The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
It seems fitting, somehow, that the “Mistress of Mystery,” the “Queen of Crime,” set numerous stories in the cozy world of Christmas. The great talent that Dame Agatha brought to her detective stories was the element of surprise, and what could be more surprising than killing someone at what is meant to be the most peaceful, love-filled time of the year? This splendid story was such a favorite of the author that she used it as the title story of her collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées (London, Collins, 1960).
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
“I regret exceedingly——” said M. Hercule Poirot.
He was interrupted. Not rudely interrupted. The interruption was suave, dexterous, persuasive rather than contradictory.
“Please don’t refuse offhand, M. Poirot. There are grave issues of State. Your co-operation will be appreciated in the highest quarters.”
“You are too kind,” Hercule Poirot waved a hand, “but I really cannot undertake to do as you ask. At this season of the year——”
Again Mr. Jesmond interrupted. “Christmas time,” he said, persuasively. “An old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside.”
Hercule Poirot shivered. The thought of the English countryside at this season of the year did not attract him.
“A good old-fashioned Christmas!” Mr. Jesmond stressed it.
“Me—I am not an Englishman,” said Hercule Poirot. “In my country, Christmas, it is for the children. The New Year, that is what we celebrate.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Jesmond, “but Christmas in England is a great institution and I assure you at Kings Lacey you would see it at its best. It’s a wonderful old house, you know. Why, one wing of it dates from the fourteenth century.”
Again Poirot shivered. The thought of a fourteenth-century English manor house filled him with apprehension. He had suffered too often in the historic country houses of England. He looked round appreciatively at his comfortable modern flat with its radiators and the latest patent devices for excluding any kind of draught.
“In the winter,” he said firmly, “I do not leave London.”
“I don’t think you quite appreciate, M. Poirot, what a very serious matter this is.” Mr. Jesmond glanced at his companion and then back at Poirot.
Poirot’s second visitor had up to now said nothing but a polite and formal “How do you do.” He sat now, gazing down at his well-polished shoes, with an air of the utmost dejection on his coffee-coloured face. He was a young man, not more than twenty-three, and he was clearly in a state of complete misery.
“Yes, yes,” said Hercule Poirot. “Of course the matter is serious. I do appreciate that. His Highness has my heartfelt sympathy.”
“The position is one of the utmost delicacy,” said Mr. Jesmond.
Poirot transferred his gaze from the young man to his older companion. If one wanted to sum up Mr. Jesmond in a word, the word would have been discretion. Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase—“a position of the utmost delicacy.”
“The police,” said Hercule Poirot, “can be very discreet, you know.”
Mr. Jesmond shook his head firmly.
“Not the police,” he said. “To recover the—er—what we want to recover will almost inevitably involve taking proceedings in the law courts and we know so little. We suspect, but we do not know.”
“You have my sympathy,” said Hercule Poirot again.
If he imagined that his sympathy was going to mean anything to his two visitors, he was wrong. They did not want sympathy, they wanted practical help. Mr. Jesmond began once more to talk about the delights of an English Christmas.
“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snow-man outside the window——”
In the interests of exactitude, Hercule Poirot intervened.
“To make a snow-man one has to have the snow,” he remarked severely. “And one cannot have snow to order, even for an English Christmas.”
“I was talking to a friend of mine in the meteorological office only today,” said Mr. Jesmond, “and he tells me that it is highly probable there will be snow this Christmas.”
It was the wrong thing to have said. Hercule Poirot shuddered more forcefully than ever.
“Snow in the country!” he said. “That would be still more abominable. A large, cold, stone manor house.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Jesmond. “Things have changed very much in the last ten years or so. Oil-fired central heating.”
“They have oil-fired central heating at Kings Lacey?” asked Poirot. For the first time he seemed to waver.
Mr. Jesmond seized his opportunity. “Yes, indeed,” he said, “and a splendid hot water system. Radiators in every bedroom. I assure you, my dear M. Poirot, Kings Lacey is comfort itself in the winter time. You might even find the house too warm.”
“That is most unlikely,” said Hercule Poirot.
With practised dexterity Mr. Jesmond shifted his ground a little.
“You can appreciate the terrible dilemma we are in,” he said, in a confidential manner.
Hercule Poirot nodded. The problem was, indeed, not a happy one. A young potentate-to-be, the only son of the ruler of a rich and important native state, had arrived in London a few weeks ago. His country had been passing through a period of restlessness and discontent. Though loyal to the father whose way of life had remained persistently Eastern, popular opinion was somewhat dubious of the younger generation. His follies had been Western ones and as such looked upon with disapproval.
Recently, however, his betrothal had been announced. He was to marry a cousin of the same blood, a young woman who, though educated at Cambridge, was careful to display no Western influences in her own country. The wedding day was announced and the young prince had made a journey to England, bringing with him some of the famous jewels of his house to be reset in appropriate modern settings by Cartier. These had included a very famous ruby which had been removed from its cumbersome old-fashioned necklace and had been given a new look by the famous jewellers. So far so good, but after this came the snag. It was not to be supposed that a young man possessed of much wealth and convivial tastes should not commit a few follies of the pleasanter type. As to that there would have been no censure. Young princes were supposed to amuse themselves in this fashion. For the prince to take the girlfriend of the moment for a walk down Bond Street and bestow upon her an emerald bracelet or a diamond clip as a reward for the pleasure she had afforded him would have been regarded as quite natural and suitable, corresponding in fact to the Cadillac cars which his father invariably presented to his favourite dancing girl of the moment.
But the prince had been far more indiscreet than that. Flattered by the lady’s interest, he had displayed to her the famous ruby in its new setting, and had finally been so unwise as to accede to her request to be allowed to wear it—just for one evening!
