I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence:
“‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”
Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a Duchess!
It was a day in early June. I had been transacting some business in Paris and was returning by the morning service to London where I was still sharing rooms with my old friend, the Belgian ex-detective, Hercule Poirot.
The Calais express was singularly empty — in fact, my own compartment held only one other traveller. I had made a somewhat hurried departure from the hotel and was busy assuring myself that I had duly collected all my traps when the train started. Up till then I had hardly noticed my companion, but I was now violently recalled to the fact of her existence. Jumping up from her seat, she let down the window and stuck her head out, withdrawing it a moment later with the brief and forcible ejaculation “Hell!”
Now I am old-fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!
I looked up now, frowning slightly, into a pretty, impudent face, surmounted by a rakish little red hat. A thick cluster of black curls hid each ear. I judged that she was little more than seventeen, but her face was covered with powder, and her lips were quite impossibly scarlet.
Nothing abashed, she returned my glance, and executed an expressive grimace.
“Dear me, we’ve shocked the kind gentleman!” she observed to an imaginary audience. “I apologize for my language! Most unladylike, and all that, but Oh, Lord, there’s reason enough for it! Do you know I’ve lost my only sister?”
“Really?” I said politely. “How unfortunate.”
“He disapproves!” remarked the lady. “He disapproves utterly — of me, and my sister — which last is unfair, because he hasn’t seen her!”
I opened my mouth, but she forestalled me.
“Say no more! Nobody loves me! I shall go into the garden and eat worms! Boohoo! I am crushed!”
She buried herself behind a large comic French paper. In a minute or two I saw her eyes stealthily peeping at me over the top. In spite of myself I could not help smiling, and in a minute she had tossed the paper aside, and had burst into a merry peal of laughter.
“I knew you weren’t such a mutt as you looked,” she cried.