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The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Author:Agatha Christie


The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in view of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the sensational rumours which still persist.
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  The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the

  time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in

  view of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked,

  both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account

  of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the

  sensational rumours which still persist.

  I will therefore briefly set down the circumstances which led to my

  being connected with the affair.

  I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some

  months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s

  sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make

  up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen

  very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him

  particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one

  thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though,

  I had often stayed at Styles, his mother’s place in Essex.

  We had a good yarn about old times, and it ended in his inviting me

  down to Styles to spend my leave there.

  “The mater will be delighted to see you again—after all those years,”

  he added.

  “Your mother keeps well?” I asked.

  “Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”

  I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who

  had married John’s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been

  a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her. She certainly could

  not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic,

  autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social

  notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady

  Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable

  fortune of her own.

  Their country-place, Styles Court, had been purchased by Mr. Cavendish

  early in their married life. He had been completely under his wife’s

  ascendancy, so much so that, on dying, he left the place to her for her

  lifetime, as well as the larger part of his income; an arrangement that

  was distinctly unfair to his two sons. Their step-mother, however, had

  always been most generous to them; indeed, they were so young at the

  time of their father’s remarriage that they always thought of her as

  their own mother.

  Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a

  doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at

  home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any

  marked success.

  John practised for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled

  down to the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two

  years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I

  entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother

  to increase his allowance, which would have enabled him to have a home

  of his own. Mrs. Cavendish, however, was a lady who liked to make her

  own plans, and expected other people to fall in with them, and in this

  case she certainly had the whip hand, namely: the purse strings.

  John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage and

  smiled rather ruefully.

  “Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you,

  Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you

  remember Evie?”


  “Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum,

  companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely

  young and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”

  “You were going to say——?”

  “Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a

  second cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seem

  particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an

  absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard,

  and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned

  to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s always

  running a hundred societies?”

  I nodded.

  “Well, of course the war has turned the hundreds into thousands. No

  doubt the fellow was very useful to her. But you could have knocked us

  all down with a feather when, three months ago, she suddenly announced

  that she and Alfred were engaged! The fellow must be at least twenty

  years younger than she is! It’s simply bare-faced fortune hunting; but

  there you are—she is her own mistress, and she’s married him.”

  “It must be a difficult situation for you all.”

  “Difficult! It’s damnable!”

  Thus it came about that, three days later, I descended from the train

  at Styles St. Mary, an absurd little station, with no apparent reason

  for existence, perched up in the midst of green fields and country

  lanes. John Cavendish was waiting on the platform, and piloted me out

  to the car.

  “Got a drop or two of petrol still, you see,” he remarked. “Mainly

  owing to the mater’s activities.”

  The village of Styles St. Mary was situated about two miles from the

  little station, and Styles Court lay a mile the other side of it. It

  was a still, warm day in early July. As one looked out over the flat

  Essex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, it

  seemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a great

  war was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayed

  into another world. As we turned in at the lodge gates, John said:

  “I’m afraid you’ll find it very quiet down here, Hastings.”

  “My dear fellow, that’s just what I want.”

  “Oh, it’s pleasant enough if you want to lead the idle life. I drill

  with the volunteers twice a week, and lend a hand at the farms. My wife

  works regularly ‘on the land’. She is up at five every morning to milk,

  and keeps at it steadily until lunchtime. It’s a jolly good life taking

  it all round—if it weren’t for that fellow Alfred Inglethorp!” He

  checked the car suddenly, and glanced at his watch. “I wonder if we’ve

  time to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital by


  “Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”

  “No, Cynthia is a protégée of my mother’s, the daughter of an old

  schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a

  cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came

  to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. She

  works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”

  As he spoke the last words, we drew up in front of the fine old house.

  A lady in a stout tweed skirt, who was bending over a flower bed,

  straightened herself at our approach.

  “Hullo, Evie, here’s our wounded hero! Mr. Hastings—Miss Howard.”

  Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an

  impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a

  pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly

  in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with

  feet to match—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation,

  I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.

  “Weeds grow like house afire. Can’t keep even with ’em. Shall press you

  in. Better be careful.”

  “I’m sure I shall be only too delighted to make myself useful,” I


  “Don’t say it. Never does. Wish you hadn’t later.”

  “You’re a cynic, Evie,” said John, laughing. “Where’s tea to-day—inside

  or out?”

  “Out. Too fine a day to be cooped up in the house.”

  “Come on then, you’ve done enough gardening for to-day. ‘The labourer

  is worthy of his hire’, you know. Come and be refreshed.”

