Somersby Hall was exactly the sort of English country home of which Poirot was so fond. Many of the original features were present, from the stepped gables and finials to the ivy covered buttery walls that stretched along the far side of the sweeping approach. As Captain Hastings artfully trundled the Delage D6-11 along the driveway, Poirot noticed carefully tended verges boasting bluebells, campion and yellow archangel. The afternoon air was thick with sunshine and mingled floral aromas that were very different from that of Poirot’s beloved London.
Hastings pulled up right before the main door, firmly of the belief that a car such as the Delage could be parked in any place he deemed fit. Despite his Belgian companion’s protests to the contrary, he knew that Poirot was tickled pink to be making such an auspicious arrival.
Heaving the handbrake into the locked position, Hastings was eager to attend to matters at once.
“Come on Poirot, let’s bang on the door and find this missing maid!”
“Un moment, Hastings,” said Poirot, laying a cautionary hand on the excitable Captain’s arm. “It seems as if we are being watched – regardez!”
With a deft twitch of his magnificent moustache, Poirot drew subtle attention to a rough-hewn fellow loitering in the shadow of a nearby rowan tree, a shotgun lazing casually in the crook of his elbow. His straggly hair covered his eyes almost completely, but it was clear from his demeanour that he was observing the new arrivals with great interest.
“I say!” exclaimed Hastings. “He looks like a bit of a vagabond, doesn’t he! I wonder what he’s about?”
“Poirot would surmise that he is in the employ of the estate,” replied Poirot. “Perhaps, as the gun would suggest, as a gamekeeper.”
“I don’t like the look of him, Poirot. We should keep our wits about us.”
Poirot nodded and, taking a few moments to smooth his moustache and steady his hat, slipped with surprising grace from the motor vehicle. Hastings followed suit and accompanied the great detective to the door of Somersby Hall. Before either could reach for the bell pull, the door was opened a crack to reveal a long, sharp nose and beady eye framed by crinkled skin and a ferocious eyebrow. Poirot offered his most gracious smile and reached for the brim of his hat and the eye widened as a delighted gasp slipped from somewhere beyond the nose.
Throwing back the door, an elderly but immaculate gentleman stood before them, resplendent in pinstriped waistcoat and tails, excitement barely contained in outstretched arms and bouncing knees.
“Oh! Oh!” gasped the gentleman, beaming from ear to ear. “It’s you, isn’t it sir? It really is! The world famous detective, Hercule Poirot!”
“Oui, monsieur,” replied Poirot. “And also my assistant, Captain Hastings. It is indeed humbling that you recognise us.”
A wry smile crept across Hastings’ lips. Poirot was rarely humble and especially not in circumstances where his reputation preceded him. In fact, on the occasions where he was not recognised, Poirot had been known to get the hump. The excitable gentleman stepped sidewards and swept into a low bow, indicating for his visitors to enter the house. The hallway was not quite so grand as Poirot had hoped; second-rate furniture jostled for position with working boots and gardening implements. Hastings breathed a sigh of relief. It was pleasant to be among more regular surroundings, for a change.
“Please excuse the disarray, sirs,” their host babbled. “My staff are urgently preparing the estate for this evening’s formalities. And forgive me, I have not yet even introduced myself. I am Derbyshire, butler to Lord and Lady Bottomclutch. Welcome to Somersby Hall.”
“I was in the army with a chap called Derbyshire,” said Hastings, airily. “Funnily enough he came from Berkshire, can you imagine?”
Hastings tittered to himself but his mirth was not shared. Handing his hat and cane to Derbyshire, Poirot continued in a more businesslike manner.
“It is our pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said. “It is clear that you have much to occupy your time at present, so we will do our best not to keep you too long. Tell me, Monsieur Derbyshire, do you have working here a young lady by the name of Mademoiselle Maggie?”
Derbyshire tightened his grip on the hat and cane and his reverential smile froze upon his face.
“Indeed we do, sir.”
Derbyshire’s words were stilted and, if further information was available, it was not to be readily given, it would seem.
“Bien. I have a message for her from her old friend in Cambridge, Madame Toppocket. It is most important.” Poirot smiled once more but the warmth was not returned. There was only the briefest of pauses before Derbyshire made his reply, but it was noticeable.
“Certainly, sir, I would be happy to pass on any message.”
“Monsieur, this is a message most personal,” Poirot continued. “I am instructed to speak it only to her, je suis désolé.”
Hastings remained steely in his regard of Derbyshire, lest he be foolish enough to consider trifling with Poirot. It was clear to him that Poirot intended to see Maggie for himself and not be swayed by the words of a butler, however gracious he might be.
“I think, sir, that perhaps you had best speak to the Lady of the house regarding this matter,” mumbled Derbyshire, fidgeting only slightly. “The staff are under the strictest of instructions to pursue preparations for this evening and are not to be waylaid. However, if the message is as urgent as you say, Lady Bottomclutch may make an exception. If you gentleman would be good enough to wait here, I will let her know of your intentions. Excuse me.”