A thin-lipped smile crept across the tense features of Lord Bottomclutch. A collective breath had been drawn in the drawing room of Somersby Hall and for a moment it seemed it would never again be exhaled.
“Roger, you cad! I knew there was something between you and that blasted maid!”
Lady Bottomclutch flung herself at her husband, but was intercepted by the nimble Captain Hastings, who had been expecting trouble of some sort. He instantly regretted his decision as the hysterical Lady Bottomclutch was only too pleased to be finally in the arms of the handsome Captain and wasn’t about to relinquish her position. As Hastings tried to wrestle her into the more demure setting of the settee, she clung to his broad shoulders, her spindly neck straining so that her withered lips might find his.
“I say, Japp, a chap could do with a hand, here!” exclaimed Hastings, handling the woman as if she were a rampant eel.
“Calm yourself, my dear,” said Lord Bottomclutch, rising to his feet. “I was not the father of Maggie’s baby.”
“Non, monsieur,” said Poirot, never at ease with female histrionics. “You were not the father. And neither, as you know, was Barton.”
“Well, who was the father, then?” asked Major Walker. “Aha! It must have been the Philpott boy after all! A double bluff!”
James Philpott gasped in horror, flourishing a delicate handkerchief from his crushed velvet waistcoat and fanning himself furiously.
“I can assure you, Major, it certainly was not!”
“Ah, but you didn’t want to marry her, did you?” Walker continued. “Bumping her off would get you out of the wedding rather nicely!”
“Major Walker, Monsieur Philpott did not kill Maggie. Nor did he bludgeon to death poor Clara,” replied Poirot, his voice calm if not a little irritated. “C’est impossible. Mais, he may not be entirely innocent in all matters, c’est vrai, Monsieur Philpott?”
“I do hope you have suitably firm evidence with which to back up your claim, Mister Poirot!” blustered the vicar. “My son is of very good stock! From a long ecclesiastical line!”
“Oui, he is a very fine and particular young man,” replied Poirot, nodding. “A young man who does not like to, as they say, dirty his hands. I noticed on several occasions how he would clean his fingernails with his beautiful little pocket knife. The type of knife, exactly like that described by the mechanic who replaced the tyres on the car.”
James spluttered and a crimson flush burst across his cheeks.
“I… I panicked!” he stuttered. “When I saw Clara dead on the floor… I didn’t know what to do! You see, Clara and I were both outsiders in Tunkle-on-Wyme. Both different from the norm… freaks, if you will. I feared that whoever killed Clara would be after me next. You see how the people are here, Mister Poirot – any one of these narrow-minded toffs could have done it! Your good self and Captain Hastings were the only people I could trust to catch the killer. I wanted to make sure you didn’t leave.”
“I say, this is an outrage!” boomed Hastings. “Japp, arrest that man at once! For crimes against motor vehicles!”
Poirot simply smiled and, ignoring Captain Hastings, continued to address James Philpott.
“Mais, we know now that Mademoiselle Clara was not the intended victim of the muderer, non? In fact, was it not your father who said to Poirot, ‘Uniforms make everyone look so alike’ when Mademoiselle Clara was playing maid at the party? I knew already, from the letter Mademoiselle Maggie sent to her friend at Cambridge, that she had recently been given a new uniform. Was it not true that the staff shared with Mademoiselle Clara their old uniforms, for the purpose of her games of make believe? And, Monsieur Barton, did you not say that they ‘were both gangly things’? The uniform, if would fit her perfectly, non?”
“But Maggie was heavily pregnant,” Enid cut in. “How could anyone mistake Clara for her?”
“In the dark of the poorly-lit pantry, and from behind, it would be an easy mistake to make, Mademoiselle Enid.”
“So the murderer used the game of hide and seek to facilitate their crime!” exclaimed Major Walker. “But it was Clara that suggested the game. How can that be?”
“It was simple coincidence, Monsieur,” replied Poirot. “The killer, he did not know of this game. He simply knew that there would be a party. He expected only to find Mademoiselle Maggie in the pantry, with everyone else distracted by the business of making merry. When he discovered that he had murdered the wrong girl, the murderer, he devised a new plan. The next morning, he took a rope from the gamekeeper’s hut in the copse, returned to the house, where he strangled Mademoiselle Maggie with his bare hands, before tying the rope around her neck and hoisting her up on the beam to make it look like suicide.”
“I saw Barton on the edge of the copse with a rope, when I was in your room before breakfast,” said Hastings. “You thought he was carrying a gun.”
