Hide & Seek
A Poirot Parody
These are the collected blog posts from the Secret Diary Of PorterGirl series ‘Hide & Seek’. Whilst functioning perfectly well in blog format, this does not read so well when taken in the context of a complete novel and in this sense should be regarded as one would a first draft. Posts are written on a week-to-week basis and this work has not been edited or re-worked from its original form, therefore errors and plot holes remain.
It is something of a rarity that Hercule Poirot felt quite so at home anywhere outside of his recherché London residence of Whitehaven Mansions, but here, sipping tea in the long gallery of the President’s lodge at Queens’ College Cambridge, he felt quite the affinity with his stately surroundings. The freshly polished oak panelling was the epitome of precision geometry and the deep lacquer of the sixteenth century furniture gave a pleasing sheen in which he could admire his equally well-attended moustache. Having spent the last two days as the guest of College President and noted British economist, John Archibald Venn, Poirot felt now almost as if he had taken a small holiday; here, his little grey cells were admired and revered, rather than forced into the employ of the dim-witted and their violent circumstances.
Tiring of the sombre leisure of academia was Poirot’s great friend and trusted colleague, the plucky Captain Hastings. He had been tempted to join the jaunt to East Anglia by the promise of fast cars and the winsome glances of eligible young women, but as yet he had seen little of either. Thus far, the trip had consisted of a grovelling obeisance towards the great detective and his endless ventures that was becoming almost embarrassing. Poirot himself, of course, was enjoying the experience immensely and his already considerable ego was being stroked and cajoled to magnificent proportions.
The dashing Captain sighed and sank a little lower in his chair as Poirot once again regaled Venn with the daring escapades upon the Orient Express, a notable endeavour for which Hastings himself was not present, but knew every detail as if he had lived the experience ten times over. In fact, the details became progressively aurelian with each re-telling and he wondered to himself if the tale could possibly become any more dramatic? Evidently, it could.
Hastings smiled stiffly as Poirot explained for the umpteenth time the great benefits of a superior aptitude for observation.
“Par exemple, mon amie, we look closely at my tea cup,” Poirot raised the dainty china cup and saucer with surprising delicacy in his large, rounded hands. “The saucer, it is in the style of the Wedgwood ‘Willow’ pattern, matching so beautifully the tea pot and milk jug and also the cups and saucers of you, Monsieur Venn and also you, Captain Hastings. Mais, the tea cup of Poirot, it is certainly a design of the blue and the white – yet it is not of the ‘Willow’ pattern, vrai? It is the design of the ‘Fallow Deer’, is it not?”
Hastings hauled himself up in his chair, curiosity piqued, and reached for his cup and saucer which, he noted with some disdain, had been empty for quite some time. Never once had he doubted his great friend’s keen eye, a keeness that was matched only by that of his mind, and this occasion was to be no exception. The colouring and shape of the tea cup were remarkably similar, but the patterning subtly different.
“And here I was, thinking that I would never get to see for myself the powers of the great Hercule Poirot in action – and then there we go!” Venn slapped his knee in delight and let loose a contented chuckle. “Well spotted, sir, well spotted. Unfortunately, one of the cups was broken by a maid we used to have working here. As penance, I sent her into town to find a replacement but the blasted girl picked up that one instead. I’ve been meaning to arrange for a correct one to be delivered, but you’re the first person to notice!”
“It would be a simple mistake,” Poirot smiled, draining the cup in a series of delicate sips. “C’est vrai, they are très similar.”
“I suppose you can’t expect maids to know the difference,” Hastings agreed. “I do hope you are not still angry with her about it?”
“Oh, no,” replied Venn. “Besides, she doesn’t work here anymore.”
“Oh?” said Poirot, raising a thick and perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Surely you did not dismiss her for the breaking of one single cup?”
“Of course not,” Venn snapped back. He fidgeted in his seat, perturbed by some unknown thing, before turning to Captain Hastings. “Now then, Captain – didn’t I promise you a peek at my automobile collection?”
