The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
‘But tell me, Madame.’
‘I simply long to have a small, modern bungalow. No, perhaps not a bungalow exactly, but a small, modern, easy to run house built somewhere in the park here, and live in it with an absolutely up-to-date kitchen and no long passages. Everything easy and simple.’
‘It is a very practical idea, Madame.’
‘It’s not practical for me,’ said Mrs Lacey. ‘My husband adores this place. He loves living here. He doesn’t mind being slightly uncomfortable, he doesn’t mind the inconveniences and he would hate, simply hate, to live in a small modern house in the park!’
‘So you sacrifice yourself to his wishes?’
Mrs Lacey drew herself up. ‘I do not consider it a sacrifice, M. Poirot,’ she said. ‘I married my husband with the wish to make him happy. He has been a good husband to me and made me very happy all these years, and I wish to give happiness to him.’
‘So you will continue to live here,’ said Poirot.
‘It’s not really too uncomfortable,’ said Mrs Lacey.
‘No, no,’ said Poirot, hastily. ‘On the contrary, it is most comfortable. Your central heating and your bath water are perfection.’
‘We spent a lot of money on making the house comfortable to live in,’ said Mrs Lacey. ‘We were able to sell some land. Ripe for development, I think they call it. Fortunately right out of sight of the house on the other side of the park. Really rather an ugly bit of ground with no nice view, but we got a very good price for it. So that we have been able to have as many improvements as possible.’
‘But the service, Madame?’
‘Oh, well, that presents less difficulty than you might think. Of course, one cannot expect to be looked after and waited upon as one used to be. Different people come in from the village. Two women in the morning, another two to cook lunch and wash it up, and different ones again in the evening. There are plenty of people who want to come and work for a few hours a day. Of course for Christmas we are very lucky. My dear Mrs Ross always comes in every Christmas. She is a wonderful cook, really first-class. She retired about ten years ago, but she comes in to help us in any emergency. Then there is dear Peverell.’
‘Yes. He is pensioned off and lives in the little house near the lodge, but he is so devoted, and he insists on coming to wait on us at Christmas. Really, I’m terrified, M. Poirot, because he’s so old and so shaky that I feel certain that if he carries anything heavy he will drop it. It’s really an agony to watch him. And his heart is not good and I’m afraid of his doing too much. But it would hurt his feelings dreadfully if I did not let him come. He hems and hahs and makes disapproving noises when he sees the state our silver is in and within three days of being here, it is all wonderful again. Yes. He is a dear faithful friend.’ She smiled at Poirot. ‘So you see, we are all set for a happy Christmas. A white Christmas, too,’ she added as she looked out of the window. ‘See? It is beginning to snow. Ah, the children are coming in. You must meet them, M. Poirot.’
Poirot was introduced with due ceremony. First, to Colin and Michael, the schoolboy grandson and his friend, nice polite lads of fifteen, one dark, one fair. Then to their cousin, Bridget, a black-haired girl of about the same age with enormous vitality.
‘And this is my granddaughter, Sarah,’ said Mrs Lacey.
Poirot looked with some interest at Sarah, an attractive girl with a mop of red hair; her manner seemed to him nervy and a trifle defiant, but she showed real affection for her grandmother.
‘And this is Mr Lee-Wortley.’
Mr Lee-Wortley wore a fisherman’s jersey and tight black jeans; his hair was rather long and it seemed doubtful whether he had shaved that morning. In contrast to him was a young man introduced as David Welwyn, who was solid and quiet, with a pleasant smile, and rather obviously addicted to soap and water. There was one other member of the party, a handsome, rather intense-looking girl who was introduced as Diana Middleton.
Tea was brought in. A hearty meal of scones, crumpets, sandwiches and three kinds of cake. The younger members of the party appreciated the tea. Colonel Lacey came in last, remarking in a noncommittal voice:
‘Hey, tea? Oh yes, tea.’
