was sound as a bell--no trace of heart trouble. His death is quite inexplicable."
"You suspect Dr. Savaronoff of putting him out of
the way?" I cried.
"Hardly that," said Japp dryly. "I don't think even a
Russian would murder another man in order not to be
beaten at chess--and anyway, from all I can make out,
the boot was likely to be on the other leg. The doctor is
supposed to be very hot stuff--second to Lasker they
say he is."
Poirot nodded thoughtfully.
"Then what exactly is your little idea?" he asked.
"Why should Wilson be poisoned? For, I assume, of
course, that it is poison you suspect."
"Naturally. Heart failure means your heart stops
beating--that's all there is to that. That's what a doctor
says officially at the moment, but privately he tips us the
wink that he's not satisfied."
"When is the autopsy to take place?"
"To-night. Wilson's death was extraordinarily sudden.
He seemed quite as usual and was actually moving
one of the pieces when he suddenly fell forward-dead!"
"There are very few poisons would act in such a fashion,"
objected Poirot. "I know. The autopsy will help us, I expect. But why
should anyone want Gilmour Wilson out of the way-that's what I'd like to know? Harmless unassuming
young fellow. Just come over here from the States, and
apparently hadn't an enemy in the world."
"It seems incredible," I mused.
"Not at all," said Poirot, smiling. "Japp has his
theory, I can see."
"I have, Moosior Poirot. I don't believe the poison
was meant for Wilson--it was meant for the other
"Yes. Savaronoff fell foul of the Bolsheviks at the
outbreak of the Revolution. He was even reported
killed. In reality he escaped, and for three years endured
incredible hardships in the wilds of Siberia. His sufferings
were so great that he is now a changed man. His
friends and acquaintances declare they would hardly
have recognised him. His hair is white, and his whole
aspect that of a man terribly aged. He is a semi-invalid,
and seldom goes out, living alone with a niece, Sonia
Daviloff, and a Russian man-servant in a flat down
Westminster way. It is possible that he still considers
himself a marked man. Certainly he was very unwilling
to agree to this chess contest. He refused several times
point blank, and it was only when the newspapers took it up and began making a fuss about the 'unsportsmanlike
refusal' that he gave in. Gilmour Wilson had gone
on challenging him with real Yankee pertinacity, and in
the end he got his way. Now I ask you, Moosior Poirot,
why wasn't he willing? Because he didn't want attention
drawn to him. Didn't want somebody or other to get
on his track. That's my solution--Gilmour Wilson got
pipped by mistake."
"There is no one who has any private reason to gain
by Savaronoff's death?"
"Well, his niece, I suppose. He's recently come into
an immense fortune. Left him by Madame Gospoja
whose husband was a sugar profiteer under the old regime.
They had an affair together once, I believe, and
she refused steadfastly to credit the reports of his
"Where did the match take place?"
"In Savaronoff's own flat. He's an invalid, as I told
"Many people there to watch it?"
"At least a dozen--probably more."
Poirot made an expressive grimace.
"My poor Japp, your task is not an easy one."
"Once I know definitely that Wilson was poisoned, I
can get on." "Has it occurred to you that, in the meantime, supposing your assumption that Savaronoff was the
victim to be correct, the murderer may try
"Of course it has. Two men are watching Savaronoff's
"That will be very useful if any one should call with a
bomb under his arm," said Poirot dryly.
"You're getting interested, Moosier Poirot," said
Japp, with a twinkle. "Care to come round to the mortuary
and see Wilson's body before the doctors start on
it? Who knows, his tie-pin may be askew, and that may
give you a valuable clue that will solve the mystery."
"My dear Japp, all through dinner my fingers have
been itching to rearrange your own tie-pin. You permit,
yes? Ah! that is much more pleasing to the eye. Yes, by
all means, let us go to the mortuary."
I could see that Poirot's attention was completely
captivated by this new problem. It was so long since he
had shown any interest over any outside case that I was
quite rejoiced to see him back in his old form.
For my own part, I felt a deep pity as I looked down
upon the motionless form and convulsed face of the
hapless young American who had come by his death in
such a strange way. Poirot examined the body attentively.
There was no mark on it anywhere, except a small scar on the left hand.
"And the doctor says that's a burn, not a cut," explained
Poirot's attention shifted to the contents of the dead
man's pockets which a constable spread out for our
inspection. There was nothing much--a handkerchief,
keys, note-case filled with notes, and some unimportant
letters. But one object standing by itself filled Poirot
with interest. "A chessman!" he exclaimed. "A white bishop. Was
that in his pocket?"
"No, clasped in his hand. We had quite a difficulty
to get it out of his fingers. It must be returned to Dr.
Savaronoff sometime. It's part of a very beautiful set of
carved ivory chessmen."
"Permit me to return it to him. It will make an excuse
for my going there."
"Aha!" cried Japp. "So you want to come in on this
"I admit it. So skilfully have you aroused my interest." "That's fine. Got you away from your brooding.
Captain Hastings is pleased, too, I can see."
"Quite right," I said, laughing.
Poirot turned back towards the body. "No other little detail you can tell me about--him?"
"I don't think so."
"Not even--that he was left-handed?"
"You're a wizard, Moosior Poirot. How did you
know that? He was left-handed. Not that it's anything
to do with the case."
"Nothing whatever," agreed Poirot hastily, seeing
that Japp was slightly ruffled. "My little joke--that was
all. I like to play you the trick, see you."
We went out upon an amicable understanding.
The following morning saw us wending our way to
Dr. Savaronoff's flat in Westminster.
"Sonia Daviloff," I mused. "It's a pretty name."
Poirot stopped, and threw me a look of despair.
"Always looking for romance! You are incorrigible.
It would serve you right if Sonia Daviloff turned out to
be our friend and enemy the Countess Vera Rossakoff." At the mention of the countess, my face clouded over.
"Surely, Poirot, you don't suspect--"
"But, no, no. It was a joke! I have not the Big Four
on the brain to that extent, whatever Japp may say."
The door of the flat was opened to us by a man-servant
with a peculiarly wooden face. It seemed impossible to believe that that impassive countenance could ever
Poirot presented a card on which Japp had scribbled
a few words of introduction, and we were shown into a
low, long room furnished with rich hangings and curios.
One or two wonderful ikons hung upon the walls, and
exquisite Persian rugs lay upon the floor. A samovar
stood upon a table.
I was examining one of the ikons which I judged to be
of considerable value, and turned to see Poirot prone
upon the floor. Beautiful as the rug was, it hardly
seemed to be to necessitate such close attention.
"Is it such a very wonderful specimen?" I asked.
"Eh? Oh! the rug? But no, it was not the rug I was
remarking. But it is a beautiful specimen, far too beautiful
to have a large nail wantonly driven through the
middle of it. No, Hastings," as I came forward, "the
nail is not there now. But the hole remains."
A sudden sound behind us made me spin round, and
Poirot spring nimbly to his feet. A girl was standing in
the doorway. Her eyes, fell upon us, were dark with
suspicion. She was of medium height, with a beautiful,
rather sullen face, dark blue eyes, and very black hair
which was cut short. Her voice, when she spoke, was
rich and sonorous, and completely un-English.
"I fear my uncle will be unable to see you. He is a great invalid."
"That is a pity, but perhaps you will kindly help me
instead. You are Mademoiselle Daviloff, are you not?" "Yes, I am Sonia Daviloff. What is it you want to
"I am making some inquiries about that sad affair the
night before last--the death of M. Gilmour Wilson.
What can you tell me about it?"
The girl's eyes opened wide.
"He died of heart failure--as he was playing chess."
"The police are not so sure that it was--heart failure,
The girl gave a terrified gesture.
"It was true then," she cried. "Ivan was right."
"Who is Ivan, and why do you say he was right?"
"It was Ivan who opened the door to you--and he
has already said to me that in his opinion Gilmour
Wilson did not die a natural death--that he was poisoned
"Yes, the poison was meant for my uncle."
She had quite forgotten her first distrust now, and
was speaking eagerly.
"Why do you say that, mademoiselle. Who should wish to poison Dr. Savaronoff?"
She shook her head.
"I do not know. I am all in the dark. And my uncle,
he will not trust me. It is natural, perhaps. You see, he
hardly knows me. He saw me as a child, and not since
till I came to live with him here in London. But this
much I do know, he is in fear of something. We have
many secret societies in Russia, and one day I overheard
something which made me think it was of just such a
society he went in fear. Tell me, monsieur"--she came a
step nearer, and dropped her voice--"have you ever
heard of a society called the 'Big Four'?"
Poirot jumped nearly out of his skin. His eyes
positively bulged with astonishment.
"Why do you--what do you know of the Big Four,
"There is such an association, then! I overheard a
reference to them, and asked my uncle about it afterwards.
Never have I seen a man so afraid. He turned all
white and shaking. He was in fear of them, monsieur, in
great fear, I am sure of it. And, by mistake, they killed
the American, Wilson."
"The Big Four," murmured Poirot. "Always the Big
Four! An astonishing coincidence, mademoiselle, your
uncle is still in danger. I must save him. Now recount to
me exactly the events of that fatal evening. Show me the chess-board, the table, how the two men sat--everything."
went to the side of the room and brought out a
small table. The top of it was exquisite, inlaid with
squares of silver and black to represent a chessboard.
"This was sent to my uncle a few weeks ago as a present,
with the request that he would use it in the next
match he played. It was in the middle of the room-so."
Poirot examined the table with what seemed to me
quite unnecessary attention. He was not conducting the
inquiry at all as I would have done. Many of his questions
seemed to me pointless, and upon really vital matters
he seemed to have no questions to ask. I concluded
that the unexpected mention of the Big Four had thrown
him completely off his balance.
After a minute examination of the table and the exact
position it had occupied, he asked to see the chessmen.
Sonia Daviloff brought them to him in a box. He examined
one or two of them in a perfunctory manner.
"An exquisite set," he murmured absentmindedly. Still not a question as to what refreshments there had
been, or what people had been present.
I cleared my throat significantly. "Don't you think, Poirot, that--"
He interrupted me peremptorily.
"Do not think, my friend. Leave all to me. Mademoiselle,
is it quite impossible that I should see your
A faint smile showed itself on her face.
"He will see you, yes. You understand, it is my part
to interview all strangers first."
She disappeared. I heard a murmur of voices in the
next room, and a minute later she came back and motioned
us to pass into the adjoining room.
The man who lay there on a couch was an imposing
figure. Tall, gaunt, with huge bushy eyebrows and white
beard, and a face haggard as the result of starvation and
hardships. Dr. Savaronoff was a distinct personality. I
noted the peculiar formation of his head, its unusual
height. A great chess player must have a great brain, I
knew. I could easily understand Dr. Savaronoff being
the second greatest player in the world.
"M. Ie Docteur, may I speak to you alone?"
Savaronoff turned to his niece.
"Leave us, Sonia."
She disappeared obediently.
"Now, sir, what is it?"
"Dr. Savaronoff, you have recently come into an enormous fortune. If you should--die unexpectedly,
who inherits it?"
"I have made a will leaving everything to my niece,
Sonia Daviloff. You do not suggest--"
"I suggest nothing, but you have not seen your niece
since she was a child. It would have been easy for any
one to impersonate her."
Savaronoff seemed thunderstruck by the suggestion.
Poirot went on easily.
"Enough as to that. I give you the word of warning,
that is all. What I want you to do now is to describe to
me the game of chess the other evening."
"How do you mean--describe it?"
"Well, I do not play the chess myself, but I understand
that there are various regular ways of beginning--the
gambit, do they not call it?"
Dr. Savaronoff smiled a little.
"Ah! I comprehend you now. Wilson opened Ruy
Lopez--one of the soundest openings there is, and one
frequently adopted in tournaments and matches."
"And how long had you been playing when the
"It must have been about the third or fourth move
when Wilson suddenly fell toward over the table, stone
dead." Poirot rose to depart. He flung out his last question
as though it was of absolutely no importance, but I
"Had he had anything to eat or drink?"
' 'A whisky and soda, I think.''
"Thank you, Dr. Savaronoff. I will disturb you no
Ivan was in the hall to show us out. Poirot lingered on
"The flat below this, do you know who lives there?"
"Sir Charles Kingwell, a member of Parliament, sir.
It has been let furnished lately, though."
We went out into the bright winter sunlight. "Well, really, Poirot," I burst out. "I don't think
you've distinguished yourself this time. Surely your
questions were very inadequate."
"You think so, Hastings?" Poirot looked at me appealingly.
"I was boulverse, yes. What would you have
I considered the question carefully, and then outlined
my scheme to Poirot. He listened with what seemed to
be close interest. My monologue lasted until we had
nearly reached home.
"Very excellent, very searching, Hastings," said Poirot, as he inserted his key in the door and preceded
me up the stairs. "But quite unnecessary."
"Unnecessary!" I cried, amazed. "If the man was
"Aha," cried Poirot, pouncing upon a note which lay
on the table. "From Japp. Just as I thought." He flung
it over to me. It was brief and to the point. No traces of
poison had been found, and there was nothing to show
how the man came by his death.
"You see," said Poirot, "our questions would have
been quite unnecessary."
"You guessed this beforehand?"
" 'Forecast the probable result of the deal,' " quoted
Poirot from a recent Bridge problem on which I had
spent much time. "Mon ami, when you do that successfully,
you do not call it guessing."
"Don't let's split hairs," I said impatiently. "You
Poirot put his hand into his pocket and pulled out--a
"Why," I cried, "you forgot to give it back to Dr.
"You are in error, my friend. That bishop still reposes in my left-hand pocket. I took its fellow from
the box of chessmen Mademoiselle Daviloff kindly permitted
me to examine. The plural of one bishop is two
He sounded the final "s" with a great hiss. I was
"But why did you take it?"
"Parbleu, I wanted to see if they were exactly alike."
He stood them on the table side by side.
"Well, they are, of course," I said. "exactly alike."
Poirot looked at them with his head on one side.
"They seem so, I admit. But one should take no fact
for granted until it is proved. Bring me, I pray you, my
With infinite care he weighed the two chessmen, then
turned to me with a face alight with triumph.
"I was right. See you,'I was right. Impossible to deceive
He rushed to the telephone--waited impatiently.
"Is that Japp? Ah! Japp, it is you. Hercule Poirot
speaks. Watch the man-servant, Ivan. On no account let
him slip through your fingers. Yes, yes, it is as I say."
He dashed down the receiver and turned to me.
"You see it not, Hastings? I will explain. Wilson was
not poisoned, he was electrocuted. A thin metal rod
passes up the middle of one of those chessmen. The table was prepared beforehand and set upon a certain
spot on the floor. When the bishop was placed upon one
of the silver squares, the current passed through Wilson's
body, killing him instantly. The only mark was the
electric burn upon his hand--his left hand, because he
was left-handed. The 'special table' was an extremely
cunning piece of mechanism. The table I examined was
a duplicate, perfectly innocent. It was substituted for
the other immediately after the murder. The thing was
worked from the flat below, which, if you remember,
was let furnished. But one accomplice at least was in
Savaronoff's flat. The girl is an agent of the Big Four,
working to inherit Savaronoff's money."
"I strongly suspect that Ivan is none other than the
famous Number Four."
"Yes. The man is a marvellous character actor. He
can assume any part he pleases."
I thought back over past adventures, the lunatic
asylum keeper, the butcher's young man, the suave doctor,
all the same man, and all totally unlike each other.
"It's amazing," I said at last. "Everything fits in.
Savaronoff had an inkling of the plot, and that's why he
was so averse to playing the match." Poirot looked at me without speaking. Then he
turned abruptly away, and began pacing up and down.
"Have you a book on chess by any chance, mon
amiV he asked suddenly.
"I believe I have somewhere."
It took me some time to ferret it out, but I found it at
last, and brought it to Poirot, who sank down in a chair
and started reading it with the greatest attention.
In about a quarter of an hour the telephone rang. I
answered it. It was Japp. Ivan had left the flat, carrying
a large bundle. He had sprung into a waiting taxi, and
the chase had begun. He was evidently trying to lose his
pursuers. In the end he seemed to fancy that he had
done so, and had then driven to a big empty house at
Hampstead. The house was surrounded.
I recounted all this to Poirot. He merely stared at me
as though he scarcely took in what I was saying. He held
out the chess book. "Listen to this, my friend. This is the Ruy Lopez
opening. 1 P-K4, P-K4; 2 Kt-KB3, Kt-QB3; 3BKt5;
Then there comes a question as to Black's best third
move. He has the choice of various defences. It was
White's third move that killed Gilmour Wilson, 3BKt5.
