Hickory Dickory Dock
Hercule Poirot Frowned.
"Miss Lemon," he said.
"Yes, Mr. Poirot?"
"There are three mistakes in this letter." His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes. She was never ill, never tired, never upset, never inaccurate. For all practical purposes, that is to say, she was not a woman at all. She was a machine-the perfect secretary. She knew everything, she coped with everything. She ran Hercule Poirot's life for him, so that it, too, functioned like a machine. Order and method had been Hercule Poirot's watchwords from many years ago. With George, his perfect manservant, and Miss Lemon, his perfect secretary, order and method ruled supreme in his life. Now that crumpers were baked square as well as round, he had nothing about which to complain.
And yet, this morning Miss Lemon had made three mistakes in typing a perfectly simple letter, and moreover, had not even noticed those mistakes. The stars stood still in their courses!
Hercule Poirot held out the offending document.
He was not annoyed, he was merely bewildered.
This was one of the things that could not happen-but it had happened!
Miss Lemon took the letter. She looked at it. For the first time in his life, Poirot saw her blush; a deep ugly unbecoming flush that dyed her face right up to the roots of her strong grizzled hair.
"Oh, dear," she said. "I can't think how-at least, I can. It's because of my sister." "Your sister?" Another shock. Poirot had never conceived of Miss Lemon's having a sister. Or, for that matter, having a father, mother or even grandparents.
Miss Lemon, somehow, was so completely machine made-a precision instrument, so to speak-that to think of her having affections, or anxieties, or family worries, seemed quite ludicrous. It was well known that the whole of Miss Lemon's heart and mind was given, when she was not on duty, to the perfection of a new filing system which was to be patented and bear her name.
"Your sister?" Hercule Poirot repeated, therefore, with an incredulous note in his voice.
Miss Lemon nodded a vigorous assent.
"Yes," she said. "I don't think I've ever mentioned her to you. Practically all her life has been spent in Singapore. Her husband was in the rubber business there." Hercule Poirot nodded understandingly. It seemed to him appropriate that Miss Lemon's sister should have spent most of her life in Singapore. That was what places like Singapore were for. The sisters of women like Miss Lemon married men in business in Singapore, so that the Miss Lemons of this world could devote themselves with machine-like efficiency to their employers" affairs (and of course to the invention of filing systems in their moments of relaxation).
"I comprehend," he said. "Proceed." Miss Lemon proceeded.
"She was left a widow four years ago. No children.
I managed to get her fixed up in a very nice little flat at quite a reasonable rent-was (of course Miss Lemon would manage to do just that almost impossible thing.) "She is reasonably off-Sough money doesn't go as far as it did, but her tastes aren't expensive and she has enough to be quite comfortable if she is careful." Miss Lemon paused and then continued: "But the truth is, of course, she was lonely. She had never lived in England and she'd got no old friends or cronies and of course she had a lot of time on her hands. Anyway, she told me about six months ago that she was thinking of taking up this job." "Job?, "Warden, I think they call it-or Matron of a Hostel for Students. It was owned by a woman who was partly Greek and she wanted someone to run it for her.
Manage the catering and see that things went smoothly.
It's an old fashioned roomy house-in Hickory Road, if you know where that is" Poirot did not. "It used to be quite a superior neighbourhood once, and the houses are well built. My sister was to have very nice accommodation, bedroom and sitting room and a tiny bath kitchenette of her own" Miss Lemon paused. Poirot made an encouraging noise. So far this did not seem at all like a tale of disaster.
"I wasn't any too sure about it myself, but I saw the force of my sister's arguments. She's never been one to sit with her hands crossed all day long and she's a very practical woman and good at running things-and of course it wasn't as though she were thinking of putting money into it or anything like that. It was formerly a salaried position with a high salary, but she didn't need that, and there was no hard physical work. She's always been fond of young people and good with comthem, and having lived in the East so long she understands racial differences and people's susceptibilities. Because these students at the Hostel were of all nationalities; mostly English, but some of them actually are black, I believe." "Naturally," said Hercule Poirot.
"Half the nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays," said Miss Lemon, doubtfully, "and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than the English ones. But that's neither here nor there. We talked the scheme over and finally my sister moved in. Neither she nor I cared very much for the proprietress, Mrs. Nicoletis, a woman of very uncertain temper, sometimes charming and sometimes, I'm sorry to say, quite the reverse-and both cheese-paring and impractical. Still, naturally, if she'd been a thoroughly competent woman, she wouldn't have needed any assistance. My sister is not one to let people's tantrums and vagaries worry her.
She can hold her own with anyone and she never stands any nonsense." Poirot nodded. He felt a vague resemblance to Miss Lemon showing in this account of Miss Lemon's sister coma Miss Lemon softened as it were, by marriage and the climate of Singapore, but a woman with the same hard core of sense.
"So your sister took the job?" he asked.
"Yes, she moved into 26 Hickory Road about six months ago. On the whole, she liked her work there and found it interesting." Hercule Poirot listened. So far the adventures of Miss Lemon's sister had been disappointingly tame.
"But for some time now she's been badly worried.
Very badly worried." "Why?" "Well, you see, Mr. Poirot, she doesn't like the things that are going on." "There are students there of both sexes?" Poirot inquired delicately.
"Oh no, Mr. Poirot, I don't mean that!
One is always prepared for difficulties of that kind, one expects them! No, you see, things have been disappearing." "Disappearing?" "Yes. And such odd things… And all in rather an unnatural way." "When you say things have been disappearing, you mean things have been stolen?" "Yes." "Have the police been called in?" "No. Not yet. My sister hopes that it may not be necessary. She is fond of these young people-of some of them, that is-and she would very much prefer to straighten things out by herself." "Yes," said Poirot thoughtfully. "I can quite see that. But that does not explain, if I may say so, your own anxiety which I take to be a reflex of your sister's anxiety." "I don't like the situation, Mr. Poirot. I don't like it at all. I cannot help feeling that something is going on which I do not understand. No ordinary explanation seems quite to cover the facts-and I really cannot imagine what other explanation there can be." Poirot nodded thoughtfully.
Miss Lemon's Heel of Achilles had always been her imagination. She had none. On questions of fact she was invincible. On questions of surmise, she was lost. Not for her the state of mind of Cortes' men upon the peak of Darien.
"Not ordinary petty thieving.? A kleptomaniac, perhaps?" "I do not think so. I read up the subject," said the conscientious Miss Lemon, "in the Encyclopedia Britannica and in a medical work.
But I was not convinced." Hercule Poirot was silent for a minute and a half.
Did he wish to embroil himself in the troubles of Miss Lemon's sister and the passions and grievances of a polyglot Hostel? But it was very annoying and inconvenient to have Miss Lemon making mistakes in typing his letters. He told himself that if he were to embroil himself in the matter, that would be the reason.
He did not admit to himself that he had been rather bored of late and that the very triviality of the business attracted him.