To P. G. Wodehouse whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years.
Also to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me that he enjoys my books
MRS.ARIADNE OLIVER had gone with the friend with whom she was staying, Judith Butler, to help with the preparations for a children's party which was to take place that same evening.
At the moment it was a scene of chaotic activity. Energetic women came in and out of doors moving chairs, small tables, flower vases, and carrying large quantities of yellow pumpkins which they disposed strategically in selected spots.
It was to be a Hallowe'en party for invited guests of an age group between ten and seventeen years old.
Mrs. Oliver, removing herself from the main group, leant against a vacant background of wall and held up a large yellow pumpkin, looking at it critically-"The last time I saw one of these," she said, sweeping back her grey hair from her prominent forehead, "was in the United States last year-hundreds of them. All over the house. I've never seen so many pumpkins. As a matter of fact," she added thoughtfully, "I've never really known the difference between a pumpkin and a vegetable marrow. What's this one?"
"Sorry, dear," said Mrs. Butler, as she fell over her friend's feet.
Mrs. Oliver pressed herself closer against the wall.
"My fault," she said.
"I'm standing about and getting in the way. But it was rather remarkable, seeing so many pumpkins or vegetable marrows, whatever they are. They were everywhere, in the shops, and in people's houses, with candles or night lights inside them or strung up. Very interesting really. But it wasn't for a Hallowe'en party, it was Thanksgiving.
Now I've always associated pumpkins with Hallowe'en and that's the end of October.
Thanksgiving comes much later, doesn't it? Isn't it November, about the third week in November? Anyway, here, Hallowe'en is definitely the 31st of October, isn't it? First Hallowe'en and then, what comes next?
All Souls' Day?
That's when in Paris you go to cemeteries and put flowers on graves.
Not a sad sort of feast. I mean, all the children go too, and enjoy themselves. You go to flower markets first and buy lots and lots of lovely flowers. Flowers never look so lovely as they do in Paris in the market there."
A lot of busy women were falling over Mrs. Oliver occasionally, but they were not listening to her. They were all too busy with what they were doing.
They consisted for the most part of mothers, one or two competent spinsters; there were useful teenagers, boys of sixteen and seventeen climbing up ladders or standing on chairs to put decorations, pumpkins or vegetable marrows or brightly coloured witch balls at a suitable elevation; girls from eleven to fifteen hung about in groups and giggled.
"And after All Souls' Day and cemeteries," went on Mrs. Oliver, lowering her bulk on to the arm of a settee, "you have All Saints' Day.
I think I'm right?"
Nobody responded to this question.
Mrs. Drake, a handsome middle-aged woman who was giving the party, made a pronouncement.
"I'm not calling this a Hallowe'en party, although of course it is one really. I'm calling it the Eleven Plus party. It's that sort of age group. Mostly people who are leaving The Elms and going on to other schools."
"But that's not very accurate, Rowena, is it?" said Miss Whittaker, resetting her pince-nez on her nose disapprovingly.
Miss Whittaker as a local schoolteacher was always firm on accuracy.
"Because we've abolished the eleven plus some time ago."
Mrs. Oliver rose from the settee apologetically.
"I haven't been making myself useful. I've just been sitting here saying silly things about pumpkins and vegetable marrows"-And resting my feet, she thought, with a slight pang of conscience, but without sufficient feeling of guilt to say it aloud.
"Now what can I do next?" she asked, and added, "What lovely apples!"
Someone had just brought a large bowl of apples into the room. Mrs.
Oliver was partial to apples.
"Lovely red ones," she added.
"They're not really very good," said Rowena Drake.
"But they look nice and partified. That's for bobbing for apples.
They're rather soft apples, so people will be able to get their teeth into them better.
Take them into the library, will you, Beatrice? Bobbing for apples always makes a mess with the water slopping over, but that doesn't matter with the library carpet, it's so old. Oh! thank you, Joyce."
Joyce, a sturdy thirteen-year-old, seized the bowl of apples. Two rolled off it and stopped, as though arrested by a witch's wand, at Mrs. Oliver's feet.
"You like apples, don't you?" said Joyce.
"I read you did, or perhaps I heard it on the telly. You're the one who writes murder stories, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Oliver.
"We ought to have made you do something connected with murders. Have a murder at the party to-night and make people solve it."
"No, thank you," said Mrs. Oliver.
"What do you mean, never again?"
"Well, I did once, and it didn't turn out much of a success," said Mrs.
"But you've written lots of books," said Joyce, "you make a lot of money out of them, don't you?"
"In a way.," said Mrs. Oliver, her thoughts flying to the Inland Revenue.
"And you've got a detective who's a Finn."
