The torrid heat of the afternoon had given way to a balmy and golden summer’s evening at Somersby Hall, nestled in the coastal Norfolk village of Tunkle-on-Wyme. A number of guests had joined Lord and Lady Bottomclutch to await the return of their youngest son, on leave from his endeavours in the army and making his way from London as canapés and small, colourful drinks were served at his family seat. Lady Bottomclutch had already availed herself of rather too many of the drinks which, although small, were notably potent. She was rhapsodic in her telling of a ribald tale from her youth, her somewhat nervous audience including the dashing Captain Hastings, who on the advice of young Clara had borrowed an outfit for the occasion. Clara had insisted that the party was fancy dress but it seemed that she and Hastings were the only advocates of the theme.
“Oh, Captain, you look marvellous in your hunting pinks!” drawled Lady Bottomclutch, dragging an unsteady hand across his shoulder, bedecked in a scarlet hunting jacket. “How fortunate that you are the same size as my husband.”
“I do wish you wouldn’t refer to the outfit as such,” huffed a gruff and sturdy gentleman with a moustache the size of a hedge. “It is an invention of the tabloid press! A hunting jacket is red and that’s all there is to it.”
The man behind the moustache was Major Bernard Walker who, despite his title, had never seen military service but people were too polite to press the point. Ironic, then, that he was so particular about the misuse by others of facts and phrases. Ignoring the rolling eyes of the other guests, Major Walker continued.
“It is a common misconception that the jackets are named after their maker, Samuel Pink. Also the inventor of the pinking shears, interestingly enough,” said Major Walker, unaware that this was interesting to no one but himself. “It’s a damn fool notion to be wearing it to a party, Mister Hastings.”
“It’s Captain, actually,” Hastings replied through gritted teeth.
“Nonsense!” cried Lady Bottomclutch. “The Captain looks positively darling, don’t you Captain?”
Hastings looked around for his friend Poirot, who had all but abandoned him to his fate. Not only was he battling with the affections of Lady Bottomclutch and the aggressive overtones of the Major, he was also contending with a stream of nonsensical chattering from the Bowley sisters – a couple of sour-faced spinsters who appeared to delight in little else than gossiping about the unfortunate fates of their neighbours. In fact, Hastings had even heard them muttering between themselves about some scandal within these very walls, but he had been far too engaged with the business of keeping the wandering hands of Lady Bottomclutch from venturing where they shouldn’t to be entirely attentive.
A further amorous onslaught was halted at once by the arrival of Clara, now dressed as a maid and happily miming serving drinks to the guests. She had not been entrusted with actual vessels, but seemed entirely content with the imaginary articles she carried on her waitress’ tray. Beaming from ear to ear, she filled glasses with invisible victuals as those assembled acquiesced with stiff-faced jocose. Only Hastings humoured the charade with good grace, raising the offering to his nose, before taking a sip and enthusiastically declaring it the finest wine in all of England. Major Walker mumbled something ungallant and Clara wrinkled her nose at him.
“You needn’t say anything, you’re not even a proper Major!” she snapped, to gasps from the Bromley sisters. “We all know it. I don’t see why you can play make-pretend and I can’t.”
What expression of the Major was visible behind his moustache was at once crimson and bulging, but just when an enraged outburst seemed imminent among his spittle-drenched splutters, Derbyshire the butler glided up alongside Lady Bottomclutch.
“Madame, there is a telephone call for you,” he said.
Lady Bottomclutch made her excuses and tottered on languid feet towards the hallway, while Hastings saw fit to avert the growing animosity between Clara and Major Walker.
“Might I have another glass of that scrumptious wine, my dear?” asked Hastings, charm personified. “It really is quite delicious.”
From across the room, the commotion had caught the eye of the ever astute Hercule Poirot who, upon glancing over, thought for a moment that his dear friend Hastings had gone completely mad. But when he recognised that the maid was in fact young Clara in fancy dress, he smiled at the Captain’s kindness. Poirot had been engaged in lively conversation with Lord Bottomclutch, Tunkle-on-Wyme’s vicar Mr Philpott and the vicar’s son, James. Talk stopped for a moment in order that they might enjoy the scene on the far side of the room.
“My daughter, of course, is a simple girl,” said Lord Bottomclutch, the hint of apology upon his words. “But she is happy enough. Loves to dress up and make-believe. The staff are very good about it, especially Barton, the gamekeeper. She’s always up in his hut, putting on his hats and jackets and pretending to hunt poachers. He’s dreadfully good about it. He has to be careful about locking the guns away, mind, we don’t want her getting a hold of those. Dangerous business, guns.”
“Beastly things,” trilled James, a fey young man with hair a touch longer than it should be and an affectation for velvet jackets. He was idly picking at his already immaculate fingernails with an ivory handled pocket knife, pausing only occasionally to shrug his auburn locks from his eyes.
“I thought for a moment it was our lovely Maggie serving drinks,” remarked Mr Philpott. “Uniforms make everyone look so alike, don’t you think?”
“For goodness sake, father, can’t you go a minute without mentioning that girl?” sighed James, barely looking up from his hands.
“Now, now James, she is as good as family, is it so surprising?” chided the vicar.
“Ah, mademoiselle Maggie, oui?” said Poirot, pleased at last that the reason for his visit had been raised without him needing to force the matter. “She is the very young lady the Captain and I had hoped to meet. As I was telling to your wife, Lord Bottomclutch, we have a message for her from Cambridge.”
The mere mention of the university city send a violent tick across the Lord’s features and his skin tightened across his skull. It was as if a strange chill had descended upon the man and Poirot watched him with keen interest. Before the great detective could enquire further, a distressed Lady Bottomclutch swept into the room.
“Disappointing news!” she announced, the accentuated slurring of her voice indicating that she had been refreshed by more than Clara’s imaginary wine. “Darling Harold has been waylaid in London! He won’t he joining us this evening. However, he tells me that he will be on the first morning train and we are all to enjoy the party without him.”
The assembled guests did not look quite so forlorn as their staggering hostess, although Clara was clearly crestfallen. Hastings took pity on the girl and moved to comfort her.
“Not to worry, young lady, your brother will be here by breakfast,” he soothed. “Perhaps we can find some exciting way to pass the time. A game, perhaps?”
At this, Clara’s eyes brightened and she clapped her hands.
“Oh, yes, Captain Hastings!” she exclaimed. “We shall all of us play a wonderful game of hide and seek!”