“I hope you chaps don’t think me rude, bursting in here like that,” said Harold Bottomclutch, taking a long drag on one of his father’s enormous cigars and running a stubby finger along an over-filled glass of whisky. “But you don’t know what you’re up against with that fellow.”
“Perhaps you’d like to tell us?” suggested Japp, eyeing the whisky and feeling that it was very much time for a small snifter of something or other.
“Bloody man thinks he runs the place, cheeky cur. Just because his family has been here as long as ours, thinks it gives him an entitlement. But I tell you, it’s titles that give entitlement, isn’t it. Not simple longevity. Otherwise you might as well start doffing your cap to the rocks and the trees.”
“Titles are just something you are born with,” remarked Captain Hastings, casually striding towards the recumbent Harold, limbs thrown haphazardly about the easy chair by the bookcase. “Whereas rank, now, rank is something that is earned. Don’t you agree, Private Bottomclutch?”
Harold looked startled for the briefest of moments, even during his thus far brief tenure in the armed forces his name alone carried enough weight that grudging respect was inevitably forthcoming.
“I’m a Lance Corporal, actually,” he replied, sulkily.
“Well, Lance Corporal, I am a Captain,” continued Hastings, much to the surprise of Poirot and Japp, who had never in the many years they had known him, ever before seen him pull rank in this manner. “And I’ll thank you to sit up in that chair properly and mind your manners. A good soldier never forgets himself, you know. How long have you been in the army?”
Harold, at first, was somewhat unsure of himself. However, under the authoritative gaze of Hastings, backed to the hilt by his two sombre associates, he felt there was nothing for it but to comply. Straightening up and putting down the cigar, Harold jutted his chin and squared his shoulders before replying to his superior.
“Six months now, sir.”
“Six months and already a Lance Corporal? Now, there’s entitlement for you,” replied Hastings, eyebrow raised with uncharacteristic cynicism. “And how old are you?”
Poirot and Japp exchanged glances. In truth, Harold looked much older and carried himself with a self-possessed assurance of a man several years his senior. It struck Poirot that nineteen was a rather young age for a fellow of Harold’s privilege to have entered service. Surely his father would have preferred a university education to have preceded such a career?
“You were expected here last night, a welcoming party had been arranged for you,” continued Hastings. “Yet you did not arrive until this morning. Why was that?”
“It was a case of over-exuberance, sir,” replied Harold, somewhat bolder, now. “The bright lights of London proved too alluring for us young soldiers. I regret not making it home… perhaps things would have been different if I had… but I was on the first train home this morning, as you know.”
Poirot’s moustache twitched and he could keep his backseat no longer.
“Merci, Captain Hastings,” said Poirot, a polite indication of his intention to resume his position of inquisitor. “Tell me, monsieur Bottomclutch, was this over-exuberance, as you say, of a similar nature to that which occurred in Cambridge?”
Japp and Hastings suppressed mild astonishment, but Poirot maintained his resolve. His conversation with Lord Bottomclutch and the vicar the previous evening had been far from certain, but was enough to conjure likelihoods. Harold’s face crumpled like a week-old shirt and his eyes were that of a scolded child.
“It… it was nonsense what they said about me in Cambridge,” he stammered, a hint of forced arrogance failing to disguise his nerves. “President Venn is nothing but a traitor! And him calling himself a friend of my father’s, as well. Didn’t stop me getting sent down, though. For no good reason!”
“And what, monsieur, did they say about you in Cambridge?”
“Why are you asking me this?!” Harold raged, suddenly. “This has nothing to do with my sister’s murder. You ragamuffins want nothing more than to besmirch the Bottomclutch name! And suggesting my father had relations with that maid… poppycock! It was Barton that was sweet on Maggie, not my father. He wanted a son to carry on the pitiful line of Barton gamekeepers and no doubt saw red when the vicar hatched that ridiculous plot to marry her off to his pathetic excuse for a son. There! Now you have it!”
Harold snatched the dwindling cigar from the arm of the chair and stormed out of the study, uttering unheard dreadful things to Derbyshire as he went. As quiet once again settled into the room, Japp helped himself to a large whisky and lit his pipe.
“Well, Poirot, what do you make of that?” asked Japp. “Sent down from Cambridge, eh? Must’ve raised some merry hell to achieve that, especially if Lord Bottomclutch had connections.”
“Oui, Chief Inspector, the incident at Cambridge is a source of great distress for Somersby Hall,” Poirot nodded. “Mais, we do not know what it is that has happened. But, it would seem to be no coincidence that Hastings and I were in the company of President Venn only a few days ago, non?”
“And what about Barton, then?” said Hastings, joining Japp in a stiff drink. “Could he have been the father of Maggie’s child? Harold seemed very sure.”
“Indeed, he did seem sure, my dear Hastings,” replied Poirot. “Mais, he is keen, no doubt, that it is not his father who falls under suspicion for this, non? Also, do you notice how it is only the murder of his sister which concerns him? Not once has he mentioned the death of mademoiselle Maggie. Curious, non?”
“Perhaps he doesn’t care much for the servants,” suggested Japp, puffing great coils of fragrant smoke towards the ceiling. “He certainly gives that impression.”
“C’est vrai, Chief Inspector. Mais, the young monsieur Bottomclutch has lied to Poirot at least once today. I am sure you gentlemen noticed it at once, non? But that, it can wait. I have more questions to ask of the gamekeeper – and a very many questions for Lord Bottomclutch!”