“That is almost correct, my dear Hastings,” Poirot continued. “Indeed, I did see Monsieur Barton with a gun. The man you saw was the killer – dressed as Barton and carrying the rope. Monsieur Barton kept in his hut his old jacket and cap for Mademoiselle Clara, non?”
“But who was it, Poirot?” asked Japp, a creeping hunger making him impatient. “Who was the father of Maggie’s baby?”
“Pah! From what I hear, Maggie had been with half the village,” snorted Walker. “Could have been anyone!”
“Whatever you may have heard, Major Walker, it is very wrong,” snapped Poirot. “This tale of her freedom of affection is a convenient invention of Lord Bottomclutch – a tale that delighted the village gossips, to distract from the truth. Oui, Lord Bottomclutch? C’est vrai, non? Because to discover the truth, we must travel back to Cambridge, the very college where your good friend John Archibald Venn is President and where your own son Harold was a student. Madame Toppocket, Venn’s maid, spoke of unruly students causing problems. And Harold, he was sent down, non? Even your friendship with President Venn could not prevent this. And soon after, Mademoiselle Maggie, she came to work for you here at Somersby Hall. You yourself said to me, Lord Bottomclutch, that you felt responsible for her. Pourquoi? Because Harold was the father of Maggie’s baby and Harold is the killer most foul of Maggie and his own sister Clara!”
Shocked faces turned towards Harold Bottomclutch, who blustered with outraged indignation.
“Bloody cheek of it!” he thundered. “Why, I wasn’t even here at the time of my sister’s murder! What poppycock!”
“That’s right, Poirot,” sniffed Lady Bottomclutch. “Harold didn’t arrive until the next morning.”
“Ah, oui, Harold he said to Poirot that he arrived on the first train from London, non? Mais, I knew that this was a lie. Chief Inspector Japp, he also arrived on the first train from London and, if you recall Lady Bottomclutch, he arrived several hours after Harold. Non. Harold, he arrived the night before, the night of the party. It was Harold who the mechanic saw in the telephone box that night, making the call to say he had been delayed. He stole into the pantry through the courtyard steps and, seeing the figure of a tall, gangly girl in a maid’s uniform who he believed to be carrying his illegitimate child, the girl who ruined his academic career by having the temerity to become pregnant, he carried out his plan to rid himself of this embarrassing problem, before retreating to the copse where he abandoned the murder weapon. He hid there overnight, returning to the house the next morning. His muddy boots which Lady Bottomclutch insisted he remove proved that he could not have come from the station – the cobbled streets and dry weather would have left his military footwear with their customary shine, non? Mais, when he realised the mistake he had made, he had to think quickly. Pretending to be overcome with grief, he returned to the gamekeeper’s hut in the copse, disguised himself with the old jacket and cap used by Clara and took a length of rope before returning to strangle Maggie and set the scene of a suicide.”
“But Harold, why?!” cried Lord Bottomclutch, turning to his son who was now making no moves of rebuttal. “It was all arranged! No one would ever have found out!”
“You know how people are, father,” replied Harold, his face ashen and voice grim. “People would always have asked why I left my studies so abruptly. And no one would ever believe that James Philpott could have fathered a child. I just wanted to protect the family line and the great Bottomclutch name!”
“And instead you have ruined us all!” sobbed Lady Bottomclutch, flinging herself to the floor and weeping bitterly.
Japp thought this to be an overreaction. With arch-gossip Ethel now dead, news of the murder could be kept to a run-of-the-mill scandal, soon forgotten in the chattering classes of Tunkle-on-Wyme, no doubt. Even as he led the stone-faced Harold away, Japp couldn’t help thinking that such a bright young mind had been wasted – all because of misbehaviour and, ultimately murder.
There was little thanks for Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. Lord and Lady Bottomclutch would perhaps have preferred that, all things considered, the murders had remained unsolved. Enid had invented them to join her, the Major and James for drinks, but Poirot had thought it better to make a swift and dignified exit. After all, they still had the damaged car to explain to Venn and London suddenly seemed so very far away.
Hastings drove back along the winding North Norfolk roads towards Cambridge with much greater care than he had taken on the previous journey. The masterful resolution of the murder was hampered somewhat by the dented bumper of the magnificent Delage D6-11, although the vehicle was now the proud owner of four brand new tyres.
“I say, Poirot, these last few days have been a rum sort of fun and games, wouldn’t you say?”
“I most certainly would, my dear Hastings,” replied Poirot. “Mais, we learn once again that when people play the game of murder, there can be only one winner – none other than Hercule Poirot!”
If you would like the complete versions of either Hide & Seek or Never A Cross Word, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to send you a PDF for your enjoyment,