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The Lemesurier Inheritance October 19, 2008

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The Lemesurier Inheritance

I

In company with Poirot, I have investigated many strange cases, but none, I think, to compare with that extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought to Poirot to solve. Our attention was first drawn to the family history of the Lemesuriers one evening during the war. Poirot and I had but recently come together again, renewing the old days of our acquaintanceship in Belgium. He had been handling some little matter for the War Office-disposing of it to their entire satisfaction; and we had been dining at the Carlton with a Brass Hat who paid Poirot heavy compliments in the intervals of the meal. The Brass Hat had to rush away to keep an appointment with someone, and we finished our coffee in a leisurely fashion before following his example.

As we were leaving the room, I was hailed by a voice which struck a familiar note, and turned to see Captain Vincent Lemesurier, a young fellow whom I had known in France. He was with an older man whose likeness to him proclaimed him to be of the same family. Such proved to be the case, and he was introduced to us as Mr Hugo Lemesurier, uncle of my young friend.

I did not really know Captain Lemesurier at all intimately, but he was a pleasant young fellow, somewhat dreamy in manner, and I remembered hearing that he belonged to an old and exclusive family with a property in Northumberland which dated from before the Reformation. Poirot and I were not in a hurry, and at the younger man’s invitation, we sat down at the table with out two new-found friends, and chattered pleasantly enough on various matters. The elder Lemesurier was a man of about forty, with a touch of the scholar in his stooping shoulders; he was engaged at the moment upon some chemical research work for the Government, it appeared.

Our conversation was interrupted by a tall dark young man who strode up to the table, evidently labouring under some agitation of mind.

‘Thank goodness I’ve found you both!’ he exclaimed.

‘What’s the matter, Roger?’

‘Your guv’nor, Vincent. Bad fall. Young horse.’ The rest trailed off, as he drew the other aside.

In a few minutes our two friends had hurriedly taken leave of us. Vincent Lemesurier’s father had had a serious accident while trying a young horse, and was not expected to live until morning. Vincent had gone deadly white, and appeared almost stunned by the news. In a way, I was surprised-for from the few words he had let fall on the subject while in France, I had gathered that he and his father were not on particularly friendly terms, and so his display of filial feeling now rather astonished me.

The dark young man, who had been introduced to us as a cousin, Mr Roger Lemesurier, remained behind, and we three strolled out together.

‘Rather a curious business, this,’ observed the young man. ‘It would interest M. Poirot, perhaps. I’ve heard of you, you know, M. Poirot-from Higginson.’ (Higginson was our Brass Hat friend.) ‘He says you’re a whale on psychology.’

‘I study the psychology, yes,’ admitted my friend cautiously.

‘Did you see my cousin’s face? He was absolutely bowled over, wasn’t he? Do you know why? A good old-fashioned family curse! Would you care to hear about it?’

‘It would be most kind of you to recount it to me.’

Roger Lemesurier looked at his watch.

‘Lots of time. I’m meeting them at King’s Cross. Well, M. Poirot, the Lemesuriers are an old family. Way back in medieval times, a Lemesurier became suspicious of his wife. He found the lady in a compromising situation. She swore that she was innocent, but old Baron Hugo didn’t listen. She had one child, a son-and he swore that the boy was no child of his and should never inherit. I forget what he did-some pleasing medieval fancy like walling up the mother and son alive; anyway, he killed them both, and she died protesting her innocence and solemnly cursing the Lemesuriers forever. No first-born son of a Lemesurier should ever inherit-so the curse ran. Well, time passed, and the lady’s innocence was established beyond doubt. I believe that Hugo wore a hair shirt and ended up his days on his knees in a monk’s cell. But the curious thing is that from that day to this, no first-born son ever has succeeded to the estate. It’s gone to brothers, to nephews, to second sons-never to the eldest son. Vincent’s father was the second of five sons, the eldest of whom died in infancy. Of course, all through the war, Vincent has been convinced that whoever else was doomed, he certainly was. But strangely enough, his two younger brothers have been killed, and he himself has remained unscathed.’