Hastings brightened immediately, his eyes shining in anticipation.
“I rather think you did, old bean!”
“Come on, then,” replied Venn, clambering hastily to his feet. “Poirot, I don’t suppose you share our enthusiasm for machines of speed?”
“Certainement pas!” Poirot looked a little nervous for a moment, before regaining his immaculate composure and reaching for the tea pot. “There is a little tea left. It shall be the perfect accompaniment to the peace and quiet.”
Alone in the long gallery, Poirot’s only companion in the hush of the late afternoon was an apologetic grandfather clock, stoically counting seconds in the corner. The intoxicating essence of newly polished, antiquated wood and the reserved notations of the passage of time put Poirot in the mind that he might find himself some small position in College life when the time came to think of his eventual retirement. But the notion quickly passed; retirement was impossible when there was always a new mystery to be solved.
“Oh! Mister Poirot!” A shrill voice broke the detective’s reverie. “You must excuse me, I thought you ‘ad all left.”
A plump and flustered woman appeared in the doorway, wispy grey hair escaping from beneath a crumpled white bonnet and stout hands, red raw from scrubbing, smoothed down her white apron. Her demure black frock showed signs of fraying and the elbows looked in need of repair.
“Poirot, he is lingering over your delicious tea,” he replied with a gracious smile. “Mais, you look as though you are a very busy woman and I will not delay you, ne t’en fais pas.”
“You are so kind, Mister Poirot,” said the maid, approaching the tea things and aiming a grubby-toothed smile at her spotless guest. “It’s been such a struggle to keep up with me duties now there’s just me on me own, you know.”
“Ah, oui. The maid who broke the cup – she has not been replaced, non?”
“Maggie? That’s right. Six months she’s been gone, now, and not a word about getting me another maid. They didn’t even have the good grace to tell me she was going!”
Rough hands snatched at the crockery in a manner which made Poirot quite fitful, but he remained mute on the matter as the maid continued in her chattering.
“She was a good girl, was our Maggie. Went to work for a proper hoity-toity family in Norfolk. She wrote to me for a while afterwards, but I’ve not had a letter from her in a couple of months, now.”
“You miss your friend Maggie, madame?”
“Indeed I do, Mister Poirot!” The maid paused to stand upright and place her hands upon the hearty girth of her hips. “Truth be told, I’m a bit worried about her. She seemed happy enough at first, but then…”
“Please to continue, madame!” urged Poirot.
“Well… the letters became much more brief and… she seemed… distant,” the maid muttered, her rosy cheeks loosing a little of their glow. “Then, they stopped all together. You know, Mister Poirot, there’s something in me waters tells me… something’s ‘appened to ‘er.”
On the sweeping private driveway at the rear of one of Cambridge University’s most illustrious establishments, the President of Queens’ College – John Archibald Venn – was showing a very enthusiastic Captain Hastings three of his most prized motor vehicles. Eyes like saucers, Hastings was twitching with unconfined glee, his child-like excitement pitching his voice a good octave above its natural inclination. Something else had also heightened the Captain’s spirits and that was the brief but telling conversation in which he and Venn engaged on the way to see the cars. Hastings learned that Venn, like himself, had served in the Great War. But not only was the eminent Venn of lowlier rank than Captain Hastings (Venn being a mere lieutenant) but he also spent most of the war as a statistician for the Food Production Department, therefore being far less heroic and certainly not as alluring to the ladies.
All that being said, the fellow certainly did have an impressive collection of automobiles. The Bentley 8 Litre stood out at once – a behemoth of a vehicle, black as night and with headlights the size of a man’s head. It was a luxury carriage, out of reach for all but the very wealthy and impeccably connected. Hastings thought to himself that he would be quite nervous to be behind the wheel of such a thing and, indeed, the tires looked as if they had barely seen the road.
Brand new and resplendent in cherry red with gleaming black mudguards was a stunning Delage D6-11. Reeking of the finest French design and innovation, it was a vehicle sure to set the heart of any fair maiden racing – it certainly gave the Captain a flutter, that’s for certain.
