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Authors: Agatha Christie

Cat Among the Pigeons

BOOK: Cat Among the Pigeons
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Agatha Christie
Cat Among the Pigeons

A Hercule Poirot Mystery

Contents

Prologue
Summer Term

1.
Revolution in Ramat

2.
The Woman on the Balcony

3.
Introducing Mr. Robinson

4.
Return of a Traveller

5.
Letters from Meadowbank School

6.
Early Days

7.
Straws in the Wind

8.
Murder

9.
Cat Among the Pigeons

10.
Fantastic Story

11.
Conference

12.
New Lamps for Old

13.
Catastrophe

14.
Miss Chadwick Lies Awake

15.
Murder Repeats Itself

16.
Riddle of the Sports Pavilion

17.
Aladdin's Cave

18.
Consultation

19.
Consultation Continued

20.
Conversation

21.
Gathering Threads

22.
Incident in Anatolia

23.
Showdown

24.
Poirot Explains

25.
Legacy

Prologue

S
UMMER
T
ERM

I

I
t was the opening day of the summer term at Meadowbank school. The late afternoon sun shone down on the broad gravel sweep in front of the house. The front door was flung hospitably wide, and just within it, admirably suited to its Georgian proportions, stood Miss Vansittart, every hair in place, wearing an impeccably cut coat and skirt.

Some parents who knew no better had taken her for the great Miss Bulstrode herself, not knowing that it was Miss Bulstrode's custom to retire to a kind of holy of holies to which only a selected and privileged few were taken.

To one side of Miss Vansittart, operating on a slightly different plane, was Miss Chadwick, comfortable, knowledgeable, and so much a part of Meadowbank that it would have been impossible to imagine Meadowbank without her. It had never been without her. Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick had started Meadowbank school together. Miss Chadwick wore pince-nez, stooped, was
dowdily dressed, amiably vague in speech, and happened to be a brilliant mathematician.

Various welcoming words and phrases, uttered graciously by Miss Vansittart, floated through the house.

“How do you do, Mrs. Arnold? Well, Lydia, did you enjoy your Hellenic cruise? What a wonderful opportunity! Did you get some good photographs?

“Yes, Lady Garnett, Miss Bulstrode had your letter about the Art Classes and everything's been arranged.

“How are you, Mrs. Bird? … Well? I don't think Miss Bulstrode will have time
today
to discuss the point. Miss Rowan is somewhere about if you'd like to talk to her about it?

“We've moved your bedroom, Pamela. You're in the far wing by the apple tree….

“Yes, indeed, Lady Violet, the weather has been terrible so far this spring. Is this your youngest? What is your name? Hector? What a nice aeroplane you have, Hector.

“Très heureuse de vous voir, Madame. Ah, je regrette, ce ne serait pas possible, cette après-midi. Mademoiselle Bulstrode est tellement occupée.

“Good afternoon, Professor. Have you been digging up some more interesting things?”

II

In a small room on the first floor, Ann Shapland, Miss Bulstrode's secretary, was typing with speed and efficiency. Ann was a nice-looking young woman of thirty-five, with hair that fitted her like a black satin cap. She could be attractive when she wanted to be but life had taught her that efficiency and competence often paid better
results and avoided painful complications. At the moment she was concentrating on being everything that a secretary to the headmistress of a famous girls' school should be.

From time to time, as she inserted a fresh sheet in her machine, she looked out of the window and registered interest in the arrivals.

“Goodness!” said Ann to herself, awed, “I didn't know there were so many chauffeurs left in England!”

Then she smiled in spite of herself, as a majestic Rolls moved away and a very small Austin of battered age drove up. A harassed-looking father emerged from it with a daughter who looked far calmer than he did.

As he paused uncertainly, Miss Vansittart emerged from the house and took charge.

“Major Hargreaves? And this is Alison? Do come into the house. I'd like you to see Alison's room for yourself. I—”

Ann grinned and began to type again.

“Good old Vansittart, the glorified understudy,” she said to herself. “She can copy all the Bulstrode's tricks. In fact she's word perfect!”

An enormous and almost incredibly opulent Cadillac, painted in two tones, raspberry fool and azure blue, swept (with difficulty owing to its length) into the drive and drew up behind Major the Hon. Alistair Hargreaves' ancient Austin.

The chauffeur sprang to open the door, an immense bearded, dark-skinned man, wearing a flowing aba, stepped out, a Parisian fashion plate followed and then a slim dark girl.

