‘Not in the sense you mean.’
‘In any sense?’
Poirot did not answer at once. Then he said slowly:
‘The answer to that is yes. We are confronted here by an unknown personage. He is in the dark and seeks to remain in the dark. But in the very nature of things he cannot help throwing light upon himself. In one sense we know nothing about him—in another sense we know already a good deal. I see his figure dimly taking shape—a man who prints clearly and well—who buys good-quality paper—who is at great needs to express his personality. I see him as a child possibly ignored and passed over—I see him growing up with an inward sense of inferiority—warring with a sense of injustice…I see that inner urge—to assert himself—to focus attention on himself ever becoming stronger, and events, circumstances—crushing it down—heaping, perhaps, more humiliations on him. And inwardly the match is set to the powder train…’
‘That’s all pure conjecture,’ I objected. ‘It doesn’t give you any practical help.’
‘You prefer the match end, the cigarette ash, the nailed boots! You always have. But at least we can ask ourselves some practical questions. Why the A B C? Why Mrs Ascher? Why Andover?’
‘The woman’s past life seems simple enough,’ I mused. ‘The interviews with those two men were disappointing. They couldn’t tell us anything more than we knew already.’
‘To tell the truth, I did not expect much in that line. But we could not neglect two possible candidates for the murder.’
‘Surely you don’t think—’
‘There is at least a possibility that the murderer lives in or near Andover. That is a possible answer to our question: “Why Andover?” Well, here were two men known to have been in the shop at the requisite time of day. Either of them might be the murderer. And there is nothing as yet to show that one or other of them is not the murderer.’
‘That great hulking brute, Riddell, perhaps,’ I admitted.
‘Oh, I am inclined to acquit Riddell off-hand. He was nervous, blustering, obviously uneasy—’
‘But surely that just shows—’
‘A nature diametrically opposed to that which penned the A B C letter. Conceit and self-confidence are the characteristics that we must look for.’
‘Someone who throws his weight about?’
‘Possibly. But some people, under a nervous and self-effacing manner, conceal a great deal of vanity and self-satisfaction.’
‘You don’t think that little Mr Partridge—’
‘He is more le type. One cannot say more than that. He acts as the writer of the letter would act—goes at once to the police—pushes himself to the fore—enjoys his position.’
‘Do you really think—?’
‘No, Hastings. Personally I believe that the murderer came from outside Andover, but we must neglect no avenue of research. And although I say “he” all the time, we must not exclude the possibility of a woman being concerned.’
‘The method of attack is that of a man, I agree. But anonymous letters are written by women rather than by men. We must bear that in mind.’
I was silent for a few minutes, then I said:
‘What do we do next?’
‘My energetic Hastings,’ Poirot said and smiled at me.
‘No, but what do we do?’
‘Nothing?’ My disappointment rang out clearly.
‘Am I the magician? The sorcerer? What would you have me do?’
Turning the matter over in my mind I found it difficult to give an answer. Nevertheless I felt convinced that something ought to be done and that we should not allow the grass to grow under our feet.
‘There is the A B C—and the notepaper and envelope—’
‘Naturally everything is being done in that line. The police have all the means at their disposal for that kind of inquiry. If anything is to be discovered on those lines have no fear but that they will discover it.’
With that I was forced to rest content.
In the days that followed I found Poirot curiously disinclined to discuss the case. When I tried to reopen the subject he waved it aside with an impatient hand.
In my own mind I was afraid that I fathomed his motive. Over the murder of Mrs Ascher, Poirot had sustained a defeat. A B C had challenged him—and A B C had won. My friend, accustomed to an unbroken line of successes, was sensitive to his failure—so much so that he could not even endure discussion of the subject. It was, perhaps, a sign of pettiness in so great a man, but even the most sober of us is liable to have his head turned by success. In Poirot’s case the head-turning process had been going on for years. Small wonder if its effects became noticeable at long last.
Understanding, I respected my friend’s weakness and I made no further reference to the case. I read in the paper the account of the inquest. It was very brief, no mention was made of the A B C letter, and a verdict was returned of murder by some person or persons unknown. The crime attracted very little attention in the press. It had no popular or spectacular features. The murder of an old woman in a side street was soon passed over in the press for more thrilling topics.
Truth to tell, the affair was fading from my mind also, partly, I think, because I disliked to think of Poirot as being in any way associated with a failure, when on July 25th it was suddenly revived.
I had not seen Poirot for a couple of days as I had been away in Yorkshire for the weekend. I arrived back on Monday afternoon and the letter came by the six o’clock post. I remember the sudden, sharp intake of breath that Poirot gave as he slit open that particular envelope.
‘It has come,’ he said.
I stared at him—not understanding.
‘What has come?’
‘The second chapter of the A B C business.’
For a minute I looked at him uncomprehendingly. The matter had really passed from my memory.
‘Read,’ said Poirot and passed me over the letter.
As before, it was printed on good-quality paper.
Dear Mr Poirot,—Well, what about it? First game to me, I think. The Andover business went with a swing, didn’t it?
But the fun’s only just beginning. Let me draw your attention to Bexhill-on-Sea. Date, the 25th inst.
What a merry time we are having! Yours etc.
A B C