  “Well,” said Miss Howard, drawing off her gardening gloves, “I’m

  inclined to agree with you.”

  She led the way round the house to where tea was spread under the shade

  of a large sycamore.

  A figure rose from one of the basket chairs, and came a few steps to

  meet us.

  “My wife, Hastings,” said John.

  I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall,

  slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of

  slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful

  tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s

  that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed,

  which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in

  an exquisitely civilised body—all these things are burnt into my

  memory. I shall never forget them.

  She greeted me with a few words of pleasant welcome in a low clear

  voice, and I sank into a basket chair feeling distinctly glad that I

  had accepted John’s invitation. Mrs. Cavendish gave me some tea, and

  her few quiet remarks heightened my first impression of her as a

  thoroughly fascinating woman. An appreciative listener is always

  stimulating, and I described, in a humorous manner, certain incidents

  of my Convalescent Home, in a way which, I flatter myself, greatly

  amused my hostess. John, of course, good fellow though he is, could

  hardly be called a brilliant conversationalist.

  At that moment a well remembered voice floated through the open French

  window near at hand:

  “Then you’ll write to the Princess after tea, Alfred? I’ll write to

  Lady Tadminster for the second day, myself. Or shall we wait until we

  hear from the Princess? In case of a refusal, Lady Tadminster might

  open it the first day, and Mrs. Crosbie the second. Then there’s the

  Duchess—about the school fête.”

  There was the murmur of a man’s voice, and then Mrs. Inglethorp’s rose

  in reply:

  “Yes, certainly. After tea will do quite well. You are so thoughtful,

  Alfred dear.”

  The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome

  white-haired old lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features,

  stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of

  deference in his manner.

  Mrs. Inglethorp greeted me with effusion.

  “Why, if it isn’t too delightful to see you again, Mr. Hastings, after

  all these years. Alfred, darling, Mr. Hastings—my husband.”

  I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling”. He certainly struck a

  rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It

  was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore

  gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It

  struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out

  of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous. He

  placed a wooden hand in mine and said:

  “This is a pleasure, Mr. Hastings.” Then, turning to his wife: “Emily

  dearest, I think that cushion is a little damp.”

  She beamed fondly on him, as he substituted another with every

  demonstration of the tenderest care. Strange infatuation of an

  otherwise sensible woman!

  With the presence of Mr. Inglethorp, a sense of constraint and veiled

  hostility seemed to settle down upon the company. Miss Howard, in

  particular, took no pains to conceal her feelings. Mrs. Inglethorp,

  however, seemed to notice nothing unusual. Her volubility, which I

  remembered of old, had lost nothing in the intervening years, and she

  poured out a steady flood of conversation, mainly on the subject of the

  forthcoming bazaar which she was organizing and which was to take place

  shortly. Occasionally she referred to her husband over a question of

  days or dates. His watchful and attentive manner never varied. From the

  very first I took a firm and rooted dislike to him, and I flatter

  myself that my first judgments are usually fairly shrewd.

  Presently Mrs. Inglethorp turned to give some instructions about

  letters to Evelyn Howard, and her husband addressed me in his

  painstaking voice:

  “Is soldiering your regular profession, Mr. Hastings?”

  “No, before the war I was in Lloyd’s.”

  “And you will return there after it is over?”

  “Perhaps. Either that or a fresh start altogether.”

  Mary Cavendish leant forward.

  “What would you really choose as a profession, if you could just

  consult your inclination?”

  “Well, that depends.”

  “No secret hobby?” she asked. “Tell me—you’re drawn to something?

  Everyone is—usually something absurd.”

  “You’ll laugh at me.”

  She smiled.


  “Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective!”

  “The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”

  “Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully

  drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous

  detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow.

  He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of

  method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed

  rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but

  wonderfully clever.”

  “Like a good detective story myself,” remarked Miss Howard. “Lots of

  nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in last chapter. Everyone

  dumbfounded. Real crime—you’d know at once.”

  “There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes,” I argued.

  “Don’t mean the police, but the people that are right in it. The

  family. You couldn’t really hoodwink them. They’d know.”

  “Then,” I said, much amused, “you think that if you were mixed up in a

  crime, say a murder, you’d be able to spot the murderer right off?”

  “Of course I should. Mightn’t be able to prove it to a pack of lawyers.

  But I’m certain I’d know. I’d feel it in my fingertips if he came near


  “It might be a ‘she’,” I suggested.

  “Might. But murder’s a violent crime. Associate it more with a man.”

