1. AN IMPORTANT PASSENGER ON THE TAURUS EXPRESS

 

It was five o'clock on a winter's morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

 

By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform conversing, with a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.

 

It was freezingly cold, and this job of seeing off a distinguished stranger was not one to be envied, but Lieutenant Dubosc performed his part manfully. Graceful phrases fell from his lips in polished French. Not that he knew what it was all about. There had been rumours, of course, as there always were in such cases. The General's—his General's—temper had grown worse and worse. And then there had come this Belgian stranger—all the way from England, it seemed. There had been a week—a week of curious tensity. And then certain things had happened. A very distinguished officer had committed suicide, another had suddenly resigned, anxious faces had suddenly lost their anxiety, certain military precautions were relaxed. And the General, Lieutenant Dubosc's own particular General, had suddenly looked ten years younger.

 

Dubosc had overheard part of a conversation between him and the stranger. "You have saved us, mon cher," said the General emotionally, his great white moustache trembling as he spoke. "You have saved the honour of the French Army—you have averted much bloodshed! How can I thank you for acceding to my request? To have come so far—"

 

To which the stranger (by name M. Hercule Poirot) had made a fitting reply including the phrase— "But indeed, do I not remember that once you saved my life?" And then the General had made another fitting reply to that, disclaiming any merit for that past service; and with more mention of France, of Belgium, of glory, of honour and of such kindred things they had embraced each other heartily and the conversation had ended.

 

As to what it had all been about, Lieutenant Dubosc was still in the dark, but to him had been delegated the duty of seeing off M. Poirot by the Taurus Express, and he was carrying it out with all the zeal and ardour befitting a young officer with a promising career ahead of him.

"Today is Sunday," said Lieutenant Dubosc. "Tomorrow, Monday evening, you will be in Stamboul."

 

It was not the first time he had made this observation. Conversations on the platform, before the departure of a train, are apt to be somewhat repetitive in character.

 

"That is so," agreed M. Poirot.

 

"And you intend to remain there a few days, I think?"

"Mais, oui. Stamboul, it is a city I have never visited. It would be a pity to pass through—comme ça." He snapped his fingers descriptively. "Nothing presses—I shall remain there as a tourist for a few days."

 

"La Sainte Sophie, it is very fine," said Lieutenant Dubosc, who had never seen it. A cold wind came whistling down the platform. Both men shivered. Lieutenant Dubosc managed to cast a surreptitious glance at his watch. Five minutes to five—only five minutes more! Fancying that the other man had noticed his glance, he hastened once more into speech.

 

"There are few people travelling this time of year," he said, glancing up at the windows of the sleeping-car above them.

 

"That is so," agreed M. Poirot.

 

"Let us hope you will not be snowed up in the Taurus!"

 

"That happens?"

 

"It has occurred, yes. Not this year, as yet."

 

"Let us hope, then," said M. Poirot. "The weather reports from

Europe, they are bad.”

"Very bad. In the Balkans there is much snow."

 

"In Germany, too, I have heard."

 

"Eh bien," said Lieutenant Dubosc hastily as another pause seemed to be about to occur. "Tomorrow evening at seven-forty you will be in Constantinople."

 

"Yes," said M. Poirot, and went on desperately, "La Sainte Sophie, I have heard it is very fine."

 

"Magnificent, I believe."

 

Above their heads the blinds of one of the sleeping-car compartments was pushed aside and a young woman looked out. Mary Debenham had had little sleep since she left Baghdad on the preceding Thursday. Neither in the train to Kirkuk, nor in the Rest House at Mosul, nor last night on the train had she slept properly. Now, weary of lying wakeful in the hot stuffiness of her overheated compartment, she got up and peered out.

 

This must be Aleppo. Nothing to see, of course. Just a long, poorly lighted platform with loud, furious altercations in Arabic going on somewhere. Two men below her window were talking French. One was a French officer, the other was a little man with enormous moustaches. She smiled faintly. She had never seen anyone quite so heavily muffled up. It must be very cold outside. That was why they heated the train so terribly. She tried to force the window down lower, but it would not go.

 

The Wagon Lit conductor had come up to the two men. The train was about to depart, he said. Monsieur had better mount. The little man removed his hat. What an egg-shaped head he had! In spite of her preoccupations Mary Debenham smiled. A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.

 

Lieutenant Dubosc was saying his parting speech. He had thought it out beforehand and had kept it till the last minute. It was a very beautiful, polished speech.

 

Not to be outdone, M. Poirot replied in kind. ...

 

"En voiture, Monsieur," said the Wagon Lit conductor. With an air of infinite reluctance M. Poirot climbed aboard the train. The conductor climbed after him. M. Poirot waved his hand. Lieutenant Dubosc came to the salute. The train, with a terrific jerk, moved slowly forward.

 

"Enfin!" murmured M. Hercule Poirot.

 

"Brrrrrrrr," said Lieutenant Dubosc, realising to the full how cold he was.

 

"Voilà, Monsieur!" The conductor displayed to Poirot with a dramatic gesture the beauty of his sleeping compartment and the neat arrangement of his luggage. "The little valise of Monsieur, I have put it here."

 

His outstretched hand was suggestive. Hercule Poirot placed in it a folded note.

 

"Merci, Monsieur." The conductor became brisk and business-like. "I have the tickets of Monsieur. I will also take the passport, please. Monsieur breaks his journey in Stamboul, I understand?"

 

M. Poirot assented. "There are not many people travelling, I imagine?" he said.

 

"No, Monsieur. I have only two other passengers—both English. A Colonel from India and a young English lady from Baghdad. Monsieur requires anything?"

 

Monsieur demanded a small bottle of Perrier. Five o'clock in the morning is an awkward time to board a train. There were still two hours before dawn. Conscious of an inadequate night's sleep, and of a delicate mission successfully accomplished, M. Poirot curled up in a corner and fell asleep.

 

When he awoke it was half-past nine. He sallied forth to the restaurant car in search of hot coffee. There was only one occupant at the moment, obviously the young English lady referred to by the conductor. She was tall, slim and dark— perhaps twenty-eight years of age. There was a kind of cool efficiency in the way she was eating her breakfast and in the way she called to the attendant to bring her more coffee which bespoke a knowledge of the world and of travelling. She wore a dark-coloured travelling dress of some thin material eminently suitable for the heated atmosphere of the train.

 

M. Hercule Poirot, having nothing better to do, amused himself by studying her without appearing to do so. She was, he judged, the kind of young woman who could take care of herself with perfect ease wherever she went. She had poise and efficiency. He rather liked the severe regularity of her features and the delicate pallor of her skin. He liked the burnished black head with its neat waves of hair, and her eyes—cool, impersonal and grey. But she was, he decided, just a little too efficient to be what he called "jolie femme."

