"I say, Poirot."
Poirot, attired immaculately in a new evening suit and nodding along to the music of the orchestra in a mood of utmost charity with the world, answered, "What is it, mon ami?" without shifting his regard from the crowded dance floor.
"Well, Miss Lemon's a corking dancer, isn't she?" said his companion.
"Certainly, Hastings, she is most skilled in the art of the ballroom dancing," agreed Poirot. "You have not had before the pleasure of observing this; is she not magnifique? The dress, it is most pleasing, and the colour, she wears it well."
"Oh," said Captain Hastings, a little surprised, and squinted at the floor in an attempt to observe more carefully the details of Miss Lemon's dress. "Yes, rather!"
Poirot smiled to himself under the curl of his exquisitely waxed mustache and returned his attention to the orchestra.
"I wonder why Miss Lemon hasn't married," said Hastings presently.
"I mean, she's not bad-looking!" said Hastings. "As a matter of fact, Poirot, she's a very attractive girl."
"Oui, mon ami, and she has also the filing system most excellent."
Hastings, having begun elucidating the elusive train of logic, pursued it. "Good breeding — quite clever — knows about Ouija boards, and hypnotism, all that sort of thing — respectably employed. I mean, she's quite a catch! And she's a sharp dresser, too! Isn't that odd?"
For the first time, Poirot turned his eyes to his friend. "Is what odd, Hastings?"
"That Miss Lemon should still be unmarried, I mean," said Hastings.
"No, Hastings," said Poirot serenely, meeting his gaze.
"You don't think so?" The orchestra had struck a livelier tune, and in the buzz of cheerful noises, Hastings was obliged to lean quite close to be heard.
"I do not think it odd at all that Miss Lemon should prefer not to seek the company of the men."
"Oh," said Hastings in puzzlement, and reached for his drink, taking a thoughtful sip. Suddenly the crease smoothed from between his brows and he repeated, "Oh!"
A distinct twinkle could now be observed in the eyes of M. Poirot, as he arched a brow faintly.
"But Poirot! You don't mean — "
Poirot smiled. "Yes, Hastings?"
"That Miss Lemon... I say!" Hastings stared at Poirot, transferred his gaze to Miss Lemon, then looked back at Poirot again.
"Hastings, please close your mouth," said Poirot, gently. "You are looking like the fish."
"Oh, right," murmured Hastings, blinking. For some minutes he was silent, brow creased in thought, and staring into the depths of the wine, while his companion observed his behaviour carefully.
Finally Poirot leaned to the side, touching the sleeve of Hastings's jacket to gain his attention. "Mon ami."
Hastings jumped, raising his startled gaze to Poirot's serious and sympathetic eyes. "Sorry, Poirot!"
"No no no, mon cher Hastings, Poirot must only ask - this information, Poirot did not think it would — " he paused delicately, "disturb you?"
"About — ? Disturb me?" said Hastings. "You mean — of course not! That's not it at all, old chap; quite the opposite, in fact. I was only thinking..."
"What is it that you were thinking, Hastings?"
"Well — " Hastings frowned in deep concentration. "It doesn't really make a bit of difference, does it? Miss Lemon's still a catch, isn't she? I mean to say, I can't imagine otherwise. And she still hasn't got anybody! Has she?"
Poirot had settled back in his chair. "It is true that Miss Lemon is a lady of the very regular habits, mon ami, but still I think that the signs of such an affaire, they would not remain hidden from you and me for long, n'est-ce pas?"
"Right! Well, that's what I was saying! She still needs our help, and I want to help her, but I haven't the faintest idea how to go about it!"
"Hastings," said Poirot firmly, "you must put this idea from your mind at once. Miss Lemon, she does not need the help of the Englishmen meddling in her private affairs. Be assured that if indeed the estimable Miss Lemon were desirous of any help, then the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot would be more than equal to the task!"
"I just wanted to introduce her to a few fellows or something of that nature," Hastings protested. "Nothing meddling, I assure you! I do know how to be discreet! But it seems that that wouldn't do the trick."