Only the third move--does that say nothing to you?"
I hadn't the least idea what he meant, and told him so.
"Suppose, Hastings, that while you were sitting in
this chair, you heard the front door being opened and
shut, what would you think?"
"I should think some one had gone out, I suppose."
"Yes--but there are always two ways of looking
at things. Some one gone out--some one come w--two
totally different things, Hastings. But if you assumed
the wrong one, presently some little discrepancy would
creep in and show you that you were on the wrong
"What does all this mean. Poirot?"
Poirot sprang to his feet with sudden energy.
"It means that I have been a triple imbecile. Quick,
quick, to the flat in Westminster. We may yet be in
We tore off in a taxi. Poirot returned no answer to my
excited questions. We raced up the stairs. Repeated
rings and knocks brought no reply, but listening closely
I could distinguish a hollow groan coming from within.
The hall porter proved to have a master key, and after
a few difficulties he consented to use it.
Poirot went straight to the inner room. A whiff of
chloroform met us. On the floor was Sonia Daviloff,
gagged and bound, with a great wad of saturated cotton wool over her nose and mouth. Poirot tore it off and
began to take measures to restore her. Presently a doctor arrived, and Poirot handed her over to his
and drew aside with me. There was no sign of Dr.
"What does it all mean?" I asked, bewildered.
"It means that before two equal deductions I chose
the wrong one. You heard me say that it would be easy
for any one to impersonate Sonia Daviloff because her
uncle had not seen her for so many years?"
"Well, precisely the opposite held good also. It was
equally easy for any one to impersonate the uncle.''
"Savaronoff did die at the outbreak of the Revolution.
The man who pretended to have escaped with such
terrible hardships, the man so changed 'that his own
friends could hardly recognise him,' the man who successfully
laid claim to an enormous fortune--"
"Yes. Who was he?"
"Number Four. No wonder he was frightened when
Sonia let him know she had overheard one of his private
conversations about the 'Big Four.' Again he has
slipped through my fingers. He guessed I should get on
the right track in the end, so he sent off the honest Ivan
on a tortuous wild goose chase, chloroformed the girl, and got out, having by now doubtless realised most of
the securities left by Madame Gospoja."
"But--but who tried to kill him then?"
"Nobody tried to kill him. Wilson was the intended
victim all along."
"My friend, Savaronoff was the second greatest chess
player in the world. In all probability Number Four did
not even known the rudiments of the game. Certainly he
could not sustain the fiction of a match. He tried all he
knew to avoid the contest. When that failed, Wilson's
doom was sealed. At all costs he must be prevented
from discovering that the great Savaronoff did not even
know how to play chess. Wilson was fond of the Ruy
Lopez opening, and was certain to use it. Number Four
arranged for death to come with the third move, before
any complications of defence set in."
"But, my dear Poirot," I persisted, "are we dealing
with a lunatic? I quite follow your reasoning, and admit
that you must be right, but to kill a man just to sustain
his role! Surely there were simpler ways out of the difficulty
than that? He could have said that his doctor forbade
the strain of a match."
Poirot wrinkled his forehead.
"Cerfainement, Hastings," he said, "there were
other ways, but none so convincing. Besides, you are assuming that to kill a man is a thing to avoid, are you
not? Number Four's mind, it does not act that way. I
put myself in his place, a thing impossible for you. I picture
his thoughts. He enjoys himself as the professor at
that match. I doubt not he has visited the chess tourneys
to study his part. He sits and frowns in thought; he gives
the impression that he is thinking great plans, and all the
time he laughs in himself. He is aware that two moves
are all that he knows--and all that he need know. Again, it would appeal to his mind to foresee the
and to make the man his own executioner at the exact
time that suits Number Four. . . . Oh, yes, Hastings, I
begin to understand our friend and his psychology."
"Well, I suppose you're right, but I can't understand
any one running a risk he could so easily avoid."
"Risk!" Poirot snorted. "Where then lay the risk?
Would Japp have solved the problem? No; if Number
Four. It was mid-January--a typical English winter day in
London, damp and dirty. Poirot and I were sitting in
two chairs well drawn up to the fire. I was aware of my
friend looking at me with a quizzical smile, the meaning
of which I could not fathom.
"A penny for your thoughts," I said lightly. "I was thinking, my friend, that at midsummer, when
you first arrived, you told me that you proposed to be in
this country for a couple of months only."
"Did I say that?" I asked, rather awkwardly. "I
Poirot's smile broadened.
"You did, mon ami. Since then, you have changed
your plan, is it not so?"
"Er-- yes. I have."
"And why is that?"
"Dash it all, Poirot, you don't think I'm going to
leave you all alone when you're up against a thing like
the'Big Four,'do you?"
Poirot nodded gently.
"Just as I thought. You are a staunch friend, Hastings.
It is to serve me that you remain on here. And your
wife--little Cinderella as you call her, what does she
"I haven't gone into details, of course, but she understands.
She'd be the last one to wish me to turn my back
on a pal."
"Yes, yes, she, too, is a loyal friend. But it is going to
be a long business, perhaps."
I nodded, rather discouraged.
"Six months already," I mused, "and where are we? You know, Poirot, I can't help thinking that we ought
to--well, to do something."
"Always so energetic, Hastings! And what precisely
would you have me do?"
This was somewhat of a poser, but I was not going to
withdraw from my position.
"We ought to take the offensive," I urged. "What
have we done all this time?"
"More than you think, my friend. After all, we have
established the identity of Number Two and Number
Three, and we have learnt more than a little about the
ways and methods of Number Four."
1 brightened up a little. As Poirot put it, things didn't
sound so bad.
"Oh! Yes, Hastings, we have done a great deal. It is
true that I am not in a position to accuse either Ryland
or Madame Olivier--who would believe me? You remember
I thought once I had Ryland successfully cornered?
Nevertheless I have made my suspicions known
in certain quarters--the highest--Lord Aldington, who
enlisted my help in the matter of the stolen submarine
plans, is fully cognisant of all my information respecting
the Big Four--and while others may doubt, he believes.
Ryland and Madame Olivier, and Li Chang Yen
himself may go their ways, but there is a searchlight
turned on all their movements." "And Number Four?" I asked.
"As I said just now--I am beginning to know and
understand his methods. You may smile, Hastings--but
to penetrate a man's personality, to know exactly what
he will do under any given circumstances--that is the
beginning of success. It is a duel between us, and whilst
he is constantly giving away his mentality to me, I endeavour
to let him know little or nothing of mine. He is
in the light, I in the shade. I tell you, Hastings, that
every day they fear me the more for my chosen inactivity." "They've let us alone, anyway," I observed. "There
have been no more attempts on your life, and no ambushes
of any kind."
"No," said Poirot thoughtfully. "On the whole, that
rather surprises me. Especially as there are one or two
fairly obvious ways of getting at us which I should have
thought certain to have occurred to them. You catch my
"An infernal machine of some kind?" I hazarded.
Poirot made a sharp click with his tongue expressive
"But no! I appeal to your imagination, and you can
suggest nothing more subtle than bombs in the fireplace.
Well, well, I have need of some matches, I will promenade myself despite the weather. Pardon, my
friend, but is it possible that you read The Future of the
Argentine, Mirror of Society, Cattle Breeding, The Clue
of Crimson and Sport in the Rockies at one and the
same time?" I laughed, and admitted that The Clue of Crimson was at present engaging my sole attention. Poirot
his head sadly.
"But replace then the others on the bookshelf! Never,
never shall I see you embrace the order and the method.
Mon Dieu, what then is a bookshelf for?"
I apologised humbly, and Poirot, after replacing the
offending volumes, each in its appointed place, went
out and left me to uninterrupted enjoyment of my
I must admit, however, that I was half asleep when
Mrs. Pearson's knock at the door aroused me.
"A telegram for you, captain."
I tore the orange envelope open without much interest. Then I sat as though turned to stone.
It was a cable from Bronsen, my manager out at the
South American ranch, and it ran as follows:-"Mrs. Hastings disappeared yesterday, feared
been kidnapped by some gang calling itself big four cable instructions have notified police but no clue
I waved Mrs. Pearson out of the room, and sat as
though stunned, reading the words over and over again.
Cinderella--kidnapped! In the hands of the infamous
Big Four! God, what could I do?
Poirot! I must have Poirot. He would advise me. He
would checkmate them somehow. In a few minutes
now, he would be back. I must wait patiently until then.
But Cinderella--in the hands of the Big Four!
Another knock. Mrs. Pearson put her head in once
"A note for you, captain--brought by a heathen
Chinaman. He's a-waiting downstairs."
I seized it from her. It was brief and to the point.
"If you ever wish to see your wife again, go with
the bearer of this note immediately. Leave no
message for your friend or she will suffer."
It was signed with a big 4.
What ought I to have done? What would you who
read have done in my place?
I had no time to think. I saw only one thing--Cinderella
in the power of those devils. I must obey--I
dare not risk a hair of her head. I must go with this
Chinaman and follow whither he led. It was a trap, yes, and it meant certain capture and possible death, but it
was baited with the person dearest to me in the whole
world, and I dared not hesitate.
What irked me most was to leave no word for Poirot.
Once set him on my track, and all might yet be well?
Dare I risk it? Apparently I was under no supervision,
but yet I hesitated. It would have been so easy for the
Chinaman to come up and assure himself that I was
keeping to the letter of the command. Why didn't he?
His very abstention made me more suspicious. I had
seen so much of the omnipotence of the Big Four that I
credited them with almost super-human powers. For all
I know, even the little bedraggled servant girl might be
one of their agents.
No, I dared not risk it. But one thing I could do, leave
the telegram. He would know then that Cinderella had
disappeared, and who was responsible for her disappearance. All this passed through my head in less time than it
takes to tell, and I had clapped my hat on my head and
was descending the stairs to where my guide waited, in a
little over a minute.
The bearer of the message was a tall impassive Chinaman,
neatly but rather shabbily dressed. He bowed and
spoke to me. His English was perfect, but he spoke with a slight sing-song intonation.
"You Captain Hastings?"
"Yes," I said.
"You give me note, please."
I had foreseen the request, and handed him over the
scrap of paper without a word. But that was not all.
"You have telegram to-day, yes? Come along just
now? From South America, yes?"
I realised anew the excellence of their espionage
system—or it might have been a shrewd guess. Bronsen
was bound to cable me. They would wait until the cable
was delivered and would strike hard upon it.
No good could come of denying what was palpably
"Yes," I said. "I did get a telegram."
"You fetch him, yes? Fetch him now."
I ground my teeth, but what could I do. I ran upstairs
again. As I did so, I thought of confiding in Mrs. Pearson,
at any rate as far as Cinderella's disappearance
went. She was on the landing, but close behind her was
the little maid servant, and I hesitated. If she was a
spy—the words of the note danced before my eyes. "...
she will suffer. ..." I passed into the sitting-room
I took up the telegram and was about to pass out
again when an idea struck me. Could I not leave some sign which would mean nothing to my enemies but
which Poirot himself would find significant. I hurried
across to the bookcase and tumbled out four books on
to the floor. No fear of Poirot's not seeing them. They
would outrage his eyes immediately--and coming on
top of his little lecture, surely he would find them
unusual. Next I put a shovelful of coal on the fire and
managed to spill four knobs into the grate. I had done
all I could--pray Heaven Poirot would read the sign
I hurried down again. The Chinaman took the
telegram from me, read it, then placed it in his pocket
and with a nod beckoned me to follow him.
It was a long weary march that he led me. Once we
took a bus and once we went for some considerable way
in a train, and always our route led us steadily eastward.
We went through strange districts, the existence I had
never dreamed of. We were down by the docks now, I
knew, and I realised that I was being taken into the
heart of Chinatown.
In spite of myself I shivered. Still my guide plodded
on, turning and twisting through mean streets and byways, until at last he stopped at a dilapidated house
and rapped four times upon the door.
It was opened immediately by another Chinaman who
stood aside to let us pass in. The clanging to of the door behind me was the knell of my last hopes. I was indeed
in the hands of the enemy.
I was now handed over to the second Chinaman. He
led me down some rickety stairs and into a cellar which
was filled with bales and casks and which exhaled a
pungent odour, as of Eastern spices. I felt wrapped all
round with the atmosphere of the East, tortuous, cunning,
sinister-Suddenly my guide rolled aside two of the casks, and
I saw a low tunnel-like opening in the wall. He motioned
me to go ahead. The tunnel was of some length, and it
was just too low for me to stand upright. At last, however,
it broadened out into a passage, and a few minutes
later we stood in another cellar.
My Chinaman went forward, and rapped four times
on one of the walls. A whole section of the wall swung
out, leaving a narow doorway. I passed through, and to
my utter astonishment found myself in a kind of Arabian
Nights' palace. A low long subterranean chamber
hung with rich oriental silks, brilliantly lighted and
fragrant with perfumes and spices. There five or six silk
covered divans, and exquisite carpets of Chinese workmanship
covered the ground. At the end of the room
was a curtained recess. From behind these curtains came
"You have brought our honoured guest?" "Excellency, he is here," replied my guide.
"Let our guest enter," was the answer.
At the same moment, the curtains were drawn aside
by an unseen hand, and I was facing an immense cushioned
divan on which sat a tall thin Oriental dressed in
wonderfully embroidered robes, and clearly, by the
length of his finger nails, a great man.
"Be seated, I pray you, Captain Hastings," he said,
with a wave of his hand. "You acceded to my request to
come immediately, I am glad to see."
"Who are you?" I asked. "Li Chang Yen?"
"Indeed no, I am but the humblest of the master's
servants. I carry out his behests, that is all--as do other
of his servants in other countries--in South America,
I advanced a step.
"Where is she? What have you done with her out
"She is in a place of safety--where none will find her.
As yet, she is unharmed. You observe that I say--as yetl"
Cold shivers ran down my spine as I confronted this
"What do you want?" I cried. "Money?"
"My dear Captain Hastings. We have no designs on
your small savings, I can assure you. Not--pardon me --a very intelligent suggestion on your part. Your colleague
would not have made it, I fancy."
"I suppose," I said heavily, "you wanted to get me
into your toils. Well, you have succeeded. I have come
here with my eyes open. Do what you like with me, and
let her go. She knows nothing, and she can be no possible
use to you. You've used her to get hold of me-you've got me all right, and that settles it."
The smiling Oriental caressed his smooth cheek,
watching me obliquely out of his narrow eyes.
"You go too fast," he said purringly. "That does not
quite--settle it. In fact, to 'get hold of you' as you express
it, is not really our objective. But through you, we
hope to get hold of your friend, M. Hercule Poirot."
"I'm afraid you won't do that," I said, with a short
"What I suggest is this," continued the other, his
words running on as though he had not heard me.
"You will write M. Hercule Poirot a letter, such a letter
as will induce him to hasten hither and join you."
"I shall do no such thing," I said angrily.
"The consequences of refusal will be disagreeable."
"Damn your consequences."
"The alternative might be death!"
A nasty shiver ran down my spine, but I endeavoured
to put a bold face upon it. "It's no good threatening me. and bullying me. Keep
your threats for Chinese cowards."
"My threats are very real ones. Captain Hastings. I
ask you again, will you write this letter?"
"I will not, and what's more, you daren't kill me.
You'd have the police on your tracks in no time."
My interlocutor clapped his hands swiftly. Two
Chinese attendants appeared as it were out of the blue,
and pinioned me by both arms. Their master said something
rapidly to them in Chinese, and they dragged
me across the floor to a spot in one corner of the big
chamber. One of them stooped, and suddenly, without
the least warning, the flooring gave beneath my feet.
But for the restraining hand of the other man I should
have gone down the yawning gap beneath me. It was
inky black, and I could hear the rushing of water.
"The river," said my questioner from his place on the
divan. "Think well. Captain Hastings. If you refuse
again, you go headlong to eternity, to meet your death
in the dark waters below. For the last time, will you
write that letter?"
I'm not braver than most men. I admit frankly that
I was scared to death, and in a blue funk. That Chinese
devil meant business, I was sure of that. It was goodbye
to the good old world. In spite of myself, my voice wobbled a little as I answered.
"For the last time, no! To hell with your letter!"
