‘I must say, I was rather disappointed,’ McCrodden went on. ‘The famous Hercule Poirot, allowing himself to be used for such frivolities.’
Poirot waited a few moments before answering. Was it his particular choice of words that had proved so ineffective in persuading Sylvia Rule to listen to him? Then, for John McCrodden, he would make an effort to be clearer and more persuasive. ‘Monsieur, s’il vous plait. I believe that somebody sent you a letter and that, in it, you were accused of murder. The murder of Barnabas Pandy. This part of your story I do not dispute. But—’
‘You are in no position to dispute it,’ said McCrodden.
‘Monsieur, please believe me when I tell you that I was not the writer of the letter you received. To Hercule Poirot, there is nothing frivolous about murder. I would—’
‘Oh, there won’t have been any murder,’ McCrodden interrupted again with a bitter laugh. ‘Or, if there has, the police will already have caught the person responsible. This is one of my father’s childish games.’ He frowned, as if something disturbing had occurred to him. ‘Unless the old gargoyle is more sadistic than I thought and would actually risk my neck in a real and unsolved case of murder. I suppose it’s possible. With his ruthless determination . . .’ McCrodden broke off, then muttered, ‘Yes. It is possible. I should have thought of that.’
‘Your father is the solicitor Rowland McCrodden?’ asked Poirot.
‘You know he is.’ John McCrodden had already declared himself disappointed, and that was how he sounded—as if Poirot was sinking lower in his estimation with each word he spoke.
‘I know your father by reputation only. I have not personally made his acquaintance, nor have I ever spoken to him.’‘The rich who need money least—like you, like my father—will stop at nothing to get their hands on more of it. That’s why I’ve never trusted it.
‘You have to maintain the pretence, of course,’ said John McCrodden. ‘I’m sure he’s paid you a handsome sum to keep his name out of it.’ He looked around the room he was standing in, seeming to notice it for the first time. Then he nodded as if confirming something to himself, and said, ‘The rich who need money least—like you, like my father—will stop at nothing to get their hands on more of it. That’s why I’ve never trusted it. I was right not to. Money is corrosive to character once you’re accustomed to it, and you, M. Poirot, are the living proof.’
Poirot could not recall when someone had last said something so unpleasant to him, so unfair or so personally wounding. He said quietly, ‘I have spent my life working for the greater good and the protection of the innocent and—yes!—the wrongly accused. That group includes you, monsieur. Also, today, it includes Hercule Poirot. I too am wrongly accused. I am as innocent of writing and sending the letter you received as you are of murder. I too know no Barnabas Pandy. Not a dead Barnabas Pandy and not an alive Barnabas Pandy do I know! But here—ah! Here is where the similarities between us end, for when you insist you are innocent, I listen. I think, “This man might be telling the truth.” Whereas when I—’
‘Spare me the fancy words,’ McCrodden cut in again. ‘If you imagine I’m likely to trust dazzling rhetoric any more than I trust money, reputation or any of the other things my father holds in high regard, you’re grievously mistaken. Now, since Rowland Rope will doubtless require you to relay to him my response to his sordid little scheme, please tell him this: I’m not playing. I have never heard of a Barnabas Pandy, I have killed nobody, therefore I have nothing to fear. I have enough confidence in the law of the land to trust that I won’t hang for a crime I didn’t commit.’
‘Do you believe your father wants that to happen?’
‘I don’t know. It’s possible. I have always thought that if Father ever runs out of guilty people to send to the gallows, he’ll turn his attentions to the innocent and pretend they’re guilty—both in court and in his own mind. Anything to feed his lust for the blood of his fellow human beings.’
‘That is a remarkable accusation, monsieur, and not the first one you have made since you arrived.’ McCrodden’s brisk, business-as-usual way of speaking chilled Poirot. It lent an air of objectivity to his words, as if he was merely conveying the plain and uncontroversial facts.
The Rowland Rope about whom Poirot had heard so much over the years was not the man his son was describing. He was a strong advocate of death as a punishment for the guilty—a little too strong for Poirot’s taste, for there were circumstances that called for discretion—but Poirot suspected McCrodden Senior would be as horrified as he himself would be at the prospect of an innocent man or woman being sent to the gallows. And if the man in question was his own son . . .
‘Monsieur, I have not, in all my years, met a father who sought to have his son condemned to death for a murder he did not commit.’
‘Ah, but you have,’ John McCrodden responded swiftly. ‘Despite your protests to the contrary, I know you must have met my father, or at least you have conversed with him, and the two of you have conspired to accuse me. Well, you can tell Dear Father that I no longer hate him. Now that I see how low he is willing to stoop, I pity him. He’s no better than a murderer. Neither are you, M. Poirot. The same is true of anyone in favour of choking wrongdoers at the end of a rope, the way our brutal system does.’
‘Is that your opinion, monsieur?’
‘All my life I’ve been a source of embarrassment and frustration to Father: refusing to bow down, to do what he wants, think what he thinks, work in his chosen profession. He wants me to take up the law. He’s never forgiven me for not wanting to be him.’
‘May I ask what is your profession?’