‘An interesting family history,’ said Poirot thoughtfully. ‘But now his father is dying, and he, as the eldest son, succeeds?’

‘Exactly. A curse has gone rusty-unable to stand the strain of modern life.’

Poirot shook his head, as though deprecating the other’s jesting tone. Roger Lemesurier looked at his watch again, and declared that he must be off.

The sequel to the story came on the morrow, when we learned of the tragic death of Captain Vincent Lemesurier. He had been travelling north by the Scotch mail-train, and during the night must have opened the door of the compartment and jumped out on the line. The shock of his father’s accident coming on top of the shell-shock was deemed to have caused temporary mental aberration. The curious superstition prevalent in the Lemesurier family was mentioned, in connection with the new heir, his father’s brother, Ronald Lemesurier, whose only son had died on the Somme.

I suppose our accidental meeting with young Vincent on the last evening of his life quickened our interest in anything that pertained to the Lemesurier family, for we noted with some interest two years later the death of Ronald Lemesurier, who had been a confirmed invalid at the time of his succession to the family estates. His brother John succeeded him, a hale, hearty man with a boy at Eton.

Certainly an evil destiny overshadowed the Lemesuriers. On his very next holiday the boy managed to shoot himself fatally. His father’s death, which occurred quite suddenly after being stung by a wasp, gave the estate over to the youngest brother of the five-Hugo, whom we remembered meeting on the fatal night at the Carlton.

Beyond commenting on the extraordinary series of misfortunes which befell the Lemesuriers, we had taken no personal interest in the matter, but the time was now close at hand when we were to take a more active part.

II

One morning ‘Mrs Lemesurier’ was announced. She was a tall, active woman, possibly about thirty years of age, who conveyed by her demeanour a great deal of determination and strong common sense. She spoke with a faint transatlantic accent.

‘M. Poirot? I am pleased to meet you. My husband, Hugo Lemesurier, met you once many years ago, but you will hardly remember the fact.’

‘I recollect it perfectly, madame. It was at the Carlton.’

‘That’s quite wonderful of you. M. Poirot, I’m very worried.’

‘What about, Madame?’

‘My elder boy-I’ve two boys, you know. Ronald’s eight, and Gerald’s six.’

‘Proceed, madame: why should you be worried about little Ronald?’

‘M. Poirot, within the last six months he has had three narrow escapes from death: once from drowning-when we were all down at Cornwall this summer; once when he fell from the nursery window; and once from ptomaine poisoning.’

Perhaps Poirot’s face expressed rather too eloquently what he thought, for Mrs Lemesurier hurried on with hardly a moment’s pause: ‘Of course I know you think I’m just a silly fool of a woman, making mountains out of molehills.’

‘No, indeed, madame. Any mother might be excused for being upset at such occurrences, but I hardly see where I can be of any assistance to you. I am notle bon Dieu to control the waves; for the nursery window I should suggest some iron bars; and for the food-what can equal a mother’s care?’

‘But why should these things happen to Ronald and not to Gerald?’

‘The chance, madame-le hasard!’

‘You think so?’

‘What do you think, madame-you and your husband?’

A shadow crossed Mrs Lemesurier’s face.

‘It’s no good going to Hugo-he won’t listen. As perhaps you may have heard, there’s supposed to be a curse on the family-no eldest son can succeed. Hugo believes in it. He’s wrapped up in the family history, and he’s superstitious to the last degree. When I go to him with my fears, he just says it’s the curse, and we can’t escape it. But I’m from the States, M. Poirot, and over there we don’t believe much in curses. We like them as belonging to a real high-toned old family-it gives a sort ofcachet , don’t you know. I was just a musical comedy actress in a small part when Hugo met me-and I thought his family curse was just too lovely for words. That kind of thing’s all right for telling round the fire on a winter’s evening, but when it comes to one’s own children-I just adore my children, M. Poirot. I’d do anything for them.’

‘So you decline to believe in the family legend, madame?’

‘Can a legend saw through an ivy stem?’