Then involuntarily I closed my eyes and breathed a
short prayer. Not often in a life-time does a man stand on the edge of
eternity, but when I spoke those words in that East End
cellar I was perfectly certain that they were my last
words on earth. I braced myself for the shock of those
black, rushing waters beneath, and experienced in advance
the horror of that breath-choking fall.
But to my surprise a low laugh fell on my ears. I
opened my eyes. Obeying a sign from the man on the
divan, my two jailers brought me back to my old seat
"You are a brave man. Captain Hastings," he said.
"We of the East appreciate bravery. I may say that I
expected you to act as you have done. That brings us to
the appointed second act of our little drama. Death for yourself you have faced--will you face death for
another?" "What do you mean?" I asked hoarsely, a horrible
fear creeping over me.
"Surely you have not forgotten the lady who is in our
power--the Rose of the Garden."
I stared at him in dumb agony. "I think. Captain Hastings, that you will write that
letter. See, I have a cable form here. The message I shall
write on it depends on you, and means life or death for
The sweat broke out on my brow. My tormentor
continued, smiling amiably, and speaking with perfect
sangfroid:-"There, captain, the pen is ready to your hand. You
have only to write. If not--"
"If not?" I echoed.
"If not, that lady that you love dies--and dies slowly.
My master, Li Chang Yen, amuses himself in his spare
hours by devising new and ingenious methods of tortures--" "My God!" I cried. "You fiend! Not that--you
wouldn't do that--"
"Shall I recount to you some of his devices?"
Without heeding my cry of protest, his speech flowed
on--evenly, serenely--till with a cry of horror I clapped
my hands to my ears.
"It is enough, I see. Take up the pen and write."
"You would not dare--"
"Your speech is foolishness, and you know it. Take
up the pen and write."
"If I do?"
"Your wife goes free. The cable shall be despatched immediately."
"How do I know that you will keep faith with me?"
"I swear it to you on the sacred tombs of my ancestors.
Moreover, judge for yourself--why should I wish
to do her harm? Her detention will have answered its
"We will keep him in safe custody until we have concluded
our operations. Then we will let him go."
"Will you swear that also on the tombs of your
"I have sworn one oath to you. That should be sufficient." My heart sank. I was betraying my friend--to what?
For a moment I hesitated--then the terrible alternative
rose like a nightmare before my eyes. Cinderella--in the
hands of these Chinese devils, dying by slow torture-A groan rose to my lips. I seized the pen. Perhaps by
careful wording of the letter, I could convey a warning,
and Poirot would be enabled to avoid the trap. It was
the only hope.
But even that hope was not to remain. The Chinaman's
voice rose, suave and courteous.
"Permit me to dictate to you."
He paused, consulted a sheaf of notes that lay by his side, and then dictated as follows:-"Dear Poirot, I think I'm on the track of
Number Four. A Chinaman came this afternoon
and lured me down here with a bogus message.
Luckily I saw through his little game in time, and
gave him the slip. Then I turned the tables on him,
and managed to do a bit of shadowing on my own
account--rather neatly too, I flatter myself. I'm
getting a bright young lad to carry this to you. Give
him a half a crown, will you? That's what I promised
him if it was delivered safely. I'm watching the house, and daren't leave. I shall wait for you until
six o'clock, and if you haven't come then, I'll have
a try at getting into the house on my own. It's too
good a chance to miss, and, of course, the boy
mightn't find you. But if he does, get him to bring
you down here right away. And cover up those
precious moustaches of yours in case any one's
watching out from the house and might recognise
"Yours in haste,
Every word that I wrote plunged me deeper in despair.
The thing was diabolically clever. I realised how
closely every detail of our life must be known. It was
just such an epistle as I might have penned myself. The
acknowledgment that the Chinaman who had called that afternoon had endeavoured to "lure me away" discounted
any good I might have done by leaving my
"sign" of four books. It had been a trap, and I had seen
through it, that was what Poirot would think. The time,
too, was cleverly planned. Poirot, on receiving the note,
would have just time to rush off with his innocent-looking
guide, and that he would do so, I knew. My determination
to make my way into the house would bring
him post-haste. He always displayed a ridiculous distrust
of my capacities. He would be convinced that I was
running into danger without being equal to the situation,
and would rush down to take command of the
But there was nothing to be done. I wrote as bidden.
My captor took the note from me, read it, then nodded
his head approvingly and handed it to one of the silent
attendants who disappeared with it behind one of the
silken hangings on the wall which masked a doorway.
With a smile the man opposite to me picked up a
cable form and wrote. He handed it to me.
It read: "Release the white bird with all despatch."
I gave a sigh of relief.
"You will send it at once?" I urged.
He smiled, and shook his head.
"When M. Hercule Poirot is in my hands it shall be sent. Not until then."
"But you promised--"
"If this device fails, I may have need of our white
bird--to persuade you to further efforts."
I grew white with anger.
"My God'If you--"
He waved a long slim yellow hand.
"Be reassured, I do not think it will fail. And the moment
M. Poirot is in our hands, I will keep my oath."
"If you play me false."
"I have sworn it by my honoured ancestors. Have no
fear. Rest here awhile. My servants will see to your
needs whilst I am absent."
I was left alone in this strange underground nest of
luxury. The second Chinese attendant had reappeared.
One of them brought food and drink and offered it
to me, but I waved them aside. I was sick--sick--at
heart-And then suddenly the master reappeared tall and
stately in his silken robes. He directed operations. By his
orders I was hustled back through the cellar and tunnel
into the original house I had entered. There they took
me into a ground floor room. The windows were shuttered,
but one could see through the cracks into the
street. An old ragged man was shuffling along the opposite
side of the road, and when I saw him make a sign to the window, I understood that he was one of the gang
"It is well," said my Chinese friend. "Hercule Poirot
has fallen into the trap. He approaches now--and alone
except for the boy who guides him. Now, Captain Hastings,
you have still one more part to play. Unless you
show yourself he will not enter the house. When he arrives
opposite, you must go out on the step and beckon
"What?" I cried, revolted.
"You play that part alone. Remember the price of
failure. If Hercule Poirot suspects anything is amiss and
does not enter the house, your wife dies by the Seventy
lingering Deaths! Ah! Here he is."
With a beating heart, and a feeling of deathly sickness.
I looked through the crack in the shutters. In the
figure walking along the opposite side of the street I recognised
my friend at once, though his coat collar was
turned up and an immense yellow muffler hid the bottom
part of his face. But there was no mistaking that
walk, and the poise of that egg-shaped head.
It was Poirot, coming to my aid in all good faith, suspecting
nothing amiss. By his side ran a typical London
urchin, grimy of face and ragged of apparel.
Poirot paused, looking across at the house, whilst the boy spoke to him eagerly and pointed. It was the time
for me to act. I went out in the hall. At a sign from the
tall Chinaman, one of the servants unlatched the door.
"Remember the price of failure," said my enemy in a
I was outside on the steps. I beckoned to Poirot. He
"Aha! So all is well with you, my friend. I was beginning
to be anxious. You managed to get inside? Is the
house empty, then?"
"Yes," I said, in a voice I strove to make natural.
"There must be a secret way out of it somewhere. Come
in and let us look for it." I stepped back across the threshold. In all innocence
Poirot prepared to follow me.
And then something seemed to snap in my head. I saw
only too clearly the part I was playing--the part of
"Back, Poirot!" I cried. "Back for your life. It's a
trap. Never mind me. Get away at once."
Even as I spoke--or rather shouted my warning
hands gripped me like a vice. One of the Chinese servants
sprang past me to grab Poirot.
I saw the latter spring back, his arm raised, then suddenly
a dense volume of smoke was rising round me, choking me--killing me-I felt myself falling--suffocating--this was death-I came to myself slowly and painfully--all my senses
dazed. The first thing I saw was Poirot's face. He was
sitting opposite me watching me with an anxious face.
He gave a cry of joy when he saw me looking at him.
"Ah, you revive--you return to yourself. All is well!
My friend--my poor friend!"
"Where am I?" I said painfully.
"Where? But chez vous\"
I looked round me. True enough, I was in the old
familiar surroundings. And in the grate were the identical
four knobs of coal I had carefully spilt there.
Poirot had followed my glance.
"But yes, that was a famous idea of yours--that and
the books. See you, if they should say to me any time,
'That friend of yours, that Hastings, he has not the
great brain, is it not so?' I shall reply to them: 'You are
in error.' It was an idea magnificent and superb that occurred
to you there."
"You understood their meaning then?" ?"Am I an imbecile? Of course I understood. It gave
me just the warning I needed, and the time to mature my
plans. Somehow or other the Big Four had carried you off. With what object? Clearly not for your beaux
yeux-- equally clearly not because they feared you and
wanted to get you out of the way. No, their object was
plain. You would be used as a decoy to get the great
Hercule Poirot into their clutches. I have long been
prepared for something of the kind. I make my little
preparations, and presently, sure enough, the messenger
arrives--such an innocent little street urchin. Me, I
swallow everything, and hasten away with him, and,
very fortunately, they permit you to come out on the
doorstep. That was my one fear, that I should have to
dispose of them before I had reached the place where
you were concealed, and that I should have to search for
you--perhaps in vain--afterwards."
"Dispose of them, did you say?" I asked feebly.
"Oh, there is nothing very clever about that. If one is
prepared in advance all is simple--the motto of the Boy
Scout, is it not? And a very fine one. Me, I was prepared.
Not so long ago, I rendered a service to a very famou;.
chemist, who did a lot of work in connection
with poison gas during the war. He devised for me a
little bomb--simple and easy to carry about--one has
but to throw it and poof, the smoke--and then the unconsciousness.
Immediately I blow a little whistle and
straightway some of Japp's clever fellows who were watching the house here long before the boy arrived,
and who managed to follow us all the way to Limehouse,
came flying up and took charge of the situation." "But how was it you weren't unconscious too?"
"Another piece of luck. Our friend Number Four
(who certainly composed that ingenious letter) permitted
himself a little jest at my moustaches, which
rendered it extremely easy for me to adjust my respirator
under the guise of a yellow muffler."
"I remember," I cried eagerly, and then with the
word "Remember" all the ghastly horror that I had
temporarily forgotten came back to me. Cinderella-I fell back with a groan.
I must have lost consciousness again for a minute or
two. I awoke to find Poirot forcing some brandy between
"What is it, mon amil But what is it--then? Tell
me." Word by word, I got the thing told, shuddering as I did so. Poirot uttered a cry.
"My friend! My friend! But what you must have suffered!
And I who knew nothing of all this! But reassure
yourself .'All is well!"
"You will find her, you mean? But she is in South
America. And by the time we get there--long before,
she will be dead--and God knows how and in what horrible way she will have died."
"No, no, you do not understand. She is safe and well.
She has never been in their hands for one instant."
"But I got a cable from Bronsen?"
"No, no, you did not. You may have got a cable from
South America signed Bronsen--that is a very different
matter. Tell me, has it never occurred to you that an
organisation of this kind, with ramifications all over the
world, might easily strike at us through that little girl,
Cinderella, whom you love so well?"
"No, never," I replied.
"Well, it did to me. I said nothing to you because I
did not want to upset you unnecessarily--but I took
measures of my own. Your wife's letters all seem to
have been written from the ranch, but in reality she has
been in a place of safety devised by me for over three
I looked at him for a long time.
"You are sure of that?"
"Parbleu! I know it. They tortured you with a lie!"
I turned my head aside. Poirot put his hand on my
shoulder. There was something in his voice that I had
never heard there before.
"You like not that I should embrace you or display
the emotion, I know well. I will be very British. I will
say nothing—but nothing at all. Only this—that in this last adventure of ours, the honours are all with you, and
happy is the man who has such a friend as I have!" The Peroxide Blonde I was very disappointed with the results of Poirot's
bomb attack on the premises in Chinatown. To begin
with, the leader of the gang had escaped. When Japp's
men rushed up in response to Poirot's whistle they
found four Chinamen unconscious in the hall, but the
man who had threatened me with death was not among
them. I remembered afterwards that when I was forced
out on to the doorstep, to decoy Poirot into the house,
this man had kept well in the background. Presumably
he was out of the danger zone of the gas bomb, and
made good his escape by one of the many exits which we
From the four who remained in our hands we learnt
nothing. The fullest investigation by the police failed to
bring to light anything to connect them with the Big
Four. They were ordinary low-class residents of the district,
and they professed bland ignorance of the name Li
Chang Yen. A Chinese gentleman had hired them for
service in the house by the waterside, and they knew
nothing whatever of his private affairs. By the next day I had, except for a slight headache,
completely recovered from the effects of Poirot's gas
bomb. We went down together to Chinatown and
searched the house from which I had been rescued. The
premises consisted of two ramshackle houses joined
together by an underground passage. The ground floors
and the upper stories of each were unfurnished and
deserted, the broken windows covered by decaying shutters.
Japp had already been prying about in the cellars,
and had discovered the secret of the entrance to the subterranean
chamber where I had spent such an unpleasant
half-hour. Closer investigation confirmed the impression
that it had made on me the night before. The
silks on the walls and divan and the carpets on the floors
were of exquisite workmanship. Although I know very
little about Chinese art, I could appreciate that every article
in the room was perfect of its kind.
With the aid of Japp and some of his men we conducted
a most thorough search of the apartment. I had
cherished high hopes that we would find documents of
importance. A list, perhaps, of some of the more important
agents of the Big Four, or cipher notes of some of
their plans, but we discovered nothing of the kind. The
only papers we found in the whole place were the notes
which the Chinaman had consulted whilst he was dictating
the letter to Poirot. These consisted of a very complete record of each of our careers, and estimate of
our characters, and suggestions about the weaknesses
through which we might best be attacked.
Poirot was most childishly delighted with this discovery.
Personally I could not see that it was of any
value whatever, especially as whoever compiled the
notes was ludicrously mistaken in some of his opinions.
I pointed this out to my friend when we were back in our
"My dear Poirot," I said, "you know now what the
enemy thinks of us. He appears to have a grossly exaggerated
idea of your brain power, and to have absurdly
underrated mine, but I do not see how we are better off
for knowing this."
Poirot chuckled in rather an offensive way.
"You do not see, Hastings, no? But surely now we
can prepare ourselves for some of their methods of attack
now that we are warned of some of our faults. For
instance my friend, we know that you should think
before you act. Again, if you meet a red-haired young
woman in trouble you should eye her--what you say-askance, is it not?"
Their notes had contained some absurd references to
my supposed impulsiveness, and had suggested that I
was susceptible to the charms of young women with hair of a certain shade. I thought Poirot's reference to be in
the worst of taste, but fortunately I was able to counter
"And what about you?" I demanded. "Are you
going to try to cure your 'overweening vanity?' Your
'finicky tidiness?' "
I was quoting, and I could see that he was not pleased
with my retort.
"Oh, without doubt, Hastings, in some things they
deceive themselves--tant mieux\ They will learn in due
time. Meanwhile we have learnt something, and to
know is to be prepared."
This last was a favourite axiom of his lately; so much
so that I had begun to hate the sound of it.
"We know something, Hastings," he continued.
"Yes, we know something--and that is to the good-but we do not know nearly enough. We must know
"In what way?"
Poirot settled himself back in his chair, straightened a
box of matches which I had thrown carelessly down on
the table, and assumed an attitude that I knew only too
well. I saw that he was prepared to hold forth at some
"See you, Hastings, we have to contend against four
adversaries; that is, against four different personalities. With Number One we have never come into personal
contact--we know him, as it were, only by the impress
of his mind--and in passing, Hastings, I will tell you
that I begin to understand that mind very well--a mind
most subtle and Oriental--every scheme and plot that
we have encountered has emanated from the brain of
Li Chang Yen. Number Two and Number Three are so
powerful, so high up, that they are for the present immune
from our attacks. Nevertheless what is their safeguard
is, by a perverse chance, our safeguard also. They
are so much in the limelight that their movements must
be carefully ordered. And so we come to the last member
of the gang--we come to the man known as Number
Poirot's voice altered a little, as it always did when
speaking of this particular individual.
"Number Two and Number Three are able to succeed,
to go on their way unscathed, owing to their notoriety
and their assured position. Number Four succeeds
for the opposite reason--he succeeds by the way
of obscurity. Who is he? Nobody knows. What does he
look like? Again nobody knows. How many times have
we seen him, you and I? Five times, is it not? And could
either of us say truthfully that we could be sure of
recognising him again?" I was forced to shake my head, as I ran back in my
mind over those five different people who, incredible as
it seemed, were one and the same man. The burly
lunatic asylum keeper, the man in the buttoned up overcoat
in Paris, James, the footman, the quiet young
medical man in the Yellow Jasmine case, and the Russian
Professor. In no way did any two of these people
resemble each other.
