Cards on the Table (SB), p.1Part #3 of Superintendent Battle series by Agatha Christie
Cards on the Table
A Hercule Poirot Mystery
1. Mr. Shaitana
2. Dinner at Mr. Shaitana’s
3. A Game of Bridge
4. First Murderer?
5. Second Murderer?
6. Third Murderer?
7. Fourth Murderer?
8. Which of Them?
9. Dr. Roberts
10. Dr. Roberts (continued)
11. Mrs. Lorrimer
12. Anne Meredith
13. Second Visitor
14. Third Visitor
15. Major Despard
16. The Evidence of Elsie Batt
17. The Evidence of Rhoda Dawes
18. Tea Interlude
20. The Evidence of Mrs. Luxmore
21. Major Despard
22. Evidence from Combeacre
23. The Evidence of a Pair of Silk Stockings
24. Elimination of Three Murderers?
25. Mrs. Lorrimer Speaks
26. The Truth
27. The Eyewitness
31. Cards on the Table
About the Author
Other Books by Agatha Christie
About the Publisher
There is an idea prevalent that a detective story is rather like a big race—a number of starters—likely horses and jockeys. “You pays your money and you takes your choice!” The favourite is by common consent the opposite of a favourite on the race course. In other words he is likely to be a complete outsider! Spot the least likely person to have committed the crime and in nine times out of ten your task is finished.
Since I do not want my faithful readers to fling away this book in disgust, I prefer to warn them beforehand that this is not that kind of book. There are only four starters and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime. That knocks out forcibly the element of surprise. Nevertheless there should be, I think, an equal interest attached to four persons, each of whom has committed murder and is capable of committing further murders. They are four widely divergent types, the motive that drives each one of them to crime is peculiar to that person, and each one would employ a different method. The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is none the less interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.
I may say, as an additional argument in favour of this story, that it was one of Hercule Poirot’s favourite cases. His friend, Captain Hastings, however, when Poirot described it to him, considered it very dull! I wonder with which of them my readers will agree.
“My dear M. Poirot!”
It was a soft purring voice—a voice used deliberately as an instrument—nothing impulsive or premeditated about it.
Hercule Poirot swung round.
He shook hands ceremoniously.
There was something in his eye that was unusual. One would have said that this chance encounter awakened in him an emotion that he seldom had occasion to feel.
“My dear Mr. Shaitana,” he said.
They both paused. They were like duellists en garde.
Around them a well-dressed languid London crowd eddied mildly. Voices drawled or murmured.
“Simply divine, aren’t they, my dear?”
It was the Exhibition of Snuffboxes at Wessex House. Admission one guinea, in aid of the London hospitals.
“My dear man,” said Mr. Shaitana, “how nice to see you! Not hanging or guillotining much just at present? Slack season in the criminal world? Or is there to be a robbery here this afternoon—that would be too delicious.”
“Alas, Monsieur,” said Poirot. “I came here in a purely private capacity.”
Mr. Shaitana was diverted for a moment by a Lovely Young Thing with tight poodle curls up one side of her head and three cornucopias in black straw on the other.
“My dear—why didn’t you come to my party? It really was a marvellous party! Quite a lot of people actually spoke to me! One woman even said, ‘How do you do,’ and ‘Good-bye’ and ‘Thank you so much’—but of course she came from a Garden City, poor dear!”
While the Lovely Young Thing made a suitable reply, Poirot allowed himself a good study of the hirsute adornment on Mr. Shaitana’s upper lip.
A fine moustache—a very fine moustache—the only moustache in London, perhaps, that could compete with that of M. Hercule Poirot.
“But it is not so luxuriant,” he murmured to himself. “No, decidedly it is inferior in every respect. Tout de même, it catches the eye.”
The whole of Mr. Shaitana’s person caught the eye—it was designed to do so. He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect. He was tall and thin, his face was long and melancholy, his eyebrows were heavily accented and jet black, he wore a moustache with stiff waxed ends and a tiny black imperial. His clothes were works of art—of exquisite cut—but with a suggestion of bizarre.
Every healthy Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him! They said, with a singular lack of originality, “There’s that damned Dago, Shaitana!”
Their wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, mothers, and even grandmothers said, varying the idiom according to their generation, words to this effect: “I know, my dear. Of course, he is too terrible. But so rich! And such marvellous parties! And he’s always got something amusing and spiteful to tell you about people.”
Whether Mr. Shaitana was an Argentine, or a Portuguese, or a Greek, or some other nationality rightly despised by the insular Briton, nobody knew.
But three facts were quite certain:
He existed richly and beautifully in a super flat in Park Lane.
He gave wonderful parties—large parties, small parties, macabre parties, respectable parties and definitely “queer” parties.
He was a man of whom nearly everybody was a little afraid.