‘Profession?’ McCrodden sneered. ‘I work for a living. Nothing fancy. Nothing grand that involves playing with other people’s lives. I’ve worked in a mine, on farms, in factories. I’ve made trinkets for ladies and sold them. I’m good at selling. At the moment I’ve got a market stall. It keeps a roof over my head, but none of that’s good enough for my father. And, being Rowland McCrodden, he won’t admit defeat. Never.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hoped he had given up on me. Now I see that he never will. He knows a man accused of murder will need to defend himself. It’s rather clever of him, actually. He’s trying to provoke me, and harbouring all sorts of fantasies, I imagine, of me insisting on defending myself against the charge of murder at the Old Bailey. To do that, I would have to take an interest in the law, wouldn’t I?’
It was evident that Rowland McCrodden was to John McCrodden what Eustace was to Sylvia Rule.
‘You can tell him from me that his plan has failed. I will never be the person my father wants me to be. And I would rather he didn’t attempt to communicate with me again—directly, or using you or any of his other toadies as a conduit.’
Poirot rose from his chair. ‘Please wait here for a few moments,’ he said. He left the room, taking care to leave the door wide open.
When Poirot returned to the room, he was accompanied by his valet. He smiled at John McCrodden and said, ‘You have already met Georges. You will, I hope, have heard me explain to him that I would like him to join us for a short while. I raised my voice so that you would hear everything I said to him.’
‘Yes, I heard,’ said McCrodden in a bored voice.
‘If I had said anything else to Georges, you would have heard it too. I did not. Therefore, what he is about to tell you will, I hope, convince you that I am not your enemy. Please, Georges—speak!’
George looked astonished. He was not accustomed to receiving such vague instructions. ‘About what, sir?’
Poirot turned to John McCrodden. ‘You see? He does not know. I have not prepared him for this. Georges, when I returned from luncheon today, I told you about something that had just happened to me, did I not?’
‘You did, sir.’
‘Please repeat the story that I told you.’
‘Very well, sir. You were accosted by a lady who introduced herself as Mrs Sylvia Rule. Mrs Rule mistakenly believed that you had written a letter to her in which you had accused her of murder.’
‘Merci, Georges. Tell me, who was the supposed victim of this murder?’
‘A Mr Barnabas Pandy, sir.’
‘And what else did I tell you?’
‘That you were not acquainted with a man of that name, sir. If there is such a gentleman, you do not know if he is alive or dead, or if he has been murdered. When you tried to explain this to Mrs Rule, she refused to listen.’
Poirot turned to John McCrodden in triumph. ‘Monsieur, perhaps your father wishes also for Sylvia Rule to defend herself at the Old Bailey? Or are you finally willing to concede that you have misjudged and most unfairly maligned Hercule Poirot? It might interest to you to know that Madame Rule also accused me of conspiring with one of her enemies to cause her distress—a man named Eustace.’
‘I still say my father is behind it all,’ John McCrodden said after a short interval. He sounded markedly less certain than he had before. ‘He enjoys nothing more than the challenge of an elaborate puzzle. I’m supposed to work out why Mrs Rule received the same letter I did.’
‘When one has a driving preoccupation—yours with your father, or Sylvia Rule’s obsession with her Eustace—it colours the way one sees the world,’ said Poirot with a sigh. ‘I don’t suppose you have brought the letter with you?’‘Even the great Hercule Poirot cannot accuse innocent people of murder and expect to get away with it.’
‘No. I tore it up and sent the pieces to my father with a note telling him what I think of him, and now I’m telling you, M. Poirot. I won’t stand for it. Even the great Hercule Poirot cannot accuse innocent people of murder and expect to get away with it.’
It was a considerable relief when John McCrodden finally removed himself from the room. Poirot stood by the window in order to watch his visitor’s departure from the building.
‘Are you ready for your sirop de menthe now, sir?’ George asked.
‘Mon ami, I am ready for all the sirop de menthe in the world.’ Seeing that he might have caused confusion, he clarified. ‘One glass please, Georges. Only one.’
Poirot returned to his chair in a state of agitation. What hope was there for justice or peace to prevail in the world when three people who might have made common cause—three wrongly accused people: Sylvia Rule, John McCrodden and Hercule Poirot—could not sit together and have a calm, rational discussion that might have helped them all to understand what had happened? Instead there had been anger, an almost fanatical refusal to entertain a point of view other than one’s own, and the ceaseless hurling of insults. Not from Hercule Poirot, however; he had behaved impeccably in the face of intolerable provocation.
When George brought him his sirop, he said, ‘Tell me—is there anybody else waiting to see me?’
‘Nobody has telephoned to request an appointment?’
‘No, sir. Are you expecting someone?’
‘Oui. I am expecting an angry stranger, or perhaps several.’
‘I’m not sure what you mean, sir.’
Just then the telephone started to ring. Poirot nodded permitted himself a small smile. When there was no other pleasure to be taken from a situation, one might as well enjoy being correct, he thought. ‘There he is, Georges—or there she is. The third person. Third of who knows how many? Three, four, five? It could be any number.’
‘Number of what, sir?’
‘People who have received a letter accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy—signed, fraudulently, in the name of Hercule Poirot!’
From THE MYSTERY OF THREE QUARTERS, by Sophie Hannah. Used with the permission of the publisher, William Morrow. Copyright © 2018 by Sophie Hannah.