It was just as well that Poirot and I were already in Austria when the summons came, otherwise the thought of crossing the channel in December would doubtless have discommoded my old friend terribly. And the idea that we might have missed that magical Christmas in the Tiernsee – and the wonderful people we met – seems to me today quite frightful.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hercule Poirot, whose fame as a detective was at this point probably reaching its peak, had been in Vienna for reasons so hush hush that I cannot outline them here. Suffice to say that governments of several nations had cause to be grateful for his efforts. I had travelled with him, and had urged him to remain for a few days and relax after the diplomatic flurry was over. I don’t think I would have succeeded had it not been that our hotel (for reasons I cannot go into it was not deemed sensible for us to stay at the embassy) was supremely comfortable, and fortunately the weather – although bright and cold – showed no signs of snow. Indeed, I believe that if he could only have persuaded the local confectioners to make the famous Sachertorte in a square shape rather than round, my friend would have been entirely contented.
But that was before the telegram arrived. Addressed to M. Poirot and purporting to come from no less exalted a personage than a leading member of the Cabinet, it urged my friend to travel without delay to the small village of Briesau in the Austrian Tyrol. There we were to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl – a comfortable, if not luxurious hostelry – where we would receive further instructions.
At first, my friend was inclined to think it a hoax, until the wire was followed up by a personal call on the telephone. I watched as my friend’s face changed expression, taking on a look of the utmost seriousness as he replaced the receiver. “We must pack at once, mon cher Hastings,” he said. “There is no time to waste.”
The train journey was far from straightforward, but at length we reached the small town of Spartz where we were to be met by a chap called Andre, who was, we were given to understand, the man of our contact, the tuberculosis doctor James Russell, who had a sanatorium in the mountains near the Tiernsee, one of the Austrian Tyrol’s most beautiful lakes. Although Poirot had not said as much, I very much got the impression that Dr Russell had connections at the very highest level, possibly even royalty.
Indeed, all that Poirot had told me was that we were going on something of a watching brief, but that national security was at stake. We were, he said, to meet Dr Russell and his charming wife, who had some years earlier founded a school at the Tiernsee – a school on English lines, but which accepted pupils of different nationality and creeds. It was apparently called the Chalet School, although I hadn’t heard of it. Little did I know that its very name would be burned on my memory forever.
It was late when we arrived in Briesau; indeed, I think this had been the intention, as night had by this time fallen and all was dark. We were ushered into a small salon, where, to my surprise, we were met by a lady – and a very charming one at that.
“I’m Madge Russell,” she said simply. “Thank you so much for coming.”
With that, she proffered her hand to each of us in turn.
“Enchanted, Madame,” said M Poirot, bowing low as is his wont. “But I thought we were to meet with your husband; it is he who wished to see us, is it not?”
“Not exactly,” she responded. “He knows what I’m doing, of course, and he backs me entirely. But it’s my school, and my show generally, so we thought it best if I saw you first to explain matters.”
While she was speaking, I could not help but notice her sherry-brown eyes and charming curls. Not exactly beautiful, she was, nonetheless, good to look at. And clearly she had brains and courage too. Intrigued, I lent forward and gave her all my ears.
She feared, she said, that there was a bad apple at the school; someone who was against all they stood for. The atmosphere had changed. From being a place with a jolly, family feel it had been overtaken with a kind of tension. The illness of her co-founder, one Mademoiselle Lepattre, although sad, could not explain it all.
“I’m sure I trust the staff, or almost sure,” she said. “But there’s so much at stake.”
I could tell that Poirot was feeling a little puzzled, and, indeed, I too wondered why we had been summoned thus to what was surely something of a domestic matter.
“Oh, I’m explaining it badly,” said Mrs Russell with a shake of her attractive head. “I can see I should have started with the shooting.”
At that moment, I realised that there was, in fact, another person in the room. Sitting in a darkened corner was a young woman – and what a woman she was. Glorious red hair, that real auburn that is so devastating when paired with pale skin and dark lashes and brows. And such a face, and figure! I confess I had rarely seen such perfection.
Pulling myself out of my reverie, I realised that Mrs Russell was introducing her friend as Constance Stewart, history mistress at the school. I also noticed that her arm was bound with bandages.
“Shooting?” I gasped, somewhat belatedly I confess. “But you are so charming; I mean, this place is so charming.” I fancy that my stumbling went unperceived by the two ladies, although Poirot was turning a somewhat malicious glance in my direction.
“Do tell me all about it, Mademoiselle Stewart,” he invited softly.