 

Presently another person entered the restaurant car. This was a tall man of between forty and fifty, lean of figure, brown of skin, with hair slightly grizzled round the temples.

 

"The Colonel from India," said Poirot to himself.

 

The newcomer gave a little bow to the girl. "Morning, Miss Debenham."

 

"Good morning, Colonel Arbuthnot."

 

The Colonel was standing with a hand on the chair opposite her. "Any objections?" he asked.

 

"Of course not. Sit down."

 

"Well, you know, breakfast isn't always a chatty meal."

 

"I should hope not. But I don't bite."

 

The Colonel sat down. "Boy," he called in peremptory fashion. He gave an order for eggs and coffee.

 

His eyes rested for a moment on Hercule Poirot, but they passed on indifferently. Poirot, reading the English mind correctly, knew that he had said to himself, "Only some damned foreigner."

 

True to their nationality, the two English people were not chatty. They exchanged a few brief remarks and presently the girl rose and went back to her compartment.

At lunch time the other two again shared a table and again they both completely ignored the third passenger. Their conversation was more animated than at breakfast. Colonel Arbuthnot talked of the Punjab and occasionally asked the girl a few questions about Baghdad where, it became clear, she had been in a post as governess. In the course of conversation they discovered some mutual friends, which had the immediate effect of making them more friendly and less stiff. They discussed old Tommy Somebody and old Reggie Someone Else. The Colonel inquired whether she was going straight through to England or whether she was stopping in Stamboul.

 

"No, I'm going straight on." "Isn't that rather a pity?"

 

"I came out this way two years ago and spent three days in Stamboul then."

 

"Oh! I see. Well, I may say I'm very glad you are going right through, because I am."

 

He made a kind of clumsy little bow, flushing a little as he did so. "He is susceptible, our Colonel," thought Hercule Poirot to himself with some amusement.

 

"The train, it is as dangerous as a sea voyage!" Miss Debenham said evenly that that would be very nice. Her manner was slightly repressive.

 

The Colonel, Hercule Poirot noticed, accompanied her back to her compartment. Later they passed through the magnificent scenery of the Taurus. As they looked down towards the Cilician Gates, standing in the corridor side by side, a sigh came suddenly from the girl. Poirot was standing near them and heard her murmur:

 

"It's so beautiful! I wish—I wish—" "Yes?"

 

"I wish I could enjoy it!"

 

Arbuthnot did not answer. The square line of his jaw seemed a little sterner and grimmer. "I wish to Heaven you were out of all this," he said.

 

"Hush, please. Hush."

 

"Oh! it's all right." He shot a slightly annoyed glance in Poirot's direction. Then he went on: "But I don't like the idea of your being a governess—at the beck and call of tyrannical mothers and their tiresome brats."

 

She laughed with just a hint of uncontrol in the sound. "Oh! you mustn't think that. The downtrodden governess is quite an exploded myth. I can assure you that it's the parents who are afraid of being bullied by me."

 

They said no more. Arbuthnot was, perhaps, ashamed of his outburst.

 

"Rather an odd little comedy that I watch here," said Poirot to himself thoughtfully. He was to remember that thought of his later. They arrived at Konya that night about half-past eleven. The two English travellers got out to stretch their legs, pacing up and down the snowy platform.

M. Poirot was content to watch the teeming activity of the station through a window pane. After about ten minutes, however, he decided that a breath of air would not perhaps be a bad thing after all. He made careful preparations, wrapping himself in several coats and mufflers and encasing his neat boots in goloshes. Thus attired, he descended gingerly to the platform and began to pace its length. He walked out beyond the engine.

 

It was the voices which gave him the clue to the two indistinct figures standing in the shadow of a traffic van. Arbuthnot was speaking.

 

"Mary—"

 

The girl interrupted him.

 

"Not now. Not now. When it's all over. When it's behind us—then—"

 

Discreetly M. Poirot turned away. He wondered. ... He would hardly have recognised the cool, efficient voice of Miss Debenham. ...

 

"Curious," he said to himself.

 

The next day he wondered whether, perhaps, they had quarrelled. They spoke little to each other. The girl, he thought, looked anxious. There were dark circles under her eyes.

It was about half-past two in the afternoon when the train came to a halt. Heads were poked out of windows. A little knot of men were clustered by the side of the line looking and pointing at something under the dining-car.

 

Poirot leaned out and spoke to the Wagon Lit conductor who was hurrying past. The man answered, and Poirot drew back his head and, turning, almost collided with Mary Debenham who was standing just behind him.

 

"What is the matter?" she asked rather breathlessly in French. "Why are we stopping?"

 

"It is nothing, Mademoiselle. It is something that has caught fire under the dining-car. Nothing serious. It is put out. They are now repairing the damage. There is no danger, I assure you."

 

She made a little abrupt gesture, as though she were waving the idea of danger aside as something completely unimportant.

 

"Yes, yes, I understand that. But the time!" "The time?"

 

"Yes, this will delay us."

 

"It is possible—yes," agreed Poirot.

 

"But we can't afford delay! This train is due in at 6:55, and one has to cross the Bosphorus and catch the Simplon Orient Express on the other side at nine o'clock. If there is an hour or two of delay we shall miss the connection."

 

"It is possible, yes," he admitted.

 

He looked at her curiously. The hand that held the window bar was not quite steady; her lips, too, were trembling. "Does it matter to you very much, Mademoiselle?" he asked.

 

"Yes. Yes, it does. I—I must catch that train." She turned away from him and went down the corridor to join Colonel Arbuthnot. Her anxiety, however, was needless. Ten minutes later the train started again. It arrived at Hayda-passar only five minutes late, having made up time on the journey.

 

The Bosphorus was rough and M. Poirot did not enjoy the crossing. He was separated from his travelling companions on the boat and did not see them again. On arrival at the Galata Bridge he drove straight to the Tokatlian Hotel.

 

 

2. THE TOKATLIAN HOTEL

 

At the Tokatlian, Hercule Poirot asked for a room with bath. Then he stepped over to the concierge's desk and inquired for letters. There were three waiting for him and a telegram. His eyebrows rose a little at the sight of the telegram.

 

It was unexpected.

 

He opened it in his usual neat, unhurried fashion. The printed words stood out clearly.

Development you predicted in Kassner case has come unexpectedly. Please return immediately.

 

"Voilà ce qui est embêtant," muttered Poirot vexedly. He glanced up at the clock. "I shall have to go on tonight," he said to the concierge. "At what time does the Simplon Orient leave?"

 

"At nine o'clock, Monsieur."

 

"Can you get me a sleeper?"

 

"Assuredly, Monsieur. There is no difficulty this time of year. The trains are almost empty. First-class or second?"

 

"First."