Finally, there stood the Humber Pullman, almost humble compared to its contemporaries, being of smaller stature and of a less-dazzling matt finish. Even so, it was not a vehicle that was seen very often among the common folk and Hastings would have hopped in the driver’s seat in a heartbeat.
“I say! This is quite the fleet you have here, Venn,” squeaked Hastings, barely able to contain himself. “You must spend your weekends tearing around the countryside in style!”
Venn laughed and shook his head, waving away such an absurd suggestion.
“Hardly, my dear chap. Such vehicles must be treated with the utmost of respect! Besides, if I were to go too quickly it wouldn’t give people the chance to see what handsome devil was driving!”
“Haha! Good point!”
“Isn’t it a shame dear Poirot doesn’t share our passion?” Venn remarked. “I had hoped to convince him to take a spin. Oh look, isn’t that him now?”
Hastings turned to look towards the end of the driveway, as indicated by Venn. The distinctive outline and regal waddle were unmistakeable. But Poirot did not approach, preferring rather to keep his distance and, it appeared, converse with his companion, a plump and harassed-looking woman. Hastings waved at his friend, who replied with a deferential tip of his hat but made no further attempt to attract attention. Returning to the far more engaging subject of the automobiles, Hastings began bombarding Venn with all number of questions and observations.
Watching the scene from the far end of the driveway, Poirot smiled at his friend’s fervour.
“It is nice to see them enjoying themselves, non, madame?”
“Yes, Mr Poirot,” replied the maid. “The President has been in a right two-and-eight not long since, I’m pleased to see him smiling again.”
“What was it that troubled Monsieur Venn?” asked Poirot.
“Well… it’s ‘ard to say,” said the maid, thoughtfully. “There ‘as been dreadful trouble from a couple of the students. Mind, that’s settled down now the main troublemaker got given the elbow, as it were. I expect running a College is a very trying business, Mister Poirot.”
“Mais oui, madame, that it certainly must be,” Poirot nodded. “And you, missing your Maggie, you must also be in – how you say – the two and the eight?”
“Oh, I gets by, Mister Poirot, I gets by…” the maid sighed and her tone did not reflect the words she spoke.
“Madame, if something troubles you, you must tell Poirot. He may be able to assist.”
“It’s not for myself I’m worried, you see,” she replied. “It’s my Maggie. She’s such a little slip of thing, just a girl really. Quite simple in the ways of the world and I used to keep an eye out for her. There was mention of a young man in her letters, for a time, but then when I asked further she made no reply about ‘im. Then, she made no reply at all.”
“You told Poirot that your… waters… tell you something has happened to mademoiselle Maggie? Do you know what it could be?”
“I don’t know, Mister Poirot! But something isn’t right, I’ll tell you that much. Look…” reaching within the folds of her apron, the old maid retrieved a single sheet of paper that looked as if it had been folded and unfolded a thousand times. “‘Ere’s the last letter she sent me. The address is on the top there.”
Poirot removed his shiny gold rimmed spectacles from the upper pocket of his jacket and inspected the letter with his usual diligence. Only the briefest twitch of his moustache and a curt nod offered any indication of his thoughts.
“I may keep this, madame?”
“Yes, Mr Poirot – are you going to find out what happened to her?”
Before the great detective could make his reply, his attention was drawn to the other end of the driveway by a most uncharacteristic whooping from Captain Hastings. Evidently in an ostentatiously celebratory mood, Hastings began gesturing in a most unbecoming fashion for Poirot to join him. Tucking Maggie’s letter into his jacket, he made his excuses to the maid and toddled as swiftly as dignity would allow to join his friend among the motor vehicles.
“My dear Hastings!” Poirot blustered, on the verge of admonishing the Captain for his flagrant display. “Whatever is all the excitement?”
“I say, Poirot! You’ll never guess! President Venn has offered us the use of one of his cars for the journey back to London!”
