Ancient Athens was much smaller than it had become by our day. The hill of the Acropolis presented an appearance that was remarkably different from that with which I was familiar. The Parthenon, that marble monument well known to all through a thousand pictures, existed only as a couple of columns and some wooden scaffolding. There were some smaller buildings on the hill but it looked almost bare compared to my mental image of the place.
We reached the city gates and Gabrielle reined her horse to a halt. “We’d best walk from here on in,” she advised us. “Riding through the narrow streets is a bitch.” She slipped lightly from the saddle and took hold of her horse’s bridle. I followed her example, although my dismount was perhaps less elegant, and looked to Poirot. He was clinging to the back of his mount as if he was terrified of falling off, which was probably the case, and I hastened to his assistance. Gabrielle went to help down the similarly uncomfortable Miss Lemon.
“Mon Dieu!” Poirot exclaimed as I helped him descend. “Why have not these people invented the stirrup? To ride bareback upon the horse, it is for the circus rider, not for Hercule Poirot.” He groaned and clutched at the muscles of his thighs.
“The Scythian barbarians have stirrups,” Gabrielle told him, “but the Greeks haven’t caught on to them. I guess they have ‘not invented here’ syndrome. Anything the barbarians have, and the Greeks don’t, they reckon isn’t worth having.”
Gabrielle’s speech had undergone something of a transformation since our arrival in Greece. In London she had spoken rather precisely, using no colloquialisms, in the manner perhaps of a radio announcer. Here she spoke in a much less formal manner and with a hint of an accent that sounded almost American. I deduced that this was something to do with the mystical manner in which we were mutually comprehensible. Presumably my speech would seem somewhat stilted to the inhabitants of Athens. I was unsure of how they would hear Poirot but my guess was that he would seem slightly foreign to them, just as he always did to the English, and that his occasional lapses into French would sound to the Greeks like the tongues of the barbarians.
His appearance was attracting curious eyes. He had prepared for the expedition in so far as he was wearing a summer weight jacket and trousers, but he still wore his bow tie and, of course, his patent leather shoes. I was dressed for the Argentinean pampas in an open-necked shirt, corduroy breeches, and stout boots. Out of place amongst the Athenians in their chitons and himations, with their feet bare or sandaled, but surely not as out of place as Poirot; and eminently more practical. I had belted my Webley at my waist.
Miss Lemon now wore the chiton in which Gabrielle had visited us in London. The Greek girl had donned a much shorter garment, a chalmydon, and tight-fitting leggings. No-one whom we had met during our three-day journey from Delphi had worn costumes resembling Gabrielle’s, and she had attracted as many curious looks as had Poirot and myself, but it undoubtedly was much more suitable garb for a battle than was the long chiton. She had untied the chignon and her hair now hung loose, sweeping her shoulders, and was kept back from her face by a simple headband.
A pair of hoplites met us at the gate. They were rather intimidating, with their huge bronze shields and their long spears, and their helmets hid most of their faces. “State your business in Athens, strangers,” one addressed us.
I suppose that I should have been prepared for such an obvious question but it hadn’t occurred to me that we would be asked to account for ourselves. I wasn’t sure if they would understand the concept of detectives and I had no idea what we should say. Poirot was, of course, one step ahead of me. “We come to see your famous city,” he told them, “and to make purchases from your merchants.”
“One tetradrachm apiece for non-Athenians to enter the city,” the hoplite declared.
Poirot frowned. I think that he was wondering if the guards would be able to give him 5,984 drachma change for one of the golden talents.
“They’re with me, Lykourgos,” Gabrielle said. “And you’re trying it on.” She tossed a coin towards the man. “It’s a drachma each. Here’s one tetradrachm for us all.”
The soldier released his spear, caught the coin, and took hold of the spear again before it could topple over. “Your position in this city is uncertain, Gabrielle, now that your companion languishes in the cells.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” Gabrielle said, “and nor has Xena.”
“Xena led an army of Thracians and Scythians against us,” the other guard put in. “She was declared to be an enemy of Athens.”
“And she then fought alongside the Greeks against the Persians and was pardoned,” was Gabrielle’s rejoinder. “She was welcome in the city before this accusation was made against her. You know that.”
“Murder does tend to change people’s minds,” the hoplite said.
“I don’t make the decisions,” said the first hoplite, Lykourgos. “But there are no charges against you, it is true, and all know that you are only the recorder of Xena’s deeds. Enter, Gabrielle, and your companions with you.”