That's probably Princess Whatshername herself, thought Ann. Can't imagine her in school uniform, but I suppose the miracle will be apparent tomorrow….

Both Miss Vansittart and Miss Chadwick appeared on this occasion.

“They'll be taken to the Presence,” decided Ann.

Then she thought that, strangely enough, one didn't quite like making jokes about Miss Bulstrode. Miss Bulstrode was Someone.

“So you'd better mind your P.s and Q.s, my girl,” she said to herself, “and finish these letters without making any mistakes.”

Not that Ann was in the habit of making mistakes. She could take her pick of secretarial posts. She had been P.A. to the chief executive of an oil company, private secretary to Sir Mervyn Todhunter, renowned alike for his erudition, his irritability and the illegibility of his handwriting. She numbered two Cabinet Ministers and an important Civil Servant among her employers. But on the whole, her work had always lain amongst men. She wondered how she was going to like being, as she put it herself, completely submerged in women. Well—it was all experience! And there was always Dennis! Faithful Dennis returning from Malaya, from Burma, from various parts of the world, always the same, devoted, asking her once again to marry him. Dear Dennis! But it would be very dull to be married to Dennis.

She would miss the company of men in the near future. All these schoolmistressy characters—not a man about the place, except a gardener of about eighty.

But here Ann got a surprise. Looking out of the window, she saw there was a man clipping the hedge just beyond the drive—clearly a gardener but a long way from eighty. Young, dark, good-looking. Ann wondered about him—there had been some talk of getting extra labour—but this was no yokel. Oh well, nowadays people did every kind of job. Some young man trying to get to
gether some money for some project or other, or indeed just to keep body and soul together. But he was cutting the hedge in a very expert manner. Presumably he was a real gardener after all!

“He looks,” said Ann to herself, “he looks as though he
might
be amusing….”

Only one more letter to do, she was pleased to note, and then she might stroll round the garden….

III

Upstairs, Miss Johnson, the matron, was busy allotting rooms, welcoming newcomers, and greeting old pupils.

She was pleased it was term time again. She never knew quite what to do with herself in the holidays. She had two married sisters with whom she stayed in turn, but they were naturally more interested in their own doings and families than in Meadowbank. Miss Johnson, though dutifully fond of her sisters, was really only interested in Meadowbank.

Yes, it was nice that term had started—

“Miss Johnson?”

“Yes, Pamela.”

“I say, Miss Johnson. I think something's broken in my case. It's oozed all over things. I
think
it's hair oil.”

“Chut, chut!” said Miss Johnson, hurrying to help.

IV

On the grass sweep of lawn beyond the gravelled drive, Mademoiselle Blanche, the new French mistress, was walking. She looked
with appreciative eyes at the powerful young man clipping the hedge.

“Assez bien,”
thought Mademoiselle Blanche.

Mademoiselle Blanche was slender and mouselike and not very noticeable, but she herself noticed everything.

Her eyes went to the procession of cars sweeping up to the front door. She assessed them in terms of money. This Meadowbank was certainly
formidable!
She summed up mentally the profits that Miss Bulstrode must be making.

Yes, indeed!
Formidable!

V

Miss Rich, who taught English and Geography, advanced towards the house at a rapid pace, stumbling a little now and then because, as usual, she forgot to look where she was going. Her hair, also as usual, had escaped from its bun. She had an eager ugly face.

She was saying to herself:

“To be back again! To be
here
… It seems years … ” She fell over a rake, and the young gardener put out an arm and said:

“Steady, miss.”

Eileen Rich said “Thank you,” without looking at him.

VI

Miss Rowan and Miss Blake, the two junior mistresses, were strolling towards the Sports Pavilion. Miss Rowan was thin and dark and intense, Miss Blake was plump and fair. They were discussing with animation their recent adventures in Florence: the pictures they
had seen, the sculpture, the fruit blossom, and the attentions (hoped to be dishonourable) of two young Italian gentlemen.

“Of course one knows,” said Miss Blake, “how Italians go on.”

“Uninhibited,” said Miss Rowan, who had studied Psychology as well as Economics. “Thoroughly healthy, one feels. No repressions.”

“But Guiseppe was quite impressed when he found I taught at Meadowbank,” said Miss Blake. “He became much more respectful at once. He has a cousin who wants to come here, but Miss Bulstrode was not sure she had a vacancy.”

