Another Poirot parody for Captain Hastings fans everywhere
It is something of a rarity that Hercule Poirot felt quite so at home anywhere outside of his recherché London residence of Whitehaven Mansions, but here, sipping tea in the long gallery of the President’s lodge at Queens’ College Cambridge, he felt quite the affinity with his stately surroundings. The freshly polished oak panelling was the epitome of precision geometry and the deep lacquer of the sixteenth century furniture gave a pleasing sheen in which he could admire his equally well-attended moustache. Having spent the last two days as the guest of College President and noted British economist, John Archibald Venn, Poirot felt now almost as if he had taken a small holiday; here, his little grey cells were admired and revered, rather than forced into the employ of the dim-witted and their violent circumstances.
Tiring of the sombre leisure of academia was Poirot’s great friend and trusted colleague, the plucky Captain Hastings. He had been tempted to join the jaunt to East Anglia by the promise of fast cars and the winsome glances of eligible young women, but as yet he had seen little of either. Thus far, the trip had consisted of a grovelling obeisance towards the great detective and his endless ventures that was becoming almost embarrassing. Poirot himself, of course, was enjoying the experience immensely and his already considerable ego was being stroked and cajoled to magnificent proportions.
The dashing Captain sighed and sank a little lower in his chair as Poirot once again regaled Venn with the daring escapades upon the Orient Express, a notable endeavour for which Hastings himself was not present, but knew every detail as if he had lived the experience ten times over. In fact, the details became progressively aurelian with each re-telling and he wondered to himself if the tale could possibly become any more dramatic? Evidently, it could.
Hastings smiled stiffly as Poirot explained for the umpteenth time the great benefits of a superior aptitude for observation.
“Par exemple, mon amie, we look closely at my tea cup,” Poirot raised the dainty china cup and saucer with surprising delicacy in his large, rounded hands. “The saucer, it is in the style of the Wedgwood ‘Willow’ pattern, matching so beautifully the tea pot and milk jug and also the cups and saucers of you, Monsieur Venn and also you, Captain Hastings. Mais, the tea cup of Poirot, it is certainly a design of the blue and the white – yet it is not of the ‘Willow’ pattern, vrai? It is the design of the ‘Fallow Deer’, is it not?”
Hastings hauled himself up in his chair, curiosity piqued, and reached for his cup and saucer which, he noted with some disdain, had been empty for quite sometime. Never once had he doubted his great friend’s keen eye, a keeness that was matched only by that of his mind, and this occasion was to be no exception. The colouring and shape of the tea cup were remarkably similar, but the patterning subtly different.
“And here I was, thinking that I would never get to see for myself the powers of the great Hercule Poirot in action – and then there we go!” Venn slapped his knee in delight and let loose a contented chuckle. “Well spotted, sir, well spotted. Unfortunately, one of the cups was broken by a maid. As penance, I sent her into town to find a replacement but the blasted girl picked up that one instead. I’ve been meaning to arrange for a correct one to be delivered, but you’re the first person to notice!”
“It would be a simple mistake,” Poirot smiled, draining the cup in a series of delicate sips. “C’est vrai, they are très similar.”
“I suppose you can’t expect maids to know the difference,” Hastings agreed. “I do hope you are not still angry with her about it?”
“Oh, no,” replied Venn. “Besides, she doesn’t work here anymore.”
“Oh?” said Poirot, raising a thick and perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Surely you did not dismiss her for the breaking of one single cup?”
“Of course not,” Venn snapped back. He fidgeted in his seat, perturbed by some unknown thing, before turning to Captain Hastings. “Now then, Captain – didn’t I promise you a peek at my automobile collection?”
Hastings brightened immediately, his eyes shining in anticipation.
“I rather think you did, old bean!”
“Come on, then,” replied Venn, clambering hastily to his feet. “Poirot, I don’t suppose you share our enthusiasm for machines of speed?”
“Certainement pas!” Poirot looked a little nervous for a moment, before regaining his immaculate composure and reaching for the tea pot. “There is a little tea left. It shall be the perfect accompaniment to the peace and quiet.”
Alone in the long gallery, Poirot’s only companion in the hush of the late afternoon was an apologetic grandfather clock, stoically counting seconds in the corner. The intoxicating essence of newly polished, antiquated wood and the reserved notations of the passage of time put Poirot in the mind that he might find himself some small position in College life when the time came to think of his eventual retirement. But the notion quickly passed; retirement was impossible when there was always a new mystery to be solved.
“Oh! Mr Poirot!” A shrill voice broke the detective’s reverie. “You must excuse me, I thought you ‘ad all left.”
A plump and flustered woman appeared in the doorway, wispy grey hair escaping from beneath a crumpled white bonnet and stout hands, red raw from scrubbing, smoothed down her white apron. Her demure black frock showed signs of fraying and the elbows looked in need of repair.
“Poirot, he is lingering over your delicious tea,” he replied with a gracious smile. “Mais, you look as though you are a very busy woman and I will not delay you, ne t’en fais pas.”
“You are so kind, Mr Poirot,” said the maid, approaching the tea things and aiming a grubby-toothed smile at her spotless guest. “It’s been such a struggle to keep up with me duties now there’s just me on me own, you know.”
“Ah, oui. The maid who broke the cup – she has not been replaced, non?”
“Maggie? That’s right. Six months she’s been gone, now, and not a word about getting me another maid. They didn’t even have the good grace to tell me she was going!”
Rough hands snatched at the crockery in a manner which made Poirot quite fitful, but he remained mute on the matter as the maid continued in her chattering.
“She was a good girl, was our Maggie. Went to work for a proper hoity-toity family in Norfolk, she did. She wrote to me for a while afterwards, but I’ve not had a letter from her in a couple of months, now.”
“You miss your friend Maggie, madame?”
“Indeed I do, Mr Poirot!” The maid paused to stand upright and place her hands upon the hearty girth of her hips. “Truth be told, I’m a bit worried about her. She seemed happy enough at first, but then…”
“Please to continue, madame!” urged Poirot.
“Well… the letters became much more brief and… she seemed… distant,” the maid muttered, her rosy cheeks loosing a little of their glow. “Then, they stopped all together. You know, Mr Poirot, there’s something in me waters tells me… something’s ‘appened to ‘er.”
Available 10th June 2017!
(Yes, it was a surprise to me too – nothing like waking up find out you’ve got a book out next week…)