M. Poirot's voice had dropped to a whisper. "No, Hastings, it would not. On no account are you to attempt the making of the matches of any kind! It is a subject where the delicacy, it is essential!"
"But — "
"Non! No, no, and again I say: no!"
There was a pregnant silence. Hastings studied Poirot's face — the severely pinched mouth, the smooth cheeks, the elegant mustache quivering in indignation, the eyes glittering darkly under his drawn-together brows.
"...Right," conceded Hastings reluctantly.
On Sunday morning, while Poirot perused his accounting books at his desk, Hastings lay on the sofa with the paper. The quiet was uninterrupted by commentary on cricket or horse-racing, but it also lacked the langorous quality of a Hastings who was drifting to sleep behind his paper. In fact, the paper rustled sporadically, at intervals wholly incompatible with Captain Hastings's ordinary manner of reading it; and from time to time a sigh from the sofa testified to its occupant's preoccupation.
The last page of figures had been checked and checked again, and Poirot was engaged in verifying with the aid of a ruler that the columns were still perfectly aligned, when at last the quiet was broken. "Poirot... do you suppose that — all that's why Miss Lemon hasn't got anybody?"
"Do I suppose that what is why, Hastings?"
The face which appeared above the newspaper appeared uncomfortable. "Well, you know — women. What I mean is, how would one go about it — introducing someone to... women?"
"Ah," M. Poirot nodded, "I understand. But Hastings, simply because it is a matter of great difficulty for you to introduce yourself to the ladies without awkwardness, does not mean that this is true for other people. On the contrary, I find all that is necessary is the courtesy and of course, the charm."
Hastings frowned, a bit ruffled by the slight. "I do know a thing or two about how to handle the ladies! No, what I meant was," he leaned forward earnestly, "the right kind of women. I mean to say, if I wanted to introduce a girl like Miss Lemon to a handful of really good fellows — "
"Hastings, I have already told to you — "
"Oh yes, I know, I won't if you insist on it — I said if! If I wanted to introduce a girl to a fellow, I'd know just who to call!"
Poirot fixed those large dark eyes on him and regarded him soulfully. "Should you, Hastings?" he said silkily. "Who?"
"I — " Hastings paused, and frowned. "Well, I shouldn't have any trouble thinking of a few! But if you were to ask me to introduce her to a few nice girls I shouldn't have any idea where to start... I mean to say, well, you can't just ask anyone, can you?"
"That is most astute, Hastings," Poirot congratulated him civilly. "Indeed you cannot."
Hastings nodded shortly. "Well, there you go."
"There... I go?"
"If a couple of men of the world like us wouldn't know how to go about it, then how do you suppose a girl like Miss Lemon would?"
Poirot had tilted his head a little to the side. "How indeed," he murmured. If there was an increasingly pronounced twinkle in his eye, it was not observed by Captain Hastings.
"It seems awfully hard."
"But mon ami," said Poirot, "it seems to me that you are under the misapprehension. We see the good Miss Lemon every day and some of her friends are known to us, a number of whom are also ladies. Does it seem to you that she is the unhappy, the lonesome old maiden, surrounded by many cats, without friends and ignorant of the matters of the heart?"
Hastings looked up at him, blinking, and the silence stretched. "I suppose not," he said doubtfully. "I've really never thought of it like that before."
"Non," Poirot agreed. "That is to be expected. Miss Lemon is not at all the sort of lady to fit this tragic picture. Hers is a love of order and cleanliness most particular. Of cats she would never own a more than respectable number. And as well, Miss Lemon possesses a correspondence that is lively with a number of ladies, and in addition to the members of her spiritualist societies, has lunch with some of her old friends quite regularly."
"Yes, but that's just — Poirot, you can't mean... those are her school friends," Hastings protested.
Poirot smiled at him and leaned a little closer. "Yes, Hastings," he said. "Have you not also been to the English school? — Are you all right?"
As Hastings had been in the process of perching one hip on the desk when this question caused him to start violently, he had banged into it hard enough to produce a soft thump and a faint "Ah!"