“I was in Innsbruck chasing up some supplies,” she responded. “It was late by the time I got back, and it was a long tramp from the train. Herr Anserl, our music master, was supposed to meet me but was somehow detained. Still, it was a bright moonlit night so I made the best of it and put my best foot forward – we don’t encourage spineless jellyfish here, you know, M Poirot,” she smiled.
“All the same, there was a surprising air of menace around, and I was glad when I saw the chalet palings. But just as I approached the gate, I suddenly caught sight of a shadow moving. Although I felt sure it was only a cat or even a mouse, it scared me somehow, and I ran the rest of the way. I think that took whoever it was by surprise, and a shot rang out. I felt a burning in my shoulder, then nothing. I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew, I was in my bed – with the most aching arm I’ve ever had.”
“But why didn’t you call the police?” I ejaculated.
“We couldn’t,” broke in Mrs Russell. “You see, Father Stefan was here from Innsbruck; getting the police involved would have ruined all our plans.”
(End of first post)
“We think that Con was shot by mistake,” continued Mrs Russell (or Madge, as I thought of her in my secret heart – she really was most attractive). We think that someone thought it was Captain Humphries.”
I was getting confused by this time – who were all these men? But Poirot seemed to have grasped what was going on.
“Ah,” he said. “Humphries here? That possibly explains it.”
He turned to me and quickly told me that Ted Humphries was one of the finest spies of his generation. Travelling throughout Russia and beyond, he was responsible for saving more lives than could be imagined. Humphries, of course, was only one of his names – generally, he went by the codename 002.
“But what could he possibly be doing here?” I cried.
“Only helping Father Stefan and myself to run the Tyrolean anti-fascist resistance movement,” said Mrs Russell simply. “The school is the headquarters, and we also run fundraising activities (we always say it’s for the poor children in the parish, but that’s just a code to cover our actual activities). To date, we’ve aided scores of people who, like us, hate the fascist movements that are gaining momentum in Europe, as well as those who need to flee from certain death.”
Just at that moment, a shot rang out.
Poirot was quicker than I, and attempted to pull the two ladies to safety. To our surprise, Mrs Russell slipped from his grasp and drew a most deadly looking revolver from her pocket. She moved neatly to the window, while Miss Stewart covered the door.
“Drat it,” said Mrs Russell. “I did think we were safe here. I left The Robin singing The Red Sarafan at the school and I didn’t think anyone would feel they could escape that. I think whoever it is has gone now,” she added.
The two ladies stowed their guns and, as it turned out, it was just in time, for there came a gentle tap on the door.
“Hello, Mrs Russell, are you there?” a quiet, if rather hard voice sounded.
“Oh it’s only Miss Browne,” said Miss Stewart with some relief, adding quickly that she was the headmistress of the “rival” St Scholastika’s school also on the lake. “Probably some last minute hitch with the arrangements for tomorrow, but how did she know we were here?”
At this, that lady entered. I must admit to have formed some idea of the general beauty of schoolmistresses in that part of the world, so at first sight, Miss Browne was rather disappointing. I thought her a very worthy person, however, if a little drab.
“My girls wanted to know if there was anything else they could do to help with your Christmas play tomorrow,” she said, breaking off as she noticed Poirot and myself. “Oh, you have company.”
“Allow me to introduce Monsieur Poirot and Captain Hastings,” murmured Mrs Russell.
At this, the newcomer turned pale. “Hercule Poirot?” she faltered. Then fell to the ground in a deep faint.
With an expert hand, Mrs Russell flipped some cold water on Miss Browne’s face, then put some brandy to her lips. “I’m accustomed to this with Joey,” she said, briefly, and Miss Stewart nodded understandingly. As for me, I didn’t know who this Joey was and didn’t really want yet another man introduced to the equation; I was confused enough as it was.
By this time, Miss Browne was struggling to her feet and, obviously embarrassed, was making her way to the door. “So sorry, must be light-headed, nothing to eat earlier. No, no brandy thanks – I won’t have it in the house, although Matron does keep a little sal volatile. Lovely to meet you, Monsieur… perhaps see you at the play?”
With that she was gone.
Turning to Poirot, I noticed that he too looked a little shaken. “You recognised that woman?” he asked, and as I looked mystified, he unbent further. “Ignore the pince nez and the grey wig and the tweed suit – indeed, her figure has lost some, shall we say, consequence. That, my friend, was the Countess Vera Rossakoff.”
“No,” I exclaimed. “But she, er, um,” I was not sure how to continue given there were ladies present, but how to reconcile that stick-like creature with the voluptuous and flamboyant Russian countess, one of Poirot’s greatest adversaries. Well, it was all quite beyond me.
