Read Third Girl Online

Authors: Agatha Christie

Third Girl (3 page)

H
ercule Poirot walked along the main street of Long Basing. That is, if you can describe as a main street a street that is to all intents and purposes the only street, which was the case in Long Basing. It was one of those villages that exhibit a tendency to length without breadth. It had an impressive church with a tall tower and a yew tree of elderly dignity in its churchyard. It had its full quota of village shops disclosing much variety. It had two antique shops, one mostly consisting of stripped pine chimneypieces, the other disclosing a full house of piled up ancient maps, a good deal of porcelain, most of it chipped, some worm-eaten old oak chests, shelves of glass, some Victorian silver, all somewhat hampered in display by lack of space. There were two cafés, both rather nasty, there was a basket shop, quite delightful, with a large variety of homemade wares, there was a post office-cum-greengrocer, there was a draper's which dealt largely in millinery and also a shoe department for children and a large miscellaneous selection of haberdashery of all
kinds. There was a stationery and newspaper shop which also dealt in tobacco and sweets. There was a wool shop which was clearly the aristocrat of the place. Two white-haired severe women were in charge of shelves and shelves of knitting materials of every description. Also large quantities of dressmaking patterns and knitting patterns and which branched off into a counter for art needlework. What had lately been the local grocer's had now blossomed into calling itself “a supermarket” complete with stacks of wire baskets and packaged materials of every cereal and cleaning material, all in dazzling paper boxes. And there was a small establishment with one small window with Lillah written across it in fancy letters, a fashion display of one French blouse, labelled “Latest chic,” and a navy skirt and a purple striped jumper labelled “separates.” These were displayed by being flung down as by a careless hand in the window.

All of this Poirot observed with a detached interest. Also contained within the limits of the village and facing on the street were several small houses, old-fashioned in style, sometimes retaining Georgian purity, more often showing some signs of Victorian improvement, as a veranda, bow window, or a small conservatory. One or two houses had had a complete face-lift and showed signs of claiming to be new and proud of it. There were also some delightful and decrepit old-world cottages, some pretending to be a hundred or so years older than they were, others completely genuine, any added comforts of plumbing or such being carefully hidden from any casual glance.

Poirot walked gently along digesting all that he saw. If his impatient friend, Mrs. Oliver, had been with him, she would have immediately demanded why he was wasting time, as the house to which he was bound was a quarter of a mile beyond the village
limits. Poirot would have told her that he was absorbing the local atmosphere; that these things were sometimes important. At the end of the village there came an abrupt transition. On one side, set back from the road, was a row of newly built council houses, a strip of green in front of them and a gay note set by each house having been given a different coloured front door. Beyond the council houses the sway of fields and hedges resumed its course interspersed now and then by the occasional “desirable residences” of a house agent's list, with their own trees and gardens and a general air of reserve and of keeping themselves to themselves. Ahead of him farther down the road Poirot descried a house, the top storey of which displayed an unusual note of bulbous construction. Something had evidently been tacked on up there not so many years ago. This no doubt was the Mecca towards which his feet were bent. He arrived at a gate to which the nameplate Crosshedges was attached. He surveyed the house. It was a conventional house dating perhaps to the beginning of the century. It was neither beautiful nor ugly. Commonplace was perhaps the word to describe it. The garden was more attractive than the house and had obviously been the subject of a great deal of care and attention in its time, though it had been allowed to fall into disarray. It still had smooth green lawns, plenty of flower beds, carefully planted areas of shrubs to display a certain landscape effect. It was all in good order. A gardener was certainly employed in this garden, Poirot reflected. A personal interest was perhaps also taken, since he noted in a corner near the house a woman bending over one of the flower beds, tying up dahlias, he thought. Her head showed as a bright circle of pure gold colour. She was tall, slim but square-shouldered. He unlatched the gate, passed through and walked up towards the house. The woman
turned her head and then straightened herself, turning towards him inquiringly.