The sequel was short and sad. The lady had retired from their supper-table to powder her nose. Time passed. She did not return. She had left the establishment by another door and since then had disappeared into space. The important and distressing thing was that the ruby in its new setting had disappeared with her.
These were the facts that could not possibly be made public without the most dire consequences. The ruby was something more than a ruby, it was a historical possession of great significance, and the circumstances of its disappearance were such that any undue publicity about them might result in the most serious political consequences.
Mr. Jesmond was not the man to put these facts into simple language. He wrapped them up, as it were, in a great deal of verbiage. Who exactly Mr. Jesmond was, Hercule Poirot did not know. He had met other Mr. Jesmonds in the course of his career. Whether he was connected with the Home Office, the Foreign Office, or some more discreet branch of public service was not specified. He was acting in the interests of the Commonwealth. The ruby must be recovered.
M. Poirot, so Mr. Jesmond delicately insisted, was the man to recover it.
“Perhaps—yes,” Hercule Poirot admitted, “but you can tell me so little. Suggestion— suspicion—all that is not very much to go upon.”
“Come now, M. Poirot, surely it is not beyond your powers. Ah, come now.”
“I do not always succeed.”
But this was mock modesty. It was clear enough from Poirot’s tone that for him to undertake a mission was almost synonymous with succeeding in it.
“His Highness is very young,” Mr. Jesmond said. “It will be sad if his whole life is to be blighted for a mere youthful indiscretion.”
Poirot looked kindly at the downcast young man. “It is the time for follies, when one is young,” he said encouragingly, “and for the ordinary young man it does not matter so much. The good papa, he pays up; the family lawyer, he helps to disentangle the inconvenience; the young man, he learns by experience and all ends for the best. In a position such as yours, it is hard indeed. Your approaching marriage——”
“That is it. That is it exactly.” For the first time words poured from the young man. “You see she is very, very serious. She takes life very seriously. She has acquired at Cambridge many very serious ideas. There is to be education in my country. There are to be schools. There are to be many things. All in the name of progress, you understand, of democracy. It will not be, she says, like it was in my father’s time. Naturally she knows that I will have diversions in London, but not the scandal. No! It is the scandal that matters. You see it is very, very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed—many deaths!”
“Deaths,” said Hercule Poirot thoughtfully. He looked at Mr. Jesmond. “One hopes,” he said, “it will not come to that?”
Mr. Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.
“No, no, indeed,” he said, sounding rather prim. “There is no question, I am sure, of anything of that kind.”
“You cannot be sure,” said Hercule Poirot. “Whoever has the ruby now, there may be others who want to gain possession of it, and who will not stick at a trifle, my friend.”
“I really don’t think,” said Mr. Jesmond, sounding more prim than ever, “that we need enter into speculations of that kind. Quite unprofitable.”
“Me,” said Hercule Poirot, suddenly becoming very foreign, “me, I explore all the avenues, like the politicians.”
Mr. Jesmond looked at him doubtfully. Pulling himself together, he said, “Well, I can take it that is settled, M. Poirot? You will go to Kings Lacey?”
“And how do I explain myself there?” asked Hercule Poirot.
Mr. Jesmond smiled with confidence.
“That, I think, can be arranged very easily,” he said. “I can assure you that it will all seem quite natural. You will find the Laceys most charming. Delightful people.”
“And you do not deceive me about the oil-fired central heating?”
“No, no, indeed.” Mr. Jesmond sounded quite pained. “I assure you you will find every comfort.”
“Tout confort moderne,” murmured Poirot to himself, reminiscently. “Eh bien,” he said, “I accept.”
The temperature in the long drawing-room at Kings Lacey was a comfortable sixty-eight as Hercule Poirot sat talking to Mrs. Lacey by one of the big mullioned windows. Mrs. Lacey was engaged in needlework. She was not doing petit point or embroidering flowers upon silk. Instead, she appeared to be engaged in the prosaic task of hemming dishcloths. As she sewed she talked in a soft reflective voice that Poirot found very charming.
“I hope you will enjoy our Christmas party here, M. Poirot. It’s only the family, you know. My granddaughter and a grandson and a friend of his and Bridget who’s my great-niece, and Diana who’s a cousin and David Welwyn who is a very old friend. Just a family party. But Edwina Morecombe said that that’s what you really wanted to see. An old-fashioned Christmas. Nothing could be more old-fashioned than we are! My husband, you know, absolutely lives in the past. He likes everything to be just as it was when he was a boy of twelve years old, and used to come here for his holidays.” She smiled to herself. “All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey—two turkeys, one boiled and one roast—and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver any more. But all the old desserts, the Elvas plums and Carlsbad plums and almonds and raisins, and crystallised fruit and ginger. Dear me, I sound like a catalogue from Fortnum and Mason!”
“You arouse my gastronomic juices, madame.”
“I expect we’ll all have frightful indigestion by tomorrow evening,” said Mrs. Lacey. “One isn’t used to eating so much nowadays, is one?”
She was interrupted by some loud shouts and whoops of laughter outside the window. She glanced out.
“I don’t know what they’re doing out there. Playing some game or other, I suppose. I’ve always been so afraid, you know, that these young people would be bored by our Christmas here. But not at all, it’s just the opposite. Now my own son and daughter and their friends, they used to be rather sophisticated about Christmas. Say it was all nonsense and too much fuss and it would be far better to go out to a hotel somewhere and dance. But the younger generation seem to find all this terribly attractive. Besides,” added Mrs. Lacey practically, “schoolboys and schoolgirls are always hungry, aren’t they? I think they must starve them at these schools. After all, one does know children of that age each eat about as much as three strong men.”
Excerpted from The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries by Edited and with an Introduction by Otto Penzler. Copyright © 2013 by Otto Penzler. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.