Fortunately, he was uninjured. "Fine, fine."
Hastings, looking slightly pink in the face, glanced around cautiously, as if the room might conceal eavesdroppers, before saying: "But Poirot, that's... well... I mean, it's not the same thing at all!" His voice dropped still further. "That's kid stuff!"
"Yes, Hastings, quite often you are right," said Poirot in a measured tone. "But perhaps it is not for everybody merely the kid stuff. No doubt you also have remarked when some young man with whom you have been at school, after the school was finished, perhaps quite soon, made many new friends who were beautiful young ladies?"
Hastings agreed, "As a matter of fact, yes. I can name several."
"But also several young men who some years later are still surrounded by the friends who mostly are men?"
"I suppose so..."
"In fact," said Poirot gently, "if a man chooses to surround himself with the beautiful young men, it may be people say that he has many friends. But it may be also that nobody notices at all."
Here Hastings hesitated again, struggling to imagine this. To call to mind the image of a dashing playboy who surrounded himself with beautiful young ladies was simple, but how would one go about surrounding oneself with beautiful young men? Perhaps in Hollywood, he thought. Certainly the stars adorning magazine covers could qualify, but it couldn't be easy to find them all in one place, could it?
"Hang on a minute," he said. "I think everybody'd be bound to notice that."
"I assure you, mon ami, that they are not. Why, I myself as a young man had many friends who were the young men who were beautiful or, how do you say — handsome, and yet this was not thought to be peculiar by anyone."
"I say," Hastings uttered, not sure if he was expressing disbelief or awe. The mental pictures didn't seem to want to form. Poirot as a young man could be conceived of, with the aid of a photo Hastings had seen of him in full dress uniform; but to picture him in life, going to restaurants and theatres and parties — Edwardian balls, full of Belgians — 'beautiful, young' Belgians? Impossible!
But the voice of M. Poirot broke into Hastings's thoughts before they could quite resolve themselves into a conclusion. "Tell me, Hastings, after we met for the first time in Brussels, what was your impression of me?"
"Oh, ah," said Hastings. "Well, I was quite impressed with your detecting methods, of course."
"Naturally," Poirot said patiently.
Hastings strove for a casual manner. "Er, and apart from that we got along quite well, I thought. Very nice fellow, I should have said. Capital, in fact. — Foreign, of course."
Poirot nodded attentively. "Of course."
"Oh!" said Hastings. "Yes, and there's your mustache!"
The little smile broadened into an expression of the utmost pride and self-satisfaction. "I am flattered," M. Poirot beamed. "And should you say that that was all?"
Hastings shifted a trifle uncomfortably. "More or less, old chap."
"Then you did not notice anything, shall we say, peculiar about me."
To Hastings the ensuing moment seemed unreasonably long. He took a breath and said "Ah", quite unable to think of anything but Poirot's innumerable peculiarities: his insistence on standing starched collars; his fastidious, almost dainty manner of walking; his dislike of breakfast foods of unequal sizes; his reliance on taking Hastings's elbow when they went walking... .
Either mistaking this awkwardness for confusion or perhaps entirely unaware of it, Poirot added: "Nothing about my social habits?"
"Oh," said Hastings, "no, no, nothing like that. In fact, I can't say I noticed anything about your social habits at all."
"Precisely," said Poirot.
It was little more than a week later that Chief Inspector Japp was escorted into Poirot's sitting room by Miss Lemon in the early afternoon. Poirot removed the pince-nez from his nose, replaced the pen he had been wielding carefully back in its holder, and offered a polite but warm greeting.
"Afternoon, Poirot," Japp returned, and remained hovering there in the middle of the room, mustache twitching uncertainly. "Captain Hastings isn't about, is he?"
Poirot assured him, "Hastings is dining at his club."
A little of the air seemed to go out of Japp's voluminous coat, and with a muted sag of relief, he eased himself onto the settee. "Good. I want to talk to you about Hastings, Poirot. You haven't noticed him acting unusual lately?"
