The heat of the afternoon sun was unrelenting, broken only by the occasional zephyr of coastal breeze gasping across the terrace as Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings politely sipped tea with Lady Bottomclutch. Poirot noted that the tea set at Somersby Hall was very different to that of the tasteful Wedgwood found at Queens’ College in Cambridge; this was a gaudy gilded affair, probably originating from China and purchased, no doubt, by the family in order to portray an air of exotic stylistic leaning. Hastings, meanwhile, noted that, although the tea was very good, a small gin or similar would be more preferable at this juncture. Lady Bottomclutch had received them both with good grace and had turned her attentions directly to the dashing Captain in a most unexpectedly warm manner. Whilst Hastings was initially delighted to be the focus of proceedings for once, the Lady’s familiarity was becoming unseemly at an alarming rate and he didn’t quite know where to put himself.
“Pardon, Lady Bottomclutch,” began Poirot, hoping to deflect another attempt at the pawing of Hastings’ knee. “But did your butler Derbyshire not mention the purpose of our visit?”
“Hmm?” Lady Bottomclutch retracted her wandering hand and hid her blushes behind a tea cup. She was an elegant woman of a certain age, clearly past her best and rather like an old oil painting in need of refurbishment. “About the maid, wasn’t it? She’s very busy at the moment, I’m afraid.”
“Oui, madame, so I am given to understand,” Poirot retained his usual charm but his moustache had an edge to it. “We do not wish to intrude on your formalities, merely to pass on the message most important from Cambridge, oui?”
“Oh, I say, the good Captain can intrude on my formalities any time he pleases!” Lady Bottomclutch descended into ribald giggling that caused the sharp rise of Poirot’s eyebrow and a mild terror in poor Hastings.
Just as Poirot began to think that the afternoon was lost entirely to farce, onto the terrace burst a tall and gangling young woman, dancing and spinning and throwing her tapering limbs in every direction. She was a curious sight, dressed as she was in an over-sized tweed jacket that had seen better days and a battered flat cap upon her chestnut curls. She looked to be about twenty-two or so, but she sang and capered like a small child, her guileless eyes limpid pools of pure innocence and joy.
“Clara! My dear girl, can’t you see we have guests?”
Clara ceased her windmilling and hopped into position before Poirot and Hastings, hands clutched before her, bobbing her knees in what she expected was a formal greeting.
“Good afternoon, mademoiselle,” replied Poirot, raising a tea cup in salute.
“You have a peculiar voice!” retorted Clara, suppressing an embarrassed chuckle.
“Clara, this is the famous detective, Hercule Poirot,” Lady Bottomclutch said gently. “And his assistant, the ravishing Captain Hastings!”
“Oh!” Clara gasped. “Have they come for the party? I do hope you will stay for the party – it’s fancy dress! You can borrow one of my costumes, if you like. I have a great many.”
“I’m sure they would love that, my dear,” soothed Lady Bottomclutch, patting her daughter’s hand. “Why don’t you run along now and see to Pippin? I’m sure that he must be missing you.”
Clara nodded and, offering a little wave to her guests, skipped away back towards the house.
“Pippin is her little dog,” explained Lady Bottomclutch. “She won’t have children of her own, poor thing, but she is a very affectionate girl and don’t we all deserve a little love in one way or another?”
“C’est vrai, madame. She is a charming young woman.”
“And she is right, you know, you must come to the party this evening,” Lady Bottomclutch said, with quite some enthusiasm. “My youngest son is returning from the army for a few days and I do like to make a fuss. He will arrive on the train from London this evening. Perhaps you will be able to offer him some career advice, Captain? And I know my guests will be delighted to meet the famous Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot!”
Poirot shifted a little in his chair, repressing a mutter and reaching for his tea cup.
“I’m not sure we’re properly prepared for fancy dress,” replied Hastings, warily.
“Oh, don’t mind that,” Lady Bottomclutch waved a hand. “That’s just Clara’s way. She has a predilection for dressing up, I see no reason to suppress it.”
“And we will have an opportunity to speak to your maid Maggie, when she is perhaps not so engaged with the preparations?” asked Poirot.
“I dare say,” replied Lady Bottomclutch, her lips stretched into a tight line of vermillion. “But if you want to know anything about the maid, I suggest you speak to my husband. Lord Bottomclutch is very attentive to certain members of the staff.”