‘What is that you are saying, madame?’ cried Poirot, an expression of great astonishment on his face.

‘I said, can a legend-or a ghost, if you like to call it that-saw through an ivy stem? I’m not saying anything about Cornwall. Any boy might go out too far and get into difficulties-though Ronald could swim when he was four years old. But the ivy’s different. Both the boys were very naughty. They’d discovered they could climb up and down by the ivy. They were always doing it. One day-Gerald was away at the time-Ronald did it once too often, and the ivy gave way and he fell. Fortunately he didn’t damage himself seriously. But I went out and examined the ivy: it was cut through, M. Poirot-deliberately cut through.’

‘It is very serious what you are telling me there, madame. You say your younger boy was away from home at the moment?’

‘Yes.’

‘And at the time of the ptomaine poisoning, was he still away?’

‘No, they were both there.’

‘Curious,’ murmured Poirot. ‘Now, madame, who are the inmates of your establishment?’

‘Miss Saunders, the children’s governess, and John Gardiner, my husband’s secretary-‘

Mrs Lemesurier paused, as though slightly embarrassed.

‘And who else, madame?’

‘Major Roger Lemesurier, whom you also met on that night, I believe, stays with us a good deal.’

‘Ah, yes-he is a cousin is he not?’

‘A distant cousin. He does not belong to our branch of the family. Still, I suppose now he is my husband’s nearest relative. He is a dear fellow, and we are all very fond of him. The boys are devoted to him.’

‘It was not he who taught them to climb up the ivy?’

‘It might have been. He incites them to mischief often enough.’

‘Madame, I apologize for what I said to you earlier. The danger is real, and I believe that I can be of assistance. I propose that you should invite us both to stay with you. Your husband will not object?’

‘Oh no. But he will believe it to be all of no use. It makes me furious the way he just sits around and expects the boy to die.’

‘Calm yourself, madame. Let us make our arrangements methodically.’

III

Our arrangements were duly made, and the following day saw us flying northward. Poirot was sunk in a reverie. He came out of it, to remark abruptly: ‘It was from a train such as this that Vincent Lemesurier fell?’

He put a slight accent on the ‘fell’.

‘You don’t suspect foul play there, surely?’ I asked.

‘Has it struck you, Hastings, that some of the Lemesurier deaths were, shall we say, capable of being arranged? Take that of Vincent, for instance. Then the Eton boy-an accident with a gun is always ambiguous. Supposing this child had fallen from the nursery window and been dashed to death-what more natural and unsuspicious? But why only the one child, Hastings? Who profits by the death of the elder child? His younger brother, a child of seven! Absurd!’

‘They mean to do away with the other later,’ I suggested, though with the vaguest ideas as to who ‘they’ were.

Poirot shook his head as though dissatisfied.

‘Ptomaine poisoning,’ he mused. ‘Atropine will produce much the same symptoms. Yes, there is need for our presence.’

Mrs Lemesurier welcomed us enthusiastically. Then she took us to her husband’s study and left us with him. He had changed a good deal since I saw him last. His shoulders stooped more than ever, and his face had a curious pale grey tinge. He listened while Poirot explained our presence in the house.

‘How exactly like Sadie’s practical common sense!’ he said at last. ‘Remain by all means, M. Poirot, and I thank you for coming; but-what is written, is written. The way of the transgressor is hard. We Lemesuriersknow -none of us can escape the doom.’

Poirot mentioned the sawn-through ivy, but Hugo seemed very little impressed.

‘Doubtless some careless gardener-yes, yes, there may be an instrument, but the purpose behind is plain; and I will tell you this, M. Poirot, it cannot be long delayed.’

Poirot looked at him attentively.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because I myself am doomed. I went to a doctor last year. I am suffering from an incurable disease-the end cannot be much longer delayed; but before I die, Ronald will be taken. Gerald will inherit.’

‘And if anything were to happen to your second son also?’

‘Nothing will happen to him; he is not threatened.’

‘But if it did?’ persisted Poirot.

‘My cousin Roger is the next heir.’