  “Not in a case of poisoning.” Mrs. Cavendish’s clear voice startled me.

  “Dr. Bauerstein was saying yesterday that, owing to the general

  ignorance of the more uncommon poisons among the medical profession,

  there were probably countless cases of poisoning quite unsuspected.”

  “Why, Mary, what a gruesome conversation!” cried Mrs. Inglethorp. “It

  makes me feel as if a goose were walking over my grave. Oh, there’s


  A young girl in V.A.D. uniform ran lightly across the lawn.

  “Why, Cynthia, you are late to-day. This is Mr. Hastings—Miss Murdoch.”

  Cynthia Murdoch was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and

  vigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the great

  loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the

  hand she held out to claim her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she

  would have been a beauty.

  She flung herself down on the ground beside John, and as I handed her a

  plate of sandwiches she smiled up at me.

  “Sit down here on the grass, do. It’s ever so much nicer.”

  I dropped down obediently.

  “You work at Tadminster, don’t you, Miss Murdoch?”

  She nodded.

  “For my sins.”

  “Do they bully you, then?” I asked, smiling.

  “I should like to see them!” cried Cynthia with dignity.

  “I have got a cousin who is nursing,” I remarked. “And she is terrified

  of ‘Sisters’.”

  “I don’t wonder. Sisters _are_, you know, Mr. Hastings. They simp-ly

  _are_! You’ve no idea! But I’m not a nurse, thank heaven, I work in the


  “How many people do you poison?” I asked, smiling.

  Cynthia smiled too.

  “Oh, hundreds!” she said.

  “Cynthia,” called Mrs. Inglethorp, “do you think you could write a few

  notes for me?”

  “Certainly, Aunt Emily.”

  She jumped up promptly, and something in her manner reminded me that

  her position was a dependent one, and that Mrs. Inglethorp, kind as she

  might be in the main, did not allow her to forget it.

  My hostess turned to me.

  “John will show you your room. Supper is at half-past seven. We have

  given up late dinner for some time now. Lady Tadminster, our Member’s

  wife—she was the late Lord Abbotsbury’s daughter—does the same. She

  agrees with me that one must set an example of economy. We are quite a

  war household; nothing is wasted here—every scrap of waste paper, even,

  is saved and sent away in sacks.”

  I expressed my appreciation, and John took me into the house and up the

  broad staircase, which forked right and left half-way to different

  wings of the building. My room was in the left wing, and looked out

  over the park.

  John left me, and a few minutes later I saw him from my window walking

  slowly across the grass arm in arm with Cynthia Murdoch. I heard Mrs.

  Inglethorp call “Cynthia” impatiently, and the girl started and ran

  back to the house. At the same moment, a man stepped out from the

  shadow of a tree and walked slowly in the same direction. He looked

  about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some

  violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window

  as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the

  fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s younger

  brother, Lawrence Cavendish. I wondered what it was that had brought

  that singular expression to his face.

  Then I dismissed him from my mind, and returned to the contemplation of

  my own affairs.

  The evening passed pleasantly enough; and I dreamed that night of that

  enigmatical woman, Mary Cavendish.

  The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was full of the

  anticipation of a delightful visit.

  I did not see Mrs. Cavendish until lunch-time, when she volunteered to

  take me for a walk, and we spent a charming afternoon roaming in the

  woods, returning to the house about five.

  As we entered the large hall, John beckoned us both into the

  smoking-room. I saw at once by his face that something disturbing had

  occurred. We followed him in, and he shut the door after us.

  “Look here, Mary, there’s the deuce of a mess. Evie’s had a row with

  Alfred Inglethorp, and she’s off.”

  “Evie? Off?”

  John nodded gloomily.

  “Yes; you see she went to the mater, and—Oh,—here’s Evie herself.”

  Miss Howard entered. Her lips were set grimly together, and she carried

  a small suit-case. She looked excited and determined, and slightly on

  the defensive.

  “At any rate,” she burst out, “I’ve spoken my mind!”

  “My dear Evelyn,” cried Mrs. Cavendish, “this can’t be true!”

  Miss Howard nodded grimly.

  “True enough! Afraid I said some things to Emily she won’t forget or

  forgive in a hurry. Don’t mind if they’ve only sunk in a bit. Probably

  water off a duck’s back, though. I said right out: ‘You’re an old

  woman, Emily, and there’s no fool like an old fool. The man’s twenty

  years younger than you, and don’t you fool yourself as to what he

  married you for. Money! Well, don’t let him have too much of it. Farmer

  Raikes has got a very pretty young wife. Just ask your Alfred how much

  time he spends over there.’ She was very angry. Natural! I went on,

  ‘I’m going to warn you, whether you like it or not. That man would as

  soon murder you in your bed as look at you. He’s a bad lot. You can say

  what you like to me, but remember what I’ve told you. He’s a bad lot!’”

