‘What was she?’ asked Poirot. ‘It is that that I am chiefly anxious to know.’
‘Yes, yes—of course. How did she come to do what she did? That is the really vital question. I knew her, you know, before she married. Caroline Spalding, she was. A turbulent unhappy creature. Very alive. Her mother was left a widow early in life and Caroline was devoted to her mother. Then the mother married again—there was another child. Yes—yes, very sad, very painful. These young, ardent, adolescent jealousies.’
‘She was jealous?’
‘Passionately so. There was a regrettable incident. Poor child, she blamed herself bitterly afterwards. But you know, M. Poirot, these things happen. There is an inability to put on the brakes. It comes—it comes with maturity.’
‘She struck the child—the baby—flung a paperweight at her. The child lost the sight of one eye and was permanently disfigured.’
Mr Jonathan sighed. He said:
‘You can imagine the effect a simple question on that point had at the trial.’
He shook his head:
‘It gave the impression that Caroline Crale was a woman of ungovernable temper. That was not true. No, that was not true.’
He paused and then resumed:
‘Caroline Spalding came often to stay at Alderbury. She rode well, and was keen. Richard Crale was fond of her. She waited on Mrs Crale and was deft and gentle—Mrs Crale also liked her. The girl was not happy at home. She was happy at Alderbury. Diana Crale, Amyas’s sister, and she were by way of being friends. Philip and Meredith Blake, boys from the adjoining estate, were frequently at Alderbury. Philip was always a nasty, money-grubbing little brute. I must confess I have always had a distaste for him. But I am told that he tells a very good story and that he has the reputation of being a staunch friend. Meredith was what my contemporaries used to call Namby Pamby. Liked botany and butterflies and observing birds and beasts. Nature study they call it nowadays. Ah, dear—all the young people were a disappointment to their parents. None of them ran true to type—huntin’, shootin’, fishin’. Meredith preferred watching birds and animals to shooting or hunting them, Philip definitely preferred town to country and went into the business of money-making. Diana married a fellow who wasn’t a gentleman—one of the temporary officers in the war. And Amyas, strong, handsome, virile Amyas, blossomed into being a painter, of all things in the world. It’s my opinion that Richard Crale died of the shock.
‘And in due course Amyas married Caroline Spalding. They’d always fought and sparred, but it was a love match all right. They were both crazy about each other. And they continued to care. But Amyas was like all the Crales, a ruthless egoist. He loved Caroline but he never once considered her in any way. He did as he pleased. It’s my opinion that he was as fond of her as he could be of anybody—but she came a long way behind his art. That came first. And I should say at no time did his art give place to a woman. He had affairs with women—they stimulated him—but he left them high and dry when he’d finished with them. He wasn’t a sentimental man, nor a romantic one. And he wasn’t entirely a sensualist either. The only woman he cared a button for was his own wife. And because she knew that she put up with a lot. He was a very fine painter, you know. She realized that, and respected it. He chased off in his amorous pursuits and came back again—usually with a picture to show for it.
‘It might have gone on like that if it hadn’t come to Elsa Greer. Elsa Greer—’
Mr Jonathan shook his head.
Poirot said: ‘What of Elsa Greer?’
Mr Jonathan said unexpectedly:
‘Poor child. Poor child.’
Poirot said: ‘So you feel like that about her?’
‘Maybe it is because I am an old man, but I find, M. Poirot, that there is something about the defencelessness of youth that moves me to tears. Youth is so vulnerable. It is so ruthless—so sure. So generous and so demanding.’
Getting up, he crossed to the bookcase. Taking out a volume he opened it, turned the pages, and then read out:
‘ “If that thy bent of love be honourable,
The purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow
By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite,
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay,
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.” ’
‘There speaks love allied to youth, in Juliet’s words. No reticence, no holding back, no so-called maiden modesty. It is the courage, the insistence, the ruthless force of youth. Shakespeare knew youth. Juliet singles out Romeo. Desdemona claims Othello. They have no doubts, the young, no fear, no pride.’
Poirot said thoughtfully:
‘So to you Elsa Greer spoke in the words of Juliet?’
‘Yes. She was a spoiled child of fortune—young, lovely, rich. She found her mate and claimed him—no young Romeo, a married, middle-aged painter. Elsa Greer had no code to restrain her, she had the code of modernity. “Take what you want—we shall only live once!’
He sighed, leaned back, and again tapped gently on the arm of his chair.
‘A predatory Juliet. Young, ruthless, but horribly vulnerable! Staking everything on the one audacious throw. And seemingly she won…and then—at the last moment—death steps in—and the living, ardent, joyous Elsa died also. There was left only a vindictive, cold, hard woman, hating with all her soul the woman whose hand had done this thing.’
His voice changed:
‘Dear, dear. Pray forgive this little lapse into melodrama. A crude young woman—with a crude outlook on life. Not, I think, an interesting character. Rose white youth, passionate, pale, etc. Take that away and what remains? Only a somewhat mediocre young woman seeking for another life-sized hero to put on an empty pedestal.’
‘If Amyas Crale had not been a famous painter—’
Mr Jonathan agreed quickly. He said:
‘Quite—quite. You have taken the point admirably. The Elsas of this world are hero-worshippers. A man must have done something, must be somebody…Caroline Crale, now, could have recognized quality in a bank clerk or an insurance agent! Caroline loved Amyas Crale the man, not Amyas Crale the painter. Caroline Crale was not crude—Elsa Greer was.’
‘But she was young and beautiful and to my mind infinitely pathetic.’
Hercule Poirot went to bed thoughtful. He was fascinated by the problem of personality.
To Edmunds, the clerk, Elsa Greer was a hussy, no more, no less.
To old Mr Jonathan she was the eternal Juliet.
And Caroline Crale?
Each person had seen her differently. Montague Depleach had despised her as a defeatist—a quitter. To young Fogg she had represented Romance. Edmunds saw her simply as a ‘lady’. Mr Jonathan had called her a stormy, turbulent creature.
How would he, Hercule Poirot, have seen her?
On the answer to that question depended, he felt, the success of his quest.