At the request of Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings had been despatched to collect Somersby Hall’s elusive gamekeeper, Barton. Hastings eventually tracked him down to where he and Poirot had spotted him earlier, lurking along the lip of the copse on the hill. Barton’s response to his summoning had been gruff and, frankly, he made Hastings rather nervous, although the Captain suspected that his gruffness was a default response to many an enquiry. Barton’s mood was not improved by the solemn surroundings of Lord Bottomclutch’s study, which Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp had commandeered for the purposes of inquisition. Hastings decided to remain in situ, in case the fellow decided to cut up rough.
Poirot invited Barton to take a seat in the easy chair by the bookcase and motioned for Hastings to pour a drink from the crystal decanter on the desk. The introduction of a fiery, amber beverage seemed to warm relations and, after a coupe of hearty mouthfuls, Barton was verging upon amenable.
“You have worked at Somersby Hall for a long time, Monsieur Barton?” began Poirot, his thumbs resting casually in the pockets of his silk waistcoat, which strained against his rotund frame.
“Yuss, sir, I ‘as worked here all me life, man and boy,” Barton replied, finishing his drink and looking around for another. “And me father before me, an’ ‘is father before that. There’s always been a Barton at Somersby Hall.”
“Bien. Then, the Bottomclutches, you must know them very well, non?”
“I can’t say as I know them well, Mister Poirot, no. It don’t do for the serving classes to be hobnobbing with the.. er… the nobs, so as to speak. We keeps our distance, you understand… ‘ere, it’s like a desert round here, can’t a man get a squink to whet his whistle?”
Despite Barton’s glass still bearing sticky trails from the first drink, Hastings replenished the vessel so that the wheels of conversation might turn with ease.
“Sayin’ that,” continued Barton, revived by further imbibition, “I got to know young Clara quite well, in fact. She were a sweet, sweet lass. Not quite the full ticket, but I’m sure you know that. There was those that made unkind remarks but I can’t see nothin’ wrong with being a child your whole life, can you?”
“Non, monsieur, Poirot can see no fault in it at all. Please, to continue.”
“She used to come and see me up in my hut in the copse, her and her little dog. I kept an old jacket and cap up there for her, she liked dressin’ up an’ playing pretend. Ah! She would’ve made a fine gamekeeper, you know – I learned her how to set the traps an’ she could skin a rabbit soon as look at it! I shall miss her something dreadful.”
“Can you think of any reason for which someone might wish to kill mademoiselle Clara, monsieur?” asked Poirot, as gently as such a question would allow.
“Kill her? No!” exclaimed Barton. “Her mother, well, it’s well known about these parts that she was a bit disappointed about the girl’s.. er.. condition. Lady Bottomclutch was a great society beauty in her day, you know, an’ it was thought the daughter might follow in her footsteps, but she loved the girl, it was plain as anything. The staff all took ‘er to their hearts, especially poor Maggie. They were both gangly things, them two, an’ Maggie gave Clara ‘er old uniform when she… er… grew out of it, so as she could use it for dress-up. No, no one would want to kill our Clara, sir.”
“You knew about Maggie’s situation, Barton?” asked Japp.
“Yuss, sir, we all knew.” Barton then fell silent, casting a hopeful eye in the direction of Captain Hastings and the decanter.
“The local tittle-tattle suggests that Lord Bottomclutch might be the father,” Japp continued.
“Yuss, as well he might,” Barton mumbled, darkly. “Damn man fawned over her something chronic. But ‘e’s not the only one in the frame, you know.”
“James Philpott, the vicar’s son?” Japp ventured. Barton snorted.
“Him? He’s the one they’re pinning it on, but it’s never ‘im, I tell you. See, Maggie was a very friendly lass, especially after a couple of suppings…”
A thunderous banging on the door interrupted proceedings, accompanied by protests from the butler Derbyshire, continually ineffectual in his role of preventing uninvited visitors. The door flew open and in strode Harold Bottomclutch, notably more animated than he had been at breakfast.
“Ah! Barton. Here you are. I’ve been looking for you.” Harold announced, his tone rather curt. “I”m sorry to interrupt, chaps, but there’s a fellow outside asking about your car and one can hardly expect me to handle such a thing. Besides, I want to know what you’re doing about the murder of my sister.”
Barton huffed and got to his feet, straightened his cap and made for the door.
“I ‘ope I’ve been of some help, gentlemen,” he said, over his shoulder.
“Oui, monsieur, merci!” replied Poirot. “But there is much more Poirot wishes to ask you. You will return here presently, if you please?”
“You don’t need to bother the staff, Mister Poirot,” snapped Harold, before Barton could respond. “My father and I will be able to tell you anything you need to know, I assure you.”
“In that case, monsieur Bottomclutch, Poirot is in your debt,” replied the great detective, his smile cold and moustache as sharp as knives. “Please. Will you take a seat?”