Mrs. Oliver admitted the fact. A small stolid boy not yet, Mrs.
Oliver would have thought, arrived at the seniority of the eleven-plus, said sternly, "Why a Finn?"
"I've often wondered," said Mrs. Oliver truthfully.
Mrs. Hargreaves, the organist's wife, came into the room breathing heavily, and bearing a large green plastic pail.
"What about this," she said, "for the apple bobbing? Kind of gay, I thought."
Miss Lee, the doctor's dispenser, said, "Galvanised bucket's better.
Won't tip over so easily. Where are you going to have it, Mrs.
"I thought the bobbing for apples had better be in the library. The carpet's old there and a lot of water always gets spilt, anyway."
"All right. We'll take 'em along.
Rowena, here's another basket of apples."
"Let me help," said Mrs. Oliver.
She picked up the two apples at her feet.
Almost without noticing what she was doing, she sank her teeth into one of them and began to crunch it. Mrs. Drake abstracted the second apple from her firmly and restored it to the basket. A buzz of conversation broke out.
"Yes, but where are we going to have the Snapdragon?"
"You ought to have the Snapdragon in the library, it's much the darkest room."
"No, we're going to have that in the dining-room."
"We'll have to put something on the table first."
"There's a green baize cloth to put on that and then the rubber sheet over it."
"What about the looking-glasses? Shall we really see our husbands in them?"
Surreptitiously removing her shoes and still quietly champing at her apple, Mrs.
Oliver lowered herself once more on to the settee and surveyed the room full of people critically. She was thinking in her authoress's mind:
"Now, if I was going to make a book about all these people, how should I do it? They're nice people, I should think, on the whole, but who knows?"
In a way, she felt, it was rather fascinating not to know anything about them.
They all lived in Woodleigh Common, some of them had c faint tags attached to them in her memory because of what Judith had told her.
Miss Johnson-something to do with the church, not the vicar's sister.
Oh no, it was the organist's sister, of course. Rowena Drake, who seemed to run things in Woodleigh Common. The puffing woman who had brought in the pail, a particularly hideous plastic pail. But then Mrs. Oliver had never been fond of plastic things. And then the children, the teenage girls and boys.
So far they were really only names to Mrs. Oliver. There was a Nan and a Beatrice and a Cathie, a Diana and a Joyce, who was boastful and asked questions.
I don't like Joyce much, thought Mrs. Oliver. A girl called Arm, who looked tall and superior. There were two adolescent boys who appeared to have just got used to trying out different hair styles, with rather unfortunate results. ^ smallish boy^ entered in some condition of shynesss.
"Mummy sent these mirrors to see if they'd do," he said; in a slightly breathless voice, Ats. Drake took them from him. "^hank you so irouch. Eddy," she said.
"They're just ordinary looking hand"^"ors," said the Ain called Arm.
"Shall we r^ny see our fuflture husbands' faces in them "Some of you may and some may not," said Judith Butler.
"Aid you ever sese your husband's face whe^ you went to a party-I mean this kinA of a party?" ^Of course she diidn't," said Joyce. ^he might have," said the superior Beatdce.
"ESP. they call it. Extra sensory perception," she added in the tone ^ of one pleased with being thoroughly conversant with the; terms of the times. ^ read one of your books," said Arm to Mrs. Oliver.
"The JDying Goldfish. It was quit^ good," she said kindly. ^ didn't like titi at one," said Joyce. Aere wasn't enouigh blood in it. I like "^ders to have lotfs of blood."
"A bit messy," said Mrs. Oliver, "don't you think?"
"But exciting," said Joyce.
"Not necessarily," said Mrs. Oliver.
"I saw a murder once," said Joyce.
"Don't be silly, Joyce," said Miss Whittaker, the schoolteacher.
"I did," said Joyce.
"Did you really," asked Cathie, gazing at Joyce with wide eyes, "really and truly see a murder?"
"Of course she didn't," said Mrs.
"Don't say silly things, Joyce."
"I did see a murder," said Joyce.
I did. I did."
A seventeen-year-old boy poised on a ladder looked down interestedly.
"What kind of a murder?" he asked.
"I don't believe it," said Beatrice.
"Of course not," said Cathie's mother.
"She's just making it up."
"I'm not. I saw it."
"Why didn't you go to the police about it?" asked Cathie.
"Because I didn't know it was a murder when I saw it. It wasn't really till a long time afterwards, I mean, that I began to know that it was a murder. Something that somebody said only about a month or two ago suddenly made me think: Of course, that was a murder I saw."
"You see," said Arm, "she's making it all up. It's nonsense."
"When did it happen?" asked Beatrice.
"Years ago," said Joyce.
"I was quite young at the time," she added.
"Who murdered who?" said Beatrice.
"I shan't tell any of you," said Joyce.
"You're all so horrid about it."
Miss Lee came in with another kind of ^bucket. Conversation shifted to a comparison of buckets or plastic pails as most suitable for the sport of bobbing for sapples. The majority of the helpers ire paired to the library for an appraisal on the spot. Some of the younger members, lit may be said, were anxious to demongstrate, by a rehearsal of the difficulties and their own accomplishment in the sport. lHair got wet, water got spilt, towels were ssent for to mop it up. In the end it was odecided that a galvanised bucket was prefeerable to the more meretricious charms of aa plastic pail which overturned rather too eeasily.
Mrs. Oliver, setting down a bowl of apples which she had carried in to replenish the store required for tomorrow, once more helped herself to one.
"I read in the paper that you were fond of eating apples," the accusing voice of Arm or Susan-she was not quite sure which-spoke to her."
"It's my besetting sin," said Mrs.
"It would be more fun if it was melons," objected one of the boys.
"They're so juicy. Think of the mess it would make," he said, surveying the carpet with pleasurable anticipation.
Mrs. Oliver, feeling a little guilty at the public arraignment of greediness, left the room in search of a particular apartment, the geography of which is usually fairly easily identified. She went up the staircase and, turning the corner on the half landing, cannoned into a pair, a girl and a boy, clasped in each other's arms and leaning against the door which Mrs. Oliver felt fairly certain was the door to the room to which she herself was anxious to gain access. The couple paid no attention to her. They sighed and they snuggled. Mrs.
Oliver wondered how old they were. The boy was fifteen, perhaps, the girl little more than twelve, although the development of her chest seemed certainly on the mature side.
Apple Trees was a house of fair size. It had, she thought, several agreeable nooks and corners. How selfish people are, thought Mrs.
Oliver. No consideration for others. That well-known tag from the past came into her mind. It had been said to her in succession by a nursemaid, a nanny, a governess, her grandmother, two great aunts her mother and a few others.
"Excuse me," said Mrs. Oliver in a loud, clear voice.
The boy and the girl clung closer than ever, their lips fastened on each other's.
"Excuse me," said Mrs. Oliver again, "do you mind letting me pass? I want to get in at this door."
Unwillingly the couple fell apart. They looked at her in an aggrieved fashion. Mrs.
Oliver went in, banged the door and shot the bolt.
It was not a very close fitting door. The faint sound of words came to her from outside.
"Isn't that like people?" one voice said in a somewhat uncertain tenor.
"They might see we didn't want to be disturbed."
"People are so selfish," piped a girl's voice.
"They never think of anyone but themselves."
"No consideration for others," said the boy's voice.
PREPARATIONS for a children's party usually give far more trouble to the organisers than an entertainment devised for those of adult years.
Food of good quality and suitable alcoholic refreshment-with lemonade on the side, that, to the right people, is quite enough to make a party go. It may cost more but the trouble is infinitely less. So Ariadne Oliver and her friend Judith Butler agreed together.
"What about teenage parties?" said Judith.
"I don't know much about them," said Mrs. Oliver.
"In one way," said Judith, "I think they're probably least trouble of all. I mean, they just throw all of us adults out.
And say they'll do it all themselves."
"And do they?"
"Well, not in our sense of the word," said Judith.
"They forget to order some of the things, and order a lot of other things that nobody likes. Having turfed us out, then they say there were things we ought to have provided for them to find. They break a lot of glasses, and other things, and there's always somebody undesirable or who brings an undesirable friend. You know the sort of thing. Peculiar drugs and what do they call it? Flower Pot or Purple Hemp or LSD, which I always have thought just meant money, but apparently it doesn't."
"I suppose it costs it," suggested Ariadne Oliver.
"It's very unpleasant, and Hemp has a nasty smell."
"It all sounds very depressing," said Mrs. Oliver.
"Anyway, this party will go all right.
Trust Rowena Drake for that. She's a wonderful organiser. You'll see."
"I don't feel I even want to go to a party," sighed Mrs. Oliver.
"You go up and lie down for an hour or so. You'll see. You'll enjoy it when you get there. I wish Miranda hadn't got a temperature she's so disappointed at not being able to go, poor child."
The party came into being at half past seven. Ariadne Oliver had to admit that her friend was right. Arrivals were punctual.
Everything went splendidly. It was well imagined, well run and ran like clockwork.
There were red and blue lights on the stairs and yellow pumpkins in profusion.
The girls and boys arrived holding decorated broomsticks for a competition.
After greetings, Rowena Drake announced the programme for the evening.
"First, judging of the broomstick competition," she said, "three prizes, first, second and third. Then comes cutting the flour cake.
That'll be in the small conservatory. Then bobbing for apples-there's a list pinned upon the wall over there of the partners for that event-then there'll be dancing.
Every time the lights go out you change partners. Then girls to the small study where they'll be given their mirrors. After that, supper.
Snapdragon and then prize-giving."
Like all parties, it went slightly stickily at first. The brooms were admired, they were very small miniature brooms, and on the whole the decorating of them had not reached a very high standard of merit,
"which makes it easier," said Mrs. Drake in an aside to one of her friends.
"And it's a very useful thing because I mean there are always one or two children one knows only too well won't win a prize at anything else, so one can cheat a little over this."
"So unscrupulous, Rowena."
"I'm not really. I just arrange so that things should be fair and evenly divided.
The whole point is that everyone wants to win something" "What's the Flour Game?" asked Ariadne Oliver.
"Oh yes, of course, you weren't here when we were doing it. Well, you just fill a tumbler with flour, press it in well, then you turn it out in a tray and place a sixpence on top of it. Then everyone slices a slice off it very carefully so as not to tumble the sixpence off. As soon as someone tumbles the sixpence off, that person goes out. It's a sort of elimination.
The last one left in gets the sixpence of course. Now then, away we go."
And away they went. Squeals of excitement were heard coming from the library where bobbing for apples went on, and competitors returned from there with wet locks and having disposed a good deal of water about their persons.
One of the most popular contests, at any rate among the girls, was the arrival of the Hallowe'en witch played by Mrs. Goodbody, a local cleaning woman who, not only having the necessary hooked nose and chin which almost met, was admirably proficient in producing a semi-cooing voice which had definitely sinister undertones and also produced magical doggerel rhymes.
"Now then, come along. Beatrice, is it?
Ah, Beatrice. A very interesting name.
Now you want to know what your husband is going to look like. Now, my dear, sit here. Yes, yes, under this light here. Sit here and hold this little mirror in your hand, and presently when the lights go out you'll see him appear. You'll see him looking over your shoulder. Now hold the mirror steady. Abracadabra, who shall see? The face of the man who will marry me. Beatrice, Beatrice, you shall find, the fsce of the man who shall please your mind."
A sudden shaft of light shot across the room from a step-ladder, placed behind a screen. It hit the right spot in the room, which was reflected in the mirror grasped in Beatrice's excited hand.
"Oh!" cried Beatrice.
"I've seen him.
I've seen him! I can see him in my mirror!"
The beam was shut off, the lights came on and a coloured photograph pasted on a card floated down from the ceiling.
Beatrice danced about excitedly.
"That was him! That was him! I saw him," she cried.
"Oh, he's got a lovely ginger beard."
She rushed to Mrs. Oliver, who was the nearest person.
"Do look, do look. Don't you think he's rather wonderful? He's like Eddie Presweight, the pop singer. Don't you think so?"
Mrs. Oliver did think he looked like one of the faces she daily deplored having to see in her morning paper. The beard, she thought, had been an after-thought of genius.
"Where do all these things come from?" she asked.
"Oh, Rowena gets Nicky to make them. And his friend Desmond helps.
He experiments a good deal with photography. He and a couple of pals of his made themselves up, with a great deal of hair or side-burns or beards and things.
And then with the light on him and everything, of course it sends the girls wild with delight."
"I can't help thinking," said Ariadne Oliver, "that girls are really very silly nowadays."
"Don't you think they always were?" asked Rowena Drake.
Mrs. Oliver considered.
"I suppose you're right," she admitted.
"Now then," cried Mrs. Drake-"supper."
Supper went off well. Rich iced cakes, savouries, prawns, cheese and nut confections.
The eleven-pluses stuffed themselves.
"And now," said Rowena, "that last one for the evening. Snapdragon.
Across there, through the pantry. That's right. Now then. Prizes first."
The prizes were presented, and then there was a wailing, banshee call.
The children rushed across the hall back to the dining-room.
The food had been cleared away. A green baize cloth was laid across the table and here was borne a great dish of flaming raisins. Everybody shrieked, rushing forward, snatching the blazing raisins, with cries of "Ow, I'm burned! Isn't it lovely?" Little by little the Snapdragon flickered and died down. The lights went up. The party was over.
"It's been a great success," said Rowena.
"So it should be with all the trouble you've taken."
"It was lovely," said Judith quietly.
"And now," she added ruefully, "we'll have to clear up a bit. We can't leave everything for those poor women tomorrow morning."
IN a flat in London the telephone bell rang. The owner of the flat, Hercule Poirot, stirred in his chair. Disappointment attacked him. He knew before he answered it what it meant. His friend Sony, with whom he had been going to spend the evening, reviving their never ending controversy about the real culprit in the Canning Road Municipal Baths murder, was about to say that he could not come. Poirot, who had collected certain bits of evidence in favour of his own somewhat far-fetched theory, was deeply disappointed.
He did not think his friend Sony would accept his suggestions, but he had no doubt that when Sony in his turn produced his own fantastic beliefs, he himself, Hercule Poirot, would just as easily be able to demolish them in the name of sanity, logic, order and method. It was annoying, to say the least of it, if Sony did not come this evening.
But it is true that when they had met earlier in the day, Sony had been racked with a chesty cough and was in a state of highly infectious catarrh.
"He had a nasty cold," said Hercule Poirot, "and no doubt, in spite of the remedies that I have handy here, he would probably have given it to me. It is better that he should not come. Tout de meme," he added, with a sigh, "it will mean that now I shall pass a dull evening."
Many of the evenings were dull now, Hercule Poirot thought. His mind, magnificent as it was (for he had never doubted that fact) required stimulation from outside sources. He had never been of a philosophic cast of mind. There were times when he almost regretted that he had not taken to the study of theology instead of going into the police force in his early days. The number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle; it would be interesting to feel that that mattered and to argue passionately on the point with one's colleagues.
His manservant, George, entered the room.
"It was Mr. Solomon Levy, sir."
"Ah yes," said Hercule Poirot.
"He very much regrets that he will not be able to join you this evening. He is in bed with a serious bout of "flu."
"He has not got 'flu," said Hercule Poirot.
"He has only a nasty cold.
Everyone always thinks they have 'flu. It sounds more important. One gets more sympathy. The trouble with a catarrhal cold is that it is hard to glean the proper amount of sympathetic consideration from one's friends."
"Just as well he isn't coming here, sir, really," said George.
"Those colds in the head are very infectious. Wouldn't be good for you to go down with one of those."
"It would be extremely tedious," Poirot agreed.
The telephone bell rang again.
"And now who has a cold?" he demanded.
"I have not asked anyone else."
George crossed towards the telephone.
"I will take the call here," said Poirot.
"I have no doubt that it is nothing of interest. But at any rate " he shrugged his shoulders " it will perhaps pass the time. Who knows?"
George said, "Very good, sir," and left the room.
Poirot stretched out a hand, raised the receiver, thus stilling the clamour of the bell.
"Hercule Poirot speaks," he said, with a certain grandeur of manner designed to impress whoever was at the other end of the line.
"That's wonderful," said an eager voice.
A female voice, slightly impaired with breathlessness.
"I thought you'd be sure to be out, that you wouldn't be there."
"Why should you think that?" inquired Poirot.
"Because I can't help feeling that nowadays things always happen to frustrate one. You want someone in a terrible hurry, you feel you can't wait, and you have to wait. I wanted to get hold of you urgently-absolutely urgently."
"And who are you?" asked Hercule Poirot.
The voice, a female one, seemed surprised.
"Don't you know?" it said incredulously.
"Yes, I know," said Hercule Poirot.
"You are my friend, Ariadne."
"And I'm in a terrible state," said Ariadne.
"Yes, yes, I can hear that. Have you also been running? You are very breathless, are you not?"
"I haven't been exactly running. It's emotion. Can I come and see you at on cer Poirot let a few moments elapse before he answered. His friend, Mrs. Oliver, sounded in a highly excitable condition.
Whatever was the matter with her, she would no doubt spend a very long time pouring out her grievances, her woes, her frustrations or whatever was ailing her.
Once having established herself within Poirot's sanctum, it might be hard to induce her to go home without a certain amount of impolite ness The things that excited Mrs. Oliver were so numerous and frequently so unexpected that one had to be careful how one embarked upon a discussion of them.
"Something has upset you?"
"Yes. Of course I'm upset. I don't know what to do. I don't know-oh, I don't know anything. What I feel is that I've got to come and tell you-tell you just what's happened, for you're the only person who might know what to do. Who might tell me what I ought to do. So can I come?"
"But certainly, but certainly. I shall be delighted to receive you."
The receiver was thrown down heavily at the other end and Poirot summoned George, reflected a few minutes, then ordered lemon barley water, bitter lemon and a glass of brandy for himself.
"Mrs. Oliver will be here in about ten minutes," he said.
George withdrew. He returned with the brandy for Poirot, who accepted it with a nod of satisfaction, and George then proceeded to provide the tee total refreshment that was the only thing likely to appeal to Mrs.