At three o'clock, we stood once more upon Charing Cross platform. To all our expostulations, Poirot turned a deaf ear, and reiterated again and again that to start at the beginning was not a waste of time, but the only way. On the way over, he had conferred with Norman in a low voice, and the latter had despatched a sheaf of telegrams from Dover.
Owing to the special passes held by Norman, we got through everywhere in record time. In London, a large police car was waiting for us, with some plain-clothes men, one of whom handed a typewritten sheet of paper to my friend. He answered my inquiring glance.
"A list of the cottage hospitals within a certain radius west of London. I wired for it from Dover."
We were whirled rapidly through the London streets. On we went, through Shepherd's Bush, Ealing, Hanwell. I began to see our objective. We were on the Windsor Road. Through Windsor, and on to Ascot. My heart gave a leap. Ascot was where Daniels had an aunt living. We were after him, then, not O'Murphy.
We duly stopped at the gate of a trim villa. Poirot jumped out and rang the bell. I saw a perplexed frown dimming the radiance of his face. Plainly, he was not satisfied. The bell was answered. He was ushered inside. In a few moments he reappeared, and climbed into the car with a short, sharp shake of his head. My hopes began to die down. It was past four now. Even if he found certain evidence incriminating Daniels, what would be the good of it, unless he could wring from someone the exact spot in France where they were holding the Prime Minister?
Our return progress towards London was an interrupted one. We deviated from the main road more than once, and occasionally stopped at a small building, which I had no difficulty in recognising as a cottage hospital. Poirot only spent a few minutes at each, but at every halt his radiant assurance was more and more restored.
He whispered something to Norman, to which the latter replied:
"Yes, if you turn off to the left, you will find them waiting by the bridge."
We turned up a side road, and in the failing light, I discerned a second car, waiting by the side of the road. It contained two men in plain clothes. Poirot got down and spoke to them, and then we started off in a northerly direction, the other car following close behind.
We drove for some time, our objective being obviously one of the northern suburbs of London. Finally, we drove up to the front door of a tall house, standing a little back from the road in its own grounds.
Norman and I were left with the car. Poirot and one of the detectives went up to the door and rang. A neat parlourmaid opened it. The detective spoke.
"I am a police officer, and I have a warrant to search this house."
The girl gave a little scream, and a tall, handsome woman of middle age appeared behind her in the hall.
"Shut the door, Edith. They are burglars, I expect."
But Poirot swiftly inserted his foot in the door, and at the same moment blew a whistle. Instantly the other detectives ran up, and poured into the house, shutting the door behind them.
Norman and I spent about five minutes cursing our forced inactivity. Finally the door reopened, and the men emerged, escorting three prisoners—a woman and two men. The woman, and one of the men, were taken to the second car. The other man was placed in our car by Poirot himself.
"I must go with the others, my friend. But have great care of this gentleman. You do not know him, no? Eh bien, let me present to you, M. O'Murphy!"
O'Murphy! I gaped at him open-mouthed as we started again. He was not handcuffed, but I did not fancy he would try to escape. He sat there staring in front of him as though dazed. Anyway, Norman and I would be more than a match for him.
To my surprise, we still kept a northerly route. We were not returning to London, then! I was much puzzled. Suddenly, as the car slowed down, I recognised that we were close to Hendon Aerodrome. Immediately I grasped Poirot's idea. He proposed to reach France by aeroplane.
It was a sporting idea, but on the face of it, impracticable. A telegram would be far quicker. Time was everything. He must leave the personal glory of rescuing the Prime Minister to others.
As we drew up, Major Norman jumped out, and a plain-clothes man took his place. He conferred with Poirot for a few minutes, and then went off briskly.
I, too, jumped out, and caught Poirot by the arm.
"I congratulate you, old fellow! They have told you the hiding-place? But, look here, you must wire to France at once. You'll be too late if you go yourself."
Poirot looked at me curiously for a minute or two.
"Unfortunately, my friend, there are some things that cannot be sent by telegram."
At that moment Major Norman returned, accompanied by a young officer in the uniform of the Flying Corps.
"This is Captain Lyall, who will fly you over to France. He can start at once."
"Wrap up warmly, Sir," said the young pilot. "I can lend you a coat, if you like."
Poirot was consulting his enormous watch. He murmured to himself: "Yes, there is time—just time." Then he looked up, and bowed politely to the young officer.
"I thank you, Monsieur. But it is not I who am your passenger. It is this gentleman here."
He moved a little aside as he spoke, and a figure came forward out of the darkness. It was the second male prisoner who had gone in the other car, and as the light fell on his face, I gave a gasp of surprise.
It was the Prime Minister!