“I’ll be in the city myself in a week or so, I’ll collect it then,” said Venn, by way of explanation. “I know you much prefer to travel by train, Poirot, but the Captain here is so dreadfully keen on driving.”
“Oh, go on old bean, do be a sport,” pleaded Hastings, expecting a protest from the diminutive Belgian. “I’ll take it steady, I promise.”
“If you give me a moment I’ll arrange for the porters to have your bags brought along to the car,” Venn said quickly, keen to avoid an altercation. “Wait here, it won’t take long.”
Venn strode off up the driveway to leave Poirot and Hastings to whatever negotiations might be required to facilitate the former getting into a motorised vehicle with the latter.
“Come on Poirot, it’ll be such larks,” Hastings was almost on the point of begging.
“Au contraire, my dear Hastings,” replied Poirot, after only the briefest indulgence of the Captain’s supplication. “An automobile is exactly what we require. Mais, we will not be going London.”
“Not London? Then where?”
“Captain Hastings, you and I are going to Norfolk.”
“Mon dieu! Hastings, does this contraption not possess the brakes?!”
As the gleaming Delage D6-11 tore through the Norfolk countryside, a beaming Captain Hastings at the wheel, Hercule Poirot clung grimly to his bowler hat, which seemed insistent in its intent to exit the vehicle. Poirot could sympathise with this sentiment perfectly well. The country roads were twisting and very narrow, flanked on either side by thick boarders of fragrant gorse and Alexander, which would have been delightful to observe had they been traveling at a more sedate pace.
A warm breeze tugging at his golden locks, Hastings seemed oblivious to the notion that his driving had already frightened two horses, not to mention the startled flock of geese encountered on the high street of the last sleepy, flint-built village through which they passed. A young woman and her scruffy little dog had been quite vocal about their disapproval, but he paid no heed, steering the grand automobile with ever increasing hazard towards their destination.
“Calm down, Poirot,” said Hastings, raising his voice above the roar of the engine and buffeting of the wind. “I thought you said there was a young lady in trouble – if that’s true we must surely make haste!”
“Poirot hopes to arrive in a state fit to assist! My moustache, she is in disarray. This is no way for a gentleman to present himself, mon amie.”
Hastings sighed, but dutifully relented. When concerns about the moustache arose, he knew there was little point in debate. Gently reigning in the magnificent power of the machine, the engine’s roar settled into a deferential rumble and Poirot was finally able to remove his gloved hand from his hat. With all manner of huffing and puffing, Poirot rearranged himself in the passenger seat, looking for all the world as if he had just endured some great horror. Hastings allowed himself a small chuckle, knowing that the impending undertaking would keep his companion’s mind from dwelling too long on recrimination.
Turning his avid attentions to the matter afoot, Poirot removed Maggie’s letter from within his jacket and digested once more the sparse scribblings of the missing maid.
Dear Mrs Toppocket,
I hope this letter finds you well and that the College have finally found you a replacement for me to help you in your duties.
The weather here has been changeable to say the least and is playing havoc with the green beans. The rain is not so bad but the wind is perfectly beastly.
The Master has been good enough to have made a new uniform for me, for which I am most grateful.
Forgive the brevity of this missive but I am rather under the weather and have much work to do, which I had better attend to while I can.
Yours, with much affection,
“You’re not reading that letter again, are you?” asked Hastings. “I’m not sure it offers anything of use at all.”
“Ah, but Hastings, that is where you are most incorrect!” replied Poirot, waving a gloved finger triumphantly. “There are several things within these lines that pique the interest of the little grey cells. Firstly, Maggie is speaking about the weather, non? Now, I am aware of the British peculiarity for discussing such things, but in a letter? It seems to Poirot most unusual. When Maggie is discussing the weather, I think that it is something else that she means to say.”
“Do you mean like a sort of code, Poirot?” Hastings became a little excitable. “I wonder what ‘playing havoc with the green beans’ can mean – the mind boggles!”
