“I say, Poirot, I’m not sure this is the best of hiding places, you know,” remarked Captain Hastings, rubbing his neck where an unfortunate crick was swiftly developing. “It’s been a while since I hid in a wardrobe, but from my recollection it’s always the first place they look.”
“Au contraire, my dear Hastings, this is precisely why it is the very best of hiding places,” replied Poirot, delicately dabbing at the slick of moisture collecting on his brow. “The sooner we are found and can return to the more civilised endeavours of polite society, the better. Mais, c’est vrai that mademoiselle Clara she is the great lover of games, Hercule Poirot is not so enamoured and wishes to return to the idle chatter and cucumber sandwiches rapidement.”
Whilst not entirely comfortable hiding in a wardrobe, Captain Hastings certainly had no desire to rush back to the idle chatter of Lord and Lady Bottomclutch’s party guests. He had been bombarded by the ferocious Captain Walker and his less than gallant remarks, the Bowley sisters were positively frightful and Lady Bottomclutch herself was getting very close to living up to her name. In fact, she had suggested to him that he should join her in a secluded nook where they were sure to remain undiscovered for quite some time and Hastings had never in his life been so keen to retreat to close quarters with another gentleman. He was hiding from Lady Bottomclutch as much as Clara, the chief ‘seeker’ in this impromptu game of hide and seek.
Poirot had been a far more fortunate participant in the evening’s social intercourse thus far, having enjoyed the relative delights of local vicar Mr Philpott, his floppy-haired son James and Lord Bottomclutch himself. The conversation had just started to become interesting and was far more productive than loitering in a wardrobe with Captain Hastings.
“I’m sure we won’t be in here too long,” Hastings reassured his old friend. “But please, Poirot, I must ask you not to leave me unattended with Lady Bottomclutch again. I fear she has unsavoury designs upon my person.”
“Ah! Oui, the lady of the house has certainly taken a liking to you, Hastings.”
“Well, I imagine it is because her husband doesn’t show her much attention. From what I gather, he seems more interested in the staff.”
“It is true that Lord Bottomclutch does have much affection for his staff,” replied Poirot, nodding slowly. “Notamment, mademoiselle Maggie, to whom we must speak the moment this game is over. My dear Hastings, I believe there is a connection between our gracious host and the young maid that has been kept from us.”
“Yes, I think Lady Bottomclutch is of the same mind,” agreed Hastings, raising a suggestive eyebrow.
“Non, Hastings, it is not as you imply,” said Poirot quickly. “Rather, the connection is none other than Cambridge. The much beloved son Harold, whose arrival we all so eagerly await, was a student at the same college where we were made most welcome by President Venn so very recently, c’est vrai! Monsieur Philpott mentioned in passing but the conversation, it was quickly redirected to matters of Harold’s military service.”
“I say, that’s a coincidence,” remarked Hastings.
“Whether by coincidence or design, mademoiselle Maggie has found her way to Somersby Hall and is kept most hidden by Lord and Lady Bottomclutch. The grey cells, Hastings, they wonder why.”
The grey cells of Captain Hastings were up to this moment more troubled with the intentions of Lady Bottomclutch, but it did occur to him that their persistent requests to speak with Maggie had been met with a curious series of excuses. It would appear that the Bottomclutches would rather allow their simple yet spirited daughter Clara to play her make believe dressing up game and serve their guests, rather than insist upon the maid assuming what should be her usual duties. Hastings knew only to well the queer quirks of the British aristocracy but even the onslaught of small, powerful drinks could not prevent the slowly turning cogs of his mind moving into the realms of suspicion.
“I say, Poirot do you think…”
But Captain Hasting’s thoughts remained unexplored as a burst of primordial howling erupted from somewhere within the house, sharply followed by thumping and banging and commotion of all kind. There was barely time for Poirot and Hastings to exchange troubled glances before the Captain flung back the door of the wardrobe and sprinted towards the source of the calamity, followed some way behind by the diminutive Belgian. Emerging from the bedroom and onto the first floor landing by the principle staircase, Hastings spied Derbyshire hurrying across the hall below. He followed the elderly butler, leaving a panting Poirot in his wake, and soon determined the direction of the disturbance, chasing the anguished cries down a small back staircase and arriving finally in the basement scullery.
Catching his breath was made all the more arduous by the scene before him and Hastings took a moment of stunned horror to make sense of what he saw. Lady Bottomclutch was gasping for breath between violent sobs, supported by her ashen faced husband. The vicar stuttered urgent adjurations to the good Lord while his son looked as if he might faint. A tall, stout young woman in a maid’s uniform continued to scream and wail as she stood over the prone figure of another maid, sprawled across the flagstone floor, the back of her head resembling a raspberry compote.
But it was not a maid. It was Clara. And she was very dead indeed.