Why this last was so can hardly be stated in definite words. There was a feeling, perhaps, that he knew a little too much about everybody. And there was a feeling, too, that his sense of humour was a curious one.
People nearly always felt that it would be better not to risk offending Mr. Shaitana.
It was his humour this afternoon to bait that ridiculous-looking little man, Hercule Poirot.
“So even a policeman needs recreation?” he said. “You study the arts in your old age, M. Poirot?”
Poirot smiled good-humouredly.
“I see,” he said, “that you yourself have lent three snuffboxes to the Exhibition.”
Mr. Shaitana waved a deprecating hand.
“One picks up trifles here and there. You must come to my flat one day. I have some interesting pieces. I do not confine myself to any particular period or class of object.”
“Your tastes are catholic,” said Poirot smiling.
“As you say.”
Suddenly Mr. Shaitana’s eyes danced, the corners of his lips curled up, his eyebrows assumed a fantastic tilt.
“I could even show you objects in your own line, M. Poirot!”
“You have then a private ‘Black Museum.’”
“Bah!” Mr. Shaitana snapped disdainful fingers. “The cup used by the Brighton murderer, the jemmy of a celebrated burglar—absurd childishness! I should never burden myself with rubbish like that. I collect only the best objec
“And what do you consider the best objects, artistically speaking, in crime?” inquired Poirot.
Mr. Shaitana leaned forward and laid two fingers on Poirot’s shoulder. He hissed his words dramatically.
“The human beings who commit them, M. Poirot.”
Poirot’s eyebrows rose a trifle.
“Aha, I have startled you,” said Mr. Shaitana. “My dear, dear man, you and I look on these things as from poles apart! For you crime is a matter of routine: a murder, an investigation, a clue, and ultimately (for you are undoubtedly an able fellow) a conviction. Such banalities would not interest me! I am not interested in poor specimens of any kind. And the caught murderer is necessarily one of the failures. He is second-rate. No, I look on the matter from the artistic point of view. I collect only the best!”
“The best being—?” asked Poirot.
“My dear fellow—the ones who have got away with it! The successes! The criminals who lead an agreeable life which no breath of suspicion has ever touched. Admit that is an amusing hobby.”
“It was another word I was thinking of—not amusing.”
“An idea!” cried Shaitana, paying no attention to Poirot. “A little dinner! A dinner to meet my exhibits! Really, that is a most amusing thought. I cannot think why it has never occurred to me before. Yes—yes, I see it exactly … You must give me a little time—not next week—let us say the week after next. You are free? What day shall we say?”
“Any day of the week after next would suit me,” said Poirot with a bow.
“Good—then let us say Friday. Friday the 18th, that will be. I will write it down at once in my little book. Really, the idea pleases me enormously.”
“I am not quite sure if it pleases me,” said Poirot slowly. “I do not mean that I am insensible to the kindness of your invitation—no—not that—”
Shaitana interrupted him.
“But it shocks your bourgeois sensibilities? My dear fellow, you must free yourself from the limitations of the policeman mentality.”
Poirot said slowly:
“It is true that I have a thoroughly bourgeois attitude to murder.”
“But, my dear, why? A stupid, bungled, butchering business—yes, I agree with you. But murder can be an art! A murderer can be an artist.”
“Oh, I admit it.”
“Well then?” Mr. Shaitana asked.
“But he is still a murderer!”
“Surely, my dear M. Poirot, to do a thing supremely well is a justification! You want, very unimaginatively, to take every murderer, handcuff him, shut him up, and eventually break his neck for him in the early hours of the morning. In my opinion a really successful murderer should be granted a pension out of the public funds and asked out to dinner!”
Poirot shrugged his shoulders.
“I am not as insensitive to art in crime as you think. I can admire the perfect murder—I can also admire a tiger—that splendid tawny-striped beast. But I will admire him from outside his cage. I will not go inside. That is to say, not unless it is my duty to do so. For you see, Mr. Shaitana, the tiger might spring….”
Mr. Shaitana laughed.
“I see. And the murderer?”
“Might murder,” said Poirot gravely.
“My dear fellow—what an alarmist you are! Then you will not come to meet my collection of—tigers?”
“On the contrary, I shall be enchanted.”
“You do not quite understand me, Mr. Shaitana. My words were in the nature of a warning. You asked me just now to admit that your idea of a collection of murderers was amusing. I said I could think of another word other than amusing. That word was dangerous. I fancy, Mr. Shaitana, that your hobby might be a dangerous one!”
Mr. Shaitana laughed, a very Mephistophelian laugh.
“I may expect you, then, on the 18th?”
Poirot gave a little bow.
“You may expect me on the 18th. Mille remerciments.”
“I shall arrange a little party,” mused Shaitana. “Do not forget. Eight o’clock.”
He moved away. Poirot stood a minute or two looking after him.