We were interrupted. A tall man with a good figure and crispy curling auburn hair entered with a sheaf of papers.

‘Never mind about those now, Gardiner,’ said Hugo Lemesurier, then he added: ‘My secretary, Mr Gardiner.’

The secretary bowed, uttered a few pleasant words and then went out. In spite of his good looks, there was something repellent about the man. I said so to Poirot shortly afterward when we were walking round the beautiful old grounds together, and rather to my surprise, he agreed.

‘Yes, yes, Hastings, you are right. I do not like him. He is too good-looking. He would be one for the soft job always. Ah, here are the children.’

Mrs Lemesurier was advancing towards us, her two children beside her. They were fine-looking boys, the younger dark like his mother, the elder with auburn curls. They shook hands prettily enough, and were soon absolutely devoted to Poirot. We were next introduced to Miss Saunders, a nondescript female, who completed the party.

IV

For some days we had a pleasant, easy existence-ever vigilant, but without result. The boys led a happy normal life and nothing seemed to be amiss. On the fourth day after our arrival Major Roger Lemesurier came down to stay. He was little changed, still care-free and debonair as of old, with the same habit of treating all things lightly. He was evidently a great favourite with the boys, who greeted his arrival with shrieks of delight and immediately dragged him off to play wild Indians in the garden. I noticed that Poirot followed them unobtrusively.

V

On the following day we were all invited to tea, boys included, with Lady Claygate, whose place adjoined that of the Lemesuriers. Mrs Lemesurier suggested that we also should come, but seemed rather relieved when Poirot refused and declared he would much prefer to remain at home.

Once everyone had started, Poirot got to work. He reminded me of an intelligent terrier. I believe that there was no corner of the house that he left unsearched; yet it was all done so quietly and methodically that no attention was directed to his movements. Clearly, at the end, he remained unsatisfied. We had tea on the terrace with Miss Saunders, who had not been included in the party.

‘The boys will enjoy it,’ she murmured in her faded way, ‘though I hope they will behave nicely, and not damage the flower-beds, or go near the bees-‘

Poirot paused in the very act of drinking. He looked like a man who has seen a ghost.

‘Bees?’ he demanded in a voice of thunder.

‘Yes, M. Poirot, bees. Three hives. Lady Claygate is very proud of her bees-‘

‘Bees?’ cried Poirot again. Then he sprang from the table and walked up and down the terrace with his hands to his head. I could not imagine why the little man should be so agitated at the mere mention of bees.

At that moment we heard the car returning. Poirot was on the doorstep as the party alighted.

‘Ronald’s been stung,’ cried Gerald excitedly.

‘It’s nothing,’ said Mrs Lemesurier. ‘It hasn’t even swollen. We put ammonia on it.’

‘Let me see, my little man,’ said Poirot. ‘Where was it?’

‘Here, on the side of my neck,’ said Ronald importantly. ‘But it doesn’t hurt. Father said: “Keep still-there’s a bee on you.” And I kept still, and he took it off, but it stung me first, though it didn’t really hurt, only like a pin, and I didn’t cry, because I’m so big and going to school next year.’

Poirot examined the child’s neck, then drew away again. He took me by the arm and murmured:

‘Tonight,mon ami , tonight we have a little affair on! Say nothing-to anyone.’

He refused to be more communicative, and I went through the evening devoured by curiosity. He retired early and I followed his example. As we went upstairs, he caught me by the arm and delivered his instructions:

‘Do not undress. Wait a sufficient time, extinguish your light and join me here.’

I obeyed, and found him waiting for me when the time came. He enjoined silence on me with a gesture, and we crept quietly along the nursery wing. Ronald occupied a small room of his own. We entered it and took up our position in the darkest corner. The child’s breathing sounded heavy and undisturbed.

‘Surely he is sleeping very heavily?’ I whispered.

Poirot nodded.

‘Drugged,’ he murmured.

‘Why?’

‘So that he should not cry out at-‘

‘At what?’ I asked, as Poirot paused.

‘At the prick of the hypodermic needle,mon ami ! Hush, let us speak no more-not that I expect anything to happen for some time.’