"No," I said hopelessly. "We've nothing to go by
"Do not, I pray of you, give way to such enthusiastic
despair. We know one or two things."
"What kind of things?" I asked sceptically.
"We know that he is a man of medium height, and
of medium or fair colouring. If he were a tall man of
swarthy complexion he could never have passed himself
off as the fair stocky doctor. It is child's play, of course,
to put on an additional inch or so for the part of James,
or the Professor. In the same way he must have a short
straight nose. Additions can be built on to a nose by
skilful make up, but a large nose cannot be successfully
reduced at a moment's notice. Then again, he must be a
fairly young man, certainly not over thirty-five. You
see, we are getting somewhere. A man between thirty and thirty-five, of medium height and colouring, an
adept in the art of make up, and with very few or any
teeth of his own."
"Surely, Hastings. As the keeper, his teeth were
broken and discoloured, in Paris they were even and
white, as the doctor they protruded slightly, and as
Savaronoff they had unusually long canines. Nothing
alters the face so completely as a different set of teeth.
You see where all this is leading us?"
"Not exactly," I said cautiously.
"A man carries his profession written in his face, they
"He's a criminal," I cried.
"He is an adept in the art of making up."
"It's the same thing."
"Rather a sweeping statement, Hastings, and one
which would hardly be appreciated by the theatrical
world. Do you not see that the man is, or has been, at
one time or another, an actor?"
"But certainly. He has the whole technique at his
finger-tips. Now there are two classes of actors, the one
who sinks himself in his part, and the one who manages
to impress his personality upon it. It is from the latter class that actor managers usually spring. They seize a
part and mould it to their own personality. The former
class is quite likely to spend its days doing Mr. Lloyd
George at different music halls, or impersonating old
men with beards in repertory plays. It is among that
former class that we must look for our Number Four.
He is a supreme artist in the way he sinks himself in each
part he plays."
I was growing interested.
"So you fancy you may be able to trace his identity
through his connection with the stage?"
"Your reasoning is always brilliant, Hastings."
"It might have been better," I said coldly, "if the
idea had come to you sooner. We have wasted a lot of
"You are in error, mon ami. No more time has been
wasted than was unavoidable. For some months now
my agents have been engaged on the task. Joseph
Aarons is one of them. You remember him? They have
compiled a list for me of men fulfilling the necessary
qualifications--young men round about the age of
thirty, of more or less nondescript appearance, and with
a gift for playing character parts--men, moreover, who
have definitely left the stage within the last three years."
"Well?" I said, deeply interested.
"The list was, necessarily, rather a long one. For some time now, we have been engaged on the task of
elimination. And finally we have boiled the whole thing
down to four names. Here they are, my friend."
He tossed me over a sheet of paper. I read its contents
"Ernest Luttrell. Son of a North Country parson.
Always had a kink of some kind in his moral makeup.
Was expelled from his public school. Went on the stage
at the age of twenty-three. (There followed a list of parts
he had played, with dates and places.) Addicted to
drugs. Supposed to have gone to Australia four years
ago. Cannot be traced after leaving England. Age 32,
height 5 ft. 10 Vi in., clean-shaven, hair brown, nose
straight, complexion fair, eyes gray.
"John St. Maur. Assumed name. Real name not
known. Believed to be of cockney extraction. On stage
since quite a child. Did music hall impersonations. Not
been heard of for three years. Age, about 33, height 5 ft.
10 in., slim build, blue eyes, fair colouring.
"Austen Lee. Assumed name. Real name Austen
Foly. Good family. Always had taste for acting and distinguished
himself in that way at Oxford. Brilliant war
record. Acted in-- (The usual list followed. It included
many Repertory plays.) An enthusiast on criminology.
Had bad nervous breakdown as the result of a motor accident three and a half years ago, and has not appeared
on the stage since. No clue to his present whereabouts.
Age 35, height 5 ft. 9Vi in., complexion fair,
eyes blue, hair brown.
"Claud Darrell. Supposed to be real name. Some
mystery about his origin. Played at music halls, and also
in Repertory plays. Seems to have had no intimate
friends. Was in China in 1919. Returned by way of
|»j America. Played a few parts in New York. Did not appear
on the stage one night, and has never been heard of
since. New York police say most mysterious disappearance.
Age about 33, hair brown, fair complexion,
gray eyes. Height 5 ft. 10 Vi in.
"Most interesting," I said, as I laid down the paper.
"And so this is the result of the investigation of
months? These four names. Which of them are you inclined
Poirot made an eloquent gesture.
"Mon ami, for the moment it is an open question. I
would just point out to you that Claud Darrell has been
in China and America--a fact not without significance,
perhaps, but we must not allow ourselves to be unduly
biased by that point. It may be a mere coincidence."
"And the next step?" I asked eagerly.
"Affairs are already in train. Every day cautiously
worded advertisements will appear. Friends and relatives of one or the other will be asked to communicate
with my solicitor at his office. Even to-day we might-Aha, the telephone! Probably it is, as usual, the wrong
number, and they will regret to have troubled us, but it
may be--yes, it may be--that something has arisen."
I crossed the room and picked up the receiver.
"Yes, yes. M. Poirot's rooms. Yes, Captain Hastings
speaking. Oh, it's you, Mr. McNeil! (McNeil and Hodgson
were Poirot's solicitors.) I'll tell him. Yes, we'll
come round at once."
I replaced the receiver and turned to Poirot, my eyes
dancing with excitement.
"I say, Poirot, there's a woman there. Friend of
Claud Darrell's. Miss Flossie Monro. McNeil wants you
to come round."
"At the instant!" cried Poirot, disappearing into his
bedroom, and reappearing with a hat.
A taxi soon took us to our destination, and we were
ushered into Mr. McNeil's private office. Sitting in the
arm-chair facing the solicitor was a somewhat lurid
looking lady no longer in her first youth. Her hair was
of an impossible yellow, and was prolific in curls over
each ear, her eyelids were heavily blackened, and she
had by no means forgotten the rouge and the lip salve.
"Ah, here is M. Poirot.'" said Mr. McNeil. "M. Poirot, this is Miss—er—Monro, who has very kindly
called to give us some information."
"Ah, but that is most kind!" cried Poirot.
He came forward with great empressement, and
shook the lady warmly by the hand.
"Mademoiselle blooms like a flower in this dry-asdust
old office." he added, careless of the feelings of
This outrageous flattery was not without effect. Miss
Monro blushed and simpered.
"Oh, go on now, Mr. Poirot!" she exclaimed. "I
know what you Frenchmen are like."
"Mademoiselle, we are not mute like Englishmen
before beauty. Not that I am a Frenchman—1 am a
Belgian, you see."
"I've been to Ostend myself," said Miss Monro.
The whole affair, as Poirot would have said, was
"And so you can tell us something about Mr. Claud
Darrell?" continued Poirot.
"I knew Mr. Darrell very well at one time," explained
the lady. "And I saw your advertisement, being out of a
shop for the moment, and my time being my own, I said
154 Agatha Christie
to myself: There, they want to know about poor old
Claudie-- lawyers, too--maybe it's a fortune looking || for the rightful heir, I'd better go round at once."
Mr. McNeil rose.
"Well, Monsieur Poirot, shall I leave you for a little
conversation with Miss Monro?"
"You are too amiable. But stay--a little idea presents
itself to me. The hour of the dejeuner approaches. Mademoiselle
will perhaps honour me by coming out to
luncheon with me?"
Miss Monro's eyes glistened. It struck me that she was
in exceedingly low water, and that the chance of a
square meal was not to be despised.
A few minutes later saw us all in a taxi, bound for one
of London's most expensive restaurants. Once arrived
there, Poirot ordered a most delectable lunch, and then
turned to his guest.
"And for wine, mademoiselle? What do you say to
Miss Monro said nothing--or everything.
The meal started pleasantly. Poirot replenished the
lady's glass with thoughtful assiduity, and gradually slid
on to the topic nearest his heart.
"The poor Mr. Darrell. What a pity he is not with
"Yes, indeed," sighed Miss Monro. "Poor boy, I do
wonder what's become of him." "It is a long time since you have seen him, yes?"
"Oh, simply ages--not since the war. He was a funny
boy, Claudie, very close about things, never told you a
word about himself. But, of course, that all fits in if he's
a missing heir. Is it a title, Mr. Poirot?"
"Alas, a mere heritage," said Poirot unblushingly.
"But you see, it may be a question of identification.
That is why it is necessary for us to find some one who
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 155
knew him very well indeed. You knew him very well, did
you not, mademoiselle."
"I don't mind telling you, Mr. Poirot. You're a
gentleman. You know how to order a lunch for a lady-which is more than some of these young whippersnappers
do nowadays. Downright mean, I call it. As I was
saying, you being a Frenchman won't be shocked. Ah,
you Frenchmen! Naughty, naughty!" She wagged her
finger at him in an excess of archness. "Well, there it
was, me and Claudie, two young things--what else
could you expect? And I've still a kindly feeling for him.
Though, mind you, he didn't treat me well--no, he
didn't--he didn't treat me well at all. Not as a lady
should be treated. They're all the same when it comes to
a question of money."
"No, no, mademoiselle, do not say that," protested
Poirot, filling up her glass once more. "Could you now describe this Mr. Darrell to me?"
"He wasn't anything so very much to look at," said
Flossie Monro dreamily. "Neither tall nor short, you
know, but quite well set up. Spruce looking. Eyes a sort
of blue-gray. And more or less fair-haired, I suppose.
But oh, what an artist! / never saw any one to touch him
in the profession! He'd have made his name before now
if it hadn't been for jealousy. Ah, Mr. Poirot, jealousy--you
wouldn't believe it, you really wouldn't,
what we artists have to suffer through jealousy. Why, I
remember once at Manchester--"
We displayed what patience we could in listening to a
long complicated story about a pantomime, and the infamous
conduct of the principal boy. Then Poirot led
her gently back to the subject of Claud Darrell.
"It is very interesting, all this that you are able to tell
us, mademoiselle, about Mr. Darrell. Women are such
wonderful observers--they see everything, they notice
the little detail that escapes the mere man. I have seen a
woman identify one man out of a dozen others--and
why, do you think? She had observed that he had a trick
of stroking his nose when he was agitated. Now would a
man ever have thought of noticing a thing like that?"
"Did you ever!" cried Miss Monro. "I suppose we do
notice things. I remember Claudie, now I come to think of it, always fiddling with his bread at table. He'd get a
little piece between his fingers and then dab it round to
pick up crumbs. I've seen him do it a hundred times.
Why, I'd know him anywhere by that one trick of his."
"Is not that just what I say? The marvellous observation
of a woman. And did you ever speak to him about
this little habit of his, mademoiselle?"
"No, I didn't, Mr. Poirot. You know what men are!
They don't like you to notice things--especially if it
should seem you were telling them off about it. I never
said a word--but many's the time I smiled to myself.
Bless you, he never knew he was doing it even."
Poirot nodded gently. I noticed that his own hand
was shaking a little as he stretched it out to his glass.
"Then there is always handwriting as a means of
establishing identity," he remarked. "Without doubt
you have preserved a letter written by Mr. Darrell?"
Flossie Monro shook her head regretfully.
"He was never one for writing. Never wrote me a line
in his life."
"That is a pity," said Poirot.
"I tell you what, though," said Miss Monro suddenly.
"I've got a photograph if that would be any
ma foi, but what stupendous luck! You will permit me
to inspect that photograph, mademoiselle?'' "Why, of course."
"Perhaps you will even permit me to have a copy
made? It would not take long."
"Certainly if you like."
Miss Monro rose.
"Well, I must run away," she declared archly. "Very
glad to have met you and your friend, Mr. Poirot."
"And the photograph? When may I have it?"
"I'll look it out to-night. I think I know where to lay
my hand upon it. And I'll send it to you right away."
"A thousand thanks, mademoiselle. You are all that
is of the most amiable. I hope that we shall soon be able
to arrange another little lunch together."
"As soon as you like," said Miss Monro. "I'm willing." "Let me see, I do not think that I have your address?" With a grand air. Miss Monro drew a card from her
hand-bag, and handed it to him. It was a somewhat
dirty card, and the original address had been scratched
out and another substituted in pencil.
Then, with a good many bows and gesticulations on
Poirot's part, we bade farewell to the lady and got
"Do you really think this photograph so important?" I asked Poirot.
"Yes, mon ami. The camera does not lie. One can
magnify a photograph, seize salient points that otherwise
would remain unnoticed. And then there are a
thousand details--such as the structure of the ears,
which no one could ever describe to you in words. Oh,
yes, it is a great chance, this which has come our way!
That is why I propose to take precautions."
158 Agatha Christie
He went across to the telephone as he finished speaking,
and gave a number which I knew to be that of a
private detective agency which he sometimes employed.
His instructions were clear and definite. Two men were
to go to the address he gave, and, in general terms, were
to watch over the safety of Miss Monro. They were to
follow her wherever she went.
Poirot hung up the receiver and came back to me.
"Do you really think that necessary, Poirot?" I
"It may be. There is no doubt that we are watched,
you and I, and since that is so, they will soon know with
whom we were lunching to-day. And it is possible that
Number Four will scent danger."
About twenty minutes later the telephone bell rang. I
answered it. A curt voice spoke into the phone.
"Is that Mr. Poirot? St. James Hospital speaking. A young woman was brought in ten minutes ago. Street
accident. Miss Flossie Monro. She is asking very urgently
for Mr. Poirot. But he must come at once. She
can't possibly last long."
I repeated the words to Poirot. His face went white.
"Quick, Hastings. We must go like the wind."
A taxi took us to the hospital in less than ten minutes.
We asked for Miss Monro, and were taken immediately
to the accident ward. But a white-capped sister met us in
Poirot read the news in her face.
"It is over, eh?"
"She died six minutes ago."
Poirot stood as though stunned.
The nurse, mistaking his emotion, began speaking
"She did not suffer, and she was unconscious towards
the last. She was run over by a motor, you know
FR1;THE BIG FOUR 159
--and the driver of the car did not even stop. Wicked,
isn't it? I hope some one took the number."
"The stars fight against us," said Poirot, in a low
"You would like to see her?"
The nurse led the way, and we followed. Poor Flossie Monro, with her rouge and her dyed
hair. She lay there very peacefully, with a little smile on
"Yes," murmured Poirot. "The stars fight against
us--but is it the stars?" He lifted his head as though
struck by a sudden idea. "Is it the stars, Hastings? If it
is not--if it is not. . . . Oh, I swear to you, my friend,
standing here by this poor woman's body, that I will
have no mercy when the time comes!"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
But Poirot had turned to the nurse and was eagerly
demanding information. A list of the articles found in
her hand-bag was finally obtained. Poirot gave a suppressed
cry as he read it over.
"You see, Hastings, you see?"
"There is no mention of a latch-key. But she must
have had a latch-key with her. No, she was run down in
cold blood, and the first person who bent over her took
the key from her bag. But we may yet be in time. He
may not have been able to find at once what he sought."
Another taxi took us to the address Flossie Monro
had given us, a squalid block of Mansions in an unsavoury
neighbourhood. It was some time before we
could gain admission to Miss Monro's flat, but we had
at least the satisfaction of knowing that no one could leave it whilst we were on guard outside.
Eventually we got in. It was plain that some one had
been before us. The contents of drawers and cupboards
The Terrible Catastrophe It was after the tragic death of Miss Flossie Monro that I
began to be aware of a change in Poirot. Up to now, his
invincible confidence in himself had stood the test. But
it seemed as though, at last, the long strain was beginning
to tell. His manner was grave and brooding, and
his nerves were on edge. In these days he was as jumpy
as a cat. He avoided all discussion of the Big Four as far
as possible, and seemed to throw himself into his ordinary
work with almost his old ardour. Nevertheless, I
knew that he was secretly active in the big matter.
Extraordinary-looking Slavs were constantly calling to
see him, and though he vouchsafed no explanation as to
these mysterious activities, I realised that he was building
some new defence or weapon of opposition with the
help of these somewhat repulsive-looking foreigners.
Once, purely by chance, I happened to see the entries in
his pass-book--he had asked me to verify some small
item--and I noticed the paying out of a huge sum --a huge sum even for Poirot who was coining money nowadays--to
some Russian with apparently every letter of
the alphabet in his name.
