HERCULE POIROT ASKS QUESTIONS
It was a clear November day. Dr. Thompson and Chief Inspector1
Japp had come round to acquaintPoirot with the result of the police court proceedings2
in the case of Rex v. Alexander BonaparteCust.
Poirot himself had had a slight bronchial chill which had prevented his attending. Fortunately hehad not insisted on having my company.
“Committed for trial,” said Japp. “So that’s that.”
“Isn’t it unusual?” I asked, “for a defence to be offered at this stage? I thought prisoners alwaysreserved their defence.”
“It’s the usual course,” said Japp. “I suppose young Lucas thought he might rush it through.
He’s a trier, I will say. Insanity3
’s the only defence possible.”
“With insanity there can be no acquittal. Imprisonment5
during His Majesty’s pleasure is hardlypreferable to death.”
“I suppose Lucas thought there was a chance,” said Japp. “With a first-class alibi6
for the Bexhillmurder, the whole case might be weakened. I don’t think he realized how strong our case is.
Anyway, Lucas goes in for originality7
. He’s a young man, and he wants to hit the public eye.”
Poirot turned to Thompson.
“What’s your opinion, doctor?”
“Of Cust? Upon my soul, I don’t know what to say. He’s playing the sane8
He’s an epileptic, of course.”
“What an amazing dénouement that was,” I said.
“His falling into the Andover police station in a fit? Yes—it was a fitting dramatic curtain to thedrama. A B C has always timed his effects well.”
“Is it possible to commit a crime and be unaware10
of it?” I asked. “His denials seem to have aring of truth in them.”
Dr. Thompson smiled a little.
“You mustn’t be taken in by that theatrical11
‘I swear by God’ pose. It’s my opinion that Custknows perfectly12
well he committed the murders.”
“When they’re as fervent13
as that they usually do,” said Crome.
“As to your question,” went on Thompson, “it’s perfectly possible for an epileptic subject in astate of somnambulism to commit an action and be entirely14
unaware of having done so. But it isthe general opinion that such an action must ‘not be contrary to the will of the person in thewaking state.’”
He went on discussing the matter, speaking of grand mal and petit mal and, to tell the truth,confusing me hopelessly as is often the case when a learned person holds forth15
on his own subject.
“However, I’m against the theory that Cust committed these crimes without knowing he’d donethem. You might put that theory forward if it weren’t for the letters. The letters knock the theoryon the head. They show premeditation and a careful planning of the crime.”
“And of the letters we have still no explanation,” said Poirot.
“That interests you?”
“Naturally—since they were written to me. And on the subject of the letters Cust is persistentlydumb. Until I get at the reason for those letters being written to me, I shall not feel that the case issolved.”
“Yes—I can understand that from your point of view. There doesn’t seem to be any reason tobelieve that the man ever came up against you in any way?”
“I might make a suggestion. Your name!”
You see the implications? Alexander—the popularly supposed undefeatable who sighed for moreworlds to conquer. Bonaparte—the great Emperor of the French. He wants an adversary—anadversary, one might say, in his class. Well—there you are—Hercules the strong.”
“Your words are very suggestive, doctor. They foster ideas….”
“Oh, it’s only a suggestion. Well, I must be off.”
Dr. Thompson went out. Japp remained.
“Does this alibi worry you?” Poirot asked.
“It does a little,” admitted the inspector. “Mind you, I don’t believe in it, because I know it isn’ttrue. But it is going to be the deuce to break it. This man Strange is a tough character.”
“Describe him to me.”
“He’s a man of forty. A tough, confident, self-opinionated mining engineer. It’s my opinion thatit was he who insisted on his evidence being taken now. He wants to get off to Chile. He hoped thething might be settled out of hand.”
“He’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever seen,” I said.
“The type of man who would not like to admit he was mistaken,” said Poirot thoughtfully.
“He sticks to his story and he’s not one to be heckled. He swears by all that’s blue that hepicked up Cust in the Whitecross Hotel at Eastbourne on the evening of July 24th. He was lonelyand wanted someone to talk to. As far as I can see, Cust made an ideal listener. He didn’tinterrupt! After dinner he and Cust played dominoes. It appears Strange was a whale on dominoesand to his surprise Cust was pretty hot stuff too. Queer game, dominoes. People go mad about it.
They’ll play for hours. That’s what Strange and Cust did apparently. Cust wanted to go to bed butStrange wouldn’t hear of it—swore they’d keep it up until midnight at least. And that’s what theydid do. They separated at ten minutes past midnight. And if Cust was in the Whitecross Hotel atEastbourne at ten minutes past midnight on the morning of the 25th he couldn’t very well bestrangling Betty Barnard on the beach at Bexhill between midnight and one o’clock.”
“The problem certainly seems insuperable,” said Poirot thoughtfully. “Decidedly, it gives one tothink.”
