Maggie fell to her knees and reached out a trembling hand to the stricken Clara, whose face was silently drowning in a sanguine tide. Her wild howls had given way to dry-mouthed whimpering and as she knelt, the hem of her apron drank deeply of the gory pool slowly spreading across the flagstones. In the half-light of the late evening, it appeared almost black.
“Leave her be, mademoiselle, there is nothing that can be done for her now,” said Poirot, his voice soft yet adamant. “To find the truth of this terrible act, all must be left exactly as it is.”
“I can’t… I can’t bear it..!” wailed James, his face sallow and haunted. He crossed the pantry, heading for the steps that would take him up and out into the courtyard, while his father the vicar continued his prayers, much good they would do poor Clara now.
Lady Bottomclutch hid her face in her husband’s chest, unable to abide the horror, while he seemed incapable of tearing his eyes from their daughter’s body. To his immense distaste, Poirot noted that the obnoxious Bowley sisters were surveying the scene, eyes agog, revelling in the drama and no doubt making mental notes of each terrible detail to reiterate to the chattering types of the village just as soon as they were able. Poirot turned to Captain Hastings.
“Mon amie, I think it wise that we remove the audience to less traumatic surroundings,” he said. “Particulièrement Lady Bottomclutch. She will need a drink, Hastings, even stiffer than usual.”
“Right,” nodded Hastings. “I’ll get everyone gathered in the drawing room, then get a hold of the local constabulary, I expect.”
“Oui, Hastings, that would be most helpful. Et maintenant, I will examine the scene of the crime. I will, of course, wish to speak to everyone present in the house while events, they are still fresh in the minds.”
“I’d like to remain here, if you don’t mind, mister Poirot,” said Lord Bottomclutch, his voice barely more than a breath. “I won’t impede you, I promise, I just… don’t want to leave her here on that floor without… without one of her own to watch over her.”
Once more, Poirot nodded. He could not refuse the behest of a grieving father. Hastings ushered those gathered up the steps that led back into the main part of the house, leaving Poirot and Lord Bottomclutch to consider the pantry. Poirot noted that there were two points of access – that of the steps to the main house taken by himself and the other guests, and also those taken by young James when he fled in dismay, leading to the courtyard. Poirot hoped that he had not gone too far and that some fresh air had returned some semblance of calm to the delicate young man. Clara had quite clearly been attacked from behind, the messy wound at the back of her skull suggesting a blunt, heavy instrument. A cursory glance about the room revealed nothing that appeared to have been recently employed in the art of murder, so he would have to assume that the killer had taken the weapon with them. Looking carefully at the floor, Poirot could see no footprints or distinguishing marks, but then the day had been hot and dry and the ground not conducive to giving up such tell-tale signs. Returning once more to the body, Poirot looked closely at the hands. The milky, tapering fingers were developing the hue of death but were clean and unblemished, giving no indication of a struggle or plaintive attempt at self-defence. Either Clara had known her attacker, or she didn’t see them coming.
“Who could have done such a thing?” Lord Bottomclutch sighed, his composure remarkable. “Our darling Clara. She was no threat to anyone.”
“It is difficult to imagine that such a girl could have made many enemies,” replied Poirot. “If you will pardon Poirot, monsieur, but Clara was a… most unusual young lady, oui?”
“She suffered from a mental deficiency, if that’s what you mean,” Lord Bottomclutch was quite matter-of-fact. “We realised there was something not right when she was growing up. The doctors tried all sorts of things to rectify matters… some of their methods were quite barbaric, truth be told… so we decided to bring her home and simply let her be as she was. She was happy, despite it all.”
Poirot held science and modern medicine in the highest of regards, but privately felt that the professionals had some way to go in their understanding and treatments of those afflicted with diseases of the brain and temperament.
Footsteps thundered down the steps from the hall and Hastings appeared in the doorway.
“Everyone is waiting for you in the drawing room, Poirot,” he said. “All except the vicar’s son. I haven’t been to look for him but Mr Philpott is of the mind that he will return when his nerves have settled. He is dreadfully sensitive, you know.”
“Bien, Hastings,” replied Poirot. “And the local police? Have you informed them?”
“Lady Bottomclutch was kind enough to give me a number and direct me to the telephone but I’m afraid to say that there was no reply when I called.”
“Ah! Of course…” Lord Bottomclutch tutted. “How remiss of me. Tunkle-on-Wyme has need of only one policeman – and even then that seems excessive – with so little to do the poor fellow retires most evenings to the local hostelry. It is said he drinks to forget the futility of his existence or some such nonsense. Either way, you will find him propping up the bar in the Cat & Compass on the High Street.”
“We’ll take the car,” Hasting exclaimed at once. “I’ll have us there in a thrice.”
But on returning to the grand driveway, Poirot and Hastings at once realised that the beloved Delage D6-11 belonging to President Archibald Venn of Queens’ College would be of no service to them. Each of the four tyres bore gaping wounds and the machine had been rendered useless.