But he gave no clue as to the line on which he proposed
to operate. Only over and over again he gave utterance
to one phrase. "It is the greatest mistake to
underestimate your adversary. Remember that, mon
ami." And I realised that that was the pitfall he was
striving at all costs to avoid.
So matters went on until the end of March, and then
one morning Poirot made a remark which startled me
"This morning, my friend, I should recommend the
best suit. We go to call upon the Home Secretary."
"Indeed? That is very exciting. He has called you in
to take up a case?"
"Not exactly. The interview is of my seeking. You
may remember my saying that I once did him some
small service? He is inclined to be foolishly enthusiastic
over my capabilities in consequence, and I am about to
trade on this attitude of his. As you know, the French
Premier, M. Desjardeaux is over in London, and at my
request the Home Secretary had arranged for him to be
present at our little conference this morning."
The Right Honourable Sydney Crowther, His Majesty's
Secretary of State for Home Affairs, was a wellknown and popular figure. A man of some fifty years of
age, with a quizzical expression and shrewd gray eyes,
he received us with that delightful bonhomie of manner
which was well known to be one of his principal assets.
Standing with his back to the fireplace was a tall thin
man with a pointed black beard and a sensitive face.
"M. Desjardeaux," said Crowther. "Allow me to in
THE BIG FOUR 163
troduce to you M. Hercule Poirot of whom you may,
perhaps, already have heard."
The Frenchman bowed and shook hands.
"I have indeed heard of M. Hercule Poirot," he said
pleasantly. "Who has not?"
"You are too amiable, monsieur," said Poirot, bowing,
but his face flushed with pleasure.
"Any word for an old friend?" asked a quiet voice,
and a man came forward from a corner by a tall bookcase. It was our old acquaintance, Mr. Ingles.
Poirot shook him warmly by the hand.
"And now, M. Poirot," said Crowther. "We are at
your service. I understood you to say that you had a
communication of the utmost importance to make to
"That is so, monsieur. There is in the world today a
vast organisation--an organisation of crime. It is controlled by four individuals, who are known and spoken
of as the Big Four. Number One is a Chinaman, Li
Chang Yen; Number Two is the American multi-millionaire,
Abe Ryland; Number Three is a Frenchwoman;
Number Four I have every reason to believe is
an obscure English actor called Claud Darrell. These
four are banded together to destroy the existing social
order, and to replace it with an anarchy in which they
would reign as dictators."
"Incredible," muttered the Frenchman. "Ryland.
mixed up with a thing of that kind? Surely the idea is
"Listen, monsieur, whilst I recount to you some of
the doings of this Big Four."
It was an enthralling narrative which Poirot unfolded.
Familiar as I was with all the details, they
164 Agatha Christie
thrilled me anew as I heard the bald recital of our adventures
M. Desjardeaux looked mutely at Mr. Crowther as
Poirot finished. The other answered the look.
"Yes, M. Desjardeaux, I think we must admit the existence
of a 'Big Four.' Scotland Yard was inclined to
jeer at first, but they have been forced to admit that M.
Poirot was right in many of his claims. The only question is the extent of its aims. I cannot but feel that M.
Poirot--er--exaggerates a little."
For answer Poirot set forth ten salient points. I have
been asked not to give them to the public even now, and
so I refrain from doing so, but they included the extraordinary
disasters to submarines which occurred in a
certain month, and also a series of aeroplane accidents
and forced landings. According to Poirot, these were all
the work of the Big Four, and bore witness to the fact
that they were in possession of various scientific secrets
unknown to the world at large.
This brought us straight to the question which I had
been waiting for the French Premier to ask.
"You say that the third member of this organisation
is a Frenchwoman. Have you any idea of her name?"
"It is a well-known name, monsieur. An honoured
name. Number Three is no less than the famous MadameOlivier."
the mention of the world-famous scientist, successor
to the Curies, M. Desjardeaux positively bounded
from his chair, his face purple with emotion.
"Madame Olivier! Impossible! Absurd! It is an insult
what you say there!"
Poirot shook his head gently, but made no answer.
Desjardeaux looked at him in stupefaction for some
moments. Then his face cleared, and he glanced at the Home Secretary and tapped his forehead significantly.
THE BIG FOUR 165
"M. Poirot is a great man," he observed. "But even
the great man--sometimes he has his little mania, does
he not? And seeks in high places for fancied conspiracies.
It is well known. You agree with me, do you not,
The Home Secretary did not answer for some minutes.
Then he spoke slowly and heavily.
"Upon my soul, I don't know," he said at last. "I
have always had and still have the utmost belief in M.
Poirot, but--well, this takes a bit of believing."
"This Li Chang Yen, too," continued M. Desjardeaux.
"Who has ever heard of him?"
"I have," said the unexpected voice of Mr. Ingles.
The Frenchman stared at him, and he stared placidly
back again, looking more like a Chinese idol than ever.
"Mr. Ingles," explained the Home Secretary, "is the
greatest authority we have on the interior of China."
"And you have heard of this Li Chang Yen?"
"Until M. Poirot here came to me, I imagined that I
was the only man in England who had. Make no mistake,
M. Desjardeaux, there is only one man in China
who counts to-day--Li Chang Yen. He has, perhaps, I
only say perhaps, the finest brain in the world at the present time."
M. Desjardeaux sat as though stunned. Presently,
however, he rallied.
"There may be something in what you say, M. Poirot,"
he said coldly. "But as regards Madame Olivier,
you are most certainly mistaken. She is a true daughter
of France, and devoted solely to the cause of science."
Poirot shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.
There was a minute or two's pause, and then my little
friend rose to his feet, with an air of dignity that sat
rather oddly upon his quaint personality.
"That is all I have to say, messieurs--to warn you. I
166 Agatha Christie
thought it likely that I should not be believed. But at
least you will be on your guard. My words will sink in,
and each fresh event that comes along will confirm your
wavering faith. It was necessary for me to speak now
--later I might not have been able to do so."
"You mean--?" asked Crowther, impressed in spite
of himself by the gravity of Poirot's tone.
"I mean, monsieur, that since I have penetrated the
identity of Number Four, my life is not worth an hour's
purchase. He will seek to destroy me at all costs--and
not for nothing is he named 'The Destroyer.' Messieurs,
I salute you. To you, M. Crowther, I deliver this key, and this sealed envelope. I have got together all my
notes on the case, and my ideas as to how best to meet .the menace that any day may break upon the
have placed them in a certain safe deposit. In the event
of my death, M. Crowther, I authorise you to take
charge of those papers and make what use you can of
them. And now, messieurs, I wish you good day."
Desjardeaux merely bowed coldly, but Crowther
sprang up and held out his hand.
"You have converted me, M. Poirot. Fantastic as the
whole thing seems, I believe utterly in the truth of what
you have told us."
Ingles left at the same time as we did.
"I am not disappointed with the interview," said
Poirot, as we walked along. "I did not expect to convince
Desjardeaux, but I have at least ensured that, if I
die, my knowledge does not die with me. And I have
made one or two converts. Pas si mail"
"I'm with you, as you know," said Ingles. "By the
way, I'm going out to China as soon as I can get off."
"Is that wise?"
"No," said Ingles dryly. "But it's necessary. One
must do what one can."
THE BIG FOUR 167
"Ah, you are a brave man!" cried Poirot with emotion.
"If we were not in the street, I would embrace you."
I fancied that Ingles looked rather relieved.
"I don't suppose that I shall be in any more danger in
China than you are in London," he growled.
"That is possibly true enough," admitted Poirot. "I
hope that they will not succeed in massacring Hastings
also, that is all. That would annoy me greatly."
I interrupted this cheerful conversation to remark
that I had no intention of letting myself be massacred,
and shortly afterwards Ingles parted from us.
For some time we went along in silence, which Poirot
at length broke by uttering a totally unexpected remark.
"I think--I really think--that I shall have to bring my
brother into this."
"Your brother," I cried, astonished. "I never knew
you had a brother?"
"You surprise me, Hastings. Do you not know that
all celebrated detectives have brothers who would be
even more celebrated than they are were it not for constitutional
Poirot employs a peculiar manner sometimes which
makes it wellnigh impossible to know whether he is
jesting or in earnest. That manner was very evident at
"What is your brother's name?" I asked, trying to adjust myself to this new idea.
"Achille Poirot," replied Poirot gravely. "He lives
near Spa in Belgium."
"What does he do?" I asked with "some curiosity,
putting aside a half-formed wonder as to the character
and disposition of the late Madame Poirot, and her
classical taste in Christian names.
"He does nothing. He is, as I tell, of a singularly in'II
168 Agatha Christie
dolent disposition. But his abilities are hardly less than
my own--which is saying a great deal."
"Is he like you to look at?"
"Not unlike. But not nearly so handsome. And he
wears no moustaches."
"Is he older than you, or younger?"
"He happens to have been born on the same day."
"A twin, "I cried.
"Exactly, Hastings. You jump to the right conclusion
with unfailing accuracy. But here we are at home again.
Let us at once get to work on that little affair of the
But the Duchess's necklace was doomed to wait
awhile. A case of quite another description was waiting
Our landlady, Mrs. Pearson, at once informed us that a hospital nurse had called and was waiting to see
We found her sitting in the big arm-chair facing the
window, a pleasant-faced woman of middle age, in a
dark blue uniform. She was a little reluctant to come to
the point, but Poirot soon put her at her ease, and she
embarked upon her story.
"You see, M. Poirot, I've never come across anything
of the kind before. I was sent for, from the Lark Sisterhood,
to go down to a case in Hertfordshire. An old
gentleman, it is, Mr. Templeton. Quite a pleasant
house, and quite pleasant people. The wife, Mrs.
Templeton, is much younger than her husband, and he
has a son by his first marriage who lives there. I don't
know that the young man and the step-mother always
get on together. He's not quite what you'd call normal
--not 'wanting' exactly, but decidedly dull in the intellect.
Well, this illness of Mr. Templeton's seemed to me
from the first to be very mysterious. At times there
THE BIG FOUR 169
seemed really nothing the matter with him, and then he
suddenly has one of these gastric attacks with pain and
vomiting. But the doctor seemed quite satisfied, and it
wasn't for me to say anything. But I couldn't help
thinking about it. And then--" She paused, and became rather red.
"Something happened which aroused your suspicions?"
But she still seemed to find it difficult to go on.
"I found the servants were passing remarks too."
"About Mr. Templeton's illness?"
"Oh, no! About--about this other thing--"
"Mrs. Templeton and the doctor, perhaps?"
Poirot had an uncanny flair in these things. The nurse
threw him a grateful glance and went on.
"They were passing remarks. And then one day I
happened to see them together myself--in the garden--" It was left at that. Our client was in such an agony of
outraged propriety that no one could feel it necessary to
ask exactly what she had seen in the garden. She had
evidently seen quite enough to make up her own mind
on the situation.
"The attacks got worse and worse. Dr. Treves said it
was all perfectly natural and to be expected, and that
Mr. Templeton could not possibly live long, but I've
never seen anything like it before myself--not in all my
ong experience of nursing. It seemed to me much more "he some form of--"
She paused, hesitating.
"Arsenical poisoning?" said Poirot helpfully. ahe nodded.
"And then, too, he, the patient, I mean, said something
queer. 'They'll do for me, the four of them.
They'11 do for me yet.' "
"Eh?" said Poirot quickly.
"Those were his very words, M. Poirot. He was in
great pain at the time, of course, and hardly knew what
he was saying."
" 'They'll do for me, the four of them,' " repeated
Poirot thoughtfully. "What did he mean by 'the four of
them,'do you think?"
"That I can't say, M. Poirot. I thought perhaps he
meant his wife and son, and the doctor, and perhaps
Miss dark, Mrs. Templeton's companion. That would
make four, wouldn't it? He might think they were all in
league against him."
"Quite so, quite so," said Poirot, in a preoccupied
voice. "What about food? Could you take no precautions
"I'm always doing what I can. But, of course, sometimes
Mrs. Templeton insists on bringing him his food
herself, and then there are the times when I am off
duty." "Exactly. And you are not sure enough of your
ground to go to the police?"
The nurse's face showed her horror at the mere idea.
"What I have done, M. Poirot, is this. Mr. Templeton
had a very bad attack after partaking of a bowl of
soup. I took a little from the bottom of the bowl afterwards,
and have brought it up with me. I have been
spared for the day to visit a sick mother, as Mr. Templeton
was well enough to be left."
She drew out a little bottle of dark fluid and handed it
"Excellent, mademoiselle. We will have this analysed
immediately. If you will return here in, say, an hour's
THE BIG FOUR 171
time I think that we shall be able to dispose of your
suspicions one way or another."
First extracting from our visitor her name and qualifications,
he ushered her out. Then he wrote a note and
sent it off together with the bottle of soup. Whilst we
waited to hear the result, Poirot amused himself by verifying
the nurse's credentials, somewhat to my surprise.
"No, no, my friend," he declared. "I do well to be
careful. Do not forget the Big Four are on our track."
However, he soon elicited the information that a
nurse of the name of Mabel Palmer was a member of
the Lark Institute and had been sent to the case in question. "So far, so good," he said, with a twinkle. "And
now here comes Nurse Palmer back again, and here also
is our analyst's report."
Both the nurse and I waited anxiously whilst Poirot
read the analyst's report.
"Is there arsenic in it?" she asked breathlessly.
Poirot shook his head, refolding the paper.
We were both immeasurably surprised.
"There is no arsenic in it," continued Poirot. "But
there is antimony. And that being the case, we will start
immediately for Hertfordshire. Pray Heaven that we are
not too late."
It was decided that the simplest plan was for Poirot to
represent himself truly as a detective, but that the ostensible
reason of his visit should be to question Mrs.
Templeton about a servant formerly in her employment
whose name he obtained from Nurse Palmer, and who
he could represent as being concerned in a jewel robbery. It was late when we arrived at Elmstead, as the house
was called. We had allowed Nurse Palmer to precede us
172 Agatha Christie
by about twenty minutes, so that there should be no question of our all arriving together.
Mrs. Templeton, a tall dark woman, with sinuous
movements and uneasy eyes, received us. I noticed that
as Poirot announced his profession, she drew in her
breath with a sudden hiss, as though badly startled, but
she answered his question about the maid-servant readily
enough. And then, to test her, Poirot embarked
upon a long history of a poisoning case in which a guilty
wife had figured. His eyes never left her face as he
talked, and try as she would, she could hardly conceal
her rising agitation. Suddenly, with an incoherent word
of excuse, she hurried from the room.
We were not long left alone. A squarely-built man
with a small red moustache and pince-nez came in.
"Dr. Treves," he introduced himself. "Mrs. Termpleton
asked me to make her excuses to you. She's in
a very bad state, you know. Nervous strain. Worry over
her husband and all that. I've prescribed bed and bromide.
But she hopes you'll stay and take pot luck, and
I'm to do host. We've heard of you down here, M. Poirot,
and we mean to make the most of you. Ah, here's
A shambling young man entered the room. He had a
very round face, and foolish-looking eyebrows raised as
though in perpetual surprise. He grinned awkwardly as
he shook hands. This was clearly the "wanting" son. Presently we all went in to dinner. Dr. Treves left the
room--to open some wine, I think--and suddenly the
boy's physiognomy underwent a startling change. He
lent forward, staring at Poirot.
"You've come about father," he said, nodding his
head. "/ know. I know lots of things--but nobody
thinks I do. Mother will be glad when father's dead and
she can marry Dr. Treves. She isn't my own mother,
" --i fti
THE BIG FOUR 173
you know. I don't like her. She wants father to die."
It was all rather horrible. Luckily, before Poirot had
time to reply, the doctor came back, and we had to carry
on a forced conversation.
And then suddenly Poirot lay back in his chair with a
hollow groan. His face was contorted with pain.
"My dear sir, what's the matter?" cried the doctor.
"A sudden spasm. I am used to them. No, no, I require
no assistance from you, doctor. If I might lie
His request was instantly acceded to, and I accompanied
him upstairs, where he collapsed on the bed,
For the first minute or two I had been taken in, but I
had quickly realised that Poirot was--as he would have put it--playing the comedy, and that his object was to
be left alone upstairs near the patient's room.
Hence I was quite prepared when, the instant we were
alone, he sprang up.
"Quick, Hastings, the window. There is ivy outside.
