Another Poirot parody for Captain Hastings fans everywhere
On the sweeping private driveway at the rear of one of Cambridge University’s most illustrious establishments, the President of Queens’ College – John Archibald Venn – was showing a very enthusiastic Captain Hastings three of his most prized motor vehicles. Eyes like saucers, Hastings was twitching with unconfined glee, his child-like excitement pitching his voice a good octave above its natural inclination. Something else had also heightened the Captain’s spirits and that was the brief but telling conversation in which he and Venn engaged on the way to see the cars. Hastings learned that Venn, like himself, had served in the Great War. But not only was the eminent Venn of lowlier rank than Captain Hastings (Venn being a mere lieutenant) but he also spent most of the war as a statistician for the Food Production Department, therefore being far less heroic and certainly not as alluring to the ladies.
All that being said, the fellow certainly did have an impressive collection of automobiles. The Bentley 8 Litre stood out at once – a behemoth of a vehicle, black as night and with headlights the size of a man’s head. It was a luxury carriage, out of reach for all but the very wealthy and impeccably connected. Hastings thought to himself that he would be quite nervous to be behind the wheel of such a thing and, indeed, the tires looked as if they had barely seen the road.
Brand new and resplendent in cherry red with gleaming black mudguards was a stunning Delage D6-11. Reeking of the finest French design and innovation, it was a vehicle sure to set the heart of any fair maiden racing – it certainly gave the Captain a flutter, that’s for certain.
Finally, there stood the Humber Pullman, almost humble compared to its contemporaries, being of smaller stature and of a less-dazzling matt finish. Even so, it was not a vehicle that was seen very often among the common folk and Hastings would have hopped in the driver’s seat in a heartbeat.
“I say! This is quite the fleet you have here, Venn,” squeaked Hastings, barely able to contain himself. “You must spend your weekends tearing around the countryside in style!”
Venn laughed and shook his head, waving away such an absurd suggestion.
“Hardly, my dear chap. Such vehicles must be treated with the utmost of respect! Besides, if I were to go too quickly it wouldn’t give people the chance to see what handsome devil was driving!”
“Haha! Good point!”
“Isn’t it a shame dear Poirot doesn’t share our passion?” Venn remarked. “I had hoped to convince him to take a spin. Oh look, isn’t that him now?”
Hastings turned to look towards the end of the driveway, as indicated by Venn. The distinctive outline and regal waddle were unmistakeable. But Poirot did not approach, preferring rather to keep his distance and, it appeared, converse with his companion, a plump and harassed-looking woman. Hastings waved at his friend, who replied with a deferential tip of his hat but made no further attempt to attract attention. Returning to the far more engaging subject of the automobiles, Hastings began bombarding Venn with all number of questions and observations.
Watching the scene from the far end of the driveway, Poirot smiled at his friend’s fervour.
“It is nice to see them enjoying themselves, non, madame?”
“Yes, Mr Poirot,” replied the maid. “The President has been in a right two-and-eight not long since, I’m pleased to see him smiling again.”
“What was it that troubled Monsieur Venn?” asked Poirot.
“Well… it’s ‘ard to say,” said the maid, thoughtfully. “There ‘as been dreadful trouble from a couple of the students. Mind, that’s settled down now the main troublemaker got given the elbow, as it were. I expect running a College is a very trying business, Mr Poirot.”
“Mais oui, madame, that it certainly must be,” Poirot nodded. “And you, missing your Maggie, you must also be in – how you say – the two and the eight?”
“Oh, I gets by, Mr Poirot, I gets by…” the maid sighed and her tone did not reflect the words she spoke.
“Madame, if something troubles you, you must tell Poirot. He may be able to assist.”
“It’s not for myself I’m worried, you see,” she replied. “It’s my Maggie. She’s such a little slip of thing, just a girl really. Quite simple in the ways of the world and I used to keep an eye out for her. There was mention of a young man in her letters, for a time, but then when I asked further she made no reply about ‘im. Then, she made no reply at all.”
“You told Poirot that your… waters… tell you something has happened to mademoiselle Maggie? Do you know what it could be?”
“I don’t know, Mr Poirot! But something isn’t right, I’ll tell you that much. Look…” reaching within the folds of her apron, the old maid retrieved a single sheet of paper that looked as if it had been folded and unfolded a thousand times. “‘Ere’s the last letter she sent me. The address is on the top there.”
Poirot removed his shiny gold rimmed spectacles from the upper pocket of his jacket and inspected the letter with his usual diligence. Only the briefest twitch of his moustache and a curt nod offered any indication of his thoughts.
“I may keep this, madame?”
“Yes, Mr Poirot – are you going to find out what happened to her?”
Before the great detective could make his reply, his attention was drawn to the other end of the driveway by a most uncharacteristic whooping from Captain Hastings. Evidently in an ostentatiously celebratory mood, Hastings began gesturing in a most unbecoming fashion for Poirot to join him. Tucking Maggie’s letter into his jacket, he made his excuses to the maid and toddled as swiftly as dignity would allow to join his friend among the motor vehicles.
“My dear Hastings!” Poirot blustered, on the verge of admonishing the Captain for his flagrant display. “Whatever is all the excitement?”
“I say, Poirot! You’ll never guess! President Venn has offered us the use of one of his cars for the journey back to London!”
“I’ll be in the city myself in a week or so, I’ll collect it then,” said Venn, by way of explanation. “I know you much prefer to travel by train, Poirot, but the Captain here is so dreadfully keen on driving.”
“Oh, go on old bean, do be a sport,” pleaded Hastings, expecting a protest from the diminutive Belgian. “I’ll take it steady, I promise.”
“If you give me a moment I’ll arrange for the porters to have your bags brought along to the car,” Venn said quickly, keen to avoid an altercation. “Wait here, it won’t take long.”
Venn strode off up the driveway to leave Poirot and Hastings to whatever negotiations might be required to facilitate the former getting into a motorised vehicle with the latter.
“Come on Poirot, it’ll be such larks,” Hastings was almost on the point of begging.
“Au contraire, my dear Hastings,” replied Poirot, after only the briefest of indulgence of the Captain’s supplication. “An automobile is exactly what we require. Mais, we will not be going London.”
“Not London? Then where?”
“Captain Hastings, you and I are going to Norfolk.”