NOW that war and the problems of war are things of the past, I think I may safely venture to reveal to the world the part which my friend Poirot played in a moment of national crisis. The secret has been well guarded. Not a whisper of it reached the Press. But now that the need for secrecy has gone by, I feel it is only just that England should know the debt it owes to my quaint little friend, whose marvellous brain so ably averted a great catastrophe.
One evening after dinner—I will not particularise the date; it suffices to say that it was at the time when "Peace by negotiation" was the parrot-cry of England's enemies—my friend and I were sitting in his rooms. After being invalided out of the Army I had been given a recruiting job, and it had become my custom to drop in on Poirot in the evenings after dinner and talk with him of any cases of interest that he might have on hand.
I was attempting to discuss with him the sensational news of that day—no less than an attempted assassination of Mr. David MacAdam, England's Prime Minister. The account in the papers had evidently been carefully censored. No details were given, save that the Prime Minister had had a marvellous escape, the bullet just grazing his cheek.
I considered that our police must have been shamefully careless for such an outrage to be possible. I could well understand that the German agents in England would be willing to risk much for such an achievement. "Fighting Mac," as his own party had nicknamed him, had strenuously and unequivocally combated the Pacifist influence which was becoming so prevalent.
He was more than England's Prime Minister—he was England; and to have removed him from his sphere of influence would have been a crushing and paralysing blow to Britain.
Poirot was busy mopping a grey suit with a minute sponge. Never was there a dandy such as Hercule Poirot. Neatness and order were his passion. Now, with the odour of benzine filling the air, he was quite unable to give me his full attention.
"In a little minute I am with you, my friend. I have all but finished. The spot of grease—he is not good—I remove him—so!" He waved his sponge.
I smiled as I lit another cigarette.
"Anything interesting on?" I inquired, after a minute or two.
"I assist a—how do you call it?—charlady to find her husband. A difficult affair, needing the tact. For I have a little idea that when he is found he will not be pleased. What would you? For my part, I sympathise with him. He was a man of discrimination to lose himself."
"At last! The spot of grease, he is gone! I am at your disposal."
"I was asking you what you thought of this attempt to assassinate MacAdam?"
"Enfantillage!" replied Poirot promptly. "One can hardly take it seriously. To fire with the rifle—never does it succeed. It is a device of the past."
"It was very near succeeding this time," I reminded him.
Poirot shook his head impatiently. He was about to reply when the landlady thrust her head round the door and informed him that there were two gentlemen below who wanted to see him.
"They won't give their names, Sir, but they says as it's very important."
"Let them mount," said Poirot, carefully folding his grey trousers.
In a few minutes the two visitors were ushered in, and my heart gave a leap as in the foremost I recognised no less a personage than Lord Estair, Leader of the House of Commons; whilst his companion, Mr. Bernard Dodge, was also a member of the War Cabinet, and, as I knew, a close personal friend of the Prime Minister.
"M. Poirot?" said Lord Estair interrogatively. My friend bowed. The great man looked at me and hesitated. "My business is private."
"You may speak freely before Captain Hastings," said my friend, nodding to me to remain. "He has not all the gifts, no! But I answer for his discretion."
Lord Estair still hesitated, but Mr. Dodge broke in abruptly.
"Oh, come on—don't let's beat about the bush! As far as I can see, the whole of England will know the hole we're in soon enough. Time's everything."
"Pray be seated, Messieurs," said Poirot politely. "Will you take the big chair, milor?"
Lord Estair started slightly. "You know me?"
Poirot smiled. "Certainly. I read the little papers with the pictures. How should I not know you?"
"M. Poirot, I have come to consult you upon a matter of the most vital urgency. I must ask for absolute secrecy."
"You have the word of Hercule Poirot—I can say no more!" said my friend grandiloquently.
"It concerns the Prime Minister. We are in grave trouble."
"We're up a tree!" interposed Mr. Dodge.
"The injury is serious, then?" I asked.
"The bullet wound."
"Oh, that!" cried Mr. Dodge contemptuously. "That's old history."
"As my colleague says," continued Lord Estair, "that affair is over and done with. Luckily, it failed. I wish I could say as much for the second attempt."
"There has been a second attempt, then?"
"Yes, though not of the same nature. M. Poirot, the Prime Minister has disappeared."
"He has been kidnapped!"