She remained standing, waiting for him to speak, some garden twine hanging from her left hand. She looked, he noted, puzzled.

“Yes?” she said.

Poirot, very foreign, took off his hat with a flourish and bowed. Her eyes rested on his moustaches with a kind of fascination.

“Mrs. Restarick?”

“Yes. I—”

“I hope I do not derange you, Madame.”

A faint smile touched her lips. “Not at all. Are you—”

“I have permitted myself to pay a visit on you. A friend of mine, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver—”

“Oh, of course. I know who you must be. Monsieur Poiret.”

“Monsieur Poirot,” he corrected her with an emphasis on the last syllable. “Hercule Poirot, at your service. I was passing through this neighbourhood and I ventured to call upon you here in the hope that I might be allowed to pay my respects to Sir Roderick Horsefield.”

“Yes. Naomi Lorrimer told us you might turn up.”

“I hope it is not inconvenient?”

“Oh, it is not inconvenient at all. Ariadne Oliver was here last weekend. She came over with the Lorrimers. Her books are most amusing, aren't they? But perhaps you don't find detective stories amusing. You are a detective yourself, aren't you—a real one?”

“I am all that there is of the most real,” said Hercule Poirot.

He noticed that she repressed a smile. He studied her more closely. She was handsome in a rather artificial fashion. Her golden
hair was stiffly arranged. He wondered whether she might not at heart be secretly unsure of herself, whether she were not carefully playing the part of the English lady absorbed in her garden. He wondered a little what her social background might have been.

“You have a very fine garden here,” he said.

“You like gardens?”

“Not as the English like gardens. You have for a garden a special talent in England. It means something to you that it does not to us.”

“To French people, you mean? Oh yes. I believe that Mrs. Oliver mentioned that you were once with the Belgian Police Force?”

“That is so. Me, I am an old Belgian police dog.” He gave a polite little laugh and said, waving his hands, “But your gardens, you English, I admire. I sit at your feet! The Latin races, they like the formal garden, the gardens of the château, the Château of Versailles in miniature, and also of course they invented the
potager.
Very important, the
potager.
Here in England you have the
potager,
but you got it from France and you do not love your
potager
as much as you love your flowers.
Hein?
That is so?”

“Yes, I think you are right,” said Mary Restarick. “Do come into the house. You came to see my uncle.”

“I came, as you say, to pay homage to Sir Roderick, but I pay homage to you also, Madame. Always I pay homage to beauty when I meet it.” He bowed.

She laughed with slight embarrassment. “You mustn't pay me so many compliments.”

She led the way through an open French window and he followed her.

“I knew your uncle slightly in 1944.”

“Poor dear, he's getting quite an old man now. He's very deaf, I'm afraid.”

“It was long ago that I encountered him. He will probably have forgotten. It was a matter of espionage and of scientific developments of a certain invention. We owed that invention to the ingenuity of Sir Roderick. He will be willing, I hope, to receive me.”

“Oh, I'm sure he'll love it,” said Mrs. Restarick. “He has rather a dull life in some ways nowadays. I have to be so much in London—we are looking for a suitable house there.” She sighed and said, “Elderly people can be very difficult sometimes.”

“I know,” said Poirot. “Frequently I, too, am difficult.”

She laughed. “Ah no, M. Poirot, come now, you mustn't pretend you're old.”

“Sometimes I am told so,” said Poirot. He sighed. “By young girls,” he added mournfully.

“That's very unkind of them. It's probably the sort of thing that our daughter would do,” she added.

“Ah, you have a daughter?”

“Yes. At least, she is my stepdaughter.”

“I shall have much pleasure in meeting her,” said Poirot politely.

“Oh well, I'm afraid she is not here. She's in London. She works there.”

“The young girls, they all do jobs nowadays.”

“Everybody's supposed to do a job,” said Mrs. Restarick vaguely. “Even when they get married they're always being persuaded back into industry or back into teaching.”

“Have they persuaded you, Madame, to come back into anything?”

