Captain Hastings stood in the sweeping driveway of Somersby Hall, squinting in the bright afternoon sun and concentrating very hard indeed. He found that if he furrowed his brow and directed all of his attention towards Barton the gamekeeper and Tooky, the mechanic from the village, he could just about follow the conversation between the two. Barton had been perfectly coherent when speaking to Poirot previously, but in the company of a fellow local he had slipped into the jaunty but baffling Norfolk dialect. Hastings was fairly certain that Tooky believed the tyres of the stricken Delage D6-11 had been attacked deliberately, using a pocket knife. Finding replacement tyres at short notice had apparently necessitated calling in a favour from a most alarming-sounding gentleman and vast quantities of unspecified beverages had been proffered in recompense. There also followed some discussion about the physical attributes of ‘Daisy’, although it was impossible to tell if this was a lady, or farm animal of some description.
“I don’t suppose either of you fellows would know of any types round about that might be in the business of slashing car tyres?” asked Hastings, keen to keep the conversation in the realms of the investigation.
“Thar useter be a mob ah young-uns allus putting on parts, but they dussent get raw with people’s property and such,” replied Tooky, leaving Hastings none the wiser.
“About a year or so back there were a few problems with some boys from the next village,” explained Barton. “But that was more like stealin’ milk and playin’ knock-down-ginger and the like, nothing vicious like this. Perhaps it was Tooky’s friend with the tyres, drummin’ up a bit of business!”
“Har har – yew’re onta summit thar, hold yew hard!” Tooky laughed and slapped his thigh with a huge, greasy palm.
Barton joined the mechanic in a booming belly-laugh and Hastings felt obliged to follow suit, although he wasn’t sure if this was a joking matter or something which required a degree of concern. Once he had regained his self-control, Tooky picked up his tool bag and set to work replacing the tyres of the car, leaving Hastings and Barton in a polite but awkward silence. Hastings saw an opportunity.
“So then, old bean, from one man-of-the-world to another, is it true what they say about you and Maggie?”
Barton grumbled to himself.
“Well now, that all depends on what’s bein’ said and who’s doin’ the sayin’, don’t it.”
“Harold Bottomclutch mentioned it,” replied Hastings. “There’s some truth in it, then?”
“Aye, there’s some truth to it, that there is.” Barton seemed to consider his next words very carefully. “I thought that maybe she were a bit keen on me, like I was ‘er.”
“Oh, that she was. Trouble was, she were a bit keen on ‘alf the village, too.”
Hastings licked his lips, very aware that a certain degree of tact was required.
“Maggie’s baby… was it..?”
“I ‘oped it were mine,” Barton said, quickly. “But ‘appen as there won’t be no way of tellin’ now, will there?” Barton fixed Hastings with a hard stare, although the Captain could have sworn there was a dampness in the corners of his eyes. “Will that be all, sir? I’ve a great deal to be gettin’ along with.”
Hastings nodded and watched as the gamekeeper trudged away, hands in pockets and head bowed. He felt a great deal of sympathy for the chap, it had to be said. As Barton disappeared beyond the buttery walls, Hastings was joined by a perturbed Hercule Poirot.
“Ah! Hastings! But there goes Barton and I had a great many things to ask of him,” scolded the great detective. “Mais, perhaps it does not matter. The fixing of the car is going well, I hope?”
“Oh! Yes, it is,” replied Hastings. “The mechanic says the tyres were deliberately attacked, probably with a small knife.”
“Zut alors! But who would do such a thing?”
“He couldn’t say. It seems there is no-one of vandal leanings in the village…” Hastings paused as he remembered something from his first conversation with the mechanic. “Mind you, he did mention seeing a stranger in the high street the other night.”
“A stranger?” Poirot’s moustache twitched and an immaculate eyebrow reached for his forehead. “You asked him about this stranger, oui?”
“Indeed, but it was late in the evening and the blasted fellow was too drunk to take much notice,” sighed Hastings. “Besides, he was in the telephone box so he didn’t get a good look at him.”
“In the telephone box? On the night of the murder?” Poirot’s tone indicated that this was a matter of great importance, although Captain Hastings could not fathom why. “Ah, my dear Hastings, this changes everything. Poirot, he is finally seeing things more clearly. The little grey cells, at last they speak to him. And when Poirot has spoken to Lord Bottomclutch, things will be clearer still, non?”