“Meadowbank is a school that really counts,” said Miss Rowan, happily. “Really, the new Sports Pavilion looks most impressive. I never thought it would be ready in time.”

“Miss Bulstrode said it had to be,” said Miss Blake in the tone of one who has said the last word.

“Oh,” she added in a startled kind of way.

The door of the Sports Pavilion had opened abruptly, and a bony young woman with ginger-coloured hair emerged. She gave them a sharp unfriendly stare and moved rapidly away.

“That must be the new Games Mistress,” said Miss Blake. “How uncouth!”


Not
a very pleasant addition to the staff,” said Miss Rowan. “Miss Jones was always so friendly and sociable.”

“She absolutely glared at us,” said Miss Blake resentfully.

They both felt quite ruffled.

VII

Miss Bulstrode's sitting room had windows looking out in two directions, one over the drive and lawn beyond, and another towards a bank of rhododendrons behind the house. It was quite an impressive room, and Miss Bulstrode was rather more than quite an impressive woman. She was tall, and rather noble looking, with well-dressed grey hair, grey eyes with plenty of humour in them, and a firm mouth. The success of her school (and Meadowbank was one of the most successful schools in England) was entirely due to the personality of its Headmistress. It was a very expensive school, but that was not really the point. It could be put better by saying that though you paid through the nose, you got what you paid for.

Your daughter was educated in the way you wished, and also in the way Miss Bulstrode wished, and the result of the two together seemed to give satisfaction. Owing to the high fees, Miss Bulstrode was able to employ a full staff. There was nothing mass produced about the school, but if it was individualistic, it also had discipline. Discipline without regimentation, was Miss Bulstrode's motto. Discipline, she held, was reassuring to the young, it gave them a feeling of security; regimentation gave rise to irritation. Her pupils were a varied lot. They included several foreigners of good family, often foreign royalty. There were also English girls of good family or of wealth, who wanted a training in culture and the arts, with a general knowledge of life and social facility who would be turned out agreeable, well groomed and able to take part in intelligent discussion on any subject. There were girls who wanted to work hard and pass entrance examinations, and eventually take degrees and who, to do so, needed only good teaching and special attention.
There were girls who had reacted unfavourably to school life of the conventional type. But Miss Bulstrode had her rules, she did not accept morons, or juvenile delinquents, and she preferred to accept girls whose parents she liked, and girls in whom she herself saw a prospect of development. The ages of her pupils varied within wide limits. There were girls who would have been labelled in the past as “finished,” and there were girls little more than children, some of them with parents abroad, and for whom Miss Bulstrode had a scheme of interesting holidays. The last and final court of appeal was Miss Bulstrode's own approval.

She was standing now by the chimneypiece listening to Mrs. Gerald Hope's slightly whining voice. With great foresight, she had not suggested that Mrs. Hope should sit down.

“Henrietta, you see, is very highly strung. Very highly strung indeed. Our doctor says—”

Miss Bulstrode nodded, with gentle reassurance, refraining from the caustic phrase she sometimes was tempted to utter.

“Don't you know, you idiot, that that is what every fool of a woman says about her child?”

She spoke with firm sympathy.

“You need have no anxiety, Mrs. Hope. Miss Rowan, a member of our staff, is a fully trained psychologist. You'll be surprised, I'm sure, at the change you'll find in Henrietta” (Who's a nice intelligent child, and far too good for you) “after a term or two here.”

“Oh I know. You did wonders with the Lambeth child—absolutely wonders! So I am quite happy. And I—oh yes, I forgot. We're going to the South of France in six weeks' time. I thought I'd take Henrietta. It would make a little break for her.”

“I'm afraid that's quite impossible,” said Miss Bulstrode, briskly
and with a charming smile, as though she were granting a request instead of refusing one.

“Oh! but—” Mrs. Hope's weak petulant face wavered, showed temper. “Really, I must insist. After all, she's
my
child.”

“Exactly. But it's
my
school,” said Miss Bulstrode.

“Surely I can take the child away from a school anytime I like?”

“Oh yes,” said Miss Bulstrode. “You can. Of course you can. But then,
I
wouldn't have her back.”

Mrs. Hope was in a real temper now.

“Considering the size of the fees I pay here—”

“Exactly,” said Miss Bulstrode. “You wanted my school for your daughter, didn't you? But it's take it as it is, or leave it. Like that very charming Balenciaga model you are wearing. It is Balenciaga, isn't it? It is so delightful to meet a woman with real clothes sense.”

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