VI

But in this Poirot was wrong. Hardly ten minutes had elapsed before the door opened softly, and someone entered the room. I heard a sound of quick hurried breathing. Footsteps moved to the bed, and then there was a sudden click. The light of a little electric lantern fell on the sleeping child-the holder of it was still invisible in the shadow. The figure laid down the lantern. With the right hand it brought forth a syringe; with the left it touched the boy’s neck-

Poirot and I sprang at the same minute. The lantern rolled to the floor, and we struggled with the intruder in the dark. His strength was extraordinary. At last we overcame him.

‘The light, Hastings, I must see his face-though I fear I know only too well whose face it will be.’

So did I, I thought as I groped for the lantern. For a moment I had suspected the secretary, egged on by my secret dislike of the man, but I felt assured by now that the man who stood to gain by the death of his two childish cousins was the monster we were tracking.

My foot struck against the lantern. I picked it up and switched on the light. It shone full on the face of-Hugo Lemesurier, the boy’s father!

The lantern almost dropped from my hand.

‘Impossible,’ I murmured hoarsely. ‘Impossible!’

VII

Lemesurier was unconscious. Poirot and I between us carried him to his room and laid him on the bed. Poirot bent and gently extricated something from his right hand. He showed it to me. It was a hypodermic syringe. I shuddered.

‘What is in it? Poison?’

‘Formic acid, I fancy.’

‘Formic acid?’

‘Yes. Probably obtained by distilling ants. He was a chemist, you remember. Death would have been attributed to the bee sting.’

‘My God,’ I muttered. ‘His own son! And you expected this?’

Poirot nodded gravely.

‘Yes. He is insane, of course. I imagine that the family history has become a mania with him. His intense longing to succeed to the estate led him to commit the long series of crimes. Possibly the idea occurred to him first when travelling north that night with Vincent. He couldn’t bear the prediction to be falsified. Ronald’s son was already dead, and Ronald himself was a dying man-they are a weakly lot. He arranged the accident to the gun, and-which I did not suspect until now-contrived the death of his brother John by this same method of injecting formic acid into the jugular vein. His ambition was realized then, and he became the master of the family acres. But his triumph was short-lived-he found that he was suffering from an incurable disease. And he had the madman’s fixed idea-the eldest son of a Lemesurier could not inherit. I suspect that the bathing accident was due to him-he encouraged the child to go out too far. That failing, he sawed through the ivy, and afterwards poisoned the child’s food.’

‘Diabolical!’ I murmured with a shiver. ‘And so cleverly planned!’

‘Yes,mon ami , there is nothing more amazing than the extraordinary sanity of the insane! Unless it is the extraordinary eccentricity of the sane! I imagine that it is only lately that he has completely gone over the borderline, there was method in his madness to begin with.’

‘And to think that I suspected Roger-that splendid fellow.’

‘It was the natural assumption,mon ami . We knew that he also travelled north with Vincent that night. We knew, too, that he was the next heir after Hugo and Hugo’s children. But our assumption was not borne out by the facts. The ivy was sawn through when only little Ronald was at home-but it would be to Roger’s interest that both children should perish. In the same way, it was only Ronald’s food that was poisoned. And today when they came home and I found that there was only his father’s word for it that Ronald had been stung, I remembered the other death from a wasp sting-and I knew!’

VIII

Hugo Lemesurier died a few months later in the private asylum to which he was removed. His widow was remarried a year later to Mr John Gardiner, the auburn-haired secretary. Ronald inherited the broad acres of his father, and continues to flourish.

‘Well, well,’ I remarked to Poirot. ‘Another illusion gone. You have disposed very successfully of the curse of the Lemesuriers.’

‘I wonder,’ said Poirot very thoughtfully. ‘I wonder very much indeed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mon ami, I will answer you with one significant word-red!’

‘Blood?’ I queried, dropping my voice to an awe-stricken whisper.

‘Always you have the imagination melodramatic, Hastings! I refer to something much more prosaic-the colour of little Ronald Lemesurier’s hair.’

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