  “What did she say?”

  Miss Howard made an extremely expressive grimace.

  “‘Darling Alfred’—‘dearest Alfred’—‘wicked calumnies’ —‘wicked

  lies’—‘wicked woman’—to accuse her ‘dear husband!’ The sooner I left

  her house the better. So I’m off.”

  “But not now?”

  “This minute!”

  For a moment we sat and stared at her. Finally John Cavendish, finding

  his persuasions of no avail, went off to look up the trains. His wife

  followed him, murmuring something about persuading Mrs. Inglethorp to

  think better of it.

  As she left the room, Miss Howard’s face changed. She leant towards me


  “Mr. Hastings, you’re honest. I can trust you?”

  I was a little startled. She laid her hand on my arm, and sank her

  voice to a whisper.

  “Look after her, Mr. Hastings. My poor Emily. They’re a lot of

  sharks—all of them. Oh, I know what I’m talking about. There isn’t one

  of them that’s not hard up and trying to get money out of her. I’ve

  protected her as much as I could. Now I’m out of the way, they’ll

  impose upon her.”

  “Of course, Miss Howard,” I said, “I’ll do everything I can, but I’m

  sure you’re excited and overwrought.”

  She interrupted me by slowly shaking her forefinger.

  “Young man, trust me. I’ve lived in the world rather longer than you

  have. All I ask you is to keep your eyes open. You’ll see what I mean.”

  The throb of the motor came through the open window, and Miss Howard

  rose and moved to the door. John’s voice sounded outside. With her hand

  on the handle, she turned her head over her shoulder, and beckoned to


  “Above all, Mr. Hastings, watch that devil—her husband!”

  There was no time for more. Miss Howard was swallowed up in an eager

  chorus of protests and good-byes. The Inglethorps did not appear.

  As the motor drove away, Mrs. Cavendish suddenly detached herself from

  the group, and moved across the drive to the lawn to meet a tall

  bearded man who had been evidently making for the house. The colour

  rose in her cheeks as she held out her hand to him.

  “Who is that?” I asked sharply, for instinctively I distrusted the man.

  “That’s Dr. Bauerstein,” said John shortly.

  “And who is Dr. Bauerstein?”

  “He’s staying in the village doing a rest cure, after a bad nervous

  breakdown. He’s a London specialist; a very clever man—one of the

  greatest living experts on poisons, I believe.”

  “And he’s a great friend of Mary’s,” put in Cynthia, the irrepressible.

  John Cavendish frowned and changed the subject.

  “Come for a stroll, Hastings. This has been a most rotten business. She

  always had a rough tongue, but there is no stauncher friend in England

  than Evelyn Howard.”

  He took the path through the plantation, and we walked down to the

  village through the woods which bordered one side of the estate.

  As we passed through one of the gates on our way home again, a pretty

  young woman of gipsy type coming in the opposite direction bowed and


  “That’s a pretty girl,” I remarked appreciatively.

  John’s face hardened.

  “That is Mrs. Raikes.”

  “The one that Miss Howard——”

  “Exactly,” said John, with rather unnecessary abruptness.

  I thought of the white-haired old lady in the big house, and that vivid

  wicked little face that had just smiled into ours, and a vague chill of

  foreboding crept over me. I brushed it aside.

  “Styles is really a glorious old place,” I said to John.

  He nodded rather gloomily.

  “Yes, it’s a fine property. It’ll be mine some day—should be mine now

  by rights, if my father had only made a decent will. And then I

  shouldn’t be so damned hard up as I am now.”

  “Hard up, are you?”

  “My dear Hastings, I don’t mind telling you that I’m at my wits’ end

  for money.”

  “Couldn’t your brother help you?”

  “Lawrence? He’s gone through every penny he ever had, publishing rotten

  verses in fancy bindings. No, we’re an impecunious lot. My mother’s

  always been awfully good to us, I must say. That is, up to now. Since

  her marriage, of course——” he broke off, frowning.

  For the first time I felt that, with Evelyn Howard, something

  indefinable had gone from the atmosphere. Her presence had spelt

  security. Now that security was removed—and the air seemed rife with

  suspicion. The sinister face of Dr. Bauerstein recurred to me

  unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled my

  mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.