We can climb down before they begin to suspect."
"Yes, we must get out of this house at once. You saw
him at dinner?"
"No, young Templeton. His trick with his bread. Do
you remember what Flossie Monro told us before she
died? That Claud Darrell had a habit of dabbing his
bread on the table to pick up crumbs. Hastings, this is a
vast plot, and that vacant-looking young man is our
arch enemy--Number Four! Hurry."
I did not wait to argue. Incredible as the whole thing
seemed, it was wiser not to delay. We scrambled down
the ivy as quietly as we could and made a bee-line for the
small town and the railway station. We were just able to
catch the last train, the 8.34 which would land us in
town about eleven o'clock.
"A plot," said Poirot thoughtfully. "How many of
them were in it, I wonder? I suspect that the whole
Templeton family are just so many agents of the Big
Four. Did they simply want to decoy us down there? Or was it more subtle than that. Did they intend to play the
comedy down there and keep me interested until they
had had time to do--what? I wonder now."
He remained very thoughtful.
Arrived at our lodgings, he restrained me at the door
of the sitting-room.
"Attention, Hasting. I have my suspicions. Let me
He did so, and, to my slight amusement, took the
precaution to press on the electric switch with an old
galosh. Then he went round the room like a strange cat,
cautiously, delicately, on the alert for danger. I watched
him for some time, remaining obediently where I had
been put by the wall.
"It's all right, Poirot," I said impatiently.
"It seems so, mon ami, it seems so. But let us make
"Rot," I said. "I shall light the fire, anyway, and
have a pipe. I've caught you out for once. You had the
matches last and you didn't put them back in the holder
as usual--the very thing you're always cursing me for
I stretched out my hand. I heard Poirot's warning
cry--saw him leaping towards me--my hand touched
the matchbox. Then--a flash of blue flame--an ear-rending crash-and darkness-I came to myself to find the familiar face of our old
THE BIG FOUR 175
friend Dr. Ridgeway bending over me. An expression of
relief passed over his features.
"Keep still," he said soothingly. "You're all right.
There's been an accident, you know."
"Poirot?" I murmured.
"You're in my digs. Everything's quite all right."
A cold fear clutched at my heart. His evasion woke a
"Poirot9" I reiterated. "What of Poirot?"
He saw that I had to know and that further evasions
"By a miracle you escaped—Poirot—did not!"
A cry burst from my lips.
"Not dead? Not dead?"
Ridgeway bowed his head, his features working with
With desperate energy I pulled myself to a sitting
"Poirot may be dead," I said weakly. "But his spirit
lives on. I will carry on his work! Death to the Big
Then I fell back, fainting. ^r- Tin
T^e ^Dying Cfiinaman
Even now I can hardly bear to write of those days in
Poirot--the unique, the inimitable Hercule Poirot-dead! There was a particularly diabolical touch in the
disarranged match-box, which was certain to catch his
eye, and which he would hasten to rearrange--and
thereby touch off the explosion. That, as a matter of
fact, it was I who actually precipitated the catastrophe
never ceased to fill me with unavailing remorse. It was,
as Doctor Ridgeway said, a perfect miracle that I had
not been killed, but had escaped with a slight concussion. Although it had seemed to me as though I regained
consciousness almost immediately, it was in reality over
twenty-four hours before I came back to life. It was not
until the evening of the day following that I was able to
stagger feebly into an adjoining room, and view with 177
178 Agatha Christie
deep emotion the plain elm coffin which held the reIt j mains of one of the most marvellous men this
From the very first moment of regaining consciousness
I had only one purpose in mind--to avenge Poirot's
death, and to hunt down the Big Four remorselessly.
I had thought that Ridgeway would have been of one
mind with me about this, but to my surprise the good
doctor seemed unaccountably lukewarm.
"Get back to South America" was his advice, tendered
on every occasion. Why attempt the impossible?
Put as delicately as possible, his opinion amounted to
this:--If Poirot, the unique Poirot, had failed, was it
likely that I should succeed?
But I was obstinate. Putting aside any question as to
whether I had the necessary qualifications for the task
(and I may say in passing that I did not entirely agree
with his views on this point), I had worked so long with
Poirot that I knew his methods by heart, and felt fully
capable of taking up the work where he had laid it
down; it was, with me, a question of feeling. My friend
had been foully murdered. Was I to go tamely back to
South America without an effort to bring his murderers to justice?
I said all this and more to Ridgeway, who listened attentively
"All the same," he said when I had finished, "my advice
does not vary. I am earnestly convinced that Poirot
himself, if he were here, would urge you to return. In his
name, I beg of you, Hastings, abandon these wild ideas
and go back to your ranch."
To that only one answer was possible, and, shaking
his head sadly, he said no more.
It was a month before I was fully restored to health.
THE BIG FOUR 179
Towards the end of April, I sought, and obtained, an interview
with the Home Secretary.
Mr. Crowther's manner was reminiscent of that of
Dr. Ridgeway. It was soothing and negative. Whilst appreciating
the offer of my services, he gently and considerately
declined them. The papers referred to by
Poirot had passed into his keeping, and he assured me
that all possible steps were being taken to deal with the
With that cold comfort I was forced to be satisfied.
Mr. Crowther ended the interview by urging me to
return to South America. I found the whole thing profoundly
I should, I suppose, in its proper place, have described Poirot's funeral. It was a solemn and moving
ceremony, and the extraordinary number of floral
tributes passed belief. They came from high and low
alike, and bore striking testimony to the place my friend
had made for himself in the country of his adoption.
For myself, I was frankly overcome by emotion as I
stood by the grave side and thought of all our varied
experiences and the happy days we had passed together.
By the beginning of May I had mapped out a plan of
campaign. I felt that I could not do better than keep
Poirot's scheme of advertising for any information
respecting Claud Darrell. I had an advertisement to this
effect inserted in a number of morning newspapers, and
I was sitting in a small restaurant in Soho, and judging
of the effect of the advertisement, when a small paragraph
in another part of the paper gave me a nasty
Very briefly, it reported the mysterious disappearance
of Mr. John Ingles from the S.S. Shanghai, shortly after
the latter had left Marseilles. Although the weather was
180 Agatha Christie
perfectly smooth, it was feared that the unfortunate
gentleman must have fallen overboard. The paragraph
ended with a brief reference to Mr. Ingles' long and
distinguished service in China. The news was unpleasant. I read into Ingles' death a
sinister motive. Not for one moment did I believe the
theory of an accident. Ingles had been murdered, and
his death was only too clearly the handiwork of that accursed
As I sat there, stunned by the blow, and turning the
whole matter over in my mind, I was startled by the
remarkable behaviour of the man sitting opposite me.
So far I had not paid much attention to him. He was a
thin, dark man of middle age, sallow of complexion,
with a small pointed beard. He had sat down opposite
me so quietly that I had hardly noticed his arrival.
But his actions now were decidedly peculiar, to say
the least of them. Leaning forward, he deliberately
helped me to salt, putting it in four little heaps round
the edge of my plate.
"You will excuse me," he said, in a melancholy voice.
"To help a stranger to salt is to help them to sorrow,
they say. That may be an unavoidable necessity. I hope
not, though. I hope that you will be reasonable."
Then, with a certain significance, he repeated his
operations with the salt on his own plate. The symbol 4
was too plain to be missed. I looked at him searchingly.
In no way that I could see did he resemble young
Templeton, or James the footman, or any other of the
various personalities we had come across. Nevertheless, I was convinced that I had to do with no less than the
redoubtable Number Four himself. In his voice there
was certainly a faint resemblance to the buttoned-upstranger
who had called upon us in Paris.
I looked round, undecided as to my course of action.
THE BIG FOUR 181
Reading my thoughts, he smiled and gently shook his
"I should not advise it," he remarked. "Remember
what came of your hasty action in Paris. Let me assure
you that my way of retreat is well assured. Your ideas
are inclined to be a little crude. Captain Hastings, if I
may say so."
"You devil," I said, choking with rage, "you incarnate
"Heated--just a trifle heated. Your late lamented
friend would have told you that a man who keeps calm
has always a great advantage."
"You dare to speak of him," I cried. "The man you
murdered so foully. And you come here--"
He interrupted me.
"I came here for an excellent and peaceful purpose.
To advise you to return at once to South America. If
you do so, that is the end of the matter as far as the Big
Four are concerned. You and yours will not be molested in any way. I give you my word as to that."
I laughed scornfully.
"And if I refuse to obey your autocratic command?"
"It is hardly a command. Shall we say that it is--a
There was a cold menace in his tone.
"The first warning," he said softly. "You will be well
advised not to disregard it."
Then, before I had any hint of his intention, he rose
and slipped quickly away towards the door. I sprang to
my feet and was after him in a second, but by bad luck I
cannoned straight into an enormously fat man who
blocked the way between me and the next table. By the
time I had disentangled myself, my quarry was just
passing through the doorway, and the next delay was
from a waiter carrying a huge pile of plates who crashed
182 Agatha Christie
into me without the least warning. By the time I got to
the door there was no sign of the thin man with the dark
The waiter was fulsome in apologies, the fat man was
sitting placidly at a table ordering his lunch. There was
nothing to show that both occurrences had not been a
pure accident. Nevertheless, I had my own opinion as to
that. I knew well enough that the agents of the Big Four
were everywhere. Needless to say, I paid no heed to the warning given
me. I would do or die in the good cause. I received in all
only two answers to the advertisements. Neither of them
gave me any information of value. They were both from
actors who had played with Claud Darrell at one time or
another. Neither of them knew him at all intimately,
| and no new light was thrown upon the problem of his
identity and present whereabouts.
No further sign came from the Big Four until about
ten days later. I was crossing Hyde Park, lost in
thought, when a voice, rich with a persuasive foreign inflection,
"Captain Hastings, is it not?"
A big limousine had just drawn up by the pavement.
A woman was leaning out. Exquisitely dressed in black,
with wonderful pearls, I recognised the lady first known
to us as Countess Vera Rossakoff, and afterwards under
a different alias as an agent of the Big Four. Poirot, for
some reason or other, had always had a sneaking fondness
for the countess. Something in her very flamboyance
attracted the little man. She was, he was wont
to declare in moments of enthusiasm, a woman in a
thousand. That she was arrayed against us, on the side
of our bitterest enemies, never seemed to weigh in his
judgment. "Ah, do not pass on!" said the countess. "I have something most important to say to you. And do
THE BIG FOUR 183
not try to have me arrested either, for that would be
stupid. You were always a little stupid--yes, yes, it is so.
You are stupid now, when you persist in disregarding
the warning we sent you. It is the second warning I bring
you. Leave England at once. You can do no good here
--I tell you that frankly. You will never accomplish
"In that case," I said stiffly, "it seems ratherextraordinary
that you are all so anxious to get me out of the
The countess shrugged her shoulders--magnificent
shoulders, and a magnificent gesture.
"For my part, I think that, too, stupid. I would leave
you here to play about happily. But the chiefs, you see,
are fearful that some word of yours may give great help
to those more intelligent than yourself. Hence--you are
to be banished."
The countess appeared to have a flattering idea of my
abilities. I concealed my annoyance. Doubtless this attitude
of hers was assumed expressly to annoy me and to
give me the idea that.I was unimportant.
"It would, of course, be quite easy to--remove you,"
she continued, "but I am quite sentimental sometimes. I
pleaded for you. You have a nice little wife somewhere, have you not? And it would please the poor little man
who is dead to know that you were not to be killed. I
always liked him, you know. He was clever--but clever!
Had it not been a case of four against one I honestly
believe he might have been too much for us. I confess it
frankly--he was my master! I sent a wreath to the funeral
as a token of my admiration--an enormous one
of crimson roses. Crimson roses express my temperament." I listened in silence and a growing distaste.
"You have the look of a mule when it puts its ears
back and kicks. Well, I have delivered my warning.
Remember this, the third warning will come by the hand
of the Destroyer--"
She made a sign, and the car whirled away rapidly. I
noted the number mechanically, but without the hope
that it would lead to anything. The Big Four were not
apt to be careless in details.
I went home a little sobered. One fact had emerged
from the countess's flood of volubility. I was in real
danger of my life. Though I had no intention of abandoning
the struggle, I saw that it behoved me to walk
warily and adopt every possible precaution.
Whilst I was reviewing all these facts and seeking for
the best line of action, the telephone bell rang. I crossed the room and picked up the reciever.
"Yes. Hallo. Who's speaking?"
A crisp voice answered me.
"This is St. Giles' Hospital. We have a Chinaman
here, knifed in the street and brought in. He can't last
long. We rang you up because we found in his pocket a
piece of paper with your name and address on it."
I was very much astonished. Nevertheless, after a moment's
reflection I said that I would come down at once.
St. Giles* Hospital was, I knew, down by the docks, and
it occurred to me that the Chinaman might have just
come off some ship.
It was on my way down there that a sudden suspicion
shot into my mind. Was the whole thing a trap? Wherever
a Chinaman was, there might be the hand of Li
Chang Yen. I remembered the adventure of the Baited
Trap. Was the whole thing a ruse on the part of my
A little reflection convinced me that at any rate a visit
to the hospital would do no harm. It was probable that
the thing was not so much a plot as what is vulgarly
known as a "plant." The dying Chinaman would make
some revelation to me upon which I should act, and
which would have the result of leading me into the
hands of the Big Four. The thing to do was to preserve
an open mind, and whilst feigning credulity be secretly on my guard.
On arriving at St. Giles' Hospital, and making my business known, I was taken at once to the accident
ward, to the bedside of the man in question. He lay absolutely
still, his eyelids closed, and only a very faint
movement of the chest showed that he still breathed. A
doctor stood by the bed, his fingers on the Chinaman's
"He's almost gone," he whispered to me. "You
know him, eh?"
I shook my head.
"I've never seen him before."
"Then what was he doing with your name and address
in his pocket? You are Captain Hastings, aren't
"Yes, but I can't explain it any more than you can."
"Curious thing. From his papers he seems to have
been the servant of a man called Ingles--a retired Civil
Servant. Ah, you know him, do you?" he added
quickly, as I started at the name.
Ingles' servant! Then I had seen him before. Not that
I had ever succeeded in being able to distinguish one
Chinaman from another. He must have been with Ingles
on his way to China, and after the catastrophe he had
returned to England with a message, possibly, for me. It
was vital, imperative that I should hear that message. "Is he conscious?" I asked. "Can he speak? Mr. Ingles
was an old friend of mine, and I think it possible
that this poor fellow has brought me a message from
him. Mr. Ingles is believed to have gone overboard
about ten days ago."
"He's just conscious, but I doubt if he has the force
to speak. He lost a terrible lot of blood, you know. I can
administer a stimulant, of course, but we've already
done all that is possible in that direction."
Nevertheless, he administered a hypodermic injection,
and I stayed by the bed, hoping against hope for a
word--a sign--that might be of the utmost value to me
in my work. But the minutes sped on and no sign came.
And suddenly a baleful idea shot across my mind.
Was I not already falling into the trap? Suppose that
this Chinaman had merely assumed the part of Ingles'
servant, that he was in reality an agent of the Big Four?
Had I not once read that certain Chinese priests were
capable of simulating death? Or, to go further still, Li
Chang Yen might command a little band of fanatics
who would welcome death itself if it came at the command
of their master. I must be on my guard.
Even as these thoughts flashed across my mind, the
man in the bed stirred. His eyes opened. He murmured
something incoherently. Then I saw his glance fasten
upon me. He made no sign of recognition, but I was at once aware that he was trying to speak to me. Be he
friend or foe, I must hear what he had to say.
I leaned over the bed, but the broken sounds conveyed
no sort of meaning to me. I thought I caught the
word "hand," but in what connection it was used I
could not tell. Then it came again, and this time I heard
another word, the word "Largo." I stared in amazement,
as the possible juxtaposition of the two suggested
itself to me.
"Handel's Largo?" I queried.
The Chinaman's eyelids flickered rapidly, as though
in assent, and he added another Italian word, the word "carrozza." Two or three more words of
Italian came to my ears, and then he fell back abruptly.
The doctor pushed me aside. It was all over. The man
I went out into the air again thoroughly bewildered.