 

"Très bien, Monsieur. How far are you going?"

 

"To London."

 

"Bien, Monsieur. I will get you a ticket to London and reserve your sleeping-car accommodation in the Stamboul-Calais coach."

 

Poirot glanced at the clock again. It was ten minutes to eight. "I have time to dine?"

 

"But assuredly, Monsieur." The little Belgian nodded.

 

He went over and cancelled his room order and crossed the hall to the restaurant. As he was giving his order to the waiter, a hand was placed on his shoulder.

 

"Ah, mon vieux, but this is an unexpected pleasure!" said a voice behind him.

 

The speaker was a short stout elderly man, his hair cut en brosse. He was smiling delightedly.

 

Poiret sprang up. "M. Bouc!"

 

"M. Poirot!"

 

M. Bouc was a Belgian, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits, and his acquaintance with the former star of the Belgian police force dated back many years.

 

"You find yourself far from home, mon cher," said M. Bouc.

 

"A little affair in Syria."

 

"Ah! and you return home—when?"

 

"Tonight."

 

"Splendid! I, too. That is to say, I go as far as Lausanne, where I have affairs. You travel on the Simplon Orient, I presume?"

 

"Yes. I have just asked them to get me a sleeper. It was my intention to remain here some days, but I have received a telegram recalling me to England on important business."

 

"Ah!" sighed M. Bouc. "Les affaires—les affaires! But you, you are at the top of the tree nowadays, mon vieux!"

 

"Some little success I have had, perhaps." Hercule Poirot tried to look modest but failed signally.

 

M. Bouc laughed. "We will meet later," he said.

Hercule Poirot addressed himself to the task of keeping his moustaches out of the soup. That difficult task accomplished, he glanced round him whilst waiting for the next course. There were only about half a dozen people in the restaurant, and of those half dozen there were only two that interested Hercule Poirot. These two sat at a table not far away. The younger was a likeable-looking young man of thirty, clearly an American. It was, however, not he but his companion who had attracted the little detective's attention. He was a man perhaps of between sixty and seventy. From a little distance he had the bland aspect of a philanthropist. His slightly bald head, his domed forehead, the smiling mouth that displayed a very white set of false teeth—all seemed to speak of a benevolent personality. Only the eyes belied this assumption. They were small, deep-set and crafty. Not only that. As the man, making some remark to his young companion, glanced across the room, his gaze stopped on Poirot for a moment and just for that second there was a strange malevolence, an unnatural tensity in the glance.

 

Then he rose.

 

"Pay the bill, Hector," he said. His voice was slightly husky in tone. It had a queer, soft, dangerous quality.

 

When Poirot rejoined his friend in the lounge, the other two men were just leaving the hotel. Their luggage was being brought down. The younger was supervising the process. Presently he opened the glass door and said: "Quite ready now, Mr. Ratchett."

 

The elder man grunted an assent and passed out.

 

"Eh bien," said Poirot. "What do you think of those two?"

 

"They are Americans," said M. Bouc.

 

"Assuredly they are Americans. I meant what did you think of their personalities?"

 

"The young man seemed quite agreeable."

 

"And the other?"

 

"To tell you the truth, my friend, I did not care for him. He produced on me an unpleasant impression. And you?"

 

Hercule Poirot was a moment in replying. "When he passed me in the restaurant," he said at last, "I had a curious impression. It was as though a wild animal—an animal savage, but savage! you understand—had passed me by."

 

"And yet he looked altogether of the most respectable."

"Précisément! The body—the cage—is everything of the most respectable—but through the bars, the wild animal looks out."

 

"You are fanciful, mon vieux," said M. Bouc.

 

"It may be so. But I could not rid myself of the impression that evil had passed me by very close."

 

"That respectable American gentleman?"

 

"That respectable American gentleman."

 

"Well," said M. Bouc cheerfully, "it may be so. There is much evil in the world."

 

At that moment the door opened and the concierge came towards them. He looked concerned and apologetic. "It is extraordinary, Monsieur," he said to Poirot. "There is not one first-class sleeping berth to be had on the train."

 

"Comment?" cried M. Bouc.

 

"At this time of year? Ah, without doubt there is some party of journalists—of politicians—?"

 

"I don't know, sir," said the concierge, turning to him respectfully. "But that's how it is."

 

"Well, well." M. Bouc turned to Poirot. "Have no fear, my friend. We will arrange something. There is always one compartment, the No. 16, which is not engaged. The conductor sees to that!" He smiled, then glanced up at the clock. "Come," he said, "it is time we started."

 

At the station M. Bouc was greeted with respectful empressement by the brown-uniformed Wagon Lit conductor. "Good evening, Monsieur. Your compartment is the No. 1."

 

He called to the porters and they wheeled their load halfway along the carriage on which the tin plates proclaimed its destination: ISTANBUL TRIESTE CALAIS.

 

"You are full up to-night, I hear?"

 

"It is incredible, Monsieur. All the world elects to travel to-night!"

 

"All the same you must find room for this gentleman here. He is a friend of mine. He can have the No. 16."

 

"It is taken, Monsieur."

 

"What? The No. 16?"

A glance of understanding passed between them, and the conductor smiled. He was a tall sallow man of middle age. "But yes, Monsieur. As I told you, we are full—full—everywhere."

 

"But what passes itself?" demanded M. Bouc angrily. "There is a conference somewhere? It is a party?"

 

"No, Monsieur. It is only chance. It just happens that many people have elected to travel tonight."

 

M. Bouc made a clicking sound of annoyance. "At Belgrade," he said, "there will be the slip coach from Athens. There will also be the Bucharest-Paris coach. But we do not reach Belgrade until tomorrow evening. The problem is for tonight. There is no second-class berth free?"

 

"There is a second-class berth, Monsieur—"

 

"Well, then—"

 

"But it is a lady's berth. There is already a German woman in the compartment—a lady's maid."

 

"Là- là, that is awkward," said M. Bouc.

 

"Do not distress yourself, my friend," said Poirot. "I must travel in an ordinary carriage."

 

"Not at all. Not at all." He turned once more to the conductor.

 

"Everyone has arrived?"

 

"It is true," said the man, "that there is one passenger who has not yet arrived." He spoke slowly, with hesitation.

 

"But speak then!"

 

"No. 7 berth—a second-class. The gentleman has not yet come, and it is four minutes to nine."

 

"Who is it?"

 

"An Englishman," the conductor consulted his list. "A M. Harris."

 

"A name of good omen," said Poirot. "I read my Dickens. M. Harris he will not arrive."

 

"Put Monsieur's luggage in No. 7," said M. Bouc. "If this M. Harris arrives we will tell him that he is too late—that berths cannot be retained so long—we will arrange the matter one way or another. What do I care for a M. Harris?"