“No. I was brought up in South Africa. I only came here with my husband a short time ago—It's all—rather strange to me still.”

She looked round her with what Poirot judged to be an absence of enthusiasm. It was a handsomely furnished room of a conventional type—without personality. Two large portraits hung on the walls—the only personal touch. The first was that of a thin lipped woman in a grey velvet evening dress. Facing her on the opposite wall was a man of about thirty-odd with an air of repressed energy about him.

“Your daughter, I suppose, finds it dull in the country?”

“Yes, it is much better for her to be in London. She doesn't like it here.” She paused abruptly, and then as though the last words were almost dragged out of her, she said, “—and she doesn't like me.”

“Impossible,” said Hercule Poirot, with Gallic politeness.

“Not at all impossible! Oh well, I suppose it often happens. I suppose it's hard for girls to accept a stepmother.”

“Was your daughter very fond of her own mother?”

“I suppose she must have been. She's a difficult girl. I suppose most girls are.”

Poirot sighed and said, “Mothers and fathers have much less control over daughters nowadays. It is not as it used to be in the old good-fashioned days.”

“No indeed.”

“One dare not say so, Madame, but I must confess I regret that they show so very little discrimination in choosing their—how do you say it?—their boyfriends?”

“Norma has been a great worry to her father in that way. However, I suppose it is no good complaining. People must make their
own experiments. But I must take you up to Uncle Roddy—he has his own rooms upstairs.”

She led the way out of the room. Poirot looked back over his shoulder. A dull room, a room without character—except perhaps for the two portraits. By the style of the woman's dress, Poirot judged that they dated from some years back. If that was the first Mrs. Restarick, Poirot did not think that he would have liked her.

He said, “Those are fine portraits, Madame.”

“Yes. Lansberger did them.”

It was the name of a famous and exceedingly expensive fashionable portrait painter of twenty years ago. His meticulous naturalism had now gone out of fashion, and since his death, he was little spoken of. His sitters were sometimes sneeringly spoken of as “clothes props,” but Poirot thought they were a good deal more than that. He suspected that there was a carefully concealed mockery behind the smooth exteriors that Lansberger executed so effortlessly.

Mary Restarick said as she went up the stairs ahead of him:

“They have just come out of storage—and been cleaned up and—”

She stopped abruptly—coming to a dead halt, one hand on the stair rail.

Above her, a figure had just turned the corner of the staircase on its way down. It was a figure that seemed strangely incongruous. It might have been someone in fancy dress, someone who certainly did not match with this house.

He was a figure familiar enough to Poirot in different conditions, a figure often met in the streets of London or even at parties. A representative of the youth of today. He wore a black coat, an
elaborate velvet waistcoat, skintight pants, and rich curls of chestnut hair hung down on his neck. He looked exotic and rather beautiful, and it needed a few moments to be certain of his sex.

“David!” Mary Restarick spoke sharply. “What on earth are you doing here?”

The young man was by no means taken aback. “Startled you?” he asked. “So sorry.”

“What are you doing here—in this house? You—have you come down here with Norma?”

“Norma? No, I hoped to find her here.”

“Find her here—what do you mean? She's in London.”

“Oh, but my dear, she isn't. At any rate, she's not at 67 Borodene Mansions.”

“What do you mean, she isn't there?”

“Well, since she didn't come back this weekend, I thought she was probably here with you. I came down to see what she was up to.”

“She left here Sunday night as usual.” She added in an angry voice, “Why didn't you ring the bell and let us know you were here? What are you doing roaming about the house?”

“Really, darling, you seem to be thinking I'm going to pinch the spoons or something. Surely it's natural to walk into a house in broad daylight. Why ever not?”

“Well, we're old-fashioned and we don't like it.”

“Oh dear, dear.” David sighed. “The fuss everyone makes. Well, my dear, if I'm not going to have a welcome and you don't seem to know where your stepdaughter is, I suppose I'd better be moving along. Shall I turn out my pockets before I go?”

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