"Handel's Largo," and a "carrozza." If I remembered
rightly, a carrozza was a carriage. What possible
meaning could lie behind those simple words. The man
was a Chinaman, not an Italian, why should he speak in
Italian? Surely, if he were indeed Ingles's servant, he
must know English? The whole thing was profoundly
mystifying. I puzzled over it all the way home. Oh, if
only Poirot had been there to solve the problem with his
lightning ingenuity! I let myself in with my latch-key and went slowly up
to my room. A letter was lying on the table, and I tore it
open carelessly enough. But in a minute I stood rooted
to the ground whilst I read.
It was a communication from a firm of solicitors.
"dear sir (it ran),--As instructed by our late
client, M. Hercule Poirot, we forward you the
enclosed letter. This letter was placed in our hands
a week before his death, with instructions that in
the event of his demise, it should be sent to you at a
certain date after his death.
"Yours faithfully, etc."
I turned the enclosed missive over and over. It was
undoubtedly from Poirot. I knew that familiar writing
only too well. With a heavy heart, yet a certain eagerness,
I tore it open.
"mon cher ami (it began),--When you receive
this I shall be no more. Do not shed tears about me,
but follow my orders. Immediately upon receipt of
this, return to South America. Do not be pigheaded
about this. It is not for sentimental reasons
that I bid you undertake the journey. // is necessary. It is part of the plan of Hercule Poirot! To say
more is unnecessary, to any one who has the acute
intelligence of my friend Hastings.
"A bos the Big Four! I salute you, my friend, from beyond the grave.
I read and re-read this astonishing communication.
One thing was evident. This amazing man had so provided
for every eventuality that even his own death did
not upset the sequence of his plans! Mine was to be the
active part--his the directing genius. Doubtless I should
find full instructions awaiting me beyond the seas. In
the meantime my enemies, convinced that I was obeying
their warning, would cease to trouble their heads about
me. I could return, unsuspected, and work havoc in
There was now nothing to hinder my immediate departure.
I sent off cables, booked my passage, and one
week later found me embarking in the Ansonia en route
for Buenos Ayres.
Just as the boat left the quay, a steward brought me a
note. It had been given him, so he explained, by a big
gentleman in a fur coat who had left the boat last thing
before the gangway planks were lifted.
I opened it. It was terse and to the point.
"You are wise," it ran. It was signed with a big figure
I could afford to smile to myself!
THE BIG FOUR 189 The sea was not too choppy. I enjoyed a passable dinner,
made up my mind as to the majority of my fellow
passengers, and had a rubber or two of Bridge. Then I
turned in and slept like a log as I always do on board
I was awakened by feeling myself persistently shaken.
Dazed and bewildered, I saw that one of the ship's officers
was standing over me. He gave a sigh of relief as I
"Thank the Lord I've got you awake at last. I've had
no end of a job. Do you always sleep like that?"
"What's the matter?" I asked, still bewildered and
not fully awake. "Is there anything wrong with the
"I expect you know what's the matter better than I
do," he replied dryly. "Special instructions from the
Admiralty. There's a destroyer waiting to take you
"What?" I cried. "In mid-ocean?"
"It seems a most mysterious affair, but that's not my
business. They've sent a young fellow aboard who is to
take your place, and we are all sworn to secrecy. Will
you get up and dress?"
Utterly unable to conceal my amazement I did as I
was told. A boat was lowered, and I was conveyed aboard the destroyer. There I was received courteously,
but got no further information. The commander's instructions
were to land me at a certain spot on the
Belgian coast. There his knowledge and responsibility
The whole thing was like a dream. The one idea I held
to firmly was that all this must be part of Poirot's plan.
I must simply go forward blindly, trusting in my dead
I was duly landed at the spot indicated. There a motor
was waiting, and soon I was rapidly whirling along
across the flat Flemish plains. I slept that night at a
small hotel in Brussels. The next day we went on again.
The country became wooded and hilly. I realised that we
were penetrating into the Ardennes, and I suddenly remembered
Poirot's saying that he had a brother who
lived at Spa.
But we did not go to Spa itself. We left the main road
and wound into the leafy fastnesses of the hills, till we
reached a little hamlet, and an isolated white villa high
on the hill-side. Here the car stopped in front of the
green door of the villa.
The door opened as I alighted. An elderly man-servant
stood in the doorway bowing.
"M. Ie Capitaine Hastings?" he said in French.
"Monsieur Ie Capitaine is expected. If he will follow me."
He led the way across the hall, and flung open a door
at the back, standing aside to let me pass in.
I blinked a little, for the room faced west and the
afternoon sun was pouring in. Then my vision cleared
and I saw a figure waiting to welcome me with outstretched
It was--oh, impossible, it couldn't be--but yes!
"Poirot!" I cried, and for once did not attempt to
evade the embrace with which he overwhelmed me.
"But yes, but yes, it is indeed I! Not so easy to kill
"But Poirot-- whyf"
"A ruse de guerre, my friend, a ruse de guerre. All is
now ready for our grand coup."
"But you might have told me!"
"No, Hastings, I could not. Never, never, in a thousand
years, could you have acted the part at the funeral.
THE BIG FOUR 191
As it was, it was perfect. It could not fail to carry conviction
to the Big Four."
"But what I've been through--"
"Do not think me too unfeeling. I carried out the
deception partly for your sake. I was willing to risk my
own life, but I had qualms about continually risking yours. So, after the explosion, I have an idea of great
brilliancy. The good Ridgeway, he enables me to carry it
out. I am dead, you will return to South America. But, man ami, that is just what you would not do. In
I have to arrange a solicitor's letter, and a long rigmarole.
But, at all events, here you are--that is the great
thing. And now we lie here--perdu-- till the moment
comes for the last grand coup--the final overthrowing
of the Big Four."
dumber Tour Wins a ^Trick
From our quiet retreat in the Ardennes we watched the
progress of affairs in the great world. We were plentifully
supplied with newspapers, and every day Poirot
received a bulky envelope, evidently containing some
kind of report. He never showed these reports to me,
but I could usually tell from his manner whether its contents
had been satisfactory or otherwise. He never wavered
in his belief that our present plan was the only one
likely to be crowned by success.
"As a minor point, Hastings," he remarked one day,
"I was in continual fear of your death lying at my door.
And that rendered me nervous--like a cat upon the
jumps, as you say. But now I am well satisfied. Even if
they discover that the Captain Hastings who landed in South America is an imposter (and I do not think they
will discover it, they are not likely to send an agent out
there who knows you personally), they will only believe
194 Agatha Christie
that you are trying to circumvent them in some clever
manner of your own, and will pay no serious attention
to discovering your whereabouts. Of the one vital fact,
my supposed death, they are thoroughly convinced.
They will go ahead and mature their plans."
"And then?" I asked eagerly.
"And then, mon ami, grand resurrection of Hercule
Poirot! At the eleventh hour I reappear, throw all into
confusion, and achieve the supreme victory in my own
I realised that Poirot's vanity was of the casehardened
variety which could withstand all attacks. I reminded
him that once or twice the honours of the game
had lain with our adversaries. But I might have known
that it was impossible to diminish Hercule Poirot's en|
|| thusiasm for his own methods.
"See you, Hastings, it is like the little trick that you
play with the cards. You have seen it without doubt?
You take the four knaves, you divide them, one on top
of the pack, one underneath, and so on--you cut and
you shuffle, and there they are all together again. That is my object. So far I have been contending, now against
one of the Big Four, now against another. But let me get
them all together, like the four knaves in the pack of
cards, and then, with one coup, I destroy them all!"
"And how do you propose to get them all together?"
"By awaiting the supreme moment. By lying perdu until they are ready to strike."
"That may mean a long wait," I grumbled.
"Always impatient, the good Hastings! But no, it will
not be so long. The one man they were afraid of--myself--is
out of the way. I give them two or three months
His speaking of some one being got out of the way
THE BIG FOUR 195
reminded me of Ingles and his tragic death, and I
remembered that I had never told Poirot about the dying
Chinaman in St. Giles' Hospital.
He listened with keen attention to my story.
"Ingles' servant, eh? And the few words he uttered
were in Italian? Curious."
"That's why I suspected it might have been a plant on
the part of the Big Four."
"Your reasoning is at fault, Hastings. Employ the
little gray cells. If your enemies wished to deceive you
they would assuredly have seen to it that the Chinaman spoke in intelligible pigeon English. No, the
message was genuine. Tell me again all that you heard?"
"First of all he made a reference to Handel's Largo,
and then he said something that sounded like 'carrozzo'--that's
a carriage, isn't it?"
"Well, just at the end he murmured something like
'Cara' somebody or other--some woman's name. Zia, I
think. But I don't suppose that that had any bearing on
the rest of it."
"You would not suppose so, Hastings. Cara Zia is
very important, very important indeed."
"I don't see--"
"My dear friend, you never see--and anyway the
English know no geography."
"Geography?" I cried. "What has geography got to
do with it?"
"I dare say M. Thomas Cook would be more to the
As usual, Poirot refused to say anything more--a
most irritating trick of his. But I noticed that his manner
became extremely cheerful, as though he had scored
some point or other.
The days went on, pleasant if a trifle monotonous.
THE BIG FOUR 197
"For Italy, sir. As far as we can judge, they are both making for the resort you indicated--though how you
"Ah, that is not the cap with the feather for me! That
was the work of Hastings here. He conceals his intelligence,
you comprehend, but it is profound for all
Harvey looked at me with due appreciation, and I felt
"All is in train, then," said Poirot. He was pale now,
and completely serious. "The time has come. The arrangements
are all made?"
"Everything you ordered has been carried out. The
governments of Italy, France and England are behind
you, and are all working harmoniously together."
"It is, in fact, a new Entente," observed Poirot dryly.
"I am glad that Desjardeaux is convinced at last. Eh
bien, then, we will start--or rather, I will start. You,
Hastings, will remain here--yes, I pray of you. In verity,
my friend. I am serious."
I believed him, but it was not likely that I should consent
to being left behind in that fashion. Our argument
was short but decisive.
It was not until we were in the train, speeding towards
Paris that he admitted that he was secretly glad of my
"For you have a part to play, Hastings. An important part! Without you, I might well fail. Nevertheless, I felt
that it was my duty to urge you to remain behind."
"There is danger, then?"
"Mon ami, where there is the Big Four there is always
On arrival in Paris, we drove across to the Gare de
I'Est, and Poirot at last announced our destination. We
were bound for Bolzano and Italian Tyrol.
198 Agatha Christie
During Harvey's absence from our carriage I took the
opportunity of asking Poirot why he had said that the
discovery of the rendezvous was my work.
"Because it was, my friend. How Ingles managed to
get hold of the information I do not know, but he did,
and he sent it to us by his servant. We are bound, mon
ami, for Karersee, the new Italian name for which is
Lago di Carezza. You see now where your 'Cara Zia'
comes in and also your 'Carrozza' and 'Largo'--the
Handel was supplied by your own imagination. Possibly
some reference to the information coming from the hand' of M. Ingles started the train of association."
"Karersee?" I queried. "I never heard of it."
"I always tell you that the English know no geography.
But as a matter of fact it is a well-known and
very beautiful summer resort, four thousand feet up, in
the heart of the Dolomites." "And it is in this out of the way spot that the Big Four
have their rendezvous?"
"Say rather their headquarters. The signal has been
given, and it is their intention to disappear from the
world and issue orders from their mountain fastness. I
have made the inquiries--a lot of quarrying of stone
and mineral deposits is done there, and the company,
apparently a small Italian firm, is in reality controlled
by Abe Ryland. I am prepared to swear that a vast subterranean
dwelling has been hollowed out in the very
heart of the mountain, secret and inaccessible. From
there the leaders of the organisation will issue by wireless
their orders to their followers who are numbered by
thousands in every country. And from that crag in the
Dolomites the dictators of the world will emerge. That is
to say--they would emerge were it not for Hercule
"Do you seriously believe all this, Poirot? What
THE BIG FOUR
about the armies and general machinery of civilisation?" "What about it in Russia, Hastings? This will be
Russia on an infinitely larger scale--and with this additional
menace--that Madame Olivier's experiments have proceeded further than she has ever given out. I
believe that she has, to a certain extent, succeeded in
liberating atomic energy and harnessing it to her purpose.
Her experiments with the nitrogen of the air have
been very remarkable, and she has also experimented in
the concentration of wireless energy, so that a beam of
great intensity can be focused upon some given spot.
Exactly how far she has progressed, nobody knows, but
it is certain that it is much farther than has ever been
given out. She is a genius, that woman--the Curies were
as nothing to her. Add to her genius the powers of
Ryland's almost unlimited wealth, and, with the brain
of Li Chang Yen, the finest criminal brain ever known,
to direct and plan--eh bien, it will not be, as you say, all
jam for civilisation."
His words made me very thoughtful. Although Poirot
was given at times to exaggeration of language, he was
not really an alarmist. For the first time I realised what a
desperate struggle it was upon which we were engaged.
Harvey soon rejoined us and the journey went on.
We arrived at Bolzano about midday. From there the
journey on was by motor. Several big blue motorcars
were waiting in the central square of the town, and we
three got into one of them. Poirot, notwithstanding the
heat of the day, was muffled to the eyes in greatcoat and scarf. His eyes and the tips of his ears were all that
could be seen of him.
I did not know whether this was due to precaution
or merely his exaggerated fear of catching a chill. The
motor journey took a couple of hours. It was a really
200 Agatha Christie
wonderful drive. For the first part of the way we wound
in and out of huge cliffs, with a trickling waterfall on
one hand. Then we emerged into a fertile valley, which
continued for some miles, and then, still winding steadily
upwards, the bare rocky peaks began to show with
dense clustering pinewoods at their base. The whole
place was wild and lovely. Finally a series of abrupt
curves, with the road running through the pine woods
on either side, and we came suddenly upon a big hotel
and found that we had arrived.
Our rooms had been reserved for us, and under
Harvey's guidance we went straight up to them. They
looked straight out over the rocky peaks and the long
slopes of pine woods leading up to them. Poirot made a
gesture towards them.
"It is there?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes," replied Harvey. "There is a place called the
Felsenlabyrynth--all big boulders piled about in a most
fantastic way--a path winds through them. The quarrying
is to the right of that, but we think that the entrance is probably in the Felsenlabyrynth."
"Come, mon ami" he said to me. "Let us go down
and sit upon the terrace and enjoy the sunlight."
"You think that wise?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
The sunlight was marvellous--in fact the glare was
almost too great for me. We had some creamy coffee instead
of tea, then went upstairs and unpacked our few
belongings. Poirot was in his most unapproachable
mood, lost in a kind of reverie. Once or twice he shook
his head and sighed.
I had been rather intrigued by a man who had got out
of our train at Bolzano, and had been met by a private
THE BIG FOUR 201
car. He was a small man, and the thing about him that
had attracted my attention was that he was almost as
much muffled up as Poirot had been. More so, indeed,
for in addition to greatcoat and muffler, he was wearing
huge blue spectacles. I was convinced that here we had
an emissary of the Big Four. Poirot did not seem very
impressed by my idea, but when, leaning out of my bedroom
window, I reported that the man in question was
strolling about in the vicinity of the hotel, he admitted
that there might be something in it. I urged my friend not to go down to dinner, but he insisted
on doing so. We entered the dining-room rather
late, and were shown to a table by the window. As we
sat down, our attention was attracted by an exclamation
and a crash of falling china. A dish of haricots verts had
been upset over a man who was sitting at the table next
The head waiter came up and was vociferous in
Presently, when the offending waiter was serving us
with soup, Poirot spoke to him.
"An unfortunate accident, that. But it was not your
"Monsieur saw that? No, indeed it was not my fault.
The gentleman half sprung up from his chair--I thought
he was going to have an attack of some kind. I could not
save the catastrophe."
I saw Poirot's eyes shining with the green light I knew
so well, and as the waiter departed he said to me in a low
voice:-"You see, Hastings, the effect of Hercule Poirot-alive and in the flesh?"
I had not time to continue. I felt Poirot's hand on my
202 Agatha Christie
knee, as life whispered excitedly: "Look, Hastings, look. His trick with the bread! Number Four!"
Sure enough, the man at the next table to ours, his
face unusually pale, was dabbing a small piece of bread
mechanically about the table.
I studied him carefully. His face, clean-shaven and
puffily fat, was of a pasty, unhealthy sallowness, with
heavy pouches under the eyes and deep lines running
from his nose to the corners of his mouth. His age might
have been anything from thirty-five to forty-five. In no
particular did he resemble any one of the characters
which Number Four had previously assumed. Indeed,
had it not been for his little trick with the bread, of
which he was evidently quite unaware, I would have
sworn readily enough that the man sitting there was
some one whom I had never seen before.