We led our horses through the gates. A broad avenue led on from the gates into the city, and I saw riders and chariots proceeding along that road, but Gabrielle directed us aside into a maze of narrow and twisting lanes. “I’ll take you to an inn first, okay?” she suggested.
Poirot sighed. “That would be pleasant, Mademoiselle. My back, it aches, and it is as if my legs wish to depart themselves from my body. A journey most arduous.”
Gabrielle looked heavenwards. “It was a gentle stroll. I could have run from Delphi in the same time as it took us to ride.”
“It would have taken but two hours by train in my world,” Poirot complained. “Sitting in comfort for the journey entire. Ah, this era is not to my taste. There is no order, no method, and the transportation it leaves much to be desired. As for the inns…” He shuddered. “I trust that in Athens the innkeeper will not keep goats upon his premises?”
“I never asked,” Gabrielle said. “There won’t be any goats in the room, anyway. Not unless your tastes run that way and you pay extra.”
“Quelle horreur!” Poirot shook his head. “Lead on to the inn, then, Mademoiselle Gabrielle. I put out of my mind the possibility of goats. I wish only to dine and to sit upon something that does not go up and down.”
“Okay,” said Gabrielle. “I guess that rules out Madame Tryphosa’s… establishment.”
The inn was noisy and crowded. A haze of smoke hung in the hair and carried with it a distinct aroma of burning goat. I had learned, during our journey from Delphi, that the Greeks would eat no animal unless it had been killed as a sacrifice to the gods. Presumably a portion of the goat smouldered upon some nearby altar. I was worried for a moment that the busy establishment would have no rooms available but it seemed that most of the patrons were locals. Two rooms for our party were obtained without difficulty and we sought out, with somewhat less ease, a table at which to dine.
We still had nothing smaller than talents and so Gabrielle paid for everything. She told us that it was quite beyond the capacity of any inn to deal with the high value gold coins and she promised to take us to a money changer in the morning. Once we had drachma and obols we would be able to pay for things ourselves. Poirot did not appear altogether pleased at that prospect. I fear that my old friend has a miserly streak in some respects, although he has no qualms about spending his money freely on obtaining the best; he would, however, prefer the spending to be done by someone else.
We were halfway through a meal of fish and chickpeas when a young man came up to our table, pulled up a chair, and sat down. Poirot gave a ‘tut’ of irritation and I frowned at the man. I did not object verbally, however, as I was unsure of the proprieties of the situation. Sitting on any unoccupied seat, even at a table that was in use, might have been perfectly in accordance with the etiquette of the time.
It transpired that the young man’s arrival was not merely because of the empty seat. “Hello, Gabrielle,” he greeted our employer. “Raising a barbarian horde to free Xena, huh? Count me in.” He cast his gaze around our group. “I am Miltiades Joxer. Joxer the Mighty.”
He did not look particularly mighty. He was rather thin, in fact, and perhaps ‘gangling’ was the best word to describe him. He wore armour of leather strips and patches, with random pieces of metal plate tied to it here and there, and an open-faced helmet that seemed too big for him was perched on top of his head.
Poirot looked at the newcomer and muttered something under his breath. I would have been prepared to bet that it was ‘no order, no method’.
I inclined my head towards the young man. “Captain Arthur Hastings,” I introduced myself.
“A captain of a very small company,” he replied, and gave me a rather engaging grin. “Unless the rest of the horde awaits outside?”
“There is no horde, Joxer,” Gabrielle told him. “Xena does not wish to be freed by force. She is innocent. All we have to do is to find out the truth and prove her innocence to the Athenians.”
“And how are we to do that?” asked Joxer. “It’s no use asking the Oracle. We always get answers in riddles that could mean several things. Pericles would come up with an alternative explanation and they’d go right ahead and convict her.”
“I know,” said Gabrielle. “That’s why I have sought the aid of Hercule Poirot. An expert at discovering the truth.”
Poirot bowed slightly. “That is I. Hercule Poirot, detective without equal.”
Joxer frowned. “Detective? I don’t understand. Some kind of soothsayer?”
“I investigate crimes,” Poirot explained. “I gather the facts, question the suspects, and then I employ the little grey cells until the solution presents itself.”
“The little grey cells?” Joxer echoed.
“The little grey cells of the brain, young man,” Poirot elaborated.
“The brain?” Joxer’s brows furrowed. “But that’s just for cooling the blood, right?”
“In your case,” Poirot said, “that is no doubt correct.”