“I see you know her,” said Mrs Russell. “My suspicions are therefore justified.
“To all intents and purposes, we suspect that she is working directly to one of the leading pro-fascist agitators in Austria and therefore in Europe.”
“But who, but what?” I stuttered.
“Poor Captain Hastings,” said Miss Stewart, or dare I call her Constance? She really was very attractive.
“We need to find out who this mastermind is,” she said. “Although, as a teacher of history, I do wish that people wouldn’t be so loose with terms like ‘mastermind’ and ‘ringleader’ as it puffs people up and makes them think they are cleverer than they are.
“We do have some ideas,” she went on. “Shall I tell them, Madge?”
At the other’s nod, she continued. “It must be someone who has been at the Tiernsee for at least three years. It must be someone with unimpeachable credentials – the last person you would suspect. And it must be someone who can come and go as they please – and who has connections in the highest of spheres.”
“I say!” I broke in. I suddenly remembered what Poirot had said about Dr Russell and his exalted connections. But then I paused. How could I suggest to this charming lady that her husband might be the super-agitator she was seeking?
I felt Poirot step on my toe and took the hint. Fortunately I don’t think that Mrs Russell – Madge – had noticed. But, goodness, I couldn’t wait to get Poirot alone to discuss my theory, which seemed to me to be the right one.
“I must go now, gentlemen,” said the elder of the two delightful ladies. “Con is staying here – after the shooting we pretended that she had gone home early with laryngitis – but I must get back to the school. We’ll expect to see you at the play tomorrow, when you can meet everyone for yourself and see what you think. I must say, I believe I know the solution myself and you can rest assured that I’ll take every precaution.”
Fingering her revolver she left the room, rebuffing my attempts to escort her. Indeed, I felt she was somewhat dismissive of the idea that she might need my protection.
“I’ll be hitting the hay as well,” said Miss Stewart, adding unaccountably: “Thank heavens I’m not in school at the moment and needn’t worry about slang. And it was a relief when my ‘brother’ pretended to come to take me home – got me away from our Matron, who is a dear, but who has been a bit jumpy this term. Keeps hauling girls off to stitch sheets from end to middle, but seems to have forgotten about cold baths. But I’m chattering – must be delayed shock. Goodnight gentlemen.”
As she left the room I turned to my friend. “Poirot,” I said urgently. “What she said about high connections – do you think? Her husband?”
“Ah, that would be the thinking most wishful, mon cher Hastings,” he chided gently. “You were attracted to the lady were you not? And her so charming friend (always, always the auburn hair). It gives one to wonder.
“No, we will follow these good ladies’ example and, how did she say it, hit the straw. No doubt tomorrow things will arrange themselves.”
And indeed they did – although not in a way I had imagined.
(end of second post)
The next morning dawned cold and bright. I’ll never forget my first view of the Tiernsee – so blue, and beautiful. It must be simply glorious in summer.
Poirot insisted on taking his time over breakfast, although I was eager to be up and doing.
“Mon ami, it is not for us to play the bloodhound. Rest assured, our presence here will be known by now. I put a certain course of action in train last night, and I expect to see results any time now.”
As he spoke, the hotel’s proprietor appeared, looking a little nervous. “You have a visitor, gentlemen. I can say you are not available if you like.”
“Not at all, show him in,” said my friend graciously.
“But how do you know it’s a ‘he’?” I asked curiously. “My friend, it is obvious,” he replied, taking a last sip of coffee and dabbing his mouth with a napkin.
True enough, it was a man who entered. A respectable looking fellow with an apparently good-humoured face, but I wasn’t convinced by this outward show. I was sure it was James Russell, friend of royalty, husband to that delightful lady and, I was quite certain, a first class villain!
To my surprise, Poirot did not appear to share my feelings. Perhaps he was trying to lull the crook into a false sense of security.
“Sorry to barge in on you like this, chaps,” he said. “But I felt I should see you myself. You’ll have guessed by now that Madge – my wife, you know – pretty much runs things around here; it’s one of the reasons I love her.”
I felt my foot itch, wanting to kick the scoundrel, but Poirot was speaking.
“You took a risk coming here, my friend,” he said. “Who knows who might be watching?”
“It’s all right, I’ve got Con watching the door and her good friend Nell Wilson is guarding the window, and keeping an eye on Miss Browne – Madge has built a formidable team.