"As Monsieur pleases," said the conductor. He spoke to Poirot's porter, directing him where to go. Then he stood aside from the steps to let Poirot enter the train.

 

"Tout à fait au bout, Monsieur," he called. "The end compartment but one."

 

Poirot passed along the corridor, a somewhat slow progress, since most of the people travelling were standing outside their carriages.

 

His polite "Pardons" were uttered with the regularity of clockwork. At last he reached the compartment indicated. Inside it, reaching up to a suitcase, was the tall young American of the Tokatlian.

 

He frowned as Poirot entered.

 

"Excuse me," he said. "I think you've made a mistake." Then, laboriously in French: "Je crois qua vous avez un erreur."

 

Poirot replied in English. "You are Mr. Harris?"

 

"No, my name is MacQueen. I—"

 

But at that moment the voice of the Wagon Lit conductor spoke from over Poirot's shoulder—an apologetic, rather breathless voice.

 

"There is no other berth on the train, Monsieur. The gentleman has to come in here." He was hauling up the corridor window as he spoke and began to lift in Poirot's luggage. Poirot noticed the apology in his tone with some amusement. Doubtless the man had been promised a good tip if he could keep the compartment for the sole use of the other traveller. However, even the most munificent of tips lose their effect when a Director of the Company is on board and issues his orders.

 

The conductor emerged from the compartment, having swung the suitcases up onto the racks.

"Voilà, Monsieur," he said. "All is arranged. Yours is the upper berth, the No. 7. We start in one minute."

 

He hurried off down the corridor. Poirot re-entered the compartment. "A phenomenon I have seldom seen," he said cheerfully. "A Wagon Lit conductor himself puts up the luggage! It is unheard of!"

 

His fellow traveller smiled. He had evidently got over his annoyance—had probably decided that it was no good to take the matter otherwise than philosophically. "The train's remarkably full," he said.

 

A whistle blew, there was a long melancholy cry from the engine. Both men stepped out into the corridor. Outside a voice shouted, "En voiture!"

 

"We're off," said MacQueen. But they were not quite off. The whistle blew again. "I say, sir," said the young man suddenly. "If you'd rather have the lower berth—easier and all that—well, that's all right by me."

 

A likeable young fellow. "No, no," protested Poirot. "I would not deprive you—"

 

"That's all right—"

 

"You are too amiable—" Polite protests on both sides.

 

"It is for one night only," explained Poirot. "At Belgrade—"

 

"Oh! I see. You're getting out at Belgrade—"

 

"Not exactly. You see—"

 

There was a sudden jerk. Both men swung round to the window, looking out at the long lighted platform as it slid slowly past them.

 

The Orient Express had started on its three-day journey across Europe.

 

 

3. POIROT REFUSES A CASE

 

M. Hercule Poirot was a little late in entering the luncheon-car on the following day. He had risen early, had breakfasted almost alone, and had spent the morning going over the notes of the case that was recalling him to London. He had seen little of his travelling companion.

M. Bouc, who was already seated, gated a greeting and summoned his friend to the empty place opposite him. Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.

 

It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment. He was at the stage of a meal when one becomes philosophic.

 

"Ah!" he sighed. "If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene." He waved a hand.

 

"It is an idea, that," said Poirot.

 

"Ah, you agree? It has not been done, I think? And yet—it lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never perhaps to see each other again."

 

"And yet," said Poirot, "suppose an accident—"

 

"Ah, no, my friend—"

 

"From your point of view it would be regrettable, I agree. But nevertheless let us just for one moment suppose it. Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together—by death."

 

"Some more wine," said M. Bouc, hastily pouring it out. "You are morbid, mon cher. It is, perhaps the digestion."

 

"It is true," agreed Poirot, "that the food in Syria was not perhaps quite suited to my stomach."

He sipped his wine. Then, leaning back, he ran his eye thoughtfully round the dining-car. There were thirteen people seated there and, as M. Bouc had said, of all classes and nationalities. He began to study them.

 

At the table opposite them were three men. They were, he guessed, single travellers graded and placed there by the unerring judgment of the restaurant attendants. A big swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare neat Englishman had the expressionless disapproving face of the well-trained servant. Next to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit—possibly a commercial traveller.

 

"You've got to put it over big," he was saying in a loud, nasal voice. The Italian removed his toothpick to gesticulate with it freely.

 

"Sure," he said. "That whatta I say alla de time."

 

The Englishman looked out of the window and coughed. Poirot's eye passed on. At a small table, sitting very upright, was one of the ugliest old ladies he had ever seen. It was an ugliness of distinction—it fascinated rather than repelled. She sat very upright. Round her neck was a collar of very large pearls which, improbable though it seemed, were real. Her hands were covered with rings. Her sable coat was pushed back on her shoulders. A very small and expensive black toque was hideously unbecoming to the yellow, toad-like face beneath it.

She was speaking now to the restaurant attendant in a clear, courteous, but completely autocratic tone.

 

"You will be sufficiently amiable to place in my compartment a bottle of mineral water and a large glass of orange juice. You will arrange that I shall have chicken cooked without sauces for dinner this evening—also some boiled fish."

The attendant replied respectfully that it should be done.

 

She gave a slight gracious nod of the head and rose. Her glance caught Poirot's and swept over him with the nonchalance of the uninterested aristocrat.

 

"That is Princess Dragomiroff," said M. Bouc in a low tone. "She is a Russian. Her husband realised all his money before the Revolution and invested it abroad. She is extremely rich. A cosmopolitan."

 

Poirot nodded. He had heard of Princess Dragomiroff.

 

"She is a personality," said M. Bouc. "Ugly as sin but she makes herself felt. You agree?"

 

Poirot agreed.

 

At another of the large tables Mary Debenham was sitting with two other women. One of them was tall and middle-aged, in a plaid blouse and tweed skirt. She had a mass of faded yellow hair unbecomingly arranged in a large bun, wore glasses, and had a long mild amiable face rather like a sheep. She was listening to the third woman, a stout, pleasant-faced, elderly person who was talking in a slow, clear monotone which showed no signs of pausing for breath or coming to a stop.

 

"—and so my daughter said, 'Why,' she said, 'you just can't apply American methods in this country. It's natural to the folks here to be indolent,' she said. 'They just haven't got any hustle in them—' But all the same you'd be surprised to know what our college there is doing. They've got a fine staff of teachers. I guess there's nothing like education. We've got to apply our Western ideals and teach the East to recognise them. My daughter says—"

 

The train plunged into a tunnel. The calm, monotonous voice was drowned.

 

At the next table, a small one, sat Colonel Arbuthnot—alone. His gaze was fixed upon the back of Mary Debenham's head. They were not sitting together. Yet it could easily have been managed. Why?

