"Well, Poirot," I cried impatiently, as the door closed behind the Ministers. "What do you think?"
My friend was busy packing a minute suit-case, with quick, deft movements. He shook his head thoughtfully. "I do not know what to think. My brains desert me."
"Why, as you said, kidnap him, when a knock on the head would do as well?" I mused.
"Pardon me, mon ami, but I did not quite say that. It is undoubtedly far more their affair to kidnap him."
"Because uncertainty creates panic. That is one reason. Were the Prime Minister dead, it would be a terrible calamity, but the situation would have to be faced. But now you have paralysis. Will the Prime Minister reappear, or will he not? Is he dead or alive? Nobody knows, and until they know, nothing definite can be done. And, as I tell you, uncertainty breeds panic, which is what les Boches are playing for. Then, again, if the kidnappers are holding him secretly somewhere, they have the advantage of being able to make terms with both sides. The German Government is not a liberal paymaster, as a rule, but no doubt they can be made to disgorge substantial remittances in such a case as this. Thirdly, they run no risk of the hangman's rope. Oh, decidedly, kidnapping is their affair."
"Then, if that is so, why should they first try to shoot him?"
Poirot made a gesture of anger. "Ah! that is just what I do not understand! It is inexplicable—stupid! They have all their arrangements made (and very good arrangements, too!) for the abduction, and yet they imperil the whole affair by a melodramatic attack, worthy of a cinema, and quite as unreal. It is almost impossible to believe in it, with its band of masked men, not twenty miles from London!"
"Perhaps they were two quite separate attempts which happened irrespective of each other," I suggested.
"Ah, no, that would be too much of a coincidence! Then, further—who is the traitor? There must have been a traitor—in the first affair, anyway. But who was it—Daniels or O'Murphy? It must have been one of the two, or why did the car leave the main road? We cannot suppose that the Prime Minister connived at his own assassination! Did O'Murphy take that turning of his own accord, or was it Daniels who told him to do so?"
"Surely it must have been O'Murphy's doing."
"Yes, because if it was Daniels, the Prime Minister would have heard the order, and would have asked the reason. But there are altogether too many 'whys' in this affair, and they contradict each other. If O'Murphy is an honest man, why did he leave the main road? But if he was a dishonest man, why did he start the car again when only two shots had been fired—thereby, in all probability, saving the Prime Minister's life? And, again, if he was honest, why did he, immediately on leaving Charing Cross, drive to a well-known rendezvous of German spies?"
"It looks bad," I said.
"Let us look at the case with method. What have we for and against these two men? Take O'Murphy first. Against: That his conduct in leaving the main road was suspicious; that he is an Irishman from County Clare; that he has disappeared in a highly suggestive manner. For: That his promptness in re-starting the car saved the Premier's life; that he is a Scotland Yard man, and, obviously, from the post allotted to him, a trusted detective. Now for Daniels. There is not much against him, except the fact that nothing is known of his antecedents, and that he speaks too many languages for a good Englishman! (Pardon me, mon ami, but, as linguists, you are deplorable!) Now for him, we have the fact that he was found gagged, bound, and chloroformed—which does not look as though he had anything to do with the matter."
"He might have gagged and bound himself, to divert suspicion."
Poirot shook his head. "The French police would make no mistake of that kind. Besides, once he had attained his object, and the Prime Minister was safely abducted, there would not be much point in his remaining behind. His accomplices could have gagged and chloroformed him, of course, but I fail to see what object they hoped to accomplish by it. He can be of little use to them now, for, until the circumstances concerning the Prime Minister have been cleared up, he is bound to be closely watched."
"Perhaps he hoped to start the police on a false scent?"
"Then why did he not do so? He merely says that something was pressed over his nose and mouth, and that he remembers nothing more. There is no false scent there. It sounds remarkably like the truth."
"Well," I said, glancing at the clock, "I suppose we'd better start for the station. You may find more clues in France."
"Possibly, mon ami, but I doubt it. It is still incredible to me that the Prime Minister has not been discovered in that limited area, where the difficulty of concealing him must be tremendous. If the military and the police of two countries have not found him, how shall I?"
At Charing Cross we were met by Mr. Dodge.
"This is Detective Barnes, of Scotland Yard, and Major Norman. They will hold themselves entirely at your disposal. Good luck to you. It's a bad business, but I've not given up hope. Must be off now." And the Minister strode rapidly away.
We chatted in a desultory fashion with Major Norman. In the centre of the little group of men on the platform I recognised a little ferret-faced fellow talking to a tall, fair man. He was an old acquaintance of Poirot's—Detective-Inspector Japp, supposed to be one of the smartest of Scotland Yard's officers. He came over and greeted my friend cheerfully.
