“Mon dieu! Hastings, does this contraption not possess the brakes?!”
As the gleaming Delage D6-11 tore through the Norfolk countryside, a beaming Captain Hastings at the wheel, Hercule Poirot clung grimly to his bowler hat, which seemed insistent in its intent to exit the vehicle. Poirot could sympathise with this sentiment perfectly well. The country roads were twisting and very narrow, flanked on either side by thick boarders of fragrant gorse and Alexander, which would have been delightful to observe had they been traveling at a more sedate pace.
A warm breeze tugging at his golden locks, Hastings seemed oblivious to the notion that his driving had already frightened two horses, not to mention the startled flock of geese encountered on the high street of the last sleepy, flint-built village through which they passed. A young woman and her scruffy little dog had been quite vocal about their disapproval, but he paid no heed, steering the grand automobile with ever increasing hazard towards their destination.
“Calm down, Poirot,” said Hastings, raising his voice above the roar of the engine and buffeting of the wind. “I thought you said there was a young lady in trouble – if that’s true we must surely make haste!”
“Poirot hopes to arrive in a state fit to assist! My moustache, she is in disarray. This is no way for a gentleman to present himself, mon amie.”
Hastings sighed, but dutifully relented. When concerns about the moustache arose, he knew there was little point in debate. Gently reigning in the magnificent power of the machine, the engine’s roar settled into a deferential rumble and Poirot was finally able to remove his gloved hand from his hat. With all manner of huffing and puffing, Poirot rearranged himself in the passenger seat, looking for all the world as if he had just endured some great horror. Hastings allowed himself a small chuckle, knowing that the impending undertaking would keep his companion’s mind from dwelling too long on recrimination.
Turning his avid attentions to the matter afoot, Poirot removed Maggie’s letter from within his jacket and digested once more the sparse scribblings of the missing maid.
Dear Mrs Toppocket,
I hope this letter finds you well and that the College have finally found you a replacement for me to help you in your duties.
The weather here has been changeable to say the least and is playing havoc with the green beans. The rain is not so bad but the wind is perfectly beastly.
The Master has been good enough to have made a new uniform for me, for which I am most grateful.
Forgive the brevity of this missive but I am rather under the weather and have much work to do, which I had better attend to while I can.
Yours, with much affection,
“You’re not reading that letter again, are you?” asked Hastings. “I’m not sure it offers anything of use at all.”
“Ah, but Hastings, that is where you are most incorrect!” replied Poirot, waving a gloved finger triumphantly. “There are several things within these lines that pique the interest of the little grey cells. Firstly, Maggie is speaking about the weather, non? Now, I am aware of the British peculiarity for discussing such things, but in a letter? It seems to Poirot most unusual. When Maggie is discussing the weather, I think that it is something else that she means to say.”
“Do you mean like a sort of code, Poirot?” Hastings became a little excitable. “I wonder what ‘playing havoc with the green beans’ can mean – the mind boggles!”
“Oui, exactement, Hastings,” Poirot replied, wearily. “For now, we cannot know. Also, Maggie, she says that the master has arranged for her a new uniform.”
“What’s so suspicious about that?”
“Do you not see, Hastings? Maggie has been working at Somersby Hall barely four months when she wrote this letter. Why would she need a new uniform so soon?”
“I suppose I see your point,” replied Hastings, not really seeing the point at all. “Perhaps she has been over-doing the cream teas, got a bit fat or some such!”
Choosing, perhaps wisely, to ignore this remark, Poirot continued.
“And then, enfin, we see that Maggie must attend to her work while she is still able – it is an ominous phrase, non?”
“Well, she does say that she isn’t feeling well,” Hastings pointed out.
Before Poirot could offer further counsel, he was almost thrown from the seat of the vehicle as Hastings slammed on the brakes, making a sharp left turn as he did so. The shaken detective began to form the words of most stern interrogation when he saw before him the fine steeped gables and gleaming finials of a perfectly grand stately home. It appeared that they had arrived.
“I am sorry about that, Poirot,” Hastings lamented. “I was so distracted I almost missed the turning. But, look, here we are! Somersby Hall!”