He shook his head slowly and thoughtfully.
DINNER AT MR. SHAITANA’S
The door of Mr. Shaitana’s flat opened noiselessly. A grey-haired butler drew it back to let Poirot enter. He closed it equally noiselessly and deftly relieved the guest of his overcoat and hat.
He murmured in a low expressionless voice:
“What name shall I say?”
“M. Hercule Poirot.”
There was a little hum of talk that eddied out into the hall as the butler opened a door and announced:
“M. Hercule Poirot.”
Sherry glass in hand, Shaitana came forward to meet him. He was, as usual, immaculately dressed. The Mephistophelian suggestion was heightened tonight, the eyebrows seemed accentuated in their mocking twist.
“Let me introduce you—do you know Mrs. Oliver?”
The showman in him enjoyed the little start of surprise that Poirot gave.
Mrs. Ariadne Oliver was extremely well-known as one of the foremost writers of detective and other sensational stories. She wrote chatty (if not particularly grammatical) articles on The Tendency of the Criminal; Famous Crimes Passionnels; Murder for Love v. Murder for Gain. She was also a hotheaded feminist, and when any murder of importance was occupying space in the Press there was sure to be an interview with Mrs. Oliver, and it was mentioned that Mrs. Oliver had said, “Now if a woman were the head of Scotland Yard!” She was an earnest believer in woman’s intuition.
For the rest she was an agreeable woman of middle age, handsome in a rather untidy fashion with fine eyes, substantial shoulders and a large quantity of rebellious grey hair with which she was continually experimenting. One day her appearance would be highly intellectual—a brow with the hair scraped back from it and coiled in a large bun in the neck—on another Mrs. Oliver would suddenly appear with Madonna loops, or large masses of slightly untidy curls. On this particular evening Mrs. Oliver was trying out a fringe.
She greeted Poirot, whom she had met before at a literary dinner, in an agreeable bass voice.
“And Superintendent Battle you doubtless know,” said Mr. Shaitana.
A big, square, wooden-faced man moved forward. Not only did an onlooker feel that Superintendent Battle was carved out of wood—he also managed to convey the impression that the wood in question was the timber out of a battleship.
Superintendent Battle was supposed to be Scotland Yard’s best representative. He always looked stolid and rather stupid.
“I know M. Poirot,” said Superintendent Battle.
And his wooden face creased into a smile and then returned to its former unexpressiveness.
“Colonel Race,” went on Mr. Shaitana.
Poirot had not previously met Colonel Race, but he knew something about him. A dark, handsome, deeply bronzed man of fifty, he was usually to be found in some outpost of empire—especially if there were trouble brewing. Secret Service is a melodramatic term, but it described pretty accurately to the lay mind the nature and scope of Colonel Race’s activities.
Poirot had by now taken in and appreciated the particular essence of his host’s humorous intentions.
“Our other guests are late,” said Mr. Shaitana. “My fault, perhaps. I believe I told them 8:15.”
But at that moment the door opened and the butler announced:
The man who came in did so with a kind of parody of a brisk bedside manner. He was a cheerful, highly-coloured individual of middle age. Small twinkling eyes, a touch of baldness, a tendency to embonpoint and a general air of well-scrubbed and disinfected medical practitioner. His manner was cheerful and confident. You felt that his diagnosis would be correct and his treatments agreeable and practical—“a little champagne in convalescence perhaps.” A
“Not late, I hope?” said Dr. Roberts genially.
He shook hands with his host and was introduced to the others. He seemed particularly gratified at meeting Battle.
“Why, you’re one of the big noises at Scotland Yard, aren’t you? This is interesting! Too bad to make you talk shop but I warn you I shall have a try at it. Always been interested in crime. Bad thing for a doctor, perhaps. Mustn’t say so to my nervous patients—ha ha!”
Again the door opened.
Mrs. Lorrimer was a well-dressed woman of sixty. She had finely cut features, beautifully arranged grey hair, and a clear, incisive voice.
“I hope I’m not late,” she said, advancing to her host.
She turned from him to greet Dr. Roberts, with whom she was acquainted.
The butler announced:
Major Despard was a tall, lean, handsome man, his face slightly marred by a scar on the temple. Introductions completed, he gravitated naturally to the side of Colonel Race—and the two men were soon talking sport and comparing their experiences on safari.
For the last time the door opened and the butler announced:
A girl in the early twenties entered. She was of medium height and pretty. Brown curls clustered in her neck, her grey eyes were large and wide apart. Her face was powdered but not made-up. Her voice was slow and rather shy.
“Oh dear, am I the last?”
Mr. Shaitana descended on her with sherry and an ornate and complimentary reply. His introductions were formal and almost ceremonious.
Cards on the Table (SB) by Agatha Christie / Mystery & Detective / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes