The Secret of Chimneys

Agatha Christie

Preview: Issue 1 of 26


'Gentleman Joe!'

'Why, if it isn't old Jimmy McGrath.'

Castle's Select Tour, represented by seven depressed-looking females and three perspiring males, looked on with considerable interest. Evidently their Mr Cade had met an old friend. They all admired Mr Cade so much, his tall lean figure, his sun-tanned face, the light-hearted manner with which he settled disputes and cajoled them all into good temper. This friend of his now - surely rather a peculiar-looking man. About the same height as Mr Cade, but thick-set and not nearly so good-looking. The sort of man one read about in books, who probably kept a saloon. Interesting though. After all, that was what one came abroad for - to see all these peculiar things one read about in books. Up to now they had been rather bored with Bulawayo. The sun was unbearably hot, the hotel was uncomfortable, there seemed to be nowhere particular to go until the moment should arrive to motor to the Matoppos. Very fortunately, Mr Cade had suggested picture postcards. There was an excellent supply of picture postcards.

Anthony Cade and his friend had stepped a little apart.

'What the hell are you doing with this pack of females?' demanded McGrath. 'Starting a harem?'

'Not with this little lot,' grinned Anthony. 'Have you taken a good look at them?'

'I have that. Thought maybe you were losing your eye-sight -'

'My eyesight's as good as ever it was. No, this is a Castle's Select Tour. I'm Castle - the local Castle, I mean.'

'What the hell made you take on a job like that?'

'A regrettable necessity for cash. I can assure you it doesn't suit my temperament.'

Jimmy grinned.

'Never a hog for regular work, were you?'

Anthony ignored this aspersion.

'However, something will turn up soon, I expect,' he remarked hopefully. 'It usually does.'

Jimmy chuckled.

'If there's any trouble brewing, Anthony Cade is sure to be in it sooner or later, I know that,' he said. 'You've an absolute instinct for rows - and the nine lives of a cat. When can we have a yarn together?'

Anthony sighed.

'I've got to take these cackling hens to see Rhodes' grave.'

'That's the stuff,' said Jimmy approvingly. 'They'll come back bumped black and blue with the ruts in the road, and clamouring for bed to rest the bruises on. Then you and I will have a spot or two and exchange the news.'

'Right. So long, Jimmy.'

Anthony rejoined his flock of sheep. Miss Taylor, the youngest and most skittish of the party, instantly attacked him. 'Oh, Mr Cade, was that an old friend of yours?'

'It was, Miss Taylor. One of the friends of my blameless youth.'

Miss Taylor giggled. 'I thought he was such an interesting-looking man.'

'I'll tell him you said so.'

'Oh, Mr Cade, how can you be so naughty! The very idea! What was that name he called you?'

'Gentleman Joe?'

'Yes. Is your name Joe?'

'I thought you knew it was Anthony, Miss Taylor.'

'Oh, go on with you!' cried Miss Taylor coquettishly.

Anthony had by now well mastered his duties. In addition to making the necessary arrangements of travel, they included soothing down irritable old gentlemen when their dignity was ruffled, seeing that elderly matrons had ample opportunities to buy picture postcards, and flirting with everything under a catholic forty years of age. The last task was rendered easier for him by the extreme readiness of the ladies in question to read a tender meaning into his most innocent remarks.

Miss Taylor returned to the attack. 'Why does he call you Joe, then?'

'Oh, just because it isn't my name.'

'And why Gentleman Joe?'

'The same kind of reason.'

'Oh, Mr Cade,' protested Miss Taylor, much distressed, 'I'm sure you shouldn't say that. Papa was only saying last night what gentlemanly manners you had.'

'Very kind of your father, I'm sure, Miss Taylor.'

'And we are all agreed that you are quite the gentleman.'

'I'm overwhelmed.'

'No, really, I mean it.'

'Kind hearts are more than coronets,' said Anthony vaguely, without a notion of what he meant by the remark, and wishing fervently it was lunchtime.

'That's such a beautiful poem, I always think. Do you know much poetry, Mr Cade?'

'I might recite "The boy stood on the burning deck" at a pinch. "The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled." That's all I know, but I can do that bit with action if you like. "The boy stood on the burning deck -" whoosh - whoosh - whoosh - (the flames, you see) "Whence all but he had fled -" for that bit I run to and fro like a dog.'

Miss Taylor screamed with laughter.

'Oh, do look at Mr Cade! Isn't he funny?'

'Time for morning tea,' said Anthony briskly. 'Come this way. There is an excellent cafй in the next street.'

'I presume,' said Mrs Caldicott in her deep voice, 'that the expense is included in the Tour?'

'Morning tea, Mrs Caldicott,' said Anthony, assuming his professional manner, 'is an extra.'


'Life is full of trials, isn't it?' said Anthony cheerfully.

Mrs Caldicott's eyes gleamed, and she remarked with the air of one springing a mine:

'I suspected as much, and in anticipation I poured off some tea into a jug at breakfast this morning! I can heat that up on the spirit-lamp. Come, Father.'

Mr and Mrs Caldicott sailed off triumphantly to the hotel, the lady's back complacent with successful forethought.

'Oh, Lord,' muttered Anthony, 'what a lot of funny people it does take to make a world.'

He marshalled the rest of the party in the direction of the cafй. Miss Taylor kept by his side, and resumed her catechism. 'Is it a long time since you saw your friend?'

'Just over seven years.'

'Was it in Africa you knew him?'

'Yes, not this part, though. The first time I ever saw Jimmy McGrath he was all trussed up ready for the cooking pot. Some of the tribes in the interior are cannibals, you know. We got there just in time.'

'What happened?'

'Very nice little shindy. We potted some of the beggars, and the rest took to their heels.'

'Oh, Mr Cade, what an adventurous life you must have led!'

'Very peaceful, I assure you.'

But it was clear that the lady did not believe him.

It was about ten o'clock that night when Anthony Cade walked into the small room where Jimmy McGrath was busy manipulating various bottles.

'Make it strong, James,' he implored. 'I can tell you, I need it.'

'I should think you did, my boy. I wouldn't take on that job of yours for anything.'

'Show me another, and I'll jump out of it fast enough.'

McGrath poured out his own drink, tossed it off with a practised hand and mixed a second one. Then he said slowly: 'Are you in earnest about that, old son?'

'About what?'

'Chucking this job of yours if you could get another?'

'Why? You don't mean to say that you've got a job going begging? Why don't you grab it yourself?'

'I have grabbed it - but I don't much fancy it, that's why I'm trying to pass it on to you.'

Anthony became suspicious.

'What's wrong with it? They haven't engaged you to teach in a Sunday school, have they?'

'Do you think anyone would choose me to teach in a Sunday school?'

'Not if they knew you well, certainly.'

'It's a perfectly good job - nothing wrong with it whatsoever.'

'Not in South America by any lucky chance? I've rather got my eye on South America. There's a very tidy little revolution coming off in one of those little republics soon.'

McGrath grinned. 'You always were keen on revolutions - anything to be mixed up in a really good row.'

'I feel my talents might be appreciated out there. I tell you, Jimmy, I can be jolly useful in a revolution - to one side or the other. It's better than making an honest living any day.'

'I think I've heard that sentiment from you before, my son. No, the job isn't in South America - it's in England.'

'England? Return of hero to his native land after many long years. They can't dun you for bills after seven years, can they, Jimmy?'

'I don't think so. Well, are you on for hearing more about it?'

'I'm on all right. The thing that worries me is why you're not taking it on yourself.'

'I'll tell you. I'm after gold, Anthony - far up in the interior.'

Anthony whistled and looked at him.

'You've always been after gold, Jimmy, ever since I knew you. It's your weak spot - your own particular little hobby. You've followed up more wild-cat trails than anyone I know.'

'And in the end I'll strike it. You'll see.'

'Well, every one his own hobby. Mine's rows, yours is gold.'

'I'll tell you the whole story. I suppose you know all about Herzoslovakia?'

Anthony looked up sharply. 'Herzoslovakia?' he said, with a curious ring in his voice.

'Yes. Know anything about it?'

There was quite an appreciable pause before Anthony answered. Then he said slowly: 'Only what everyone knows. It's one of the Balkan State, isn't it? Principal rivers, unknown. Principal mountains, also unknown, but fairly numerous. Capital, Ekarest. Population, chiefly brigands. Hobby, assassinating kings and having revolutions. Last king, Nicholas IV, assassinated about seven years ago. Since then it's been a republic. Altogether a very likely spot. You might have mentioned before that Herzoslovakia came into it.'

'It doesn't except indirectly.'

Anthony gazed at him more in sorrow than in anger.

'You ought to do something about this, James,' he said. 'Take a correspondence course, or something. If you'd told a story like this in the food old Eastern days, you'd have been hung up by the heels and bastinadoed or something equally unpleasant.'

Jimmy pursued this course quite unmoved by these strictures. 'Ever heard of Count Stylptitch?'

'Now you're talking,' said Anthony. Many people who have never heard of Herzoslovakia would brighten at me mention of Count Stylptitch. The Grand Old Man of the Balkans. The greatest statesman of modern times. The biggest villain unhung. The point of view all depends on which newspaper you take in. But be sure of this, Count Stylptitch will be remembered long after you and I are dust and ashes, James. Every move and counter move in the near East for the last twenty years has had Count Stylptitch at the bottom of it. He's been a dictator and a patriot and a statesman - and nobody knows exactly what he has been, except that he's been a king of intrigue. Well, what about him?'

'He was Prime Minister of Herzoslovakia - that's why I mentioned it first.'

'You've no sense of proportion, Jimmy. Herzoslovakia is of no importance at all compared to Stylptitch. It just provided him with a birthplace and a post in public affairs. But I thought he was dead?'

'So he is. He died in Paris about two months ago. What I'm telling you about happened some years ago.'

'The question is,' said Anthony, what are you telling me about?'

Jimmy accepted the rebuke and hastened on. 'It was like this. I was in Paris - just four years ago, to be exact. I was walking along one night in rather a lonely part, when I saw half a dozen French toughs beating up a respectable-looking old gentleman. I hate a one-sided show, so I promptly butted in and proceeded to beat up the toughs. I guess they'd never been hit really hard before. They melted like snow!'

'Good for you, James,' said Anthony softly. 'I'd like to have seen that scrap.'

'Oh, it was nothing much, said Jimmy modestly. 'But the old boy was no end grateful. He'd had a couple, no doubt about that, but he was sober enough to get my name and address out of me, and he came along and thanked me next day. Did the thing in style, too. It was then that I found out it wa Count Stylptitch I'd rescued. He'd got a house up by the Bois.'

Anthony nodded.

'Yes, Stylptitch went to live in Paris after the assassination of King Nicholas. They wanted him to come back and be president later, but he wasn't taking any. He remained sound to his monarchical principles, though he was reported to have his finger in all the backstairs pies that went on in the Balkans. Very deep, the late Count Stylptitch.'

'Nicholas IV was the man who had a funny taste in wives, wasn't he?' said Jimmy suddenly.

'Yes,' said Anthony. 'And it did for him, too, poor beggar. She was some little guttersnipe of a music-hall artiste in Paris - not even suitable for a morganatic alliance. But Nicholas had a frightful crush on her, and she was all out for being a queen. Sounds fantastic, but they managed it somehow. Called her the Countess Popoffsky, or something, and pretended she had Romanoff blood in her veins. Nicholas married her in the cathedral at Ekarest with a couple of unwilling archbishops to do the job, and she was crowned as Queen Varaga. Nicholas squared his ministers, and I suppose he thought that was all that mattered - but he forgot to reckon with the populace. They're very aristocratic and reactionary in Herzoslovakia. They like their kings and queens to be the genuine article. There were mutterings and discontent, and the usual ruthless suppressions, and the final uprising which stormed the palace, murdered the King and Queen, and proclaimed a republic. It's been a republic ever since - but things still manage to be pretty lively there, so I've heard. They've assassinated, a president or two, just to keep their hand in. But let's get back to the subject. You had got to where Count Stylptitch was hailing you as his preserver.'

'Yes. Well, that was the end of that business. I came back to Africa and never thought of it again until about two weeks ago I got a queer-looking parcel which had been following me all over the place for the Lord knows how long. I'd seen in a paper that Count Stylptitch had recently died in Paris. Well, this parcel contained his memoirs - or reminiscences, or whatever you call the things. There was a note enclosed to the effect that if I delivered the manuscript at a certain firm of publishers in London on or before October 13th, they were instructed to hand me a thousand pounds.'

'A thousand pounds? Did you say a thousand pounds, Jimmy?'

'I did, my son. I hope to God it's not a hoax. Put not your trust in princes or politicians, as the saying goes. Well, there it is. Owing to the way the manuscript had been following me around, I had no time to lose. It was a pity, all the same. I'd just fixed up this trip to the interior, and I'd set my heart on going. I shan't get such a good chance again.'

'You're incurable, Jimmy. A thousand pounds in the hand is worth a lot of mythical gold.'

'And supposing it's all a hoax? Anyway, here I am, passage booked and everything, on the way to Cape Town - and then you blow along!'

Anthony got up and lit a cigarette. 'I begin to perceive your drift, James. You go gold-hunting as planned, and I collect the thousand pounds for you. How much do I get out of it?'

'What do you say to a quarter?'

'Two hundred and fifty pounds free of income tax, as the saying goes?'

'That's it.'

'Done, and just to make you gnash your teeth I'll tell you that I would have gone for a hundred! Let me tell you, James McGrath, you won't die in your bed counting up your bank balance.'

'Anyway, it's a deal?'

'It's a deal all right. I'm on. And confusion to Castle's Select Tours.'

They drank the toast solemnly.

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