"I heard you were on this job too. Smart bit of work. So far they've got away with the goods all right. But I can't believe they can keep him hidden long. Our people are going through France with a toothcomb. So are the French. I can't help feeling it's only a matter of hours now."
"That is, if he's still alive," remarked the tall detective gloomily.
Japp's face fell. "Yes.…But somehow I've got the feeling he's alive all right."
Poirot nodded. "Yes, yes; he's alive. But can he be found in time? I, like you, did not believe he could be hidden so long."
The whistle blew, and we all trooped up into the Pullman car. Then, with a slow, unwilling jerk, the train drew out of the station.
It was a curious journey. The Scotland Yard men crowded together. Maps of Northern France were spread out, and eager forefingers traced the lines of roads and villages. Each man had his own pet theory. Poirot showed none of his usual loquacity, but sat staring in front of him, with an expression on his face that reminded me of a puzzled child. I talked to Norman, whom I found quite an amusing fellow. On arriving at Dover Poirot's behaviour moved me to intense amusement. The little man, as he went on board the boat, clutched desperately at my arm. The wind was blowing lustily.
"Mon Dieu!" he murmured. "This is terrible!"
"Have courage, Poirot," I cried. "You will succeed. You will find him. I am sure of it."
"Ah, mon ami, you mistake my emotion. It is this villainous sea that troubles me! The mal de mer— it is horrible suffering!"
"Oh!" I said, rather taken aback.
The first throb of the engines was felt, and Poirot groaned and closed his eyes.
"Major Norman has a map of Northern France if you would like to study it?"
Poirot shook his head impatiently.
"But no—but no! Leave me, my friend. See you, to think, the stomach and the brain must be in harmony. Laverguier has a method most excellent for averting the mal de mer. You breathe in—and out—slowly, so—turning the head from left to right and counting six between each breath."
I left him to his gymnastic endeavours, and went on deck.
As we came slowly into Boulogne Harbour Poirot appeared, neat and smiling, and announced to me in a whisper that "Laverguier's system had succeeded to a marvel!"
Japp's forefinger was still tracing imaginary routes on his map. "Nonsense! The car started from Boulogne—here they branched off. Now, my idea is that they transferred the Prime Minister to another car. See?"
"Well," said the tall detective, "I shall make for the seaports. Ten to one, they've smuggled him on board a ship."
Japp shook his head. "Too obvious. The order went out at once to close all the ports."
The day was just breaking as we landed. Major Norman touched Poirot on the arm. "There's a military car here waiting for you, Sir."
"Thank you, Monsieur. But, for the moment, I do not propose to leave Boulogne."
"No, we will enter this hotel here, by the quay."
He suited the action to the word, demanded and was accorded a private room. We three followed him, puzzled and uncomprehending.
He shot a quick glance at us. "It is not so that the good detective should act, eh? I perceive your thought. He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road and seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end, the fallen match? That is your idea, is it not?"
His eyes challenged us. "But I—Hercule Poirot—tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within—here!" He tapped his forehead. "See you, I need not have left London. It would have been sufficient for me to sit quietly in my rooms there. All that matters is the little grey cells within. Secretly and silently they do their part, until suddenly I call for a map, and I lay my finger on a spot—so—and I say: the Prime Minister is there! And it is so! With method and logic one can accomplish anything! This frantic rushing to France was a mistake—it is playing a child's game of hide-and-seek. But now, though it may be too late, I will set to work the right way, from within. Silence, my friends, I beg of you."
And for five long hours the little man sat motionless, blinking his eyelids like a cat, his green eyes flickering and becoming steadily greener and greener. The Scotland Yard man was obviously contemptuous, Major Norman was bored and impatient, and I myself found the time pass with wearisome slowness.
Finally, I got up, and strolled as noiselessly as I could to the window. The matter was becoming a farce. I was secretly concerned for my friend. If he failed, I would have preferred him to fail in a less ridiculous manner. Out of the window I idly watched the daily leave boat, belching forth columns of smoke, as she lay alongside the quay.
Suddenly I was aroused by Poirot's voice close to my elbow.
"Mes amis, let us start!"
I turned. An extraordinary transformation had come over my friend. His eyes were flickering with excitement, his chest was swelled to the uttermost.
"I have been an imbecile, my friends! But I see daylight at last."
Major Norman moved hastily to the door. "I'll order the car."
"There is no need. I shall not use it. Thank heaven the wind has fallen."
"Do you mean you are going to walk, Sir?"
"No, my young friend. I am no St. Peter. I prefer to cross the sea by boat."
"To cross the sea?"
"Yes. To work with method, one must begin from the beginning. And the beginning of this affair was in England. Therefore, we return to England."