"Impossible!" I cried, stupefied. Poirot threw a withering glance at me, which I knew enjoined me to keep my mouth shut.
"Unfortunately, impossible as it seems, it is only too true," continued his Lordship.
Poirot looked at Mr. Dodge. "You said just now, Monsieur, that time was everything. What did you mean by that?"
The two men exchanged glances, and then Lord Estair said, "You have heard, M. Poirot, of the approaching Allied Conference?"
My friend nodded.
"For obvious reasons, no details have been given of when and where it is to take place. But, although it has been kept out of the newspapers, the date is, of course, widely known in diplomatic circles. The Conference is to be held to-morrow—Thursday—evening at Versailles. Now you perceive the terrible gravity of the situation. I will not conceal from you that the Prime Minister's presence at the Conference is a vital necessity. The Pacifist propaganda, started and maintained by the German agents in our midst, has been very active. It is the universal opinion that the turning point of the Conference will be the strong personality of the Prime Minister. His absence may have the most serious results—possibly a premature and disastrous peace. And we have no one who can be sent in his place. He alone can represent England."
Poirot's face bad grown very grave. "Then you regard the kidnapping of the Prime Minister as a direct attempt to prevent his being present at the Conference?"
"Most certainly I do. He was actually on his way to France at the time."
"And the Conference is to be held?"
"At nine o'clock to-morrow night."
Poirot drew an enormous watch from his pocket. "It is now a quarter to nine."
"Twenty-four hours," said Mr. Dodge thoughtfully.
"And a quarter," amended Poirot. "Do not forget the quarter, Monsieur—it may come in useful. Now for the details—the abduction, did it take place in England or in France?"
"In France. Mr. MacAdam crossed to France this morning. He was to stay to-night as the guest of the Commander-in-Chief, proceeding to-morrow to Paris. He was conveyed across the Channel by destroyer. At Boulogne he was met by a car from General Headquarters and one of the Commander-in-Chief's A.D.C.s."
"Well, they started from Boulogne—but they never arrived."
"M. Poirot, it was a bogus car and a bogus A.D.C. The real car was found in a side road, with the chauffeur and the A.D.C. neatly gagged and bound."
"And the bogus car?"
"Is still at large."
Poirot made a gesture of impatience. "Incredible! Surely it cannot escape attention for long?"
"So we thought. It seemed merely a question of searching thoroughly. That part of France is under Military Law. We were convinced that the car could not go long unnoticed. The French police, our own Scotland Yard men, and the Military are straining every nerve. It is, as you say, incredible—but nothing has been discovered!"
At that moment a tap came at the door, and a young officer entered with a heavily sealed envelope which he handed to Lord Estair.
"Just through from France, Sir. I brought it on here, as you directed."
The Minister tore it open eagerly, and uttered an exclamation. The officer withdrew.
"Here is news at last! This telegram has just been decoded. They have found the second car, also the secretary, Daniels, chloroformed, gagged, and bound, in an abandoned farm near C——. He remembers nothing, except something being pressed against his mouth and nose from behind, and struggling to free himself. The police are satisfied as to the genuineness of his statement."
"And they have found nothing else?"
"Not the Prime Minister's dead body? Then there is hope. But it is strange. Why, after trying to shoot him this morning, are they now taking so much trouble to keep him alive?"
Dodge shook his head. "One thing's quite certain. They're determined at all costs to prevent his attending the Conference."
"If it is humanly possible, the Prime Minister shall be there. God grant it is not too late. Now, Messieurs, recount to me everything—from the beginning. I must know about this shooting affair as well."
"Last night, the Prime Minister, accompanied by one of his secretaries, Captain Daniels——"
"The same who accompanied him to France?"
"Yes. As I was saying, they motored down to Windsor, where the Prime Minister was granted an Audience. Early this morning, he returned to town, and it was on the way that the attempted assassination took place."
"One moment, if you please. Who is this Captain Daniels? You have his dossier?"
Lord Estair smiled. "I thought you would ask me that. We do not know very much of him. He is of no particular family. He has served in the English Army, and is an extremely able secretary, being an exceptionally fine linguist. I believe he speaks seven languages. It is for that reason that the Prime Minister chose him to accompany him to France."
"Has he any relatives in England."
"Two aunts. A Mrs. Everard, who lives at Hampstead, and a Miss Daniels, who lives near Ascot."
"Ascot? That is near to Windsor, is it not?"