“It’s given Crome something to think about,” said Japp.
“This man Strange is very positive?”
“Yes. He’s an obstinate20
devil. And it’s difficult to see just where the flaw is. Supposing Strangeis making a mistake and the man wasn’t Cust—why on earth should he say his name is Cust? Andthe writing in the hotel register is his all right. You can’t say he’s an accomplice—homicidallunatics don’t have accomplices21
! Did the girl die later? The doctor was quite firm in his evidence,and anyway it would take some time for Cust to get out of the hotel at Eastbourne without beingseen and get over to Bexhill—about fourteen miles away—”
“It is a problem—yes,” said Poirot.
“Of course, strictly22
speaking, it oughtn’t to matter. We’ve got Cust on the Doncaster murder—the bloodstained coat, the knife — not a loophole there. You couldn’t bounce any jury intoacquitting him. But it spoils a pretty case. He did the Doncaster murder. He did the Churstonmurder. He did the Andover murder. Then, by hell, he must have done the Bexhill murder. But Idon’t see how!”
He shook his head and got up.
“Now’s your chance, M. Poirot,” he said. “Crome’s in a fog. Exert those cellular23
arrangementsof yours I used to hear so much about. Show us the way he did it.”
“What about it, Poirot?” I said. “Are the little grey cells equal to the task?”
Poirot answered my question by another.
“Tell me, Hastings, do you consider the case ended?”
“Well—yes, practically speaking. We’ve got the man. And we’ve got most of the evidence. It’sonly the trimmings that are needed.”
Poirot shook his head.
“The case is ended! The case! The case is the man, Hastings. Until we know all about the man,the mystery is as deep as ever. It is not victory because we have put him in the dock!”
“We know a fair amount about him.”
“We know nothing at all! We know where he was born. We know he fought in the war andreceived a slight wound in the head and that he was discharged from the army owing to epilepsy.
We know that he lodged24
with Mrs. Marbury for nearly two years. We know that he was quiet andretiring—the sort of man that nobody notices. We know that he invented and carried out anintensely clever scheme of systemized murder. We know that he made certain incredibly stupidblunders. We know that he killed without pity and quite ruthlessly. We know, too, that he waskindly enough not to let blame rest on any other person for the crimes he committed. If he wantedto kill unmolested—how easy to let other persons suffer for his crimes. Do you not see, Hastings,that the man is a mass of contradictions? Stupid and cunning, ruthless and magnanimous—andthat there must be some dominating factor that reconciles his two natures.”
“Of course, if you treat him like a psychological study,” I began.
“What else has this case been since the beginning? All along I have been groping my way—trying to get to know the murderer. And now I realize, Hastings, that I do not know him at all! Iam at sea.”
for power—” I began.
“Yes—that might explain a good deal…But it does not satisfy me. There are things I want toknow. Why did he commit these murders? Why did he choose those particular people—?”
“Alphabetically—” I began.
“Was Betty Barnard the only person in Bexhill whose name began with a B? Betty Barnard—Ihad an idea there…It ought to be true—it must be true. But if so—”
He was silent for some time. I did not like to interrupt him.
As a matter of fact, I believe I fell asleep.
I woke to find Poirot’s hand on my shoulder.
“Mon cher Hastings,” he said affectionately. “My good genius.”
I was quite confused by this sudden mark of esteem27
“It is true,” Poirot insisted. “Always—always—you help me—you bring me luck. You inspireme.”
“How have I inspired you this time?” I asked.
“While I was asking myself certain questions I remembered a remark of yours—a remarkabsolutely shimmering28
in its clear vision. Did I not say to you once that you had a genius forstating the obvious. It is the obvious that I have neglected.”
“What is this brilliant remark of mine?” I asked.
“It makes everything as clear as crystal. I see the answers to all my questions. The reason forMrs. Ascher (that, it is true, I glimpsed long ago), the reason for Sir Carmichael Clarke, the reasonfor the Doncaster murder, and finally and supremely29
important, the reason for Hercule Poirot.”
“Not at the moment. I require first a little more information. That I can get from our SpecialLegion. And then—then, when I have got the answer to a certain question, I will go and see A BC. We will be face to face at last—A B C and Hercule Poirot—the adversaries30
“And then?” I asked.
“And then,” said Poirot. “We will talk! Je vous assure, Hastings—there is nothing so dangerousfor anyone who has something to hide as conversation! Speech, so a wise old Frenchman said tome once, is an invention of man’s to prevent him from thinking. It is also an infallible means ofdiscovering that which he wishes to hide. A human being, Hastings, cannot resist the opportunityto reveal himself and express his personality which conversation gives him. Every time he willgive himself away.”
“What do you expect Cust to tell you?”
Hercule Poirot smiled.
“A lie,” he said. “And by it, I shall know the truth!”