He received his cup of tea from his wife’s hand, helped himself to two scones, cast a look of aversion at Desmond Lee-Wortley and sat down as far away from him as he could. He was a big man with bushy eyebrows and a red, weather-beaten face. He might have been taken for a farmer rather than the lord of the manor.
‘Started to snow,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be a white Christmas all right.’
After tea the party dispersed.
‘I expect they’ll go and play with their tape recorders now,’ said Mrs Lacey to Poirot. She looked indulgently after her grandson as he left the room. Her tone was that of one who says ‘The children are going to play with their toy soldiers.’
‘They’re frightfully technical, of course,’ she said, ‘and very grand about it all.’
The boys and Bridget, however, decided to go along to the lake and see if the ice on it was likely to make skating possible.
‘I thought we could have skated on it this morning,’ said Colin. ‘But old Hodgkins said no. He’s always so terribly careful.’
‘Come for a walk, David,’ said Diana Middleton, softly.
David hesitated for half a moment, his eyes on Sarah’s red head. She was standing by Desmond Lee-Wortley, her hand on his arm, looking up into his face.
‘All right,’ said David Welwyn, ‘yes, let’s.’
Diana slipped a quick hand through his arm and they turned towards the door into the garden. Sarah said:
‘Shall we go, too, Desmond? It’s fearfully stuffy in the house.’
‘Who wants to walk?’ said Desmond. ‘I’ll get my car out. We’ll go along to the Speckled Boar and have a drink.’
Sarah hesitated for a moment before saying:
‘Let’s go to Market Ledbury to the White Hart. It’s much more fun.’
Though for all the world she would not have put it into words, Sarah had an instinctive revulsion from going down to the local pub with Desmond. It was, somehow, not in the tradition of Kings Lacey. The women of Kings Lacey had never frequented the bar of the Speckled Boar. She had an obscure feeling that to go there would be to let old Colonel Lacey and his wife down. And why not? Desmond Lee-Wortley would have said. For a moment of exasperation Sarah felt that he ought to know why not! One didn’t upset such old darlings as Grandfather and dear old Em unless it was necessary. They’d been very sweet, really, letting her lead her own life, not understanding in the least why she wanted to live in Chelsea in the way she did, but accepting it. That was due to Em of course. Grandfather would have kicked up no end of a row.
Sarah had no illusions about her grandfather’s attitude. It was not his doing that Desmond had been asked to stay at Kings Lacey. That was Em, and Em was a darling and always had been.
When Desmond had gone to fetch his car, Sarah popped her head into the drawing-room again.
‘We’re going over to Market Ledbury,’ she said. ‘We thought we’d have a drink there at the White Hart.’
There was a slight amount of defiance in her voice, but Mrs Lacey did not seem to notice it.
‘Well, dear,’ she said. ‘I’m sure that will be very nice. David and Diana have gone for a walk, I see. I’m so glad. I really think it was a brainwave on my part to ask Diana here. So sad being left a widow so young—only twenty-two—I do hope she marries again soon.’
Sarah looked at her sharply. ‘What are you up to, Em?’
‘It’s my little plan,’ said Mrs Lacey gleefully. ‘I think she’s just right for David. Of course I know he was terribly in love with you, Sarah dear, but you’d no use for him and I realize that he isn’t your type. But I don’t want him to go on being unhappy, and I think Diana will really suit him.’
‘What a matchmaker you are, Em,’ said Sarah.
‘I know,’ said Mrs Lacey. ‘Old women always are. Diana’s quite keen on him already, I think. Don’t you think she’d be just right for him?’
‘I shouldn’t say so,’ said Sarah. ‘I think Diana’s far too—well, too intense, too serious. I should think David would find it terribly boring being married to her.’
‘Well, we’ll see,’ said Mrs Lacey. ‘Anyway, you don’t want him, do you, dear?’
‘No, indeed,’ said Sarah, very quickly. She added, in a sudden rush, ‘You do like Desmond, don’t you, Em?’
‘I’m sure he’s very nice indeed,’ said Mrs Lacey.