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The Agatha Christie Collection
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Carla Lemarchant (#ulink_4bb9ccdc-b3c4-5af0-b999-664141651eb8)
Hercule Poirot looked with interest and appreciation at the young woman who was being ushered into the room.
There had been nothing distinctive in the letter she had written. It had been a mere request for an appointment, with no hint of what lay behind that request. It had been brief and business-like. Only the firmness of the handwriting had indicated that Carla Lemarchant was a young woman.
And now here she was in the flesh—a tall, slender young woman in the early twenties. The kind of young woman that one definitely looked at twice. Her clothes were good, an expensive well-cut coat and skirt and luxurious furs. Her head was well poised on her shoulders, she had a square brow, a sensitively cut nose and a determined chin. She looked very much alive. It was her aliveness, more than her beauty, which struck the predominant note.
Before her entrance, Hercule Poirot had been feeling old—now he felt rejuvenated—alive—keen!
As he came forward to greet her, he was aware of her dark grey eyes studying him attentively. She was very earnest in that scrutiny.
She sat down and accepted the cigarette that he offered her. After it was lit she sat for a minute or two smoking, still looking at him with that earnest, thoughtful gaze.
Poirot said gently:
‘Yes, it has to be decided, does it not?’
She started. ‘I beg your pardon?’
Her voice was attractive, with a faint, agreeable huskiness in it.
‘You are making up your mind, are you not, whether I am a mere mountebank, or the man you need?’
She smiled. She said:
‘Well, yes—something of that kind. You see, M. Poirot, you—you don’t look exactly the way I pictured you.’
‘And I am old, am I not? Older than you imagined?’
‘Yes, that too.’ She hesitated. ‘I’m being frank, you see. I want—I’ve got to have—the best.’
‘Rest assured,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘I am the best!’
Carla said: ‘You’re not modest…All the same, I’m inclined to take you at your word.’
Poirot said placidly:
‘One does not, you know, employ merely the muscles. I do not need to bend and measure the footprints and pick up the cigarette ends and examine the bent blades of grass. It is enough for me to sit back in my chair and think. It is this’—he tapped his egg-shaped head—‘this that functions!’
‘I know,’ said Carla Lemarchant. ‘That’s why I’ve come to you. I want you, you see, to do something fantastic!’
‘That,’ said Hercule Poirot, ‘promises well!’
He looked at her in encouragement.
Carla Lemarchant drew a deep breath.
‘My name,’ she said, ‘isn’t Carla. It’s Caroline. The same as my mother’s. I was called after her.’ She paused. ‘And though I’ve always gone by the name of Lemarchant—my real name is Crale.’
Hercule Poirot’s forehead creased a moment perplexedly. He murmured: ‘Crale—I seem to remember…’
‘My father was a painter—rather a well-known painter. Some people say he was a great painter. I think he was.’
Hercule Poirot said: ‘Amyas Crale?’
‘Yes.’ She paused, then she went on: ‘And my mother, Caroline Crale, was tried for murdering him!’
‘Aha,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘I remember now—but only vaguely. I was abroad at the time. It was a long time ago.’
‘Sixteen years,’ said the girl.
Her face was very white now and her eyes two burning lights.
‘Do you understand? She was tried and convicted…She wasn’t hanged because they felt that there were extenuating circumstances—so the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. But she died only a year after the trial. You see? It’s all over—done—finished with…’
Poirot said quietly: ‘And so?’
The girl called Carla Lemarchant pressed her hands together. She spoke slowly and haltingly but with an odd, pointed emphasis.
‘You’ve got to understand—exactly—where I come in. I was five years old at the time it—happened. Too young to know anything about it. I remember my mother and my father, of course, and I remember leaving home suddenly—being taken to the country. I remember the pigs and a nice fat farmer’s wife—and everybody being very kind—and I remember, quite clearly, the funny way they used to look at me—everybody—a sort of furtive look. I knew, of course, children do, that there was something wrong—but I didn’t know what.
‘And then I went on a ship—it was exciting—it went on for days, and then I was in Canada and Uncle Simon met me, and I lived in Montreal with him and with Aunt Louise, and when I asked about Mummy and Daddy they said they’d be coming soon. And then—and then I think I forgot—only I sort of knew that they were dead without remembering any one actually telling me so. Because by that time, you see, I didn’t think about them any more. I was very happy, you know. Uncle Simon and Aunt Louise were sweet to me, and I went to school and had a lot of friends, and I’d quite forgotten that I’d ever had another name, not Lemarchant. Aunt Louise, you see, told me that that was my name in Canada and that seemed quite sensible to me at the time—it was just my Canadian name—but as I say I forgot in the end that I’d ever had any other.’
She flung up her defiant chin. She said:
‘Look at me. You’d say—wouldn’t you? if you met me: “There goes a girl who’s got nothing to worry about!” I’m well off, I’ve got splendid health, I’m sufficiently good to look at, I can enjoy life. At twenty, there wasn’t a girl anywhere I’d have changed places with.