Poirot stood at the window of his guest room in Somersby Hall, contemplating the scene of morning breaking upon the rambling grounds below. The rear gardens bore scattered signatures of attempted horticultural endeavours, but the areas beyond the terrace were given over to the whims of nature, which in its own way was no bad thing. Clutches of bluebells nodded their heads in haphazard gatherings about the courtyard while campions of white and pink intruded into the flowerbeds whose intended incumbents had long since withered in their presence. Fledgling shoots of yellow archangel were rearing their heads, ready to take the place of the indigo clumps when the bluebells began to fade. A rugged figure loitered on the edge of the copse, shotgun in hand and flat cap pulled low on his brow. From this distance Poirot could not see his face, but guessed it to be Barton, the gamekeeper. No doubt he too was mourning the loss of poor Clara, perhaps already missing her visits to his hut.
The morning had begun rather more abruptly than Poirot would have liked. The prodigal son, Harold Bottomclutch, had returned at dawn and the reunion had not been as auspicious as his parents would have hoped. The news of his sister’s brutal murder had been met at first with confusion, then disbelief, then the bitter grief that one might expect. A night’s sleep (aided, no doubt, by the repeated consumption of small strong drinks) had enabled Lady Bottomclutch to rein in her hysterics – indeed, she had even seen fit to instruct her son to remove his muddy boots in the hallway, before he retreated to his quarters to indulge his anguish in private.
One of the things that both mystified and drew admiration in Poirot about the English was their steadfast refusal to be given over to emotion of any kind. His travails brought him frequently to incidents of high drama, but those involved were often good enough to keep the deep horrors of their feelings very much to themselves. There was a sharp tapping at his door, followed by the arrival of Captain Hastings.
“I’ve come to let you know that breakfast is being served,” said Hastings, not quite his usual chipper self. “I say, Poirot, I’m dreadfully worried about the state of Venn’s car. Whatever will we tell him?”
“Hastings, there has been a murder most foul, yet it is the motor vehicle that worries you?” Poirot chided him, but a smile lurked beneath the formidable moustache.
“Murders are ten a penny for the likes of you and me, old chum,” Hastings replied, thrusting his hands in his pockets and striding over to join Poirot at the window. “But a car like that, well, that’s a rare and beautiful machine. Whatever will we do about the tyres?”
“I am sure, mon amie, that the tyres, they can be fixed,” said Poirot, making great effort to reassure his friend. “And the murder, it can be solved, non?”
“Non. I mean, yes, I’m sure it can… I say, what’s that fellow up to over there?”
“The gentleman with the gun? It is the gamekeeper, non?”
“He hasn’t got a gun, looks like a length of rope,” replied Hastings. “But yes, you’re right, it’s that Barton chap. Poor fellow. Banished into a hut in the woods like that.”
Poirot doubted very much that Barton actually lived in his gamekeeper’s hut, but was in no mood to debate the matter with Hastings. In fact, he might very well be in the mood for breakfast, now that the Captain mentioned it.
Breakfast should have been a solemn affair, but indeed it was quite raucous. Lady Bottomclutch has positioned herself next to Captain Hastings and seemed to find great vigour lurking in the glass of tomato juice that never left her hand. Her other hand showed no interest in cutlery or toast, but was otherwise engaged under the table, a manoeuvre Hastings was at great pains to avoid as politely as possible. The Bowley sisters did not survive on tragedy alone, it seemed, as both had great appetites for the array of breads and cold meats laid out upon the table. Ethel made snide remarks directed at Major Walker, questioning not only his title but also his parentage, to which he responded with boisterous gusto. Mr Philpott the vicar had been nervously buttering the same slice of toast for more than half an hour, whilst trying to pull the conversation to more genial pastures, but his gentle Norfolk lilt was lost among the rabble. His winsome son James remained breathless and wan, refusing all sustenance yet managing to look remarkably dapper in crushed velvet and lace. It was to everyone’s delight that Harold Bottomclutch had recovered his disposition sufficiently to partake of some sausage and egg and was in muted yet earnest conversation with his father.
Poirot sat quietly, watching the scene and all its players, his little grey cells absorbing all they could. He intended to begin his questioning directly after breakfast; hunger sharpened the mind, therefore Poirot believed that it was so much more difficult to lie on a full stomach. Picking up a silver tea spoon, Poirot prepared to set about the single boiled egg that sat before him; an egg, he noted, that looked remarkably like himself.
“Mr Poirot, I am sorry to disturb you, sir,” Derbyshire the butler appeared, ghost-like, at the detective’s side. “There is a Chief Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard here to see you. He says you are expecting him, sir.”
“Aha! Oui! Merci beaucoup, monsieur Derbyshire!” Poirot replaced the spoon and removed the napkin from his chin. “I will see him at once.”
“Another chap from London?” Lady Bottomclutch called out from the other end of the table. “Oh, bring him in here, please do! The more the merrier!”
At that moment, a reassuringly familiar figure draped in a well-worn overcoat and wearing a battered trilby strode into the room.
“You two ‘erberts can’t go anywhere without finding yourselves a body, can you?” Japp addressed Poirot and Hastings. “Well, well, well. What ‘av we got ‘ere, then? You’d better tell me all about it.”