“But tell me,” he went on. “Do you have any idea of who this criminal mastermind can be? I admit I’m at a loss, although I did think it might be Sarah Denny, sister of our singing master, Tristan. She speaks several languages and nobody could be quite as lovely as she seems.”
My ears pricked up – another lovely lady? Even if she was a master criminal.
“No,” said Poirot. “I think I can lay your mind to rest on that point. It is not the Dennys – although you are right to think they are not as they seem.
“But let us convene later at this play of which you speak, and we shall see, well, what we shall see.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that performance of the Christmas play at the Chalet School. I’ve never spent such a boring two hours in my life. But at least we got a chance to meet everyone, including Mrs Russell’s young sister (this “Joey” they had spoken about) and Ted Humphries and his young daughter who seemed to be known as Robin. Knowing what I did about Captain Humphries, I looked closely for signs of super-spy heroism, but he seemed a rather ordinary, if pleasant chap.
I did feel some wariness around Father Stefan from the poor parish in Innsbruck. He had the glowing eyes of one who feels he is on a higher plane, somehow. Perhaps the ladies had been mistaken in him and he really was the criminal, playing a double game. I also had my suspicions about the school’s senior mistress, one Hilda Annersley. Her eyes seemed to change colour from grey to green to blue, which might indicate that she could be a master (mistress?) of disguise.
I caught Poirot looking at me with some amusement in his face as I first looked at one, then another of the protagonists in this drama. But on the whole I stuck with my first choice, James Russell. There was definitely something strange about him. He let slip in conversation that he collected children’s books – how odd is that in an adult?
But that was before I got the biggest shock of the trip so far.
The pupils had all gone to bed and Poirot was talking to a charming French lady, whose coffee, he assured her, tasted just like nectar. But at that point, Miss Wilson came running into the room, looking white-faced and cross (and, I admit, rather attractive). It transpired that she had come from St Scholastika’s.
“You were right Madge,” she said. “She’s hooked it!”
“Slang, Nell,” murmured Mrs Russell, who was nevertheless preparing for action. This was the moment, I felt. Her husband would be exposed and then, who knows, she might turn to someone else for consolation…
“There is no need for action,” said Poirot, and somehow his voice had an authority over those in the room. “We have taken all necessary steps.”
“You mean you know?” said Mrs Russell.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “You have been harbouring someone close to you who has been playing a double game. You thought that she was loyal to the school, and to you, but actually she was using her position here to foment discontent and attempt to scupper your plans and the peace of nations.”
He paused and went on. “You know her as Matron.”
“You fiend!” cried a lady who had been bustling round in a white apron and angel wing cap. “You’ll never take me alive!”
With that, she swung out the window and made for the lake.
“Poirot!” I ejaculated.
“It’s all right, she won’t get far,” he said. “Her accomplices have already been rounded up, including the so-called Miss Browne. This is no surprise to you, hey, Mrs Russell?” he said, turning to the founder of the school.
“No, not really,” she said slowly. “I always thought there was something about Matron. She always seemed to be changing her name for one thing – one day she’d be Gould, the next Lloyd, and sometimes she was small and wiry, and other times she was tall and Welsh.
“I’m glad it’s all over and we can enjoy Christmas,” she went on. “But how will we explain it all to the parents?”
“That’s easy,” said Miss Annersley briskly. “We simply tell them that Miss Browne has won a law suit and is selling her school, so all the pupils will come here. We’ll get another matron with an ever-changing name, so the girls won’t notice. And you can buy the St Scholastika buildings and use them as a headquarters for your anti-fascist resistance meetings. Call it a summer home so that Joey doesn’t get suspicious.”
“Hmm, I’ll think about it,” said Mrs Russell, putting her gun away and smoothing her curls.
“Meanwhile, it is almost Christmas – you will spend it with us, won’t you. You haven’t really properly met my sister yet, Captain Hastings. I’m sure you and she would get on splendidly.”
We heard later that Miss Annersley’s plan was enacted and with some success. The school was to go on and flourish, and the anti-fascist resistance was as effective as it could be against the coming storm. Although the school ended up having to flee Austria, it had made a real difference to the lives of many who were able to escape what would have been certain death.
Captain Humphries wasn’t so lucky. I heard that he was killed in a supposed climbing accident just one month after the unmasking of the great criminal band. Matron and the so-called Miss Browne were imprisoned, of course, although I did hear that they had managed to escape and disappear to America.
I never did visit the Austrian Tyrol again. But I will always hold the Tiernsee and the Chalet School close to my heart. And it will always remind me of one of the happiest Christmases I’ve ever had. But that, as they say, is another story.