 

Perhaps, Poirot thought, Mary Debenham had demurred. A governess learns to be careful. Appearances are important. A girl with her living to get has to be discreet. His glance shifted to the other side of the carriage. At the far end, against the wall, was a middle-aged woman dressed in black with a broad, expressionless face. German or Scandinavian, he thought. Probably the German lady's-maid.

 

Beyond her were a couple leaning forward and talking animatedly together. The man wore English clothes of loose tweed, but he was not English. Though only the back of his head was visible to Poirot, the shape of it and the set of the shoulders betrayed him. A big man, well made. He turned his head suddenly and Poirot saw his profile. A very handsome man of thirty-odd with a big fair moustache.

 

The woman opposite him was a mere girl—twenty at a guess. A tight-fitting little black coat and skirt, white satin blouse, small chic black toque perched at the fashionable outrageous angle. She had a beautiful foreign-looking face, dead white skin, large brown eyes, jet black hair. She was smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Her manicured hands had deep red nails. She wore one large emerald set in platinum. There was coquetry in her glance and voice.

 

"Elle est jolie—et chic," murmured Poirot. "Husband and wife— eh?"

 

M. Bouc nodded. "Hungarian Embassy, I believe," he said. "A handsome couple."

 

There were only two more lunchers—Poirot's fellow traveller MacQueen and his employer Mr. Ratchett. The latter sat facing Poirot, and for the second time Poirot studied that unprepossessing face, noting the false benevolence of the brow and the small, cruel eyes.

 

Doubtless M. Bouc saw a change in his friend's expression. "It is at your wild animal you look?" he asked.

 

Poirot nodded.

 

As his coffee was brought to him, M. Bouc rose to his feet. Having started before Poirot, he had finished some time ago. "I return to my compartment," he said. "Come along presently and converse with me."

 

"With pleasure." Poirot sipped his coffee and ordered a liqueur. The attendant was passing from table to table with his box of money, accepting payment for bills. The elderly American lady's voice rose shrill and plaintive.

 

"My daughter said: 'Take a book of food tickets and you'll have no trouble—no trouble at all.' Now, that isn't so. Seems they have to have a ten per cent tip, and then there's that bottle of mineral water—and a queer sort of water too. They didn't have any Evian or Vichy, which seems queer to me."

 

"It is—they must—how do you say?—serve the water of the country," explained the sheep-faced lady.

 

"Well, it seems queer to me." She looked distastefully at the heap of small change on the table in front of her. "Look at all this peculiar stuff he's given me. Dinars or something. Just a lot of rubbish, it looks like! My daughter said—"

 

Mary Debenham pushed back her chair and left with a slight bow to the other two. Colonel Arbuthnot got up and followed her. Gathering up her despised money the American woman followed suit, followed by the other one like a sheep. The Hungarians had already departed. The restaurant car was empty save for Poirot and Ratchett and MacQueen.

 

Ratchett spoke to his companion, who got up and left the car. Then he rose himself, but instead of following MacQueen he dropped unexpectedly into the seat opposite Poirot.

 

"Can you oblige me with a light?" he said. His voice was soft— faintly nasal. "My name is Ratchett."

 

Poirot bowed slightly. He slipped his hand into his pocket and produced a matchbox which he handed to the other man, who took it but did not strike a light.

 

"I think," he went on, "that I have the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Hercule Poirot. Is that so?"

 

Poirot bowed again. "You have been correctly informed, Monsieur." The detective was conscious of those strange shrewd eyes summing him up before the other spoke again.

 

"In my country," he said, "we come to the point quickly. Mr. Poirot, I want you to take on a job for me."

 

Hercule Poirot's eyebrows went up a trifle.

 

"My clientèle, Monsieur, is limited nowadays. I undertake very few cases."

 

"Why, naturally, I understand that. But this, Mr. Poirot, means big money." He repeated again in his soft, persuasive voice, "Big money."

 

Hercule Poirot was silent a minute or two. Then he said: "What is it you wish me to do for you, Monsieur—er—Ratchett?"

 

"Mr. Poirot, I am a rich man—a very rich man. Men in that position have enemies. I have an enemy."

 

"Only one enemy?"

 

"Just what do you mean by that question?" asked Ratchett sharply. "Monsieur, in my experience when a man is in a position to have, as you say, enemies, then it does not usually resolve itself into one enemy only."

 

Ratchett seemed relieved by—Poirot's answer. He said quickly: "Why, yes, I appreciate that point. Enemy or enemies—it doesn't matter. What does matter is my safety."

 

"Safety?"

"My life has been threatened, Mr. Poirot. Now I'm a man who can take pretty good care of himself." From the pocket of his coat his hand brought a small automatic into sight for a moment. He continued grimly. "I don't think I'm the kind of man to be caught napping. But, as I look at it, I might as well make assurance doubly sure. I fancy you're the man for my money, Mr. Poirot. And remember—big money."

 

Poirot looked at him thoughtfully for some minutes. His face was completely expressionless. The other could have had no clue as to what thoughts were passing in that mind. "I regret, Monsieur," he said at length, "that I cannot oblige you."

 

The other looked at him shrewdly. "Name your figure, then," he said.

 

Poirot shook his head. "You do not understand, Monsieur. I have been very fortunate in my profession. I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices. I take now only such cases as—interest me."

 

"You've got a pretty good nerve," said Ratchett. "Will twenty thousand dollars tempt you?"

 

"It will not."

 

"If you're holding out for more, you won't get it. I know what a thing's worth to me."

 

"I, also, M. Ratchett."

 

"What's wrong with my proposition?"

 

Poirot rose. "If you will forgive me for being personal—I do not like your face, M. Ratchett," he said.

 

And with that he left the restaurant car.

4. A CRY IN THE NIGHT

 

The Simplon Orient Express arrived at Belgrade at a quarter to nine that evening. It was not due to depart again until 9.15, so Poirot descended to the platform. He did not, however, remain there long. The cold was bitter, and though the platform itself was protected, heavy snow was falling outside. He returned to his compartment. The conductor, who was on the platform stamping his feet and waving his arms to keep warm, spoke to him.

 

"Your valises have been moved, Monsieur. To the compartment No. 1, the compartment of M. Bouc."

 

"But where is Monsieur Bouc, then?"

 

"He has moved into the coach from Athens which has just been put on."

 

Poirot went in search of his friend. M. Bouc waved his protestations aside.

 

"It is nothing. It is nothing. It is more convenient like this. You are going through to England, so it is better that you should stay in the through coach to Calais. Me, I am very well here. It is most peaceful. This coach is empty save for myself and one little Greek doctor. Ah! My friend, what a night! They say there has not been so much snow for years. Let us hope we shall not be held up. I am not too happy about it, I can tell you."