"That point has not been overlooked. But it has led to nothing."
"You regard the Capitaine Daniels, then, as above suspicion?"
A shade of bitterness crept into Lord Estair's voice, as he replied: "No, M. Poirot. In these days, I should hesitate before I pronounced anyone above suspicion."
"Très bien. Now I understand, milor, that the Prime Minister would, as a matter of course, be under vigilant police protection, which ought to render any assault upon him an impossibility?"
Lord Estair bowed his head. "That is so. The Prime Minister's car was closely followed by another car containing detectives in plain clothes. Mr. MacAdam knew nothing of these precautions. He is personally a most fearless man, and would be inclined to sweep them away arbitrarily. But, naturally, the police make their own arrangements. In fact, the Premier's chauffeur, O'Murphy, is a C.I.D. man."
"O'Murphy? That is a name of Ireland, is it not so?"
"Yes, he is an Irishman."
"From what part of Ireland?"
"County Clare, I believe."
"Tiens! But proceed, Milor."
"The Premier started for London. The car was a closed one. He and Captain Daniels sat inside. The second car followed as usual. But, unluckily, for some unknown reason, the Prime Minister's car deviated from the main road——"
"At a point where the road curves?" interrupted Poirot.
"Yes—but how did you know?"
"Oh! C'est évident! Continue!"
"For some unknown reason," continued Lord Estair, "the Premier's car left the main road. The police car, unaware of the deviation, continued to keep to the high road. At a short distance down the unfrequented lane, the Prime Minister's car was suddenly held up by a band of masked men. The chauffeur——"
"That brave O'Murphy!" murmured Poirot thoughtfully.
"The chauffeur, momentarily taken aback, jammed on the brakes. The Prime Minister put his head out of the window. Instantly a shot rang out—then another. The first one grazed his cheek, the second, fortunately, went wide. The chauffeur, now realising the danger, instantly forged straight ahead, scattering the band of men."
"A near escape," I ejaculated, with a shiver.
"Mr. MacAdam refused to make any fuss over the slight wound he had received. He declared it was only a scratch. He stopped at a local cottage hospital, where it was dressed and bound up—he did not, of course reveal his identity. He then drove, as per schedule, straight to Charing Cross, where a special train for Dover was awaiting him, and after a brief account of what had happened had been given to the anxious police by Captain Daniels, he duly departed for France. At Dover, he went on board the waiting destroyer. At Boulogne, as you know, the bogus car was waiting for him, carrying the Union Jack, and correct in every detail."
"That is all you have to tell me?"
"There is no other circumstance that you have omitted, milor?"
"Well, there is one rather peculiar thing."
"The Prime Minister's car did not return home after leaving the Prime Minister at Charing Cross. The police were anxious to interview O'Murphy, so a search was instituted at once. The car was discovered standing outside a certain unsavoury little restaurant in Soho, which is well known as a meeting-place of German agents."
"And the chauffeur?"
"The chauffeur was nowhere to be found. He, too, had disappeared."
"So," said Poirot thoughtfully. "There are two disappearances: the Prime Minister in France, and O'Murphy in London."
He looked keenly at Lord Estair, who made a gesture of despair.
"I can only tell you, M. Poirot, that if anyone had suggested to me yesterday that O'Murphy was a traitor, I should have laughed in his face."
"To-day I do not know what to think."
Poirot nodded gravely. He looked at his turnip of a watch again.
"I understand that I have carte blanche, Messieurs—in every way, I mean? I must be able to go where I choose, and how I choose."
"Perfectly. There is a special train leaving for Dover in an hour's time, with a further contingent from Scotland Yard. You shall be accompanied by a Military officer and a C.I.D. man, who will hold themselves at your disposal in every way. Is that satisfactory?"
"Quite. One more question before you leave, Messieurs. What made you come to me? I am unknown, obscure, in this great London of yours."
"We sought you out on the express recommendation and wish of a very great man of your own country."
"Comment? My old friend the Préfet—?"
Lord Estair shook his head.
"One higher than the Préfet. One whose word was once law in Belgium—and shall be again! That England has sworn!"
Poirot's hand flew swiftly to a dramatic salute. "Amen to that! Ah! but my Master does not forget.…Messieurs, I, Hercule Poirot, will serve you faithfully. Heaven only send that it will be in time. But this is dark—dark.…I cannot see."