It is indeed the irony, Poirot said to himself, that after my dear friend Hastings I should have Miss Lemon. What greater contrast can one imagine?
Agatha Christie, The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
In the summer of 1943, not long after my dear friend Hercule Poirot’s death, I found myself once again standing on the front steps of Whitehaven Mansions. I had not been there for some six years, and it felt strange to do so, knowing that Poirot was not inside.
I had made my way there at the bidding of Entwistle, Symington and Entwistle, Poirot’s solicitors, who had asked me to help in the sorting out of his affairs. It seemed that Poirot had appointed me as the executor of his will, as he had no close family of his own; I suppose I had known him as well as anyone. There was also the small matter of a funeral to organise, amongst other things.
I looked at the name-cards of the occupants: A. JAEGER; B. BARBIERI; N. GEORGE; A. PATRICK; J. THOMAS; C. MURRAY… Sure enough, the card for number 56B still bore the legend ‘H. POIROT’.
As I stared at it, some wonderful memories came flooding back to me. It had been a privilege for me, over the course of many years, to witness the detective genius of Poirot at work, and a thrill to join him in his criminal investigations. That was now all over, of course, and it struck me for the first time what a hole there would be in my life without him.
For the past six years I had been ranching in the Argentine. For almost all of that time, Poirot had employed the services of a confidential secretary, Miss Felicity Lemon. I understood from Entwistles that she still visited the apartment regularly, at their request, to deal with correspondence and enquiries. They had written to her to let her know that I would be coming to see her on their behalf, although they had not specified why.
I must admit to feeling a twinge of anticipation as I walked towards the lift. What would my reception be? Poirot had indicated to me, in his letters, that she and I were polar opposites …
I knocked on the door of No 56B, and it was soon opened. In the hallway stood a slim, middle-aged woman with brown eyes and short, wavy brown hair. She was wearing a black, woollen jumper and what I can only describe as a sturdy black skirt. Pince nez were perched on her nose. She stared at me for a moment, as though taking me in.
“Arthur Hastings”, I said and held out my hand. She took it.
“Felicity Lemon. We meet at last,” said Miss Lemon, then she smiled. Some smiles can transform a face, and hers was one of them (from what Poirot had told me, I gathered that it was an expression rarely used).
“Please come in.”
I followed her into the living room, a room I knew only too well: it was the one used by Poirot for consultations, and I had sat in on hundreds of them. The room was almost exactly as I had remembered it, with symmetrical sofas placed either side of a coffee table and Poirot’s desk by the window. To my right, there was a door into an office area that seemed packed with filing cabinets; that had not been there before. To my left was a short passage into the dining room.
“Can I take your coat?”
I gave it to her and then immediately regretted it. The one thing that was very different from what I remembered was the temperature in the apartment. It felt very cold. Poirot could not have abided it for a moment.
“We don’t keep the heating on. Do sit down.”
I did so, then ventured: “It feels a bit strange to me, being here now that Poirot has gone. Do you find that his ghost haunts the place?”
“Not really,” Miss Lemon replied. “He is gone. It was time.” No sentiment there! I was beginning to wonder if she ever uttered a sentence that required a comma.
“Would you care for some tea?”
I acquiesced eagerly; I needed something warm inside me. While Miss Lemon boiled the kettle, I amused myself by looking again at the wall decorations. To my delight, I recognised, on the wall behind the desk, and still in its frame, the cheque for one guinea that Poirot had received for his exertions in the affair of the Clapham Cook.
Miss Lemon returned carrying a tray. She placed it on the table and sat down on the sofa opposite.
“You didn’t need to tell me your name, Captain Hastings,” she said. “I knew immediately when I opened the door that it was you. Entwistles had said that you would be coming this afternoon, but even if they had not, I am sure I would have recognised you.”
I must have looked puzzled, so she explained:
“You see, I have heard (and read) so much about you. Whenever a new case presented itself, M. Poirot would immediately start lamenting the absence of ‘mon ami, Hastings‘, until I got sick of hearing your name. He was always talking about you, and forever trying to encourage me to contribute ideas and speculate about his cases as you had. Needless to say, I managed to avoid doing so.”
I had on occasion felt that Poirot somewhat underestimated the value of my contribution to his cases. I was, therefore, pleased to hear how much he missed them when I was no longer by his side.
“Did he ever mention me to you?” she asked.
I paused before speaking. Poirot had mentioned Miss Lemon to me many times in his letters, but not always in a complimentary way. The thing I recalled most readily was that she was the perfect secretary, if one obsessed with the creation of the ultimate in all filing systems; it would have been inappropriate to convey to her some of his other comments
“Only in passing,” I replied.