 

At 9.15 punctually the train pulled out of the station, and shortly afterwards Poirot got up, said good night to his friend, and made his way along the corridor back into his own coach which was in front next to the dining-car. On this, the second day of the journey, barriers were breaking down.

 

Colonel Arbuthnot was standing at the door of his compartment talking to MacQueen. When MacQueen saw Poirot he broke off something he was saying. He looked very much surprised.

 

"Why," he cried, "I thought you'd left us. You said you were getting off at Belgrade."

 

"You misunderstood me," said Poirot, smiling. "I remember now, the train started from Stamboul just as we were talking about it."

 

"But, man, your baggage. It's gone."

 

"It has been moved into another compartment, that is all."

 

"Oh! I see."

 

He resumed his conversation with Arbuthnot, and Poirot passed on down the corridor.

Two doors from his own compartment, the elderly American, Mrs. Hubbard, was standing talking to the sheep-like lady, who was a Swede. Mrs. Hubbard was pressing a magazine on the other.

 

"No, do take it, my dear," she said. "I've got plenty of other things to read. My, isn't the cold something frightful?" She nodded amicably to Poirot.

 

"You are most kind," said the Swedish lady.

 

"Not at all. I hope you'll sleep well and that your head will be better in the morning."

 

"It is the cold only. I make now myself a cup of tea."

 

"Have you got some aspirin? Are you sure now? I've got plenty. Well, good night, my dear."

 

She turned to Poirot conversationally as the other woman departed. "Poor creature, she's a Swede. As far as I can make out she's a kind of missionary. A teaching one. A nice creature, but doesn't talk much English. She was most interested in what I told her about my daughter."

 

Poirot, by now, knew all about Mrs. Hubbard's daughter. Everyone on the train who could understand English did! How she and her husband were on the staff of a big American college in Smyrna, and how this was Mrs. Hubbard's first journey to the East, and what she thought of the Turks and their slipshod ways and the condition of their roads.

 

The door next to them opened and the thin pale manservant stepped out. Inside, Poirot caught a glimpse of Mr. Ratchett sitting up in bed.

 

He saw Poirot and his face changed, darkening with anger. Then the door was shut.

 

Mrs. Hubbard drew Poirot a little wide. "You know, I'm dead scared of that man. Oh! Not the valet—the other. His master. Master, indeed! There's something wrong about that man. My daughter always says I'm very intuitive. 'When Mamma gets a hunch, she's dead right,' that's what my daughter says. And I've got a hunch about that man. He's next door to me and I don't like it. I put my grips against the communicating door last night. I thought I heard him trying the handle. Do you know, I shouldn't be a bit surprised if that man turned out to be a murderer—one of these train robbers you read about. I dare say I'm foolish, but there it is. I'm absolutely scared to death of the man! My daughter said I'd have an easy journey, but somehow I don't feel happy about it. It may be foolish, but I feel as if anything might happen—anything at all. And how that nice young fellow can bear to be his secretary, I can't think."

 

Colonel Arbuthnot and MacQueen were coming towards them down the corridor. "Come into my carriage," MacQueen was saying. "It isn't made up for the night yet. Now what I want to get right about your policy in India is this—"

 

The two men passed and went on down the corridor to MacQueen's carriage.

 

Mrs. Hubbard said good night to Poirot. "I guess I'll go right to bed and read," she said. "Good night."

 

"Good night, Madame."

 

Poirot passed into his own compartment, which was the next one beyond Ratchett's. He undressed and got into bed, read for about half an hour and then turned out the light. He awoke some hours later, awoke with a start. He knew what it was that had wakened him—a loud groan, almost a cry, somewhere close at hand. At the same moment the ting of a bell sounded sharply.

 

Poirot sat up and switched on the light. He noticed that the train was at a standstill—presumably at a station.

 

That cry had startled him. He remembered that it was Ratchett who had the next compartment. He got out of bed and opened the door just as the Wagon Lit conductor came hurrying along the corridor and knocked on Ratchett's door. Poirot kept his door open a crack and watched. The conductor tapped a second time. A bell rang and a light showed over another door farther down. The conductor glanced over his shoulder. At the same moment a voice from within the next compartment called out: "Ce n'est rien. Je me suis trompé."

 

"Bien, Monsieur." The conductor scurried off again, to knock at the door where the light was showing.

 

Poirot returned to bed, his mind relieved, and switched off the light. He glanced at his watch. It was just twenty-three minutes to one.

 

5. THE CRIME

 

He found it difficult to go to sleep again at once. For one thing he missed the motion of the train. If it was a station outside, it was curiously quiet. By contrast the noises on the train seemed unusually loud. He could hear Ratchett moving about next door—a click as he pulled down the washbasin, the sound of the tap running, a splashing noise, then another click as the basin shut to again. Footsteps passed up the corridor outside, the shuffling footsteps of someone in bedroom slippers.

 

Hercule Poirot lay awake staring at the ceiling. Why was the station outside so silent? His throat felt dry. He had forgotten to ask for his usual bottle of mineral water. He looked at his watch again. Just after a quarter past one. He would ring for the conductor and ask for some mineral water. His finger went out to the bell, but he paused as in the stillness he heard a ting. The man couldn't answer every bell at once.

 

Ting. ... Ting. ... Ting. ...

 

It sounded again and again. Where was the man? Somebody was getting impatient.

 

Ti-i-i-ing!

 

Whoever it was, was keeping a finger solidly on the push-button. Suddenly with a rush, his footsteps echoing up the aisle, the man came. He knocked at a door not far from Poirot's own.

Then came voices—the conductor's, deferential, apologetic; and a woman's, insistent and voluble.

 

Mrs. Hubbard!

 

Poirot smiled to himself.

 

The altercation—if it was one—went on for some time. Its proportions were ninety per cent of Mrs. Hubbard's to a soothing ten per cent of the conductor's. Finally the matter seemed to be adjusted. Poirot heard distinctly a "Bonne nuit, Madame," and a closing door.

 

He pressed his own finger on the bell.

 

The conductor arrived promptly. He looked hot and worried. "De l'eau minérale, s'il vous Plaît."

 

"Bien, Monsieur." Perhaps a twinkle in Poirot's eye led him to unburden himself. "La dame américaine—"

 

"Yes?"

 

He wiped his forehead. "Imagine to yourself the time I have had with her! She insists—but insists—that there is a man in her compartment! Figure to yourself, Monsieur. In a space of this size."

 

He swept a hand round. "Where would he conceal himself? I argue with her. I point out that it is impossible. She insists. She woke up, and there was a man there. And how, I ask, did he get out and leave the door bolted behind him? But she will not listen to reason. As though there were not enough to worry us already. This snow—"

 

"Snow?"

 

"But yes, Monsieur. Monsieur has not noticed? The train has stopped. We have run into a snowdrift. Heaven knows how long we shall be here. I remember once being snowed up for seven days."

 

"Where are we?"

"Between Vincovci and Brod."

 

"Là-là," said Poirot vexedly.

 

The man withdrew and returned with the water. "Bon soir, Monsieur."

 

Poirot drank a glass of water and composed himself to sleep. He was just dropping off when something again woke him. This time it was as though something heavy had fallen with a thud against the door.

 

He sprang up, opened it, and looked out. Nothing. But to his right, some distance down the corridor, a woman wrapped in a scarlet kimono was retreating from him. At the other end, sitting on his little seat, the conductor was entering up figures on large sheets of paper. Everything was deathly quiet.

 

"Decidedly I suffer from the nerves," said Poirot and retired to bed again. This time he slept till morning.

 

When he awoke the train was still at a standstill. He raised a blind and looked out. Heavy banks of snow surrounded the train. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was past nine o'clock. At a quarter to ten, neat, spruce, and dandified as ever, he made his way to the restaurant car, where a chorus of woe was going on.

 

Any barriers there might have been between the passengers had now quite broken down. All were united by a common misfortune. Mrs. Hubbard was loudest in her lamentations.

 

"My daughter said it would be the easiest way in the world. Just sit in the train until I got to Parrus. And now we may be here for days and days," she wailed. "And my boat sails day after tomorrow. How am I going to catch it now? Why, I can't even wire to cancel my passage. I'm just too mad to talk about it!"

 

The Italian said that he had urgent business himself in Milan. The large American said that that was "too bad, Ma'am," and soothingly expressed a hope that the train might make up time.

 

"My sister—her children wait me," said the Swedish lady, and wept. "I get no word to them. What they think? They will say bad things have happen to me."

 

"How long shall we be here?" demanded Mary Debenham. "Doesn't anybody know?"

Her voice sounded impatient, but Poirot noted that there were no signs of that almost feverish anxiety which she had displayed during the check to the Taurus Express. Mrs. Hubbard was off again.

 

"There isn't anybody knows a thing on this train. And nobody's trying to do anything. Just a pack of useless foreigners. Why, if this were at home, there'd be someone at least trying to do something!"

 

Arbuthnot turned to Poirot and spoke in careful British French.

 

"Vous êtes un directeur de la ligne, je crois, Monsieur. Vous pouvez nous dire—"

 

Smiling, Poirot corrected him.

 

"No, no," he said in English. "It is not I. You confound me with my friend, M. Bouc."

 

"Oh, I'm sorry"

 

"Not at all. It is most natural. I am now in the compartment that he had formerly." M. Bouc was not present in the restaurant car. Poirot looked about to notice who else was absent. Princess Dragomiroff was missing, and the Hungarian couple. Also Ratchett, his valet, and the German lady's-maid.

 

The Swedish lady wiped her eyes.

 

"I am foolish," she said. "I am bad to cry. All is for the best, whatever happen."

 

This Christian spirit, however, was far from being shared.

 

"That's all very well," said MacQueen restlessly. "We may be here for days."

 

"What is this country anyway?" demanded Mrs. Hubbard tearfully. On being told it was Jugo-Slavia, she said: "Oh! one of these Balkan things. What can you expect?"

 

"You are the only patient one, Mademoiselle," said Poirot to Miss Debenham.

 

She shrugged her shoulders slightly. "What can one do?"

 

"You are a philosopher, Mademoiselle."

 

"That implies a detached attitude. I think my attitude is more selfish. I have learned to save myself useless emotion." She was speaking more to herself than to him. She was not even looking at him. Her gaze went past him, out of the window to where the snow lay in heavy masses.

 

"You are a strong character, Mademoiselle," said Poirot gently. "You are, I think, the strongest character amongst us."

 

"Oh! no. No, indeed. I know one far, far stronger than I am."

 

"And that is—?"

 

She seemed suddenly to come to herself, to realise that she was talking to a stranger and foreigner, with whom, until this morning, she had exchanged only half a dozen sentences.

She laughed, a polite but estranging laugh.

 

"Well—that old lady, for instance. You have probably noticed her. A very ugly old lady but rather fascinating. She has only to lift a little finger and ask for something in a polite voice—and the whole train runs."

 

"It runs also for my friend M. Bouc," said Poirot. "But that is because he is a director of the line, not because he has a strong character."

 

Mary Debenham smiled.

 

The morning wore away. Several people, Poirot amongst them, remained in the dining-car. The communal life was felt, at the moment, to pass the time better. He heard a good deal more about Mrs. Hubbard's daughter, and he heard the lifelong habits of Mr. Hubbard, deceased, from his rising in the morning and commencing breakfast with a cereal to his final rest at night in the bed-socks that Mrs. Hubbard herself had been in the habit of knitting for him.

 

It was when he was listening to a confused account of the missionary aims of the Swedish lady that one of the Wagon Lit conductors came into the car and stood at his elbow.

 

"Pardon, Monsieur." "Yes?"

 

"The compliments of M. Bouc, and he would be glad if you would be so kind as to come to him for a few minutes."

 

Poirot rose, uttered excuses to the Swedish lady and followed the man out of the dining-car. It was not his own conductor, but a big fair man.

 

He followed his guide down the corridor of his own carriage and along the corridor of the next one. The man tapped at a door, then stood aside to let Poirot enter. The compartment was not M. Bouc's own. It was a second-class one—chosen presumably because of its slightly larger size. It certainly gave the impression of being crowded.

 

M. Bouc himself was sitting on the small seat in the opposite corner. In the corner next the window, facing him, was a small dark man looking out at the snow. Standing up and quite preventing Poirot from advancing any farther were a big man in blue uniform (the chef de train) and his own Wagon Lit conductor.

 

"Ah! my good friend," cried M. Bouc. "Come in. We have need of you."

 

The little man in the window shifted along the seat, and Poirot squeezed past: the other two men and sat down facing his friend. The expression on M. Bouc's face gave him, as he would have expressed it, furiously to think.

It was clear that something out of the common had happened. "What has occurred?" he asked.

 

"You may well ask that. First this snow-this stoppage. And now—" He paused—and a sort of strangled gasp came from the Wagon Lit conductor.

 

"And now what?"

 

"And now a passenger lies dead in his berth—stabbed." M. Bouc spoke with a kind of calm desperation.

 

"A passenger? Which passenger?"

 

"An American. A man called—called—" he consulted some notes in front of him. "Ratchett. That is right—Ratchett?"

 

"Yes, Monsieur," the Wagon Lit man gulped.

 

Poirot looked at him. He was as white as chalk.

 

"You had better let that man sit down," he said. "He may faint otherwise."