"Unusual, Chief Inspector? In what way?"
"I had a very odd conversation with him yesterday. Showed up in my office, wanting to know first of all whether in my opinion the majority of young constables on the police force could be described as 'handsome', and in the second place, whereabouts you would find the greatest number of beautiful women."
"And what did you say to him?" enquired Poirot.
"What did I tell him?" Japp repeated incredulously. "See here, this isn't for some case of yours, is it?"
"I assure you, Chief Inspector, that Captain Hastings was in no way acting on my instructions! In fact, I was not even aware of his visit."
"And I suppose you've no idea what's gotten into his head."
"Well," said M. Poirot, with an elegant shrug which, fortunately, could convey many different answers. "But tell to me, Chief Inspector, if you please, what was the answer that you gave to Captain Hastings?"
Japp sighed a trifle theatrically. "I told him it's an absurd question. You don't hire a p'leece officer because he's handsome. He's got a job to do and you judge him on how well he's done it, not his looks or his name or anything else."
"And what did Hastings say to that?"
"Well, he agreed with me." Japp looked more confused than relieved by this admission.
"Ah, indeed?" said Poirot. "And the other?"
A snort. Japp shook his head wryly. "Straightaway I told him he had better ask the boys down in Vice that and not me. But Hastings would have it I'd got the wrong end of the stick. See, his innocent curiosity was simply concerning where in polite society you can go about meeting ladies who also happen to be very beautiful."
"A not uncommon goal, I think," Poirot mused. "But perhaps a little unusual that he chooses to consult for advice a police detective. The problem of where to meet ladies who are beautiful, it is not the sort of thing for which your services, or even mine, Chief Inspector, are usually required."
There was a soft knock on the sitting room door, followed by Miss Lemon appearing with a cup of tea for the Chief Inspector. "We were just discussing Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon," Poirot informed her.
"I couldn't help hearing, Mr Poirot," she agreed. "But he hasn't been acting peculiar in any way towards me recently. In fact, just this morning he offered me a pair of tickets to a catwalk fashion show! A friend of his discovered that he couldn't attend, apparently, and Captain Hastings thought that I might be interested! I thought it was very thoughtful of him."
Behind Miss Lemon's shoulder, Chief Inspector Japp's countenance underwent some peculiar aerobics, one might say facial jumping jacks, with both the eyebrows and the mustache doing their parts to indicate silently to M. Poirot the significance of what they were hearing.
"Ah, Miss Lemon," Japp said, only a moment too soon for the casual tone of his voice: "I suppose Captain Hastings will be accompanying you to this fashion show?"
But Miss Lemon, fortunately less skilled in observation than M. Poirot, heard nothing extraordinary in the question. "No," she said cheerfully, "That's the funny thing; Captain Hastings gave me both of the tickets! He said he hadn't much interest in ladies' fashion. He suggested I ask a woman friend to accompany me."
Having related this, Miss Lemon went back out of the room, leaving Poirot smiling privately down at his desk, almost chuckling, really, and Chief Inspector Japp staring after her. "You know what I told Captain Hastings, Poirot?"
Poirot answered calmly, eyes twinkling, "Yes. You said that the catwalk fashion show was the event full of the respectable ladies who are also very beautiful, did you not?"
"I did." Japp gave up staring at the closed door to the sitting room and, with a sigh, turned his attention back to his cup of tea, a long drink of which appeared to lift his spirits a little. "I don't understand it," he said, "but if you don't think anything of it, then I suppose I needn't either. I probably don't want to know anything about it anyway. Let's say I never noticed anything, and we never had this conversation." Another long swallow was enough to empty the teacup and restore to the Chief Inspector his customary decisiveness. "In fact, I haven't just drunk this tea right now," he added, standing, and set his cup and saucer firmly on the side-table.
"I think that is for the best, Chief Inspector," Poirot answered gravely. "If for any reason Captain Hastings should require assistance, then the little grey cells will, I think, be more than equal to the task." He allowed himself to smile.