"He has recognised you," I murmured. "You should
not have come down."
"My excellent Hastings, I have feigned death for
three months for this one purpose."
"To startle Number Four?"
"To startle him at a moment when he must act
quickly or not at all. And we have this great advantage--he
does not know that we recognise him. He
thinks that he is safe in his new disguise. How I bless
Flossie Monro for telling us of that little habit of his." "What will happen now?" I asked.
"What can happen? He recognises the only man he
fears, miraculously resurrected from the dead, at the
very minute when the plans of the Big Four are in the
balance. Madame Olivier and Abe Ryland lunched here
to-day, and it is thought that they went to Cortina. Only
we know that they have retired to their hiding place.
THE BIG FOUR 203
How much do we know? That is what Number Four is
asking himself at this minute. He dare take no risks. I
must be suppressed at all costs. Eh bien, let him try to
suppress Hercule Poirot! I shall be ready for him."
As he finished speaking, the man at the next table got
up and went out.
"He has gone to make his little arrangements," said
Poirot placidly. "Shall we have our coffee on the terrace,
my friend? It would be pleasanter, I think. I will
just go up and get a coat."
I went out on to the terrace, a little disturbed in mind.
Poirot's assurance did not quite content me. However,
so long as we were on our guard, nothing could happen
to us. I resolved to keep thoroughly on the alert.
It was quite five minutes before Poirot joined me.
With his usual precautions against cold, he was muffled
up to the ears. He sat down beside me and sipped his
coffee appreciatively. "Only in England is the coffee so atrocious," he
remarked. "On the continent they understand how important
it is for the digestion that it should be properly
As he finished speaking, the man from the next table
suddenly appeared on the terrace. Without any hesitation,
he came over and drew up a third chair to our
"You do not mind my joining you, I hope," he said
"Not at all, monsieur," said Poirot.
I felt very uneasy. It is true that we were on the terrace
of the hotel, with people all round us, but nevertheless I
was not satisfied. I sensed the presence of danger.
Meanwhile Number Four chatted away in a perfectly
natural manner. It seemed impossible to believe that he
In the ^Telsenlabyryntfi
I could not have been unconscious more than a minute. I came to myself being hustled along between two men.
They had me under each arm, supporting my weight,
and there was a gag in my mouth. It was pitch dark, but
I gathered that we were not outside, but passing through
the hotel. All round I could hear people shouting and
demanding in every known language what had happened
to the lights. My captors swung me down some
stairs. We passed along a basement passage, then
through a door and out into the open again through a
glass door at the back of the hotel. In another moment
we had gained the shelter of the pine trees.
I had caught a glimpse of another figure in a similar
plight to myself, and realised that Poirot, too, was a victim
of this bold coup.
By sheer audacity. Number Four had won the day. He
had employed, I gathered, an instant anaesthetic, prob205
206 Agatha Christie
ably ethyl chloride--breaking a small bulb of it under
our noses. Then, in the confusion of the darkness, his
accomplices, who had probably been guests sitting at
the next table, had thrust gags in our mouths and hurried
us away, taking us through The hotel to baffle pursuit. I cannot describe the hour that followed. We were
hurried through the woods at a break-neck pace, going uphill the whole time. At last we emerged in the open,
on the mountain-side, and I saw just in front of us an
extraordinary conglomeration of fantastic rocks and
This must be the Felsenlabyrynth of which Harvey
had spoken. Soon we were winding in and out of its
recesses. The place was like a maze devised by some evil
Suddenly we stopped. An enormous rock barred our
path. One of the men stooped and seemed to push on
something when, without a sound, the huge mass of
rock turned on itself and disclosed a small tunnel-like
opening leading into the mountainside.
Into this we were hurried. For some time the tunnel
was narrow, but presently it widened, and before very
long we came out into a wide rocky chamber lighted by
electricity. There the gags were removed. At a sign from
Number Four, who stood facing us with mocking
triumph in his face, we were searched and every article
was removed from our pockets, including Poirot's little
A pang smote me as it was tossed down on the table.
We were defeated--hopelessly defeated and outnumbered.
It was the end.
"Welcome to the headquarters of the Big Four, M. Hercule Poirot," said Number Four in a mocking tone.
"To meet you again is an unexpected pleasure. But was
THE BIG POUR 207
it worth while returning from the grave only for this?"
Poirot did not reply. I dared not look at him.
"Come this way," continued Number Four. "Your
arrival will be somewhat of a surprise to my colleagues."
He indicated a narrow doorway in the wall. We
passed through and found ourselves in another chamber.
At the very end of it was a table behind which four
chairs were placed. The end chair was empty, but was
draped with a mandarin's cape. On the second, smoking
a cigar, sat Mr. Abe Ryland. Leaning back in the third
chair, with her burning eyes and her nun's face, was
Madame Olivier. Number Four took his seat on the
We were in the presence of the Big Four.
Never before had I felt so fully the reality and the
presence of Li Chang Yen as I did now when confronting
his empty seat. Far away in China, he yet controlled
and directed this malign organisation.
Madame Olivier gave a faint cry on seeing us. Ryland,
more self-controlled, only shifted his cigar, and raised
his grizzled eyebrows.
"M. Hercule Poirot," said Ryland slowly. "This is a pleasant surprise. You put it over on us all right. We
thought you were good and buried. No matter, the game
is up now."
There was a ring as of steel in his voice. Madame
Olivier said nothing, but her eyes burned, and I disliked
the slow way she smiled.
"Madame and messieurs^ I wish you good-evening,"
said Poirot quietly.
Something unexpected, something I had not been
prepared to hear in his voice made me look at him. He
seemed quite composed. Yet there was something about
his whole appearance that was different.
208 Agatha Christie
Then there was a stir of draperies behind us, and the
Countess Vera Rossakoff came in.
"Ah!" said Number Four. "Our valued and trusted
lieutenant. An old friend of yours is here, my dear
The countess whirled round with her usual vehemence
"God in Heaven!" she cried. "It is the little man!
Ah! but he has the nine lives of a cat! Oh, little man,
little man! Why did you mix yourself up in this?" "Madame," said Poirot, with a bow. "Me, like the
great Napoleon, I am on the side of the big battalions."
As he spoke I saw a sudden suspicion flash into her
eyes, and at the same moment I knew the truth which
subconsciously I already sensed.
The man beside me was not Hercule Poirot.
He was very like him, extraordinarily like him. There
was the same egg-shaped head, the same strutting
figure, delicately plump. But the voice was different,
and the eyes instead of being green were dark, and
surely the moustaches--those famous moustaches--?
My reflections were cut short by the countess's voice.
She stepped forward, her voice ringing with excitement.
"You have been deceived. That man is not Hercule
Number Four uttered an incredulous exclamation,
but the countess leant forward and snatched at Poirot's
moustaches. They came off in her hand, and then, indeed,
the truth was plain. For this man's upper lip was
disfigured by a small scar which completely altered the
expression of the face.
"Not Hercule Poirot," muttered Number Four. "But
who can he be then?"
"I know," I cried suddenly, and then stopped dead,
afraid I had ruined everything.
THE BIG FOUR 209 But the man I will still refer to as Poirot had turned to
"Say it if you will. It makes no matter now. Thelrick
"This is Achille Poirot," I said slowly. "Hercule
Poirot's twin brother."
"Impossible," said Ryland sharply, but he was
"Hercute's plan has succeeded to a marvel," said
Number Four leapt forward, his voice harsh and
"Succeeded, has it?" he snarled. "Do you realise that
before many minutes have passed you will be dead- dead?"
"Yes," said Achille Poirot gravely. "I realise that. It
is you who do not realise that a man may be willing to
purchase success by his life. There were men who laid
down their lives for their country in the war. I am prepared
to lay down mine in the same way for the world."
It struck me just then that although perfectly willing
to lay down my life I might have been consulted in the
matter. Then I remembered how Poirot had urged me to
stay behind, and I felt appeased.
"And in what way will your laying down your life
benefit the world?" asked Ryland sardonically. "I see that you do not perceive the true inwardness of
Hercule's plan. To begin with, your place of retreat was
known some months ago, and practically all the visitors,
hotel assistants and others are detectives or Secret Service
men. A cordon has been drawn round the mountain.
You may have more than one means of egress, but even
so you cannot escape. Poirot himself is directing the
operations outside. My boots were smeared with a preparation
of aniseed to-night, before I came down to the
210 Agatha Christie
terrace in my brother's place. Hounds are following the
trail. It will lead them infallibly to the rock in the Felsenlabyrynth
where the entrance is situated. You see, do
what you will to us, the net is drawn tightly round you.
You cannot escape."
Madame Olivier laughed suddenly.
"You are wrong. There is one way we can escape,
and, like Samson of old, destroy our enemies at the
same time. What do you say, my friends?"
Ryland was staring at Achille Poirot.
"Suppose he's lying," he said hoarsely.
The other shrugged his shoulders.
"In an hour it will be dawn. Then you can see for
yourself the truth of my words. Already they should
have traced me to the entrance in the Felsenlabyrynth."
Even as he spoke, there was a far off reverberation, and a man ran in shouting incoherently. Ryland sprang
up and went out. Madame Olivier moved to the end of
the room and opened a door that I had not noticed. Inside
I caught a glimpse of a perfectly equipped laboratory
which reminded me of the one in Paris. Number
Four also sprang up and went out. He returned with
Poirot's revolver which he gave to the countess.
"There is no danger of their escaping," he said
grimly. "But still you had better have this."
Then he went out again.
The countess came over to us and surveyed my companion
attentively for some time. Suddenly she laughed.
"You are very clever, M. Achille Poirot," she said
mockingly. ""Madame, let us talk business. It is fortunate that
they have left us alone together. What is your price?"
"I do not understand. What price?"
"Madame, you can aid us to escape. You know the
THE BIG POUR 211
secret ways out of this retreat. I ask you, what is your
She laughed again.
"More than you could pay, little man! Why, all the
money in the world would not buy me!" "Madame, I did not speak of money. I am a man of
intelligence. Nevertheless, this is a true fact--every one
has his price! In exchange for life and liberty, I offer
you your heart's desire."
"So you are a magician!*'
"You can call me so if you like."
The countess suddenly dropped her jesting manner.
She spoke with passionate bitterness.
"Fool! My heart's desire! Can you give me revenge
upon my enemies? Can you give me back youth and
beauty and a gay heart? Can you bring the dead to life
Achille Poirot was watching her very curiously.
"Which of the three, Madame? Make your choice."
She laughed sardonically.
"You will sell me the Elixir of Life, perhaps? Come, I
will make a bargain with you. Once, I had a child. Find
my child for me--and you shall go free."
"Madame, I agree. It is a bargain. Your child shall be
restored to you. On the faith of--on the faith of Hercule
Again that strange woman laughed--this time long
"My dear M. Poirot, I am afraid I laid a little trap for
you. It is very kind of you to promise to find my child
for me, but, you see, I happen to know that you would not succeed, and so that would be a very one-sided bargain,
would it not?"
"Madame, I swear to you by the Holy Angels that I
212 Agatha Christie
will restore your child to you."
"I asked you before, M. Poirot, could you restore the
dead to life?"
"Then the child is--"
He stepped forward and took her wrist.
"Madame, I--I who speak to you, swear once more.
/ w<7/ bring the dead to life."
She stared at him as though fascinated.
"You do not believe me. I will prove my words. Get
my pocket-book which they took from me."
She went out of the room, and returned with it in her
hand. Throughout all she retained her grip on the
revolver. I felt that Achille Poirot's chances of bluffing
her were very slight. The Countess Vera Rossakoff was
"Open it, madame. The flap on the left-hand side.
That is right. Now take out that photograph and look at
Wonderingly, she took out what seemed to be a small
snapshot. No sooner had she looked at it than she uttered a cry and swayed as though about to fall. Then she
almost flew at my companion.
"Where? Where? You shall tell me. Where?"
"Remember your bargain, madame."
"Yes, yes, I will trust you. Quick, before they come
Catching him by the hand, she drew him quickly and
silently out of the room. I followed. From the outer
room she led us into the tunnel by which we had first
entered, but a short way along this forked, and she
turned off to the right. Again and again the passage
divided, but she led us on, never faltering or seeming to
doubt her way, and with increasing speed.
THE BIG FOUR
"If only we are in time," she panted. "We must be
out in the open before the explosion occurs."
Still we went on. I understood that this tunnel led
right through the mountain and that we should finally
emerge on the other side, facing a different valley. The
sweat streamed down my face, but I raced on.
And then, far away, I saw a gleam of daylight. Nearer
and nearer. I saw green bushes growing. We forced
them aside, pushed our way through. We were in the
open again, with the faint light of dawn making everything
rosy. Poirot's cordon was a reality. Even as we emerged,
three men fell upon us, but released us again with a cry
"Quick," cried my companion. "Quick--there is no
time to lose--"
But he was not destined to finish. The earth shook
and trembled under our feet, there was a terrific roar
and the whole mountain seemed to dissolve. We were
flung headlong through the air.
I came to myself at last. I was in a strange bed and a
strange room. Some one was sitting by the window. He
turned and came and stood by me.
It was Achille Poirot--or, stay, was it-The well-known ironical voice dispelled any doubts I
might have had.
"But yes, my friend, it is I. Brother Achille has gone
home again--to the land of myths. It was I all the time.
It is not only Number Four who can act a part. Belladona
in the eyes, the sacrifice of the moustaches, and a
real scar the inflicting of which caused me much pain
two months ago--but I could not risk a fake beneath the
eagle eyes of Number Four. And the final touch, your
214 Agatha Christie
own knowledge and belief that there was such a person
as Achille Poirot! It was invaluable, the assistance you rendered me, half the success of the coup is due to you!
The whole crux of the affair was to make them believe
that Hercule Poirot was still at large directing operations.
Otherwise, everything was true, the aniseed, the
"But why not really send a substitute?"
"And let you go into danger without me by your side?
You have a pretty idea of me there! Besides, I always
had a hope of finding a way out through the countess."
"How on earth did you manage to convince her? It
was a pretty thin story to make her swallow--all that
about a dead child."
"The countess has a great deal more perspicacity than
you have, my dear Hastings. She was taken in at first by
my disguise; but she soon saw through it. When she
said. 'You are very clever, M. Achille Poirot,' I knew
that she had guessed the truth. It was then or never to
play my trump card."
"All that rigmarole about bringing the dead to life?"
"Exactly--but then, you see, I had the child all
"But yes! You know my motto--Be prepared. As
soon as I found that the Countess Rossakoff was mixed
up with the Big Four, I had every possible inquiry made
as to her antecedents. I learnt that she had had a child who was reported to have been killed, and I also found
that there were discrepancies in the story which led me
to wonder whether it might not, after all, be alive. In the
end, I succeeded in tracing the boy, and by paying out a
big sum I obtained possession of the child's person. The
poor little fellow was nearly dead of starvation. I placed
him in a safe place, with kindly people, and took a snap
THE BIG FOUR 215
shot of him in his new surroundings. And so, when the
time came, I had my little coup de theatre all ready!"
"You are wonderful, Poirot; absolutely wonderful!"
"I was glad to do it, too. For I had admired the
countess. I should have been sorry if she had perished in
"I've been half afraid to ask you--what of the Big
"All the bodies have now been recovered. That of
Number Four was quite unrecognisable, the head blown
to pieces. I wish--I rather wish it had not been so. I
should have liked to be sure--but no more of that. Look
He handed me a newspaper in which a paragraph was
marked. It reported the death, by suicide, of Li Chang
Yen, who had engineered the recent revolution which
had failed so disastrously. "My great opponent," said Poirot gravely. "It was
fated that he and I should never meet in the flesh. When
he received the news of the disaster here, he took the
simplest way out. A great brain, my friend, a great
brain. But I wish I had seen the face of the man who was
Number Four. . . . Supposing that, after all--but I romance.
He is dead. Yes, mon ami, together we have
faced and routed the Big Four; and now you will return
to your charming wife, and I--I shall retire. The great
case of my life is over. Anything else will seem tame
after this. No, I shall retire. Possibly I shall grow vegetable
marrows! I might even marry and range myself!"
He laughed heartily at the idea, but with a touch of
embarrassment. I hope . . . small men always admire
big, flamboyant women-"Marry and range myself," he said again. "Who
knows?" About this Title
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- Spring '11
- The American