 

The chef de train moved slightly and the Wagon Lit man sank down in the corner and buried his face in his hands.

 

"Brr!" said Poirot. "This is serious!"

 

"Certainly it is serious. To begin with, a murder—that in itself is a calamity of the first water. But not only that, the circumstances are unusual. Here we are, brought to a standstill. We may be here for hours—and not only hours—days! Another circumstance—passing through most countries we have the police of that country on the train. But in Jugo-Slavia, no. You comprehend?"

 

"It is a position of great difficulty," said Poirot.

 

"There is worse to come. Dr. Constantine—I forgot, I have not introduced you. Dr. Constantine, M. Poirot."

 

The little dark man bowed, and Poirot returned the bow.

 

"Dr. Constantine is of the opinion that death occurred at about 1 A.M."

 

"It is difficult to speak exactly in these matters," said the doctor, "but I think I can say definitely that death occurred between midnight and two in the morning."

 

"When was this M. Ratchett last seen alive?" asked Poirot.

 

"He is known to have been alive at about twenty minutes to one, when he spoke to the conductor," said M. Bouc.

 

"That is quite correct," said Poirot. "I myself heard what passed. That is the last thing known?"

 

“Yes."

 

Poirot turned toward the doctor, who continued.

 

"The window of M. Ratchett's compartment was found wide open, leading one to suppose that the murderer escaped that way. But in my opinion that open window is a blind. Anyone departing that way would have left distinct traces in the snow. There were none."

 

"The crime was discovered—when?" asked Poirot. "Michel!"

 

The Wagon Lit conductor sat up. His face still looked pale and frightened.

 

"Tell this gentleman exactly what occurred," ordered M. Bouc. The man spoke somewhat jerkily.

 

"The valet of this M. Ratchett, he tapped several times at the door this morning. There was no answer. Then, half an hour ago, the restaurant car attendant came. He wanted to know if Monsieur was taking déjeuner. It was eleven o'clock, you comprehend.

 

"I open the door for him with my key. But there is a chain, too, and that is fastened. There is no answer and it is very still in there, and cold—but cold. With the window open and snow drifting in. I thought the gentleman had had a fit, perhaps. I got the chef de train. We broke the chain and went in. He was—Ah! c'était terrible!" He buried his face in his hands again.

 

"The door was locked and chained on the inside," said Poirot thoughtfully. "It was not suicide—eh?"

 

The Greek doctor gave a sardonic laugh. "Does a man who commits suicide stab himself in ten—twelve—fifteen places?" he asked.

 

Poirot's eyes opened. "That is great ferocity," he said.

"It is a woman," said the chef de train, speaking for the first time. "Depend upon it, it was a woman. Only a woman would stab like that."

 

Dr. Constantine screwed up his face thoughtfully. "She must have been a very strong woman," he said. "It is not my desire to speak technically—that is only confusing; but I can assure you that one or two of the blows were delivered with such force as to drive them through hard belts of bone and muscle."

 

"It was clearly not a scientific crime," said Poirot.

 

"It was most unscientific," returned Dr. Constantine. "The blows seem to have been delivered haphazard and at random. Some have glanced off, doing hardly any damage. It is as though somebody had shut his eyes and then in a frenzy struck blindly again and again."

 

"C'est une femme," said the chef de train again. "Women are like that. When they are enraged they have great strength." He nodded so sagely that everyone suspected a personal experience of his own.

 

"I have, perhaps, something to contribute to your store of knowledge," said Poirot. "M. Ratchett spoke to me yesterday. He told me, as far as I was able to understand him, that he was in danger of his life."

 

" 'Bumped off'—that is the American expression, is it not?" asked M. Bouc. "Then it is not a woman. It is a 'gangster' or a 'gunman.'"

 

The chef de train looked pained at seeing his theory come to nought.

 

"If so," said Poirot, "it seems to have been done very amateurishly." His tone expressed professional disapproval.

 

"There is a large American on the train," said M. Bouc, pursuing his idea. "A common-looking man with terrible clothes. He chews the gum, which I believe is not done in good circles. You know whom I mean?"

 

The Wagon Lit conductor to whom he had appealed nodded.

 

"Oui, Monsieur, the No. 16. But it cannot have been he. I should have seen him enter or leave the compartment."

 

"You might not. You might not. But we will go into that presently. The question is, what to do?"

 

He looked at Poirot.

 

Poirot looked back at him.

"Come, my friend," said M. Bouc. "You comprehend what I am about to ask of you. I know your powers. Take command of this investigation! No, no, do not refuse. See, to us it is serious—I speak for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. By the time the Jugo-Slavian police arrive, how simple if we can present them with the solution! Otherwise delays, annoyances, a million and one inconveniences. Perhaps, who knows, serious annoyance to innocent persons. Instead—you solve the mystery! We say, 'A murder has occurred—this is the criminal!'"

 

"And suppose I do not solve it?"

 

"Ah, mon cher!" M. Bouc's voice became positively caressing. "I know your reputation. I know something of your methods. This is the ideal case for you. To look up the antecedents of all these people, to discover their bona fides—all that takes time and endless inconvenience. But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think? Do that. Interview the passengers on the train, view the body, examine what clues there are, and then—well, I have faith in you! I am assured that it is no idle boast of yours. Lie back and think—use (as I have heard you say so often) the little grey cells of the mind—and you will know!"

 

He leaned forward, looking affectionately at the detective. "Your faith touches me, my friend," said Poirot emotionally. "As you say, this cannot be a difficult case. I myself last night—but we will not speak of that now. In truth, this problem intrigues me. I was reflecting, not half an hour ago, that many hours of boredom lay ahead whilst we are stuck here. And now—a problem lies ready to my hand."

 

"You accept then?" said M. Bouc eagerly.

 

"C'est entendu. You place the matter in my hands."

 

"Good—we are all at your service."

 

"To begin with, I should like a plan of the Istanbul-Calais coach, with a note of the people who occupied the several compartments, and I should also like to see their passports and their tickets."

 

"Michel will get you those."

 

The Wagon Lit conductor left the compartment.

 

"What other passengers are there on the train?" asked Poirot.

 

"In this coach Dr. Constantine and I are the only travellers. In the coach from Bucharest is an old gentleman with a lame leg. He is well known to the conductor. Beyond that are the ordinary carriages, but these do not concern us, since they were locked after dinner had been served last night. Forward of the Istanbul-Calais coach there is only the dining-car."

"Then it seems," said Poirot slowly, "as though we must look for our murderer in the Istanbul-Calais coach." He turned to the doctor. "That is what you were hinting, I think?"

 

The Greek nodded. "At half an hour after midnight we ran into the snowdrift. No one can have left the train since then."

 

M. Bouc said solemnly, "The murderer is with us, on the train now."