In a flat in London the telephone bell rang. The owner of the flat, Hercule Poirot, stirred in his chair. Disappointment attacked him. He knew before he answered it what it meant. His friend Solly, with whom he had been going to spend the evening, reviving their never-ending controversy about the real culprit in the Canning Road Municipal Baths murder, was about to say that he could not come. Poirot, who had collected certain bits of evidence in favour of his own somewhat far-fetched theory, was deeply disappointed. He did not think his friend Solly would accept his suggestions, but he had no doubt that when Solly in his turn produced his own fantastic beliefs, he himself, Hercule Poirot, would just as easily be able to demolish them in the name of sanity, logic, order and method. It was annoying, to say the least of it, if Solly did not come this evening. But it is true that when they had met earlier in the day, Solly had been racked with a chesty cough and was in a state of highly infectious catarrh.
‘He had a nasty cold,’ said Hercule Poirot, ‘and no doubt, in spite of the remedies that I have handy here, he would probably have given it to me. It is better that he should not come. Tout de même,’ he added, with a sigh, ‘it will mean that now I shall pass a dull evening.’
Many of the evenings were dull now, Hercule Poirot thought. His mind, magnificent as it was (for he had never doubted that fact) required stimulation from outside sources. He had never been of a philosophic cast of mind. There were times when he almost regretted that he had not taken to the study of theology instead of going into the police force in his early days. The number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle; it would be interesting to feel that that mattered and to argue passionately on the point with one’s colleagues.
His manservant, George, entered the room.
‘It was Mr Solomon Levy, sir.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Hercule Poirot.
‘He very much regrets that he will not be able to join you this evening. He is in bed with a serious bout of ’flu.’
‘He has not got ’flu,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘He has only a nasty cold. Everyone always thinks they have ’flu. It sounds more important. One gets more sympathy. The trouble with a catarrhal cold is that it is hard to glean the proper amount of sympathetic consideration from one’s friends.’
‘Just as well he isn’t coming here, sir, really,’ said George. ‘Those colds in the head are very infectious. Wouldn’t be good for you to go down with one of those.’
‘It would be extremely tedious,’ Poirot agreed.
The telephone bell rang again.
‘And now who has a cold?’ he demanded. ‘I have not asked anyone else.’
George crossed towards the telephone.
‘I will take the call here,’ said Poirot. ‘I have no doubt that it is nothing of interest. But at any rate—’ he shrugged his shoulders ‘—it will perhaps pass the time. Who knows?’
George said, ‘Very good, sir,’ and left the room.
Poirot stretched out a hand, raised the receiver, thus stilling the clamour of the bell.
‘Hercule Poirot speaks,’ he said, with a certain grandeur of manner designed to impress whoever was at the other end of the line.
‘That’s wonderful,’ said an eager voice. A female voice, slightly impaired with breathlessness. ‘I thought you’d be sure to be out, that you wouldn’t be there.’
‘Why should you think that?’ inquired Poirot.
‘Because I can’t help feeling that nowadays things always happen to frustrate one. You want someone in a terrible hurry, you feel you can’t wait, and you have to wait. I wanted to get hold of you urgently—absolutely urgently.’
‘And who are you?’ asked Hercule Poirot.
The voice, a female one, seemed surprised.
‘Don’t you know?’ it said incredulously.
‘Yes, I know,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘You are my friend, Ariadne.’
‘And I’m in a terrible state,’ said Ariadne.
‘Yes, yes, I can hear that. Have you also been running? You are very breathless, are you not?’
‘I haven’t exactly been running. It’s emotion. Can I come and see you at once?’
Poirot let a few moments elapse before he answered. His friend, Mrs Oliver, sounded in a highly excitable condition. Whatever was the matter with her, she would no doubt spend a very long time pouring out her grievances, her woes, her frustrations or whatever was ailing her. Once having established herself within Poirot’s sanctum, it might be hard to induce her to go home without a certain amount of impoliteness. The things that excited Mrs Oliver were so numerous and frequently so unexpected that one had to be careful how one embarked upon a discussion of them.
‘Something has upset you?’
‘Yes. Of course I’m upset. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know—oh, I don’t know anything. What I feel is that I’ve got to come and tell you—tell you just what’s happened, for you’re the only person who might know what to do. Who might tell me what I ought to do. So can I come?’
‘But certainly, but certainly. I shall be delighted to receive you.’
The receiver was thrown down heavily at the other end and Poirot summoned George, reflected a few minutes, then ordered lemon barley water, bitter lemon and a glass of brandy for himself.
‘Mrs Oliver will be here in about ten minutes,’ he said.
George withdrew. He returned with the brandy for Poirot, who accepted it with a nod of satisfaction, and George then proceeded to provide the teetotal refreshment that was the only thing likely to appeal to Mrs Oliver. Poirot took a sip of brandy delicately, fortifying himself for the ordeal which was about to descend upon him.
‘It’s a pity,’ he murmured to himself, ‘that she is so scatty. And yet, she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be—’ he reflected a minute ‘—that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.’
A bell sounded. A bell on the outside door of the flat this time. It was not a single pressure of the button. It lasted for a long time with a kind of steady action that was very effective, the sheer making of noise.
‘Assuredly, she has excited herself,’ said Poirot.
He heard George go to the door, open it, and before any decorous announcement could be made the door of his sitting-room opened and Ariadne Oliver charged through it, with George in tow behind her, hanging on to something that looked like a fisherman’s sou’wester and oilskins.
‘What on earth are you wearing?’ said Hercule Poirot.
‘Let George take it from you. It’s very wet.’
‘Of course it’s wet,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘It’s very wet out. I never thought about water before. It’s a terrible thing to think of.’
Poirot looked at her with interest.
‘Will you have some lemon barley water,’ he said, ‘or could I persuade you to a small glass of eau de vie?’
‘I hate water,’ said Mrs Oliver.
Poirot looked surprised.
‘I hate it. I’ve never thought about it before. What it can do, and everything.’
‘My dear friend,’ said Hercule Poirot, as George extricated her from the flapping folds of watery oilskin. ‘Come and sit down here. Let George finally relieve you of—what is it you are wearing?’
‘I got it in Cornwall,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘Oilskins. A real, proper fisherman’s oilskin.’
‘Very useful to him, no doubt,’ said Poirot, ‘but not, I think, so suitable for you. Heavy to wear. But come—sit down and tell me.’
‘I don’t know how,’ said Mrs Oliver, sinking into a chair. ‘Sometimes, you know, I can’t feel it’s really true. But it happened. It really happened.’