“I expect it was something to do with my filing system,” she said. “He always said I spent too much time tinkering with it; but I needed to get it right: after all, it was he who asked me to create it. I was to start by reading through your accounts of the cases on which you worked together, extract all the important details and then devise a filing system from which they could be easily retrieved.”
She then lowered her voice as she pronounced: ” ‘For truly it is not possible for Poirot to quickly find what he needs from all the writings of ce cher Hastings.‘ ”
I was somewhat startled by this statement. Poirot had given me the impression of Miss Lemon as a humourless automaton, yet here she was impersonating him, and rather well, too.
“That was six and a quarter years ago. Once I had finished with your narratives, I did the same for all his other cases, up to the present day … except, of course -” Miss Lemon’s eyes began to fill; she swallowed and continued: ” – the most recent.”
She was clearly referring to the second Styles case, during which Poirot had died before he could present his solution. I had been present but, at that time, a couple of weeks later I was still baffled by what had happened.
“Well,” I said, “it probably does not matter now, but, if you wished, I could help you there. As you know, I was with Poirot. I kept a diary of what happened. It’s not complete, of course.”
Miss Lemon pressed a handkerchief to her nose. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate, Captain Hastings,” she replied. “On the other hand …”
“Yes?” I prompted.
“On the other hand, it would be some sort of consolation to have all his cases on file. It would round things off. My filing and coding system is as complete as it will ever be, and it would be good to test it against one last case.”
As she said this, she walked into the study area and tapped a huge wooden structure that ran the whole length of the wall. It contained hundreds of tiny small drawers, all identical. Each had an undecipherable (to me) label and a grooved handle. The unit was made of rosewood and the top row of drawers was at the height of her shoulders.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Miss Lemon spoke feelingly. “M. Poirot had it made for me, to celebrate a particular milestone birthday of mine.” It occurred to me that I had yet to form an opinion of her age. She was one of those women who didn’t seem to have one.
“My 48th,” she replied to my unasked question. “A wonderful number, Captain. One that is divisible by all the important numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 24. This cabinet is 48 inches high, 240 inches long and 12 inches deep. Each drawer is shaped to hold my card index cross-referencing system, based on a code only known to myself and M Poirot.”
I walked over to the cabinet and looked at some of the labels. I could make neither head nor tail of any of them.
“It all sounds a bit too complicated for my liking,” I said. “Why not just label the drawers A-for Alibi, B- for Blackmail, C- for Cyanide…”
Miss Lemon smiled indulgently, as at a child.
“Good heavens, Captain, that would never do. What if someone got into here and stole the cards?”
“But why should anyone want to do that?” I asked. “What use would a whole lot of old information about cases from years ago be to anyone?”
“Old Sins Have Long Shadows, ” Miss Lemon intoned, as from a pulpit. “Our murderers may have been hanged, our embezzlers imprisoned. But what about those who survived? Those who were swindled? Those who got away with it?”
“How do you mean?”
“I see I shall have to give you an example. In one of M Poirot’s cases, there were at least twelve people who took part in the wilful murder of another human being. None of them were ever brought to justice. As far as I know, all of them are still wandering around, as free as you or me; but their records are all in here. And that is not all.
“M. Poirot was called in many times to investigate scandals in high places – amongst royal families, high government and the armed services. Quite often, once he had presented his findings, they were promptly hushed up. But the truth is in here – and it must never be made public. Especially not in times like these.”
I nodded. We were then at a crucial stage of the War. Even I could see that the backgrounds of some of those involved in some important diplomatic negotiations might at best be murky. I recalled an example from the Great War in which I had been involved. Even thirty years later, my narrative of it has yet to be published.
“It’s all in here,” Miss Lemon repeated. “And the people that were involved know that.”
“I daresay that it might act as a check on some of the wilder excesses of the powers-that-be, to know that their previous peccadilloes are on file,” I said thoughtfully.
“Quite”, she replied. “This is all confidential information, and I was M Poirot’s confidential secretary. People have been asking about some of the information held here. But how could I, in all conscience, start releasing it the minute that he was gone?”
She turned round and stood with her back to the cabinet, as though defending it, and continued, more quietly:
“But he would never have held anything back from you. If you were to ask what is in here, I am sure M Poirot would have had no objection. Would you like me to show you how the system works?”
It was clear that Miss Lemon’s obsession with her filing system was total, to the extent that she had yet to evince any curiosity about the purpose of my visit. I did not feel quite ready for a filing masterclass, so I hastily changed the subject.
“Can we come on to that later? First things first. I think that I should explain to you the real reasons why I have come here. Your faith in me is touching but there are a few things you should know. Any chance of another cup of tea?”