“Oui, exactement, Hastings,” Poirot replied, wearily. “For now, we cannot know. Also, Maggie, she says that the master has arranged for her a new uniform.”
“What’s so suspicious about that?”
“Do you not see, Hastings? Maggie has been working at Somersby Hall barely four months when she wrote this letter. Why would she need a new uniform so soon?”
“I suppose I see your point,” replied Hastings, not really seeing the point at all. “Perhaps she has been over-doing the cream teas, got a bit fat or some such!”
Choosing, perhaps wisely, to ignore this remark, Poirot continued.
“And then, enfin, we see that Maggie must attend to her work while she is still able – it is an ominous phrase, non?”
“Well, she does say that she isn’t feeling well,” Hastings pointed out.
Before Poirot could offer further counsel, he was almost thrown from the seat of the vehicle as Hastings slammed on the brakes, making a sharp left turn as he did so. The shaken detective began to form the words of most stern interrogation when he saw before him the fine steeped gables and gleaming finials of a perfectly grand stately home. It appeared that they had arrived.
“I am sorry about that, Poirot,” Hastings lamented. “I was so distracted I almost missed the turning. But, look, here we are! Somersby Hall!”
Somersby Hall was exactly the sort of English country home of which Poirot was so fond. Many of the original features were present, from the stepped gables and finials to the ivy covered buttery walls that stretched along the far side of the sweeping approach. As Captain Hastings artfully trundled the Delage D6-11 along the driveway, Poirot noticed carefully tended verges boasting bluebells, campion and yellow archangel. The afternoon air was thick with sunshine and mingled floral aromas that were very different from that of Poirot’s beloved London.
Hastings pulled up right before the main door, firmly of the belief that a car such as the Delage could be parked in any place he deemed fit. Despite his Belgian companion’s protests to the contrary, he knew that Poirot was tickled pink to be making such an auspicious arrival.
Heaving the handbrake into the locked position, Hastings was eager to attend to matters at once.
“Come on Poirot, let’s bang on the door and find this missing maid!”
“Un moment, Hastings,” said Poirot, laying a cautionary hand on the excitable Captain’s arm. “It seems as if we are being watched – regardez!”
With a deft twitch of his magnificent moustache, Poirot drew subtle attention to a rough-hewn fellow loitering in the shadow of a nearby rowan tree, a shotgun lazing casually in the crook of his elbow. His straggly hair covered his eyes almost completely, but it was clear from his demeanour that he was observing the new arrivals with great interest.
“I say!” exclaimed Hastings. “He looks like a bit of a vagabond, doesn’t he! I wonder what he’s about?”
“Poirot would surmise that he is in the employ of the estate,” replied Poirot. “Perhaps, as the gun would suggest, as a gamekeeper.”
“I don’t like the look of him, Poirot. We should keep our wits about us.”
Poirot nodded and, taking a few moments to smooth his moustache and steady his hat, slipped with surprising grace from the motor vehicle. Hastings followed suit and accompanied the great detective to the door of Somersby Hall. Before either could reach for the bell pull, the door was opened a crack to reveal a long, sharp nose and beady eye framed by crinkled skin and a ferocious eyebrow. Poirot offered his most gracious smile and reached for the brim of his hat and the eye widened as a delighted gasp slipped from somewhere beyond the nose.
Throwing back the door, an elderly but immaculate gentleman stood before them, resplendent in pinstriped waistcoat and tails, excitement barely contained in outstretched arms and bouncing knees.
“Oh! Oh!” gasped the gentleman, beaming from ear to ear. “It’s you, isn’t it sir? It really is! The world famous detective, Hercule Poirot!”
“Oui, monsieur,” replied Poirot. “And also my assistant, Captain Hastings. It is indeed humbling that you recognise us.”
A wry smile crept across Hastings’ lips. Poirot was rarely humble and especially not in circumstances where his reputation preceded him. In fact, on the occasions where he was not recognised, Poirot had been known to get the hump. The excitable gentleman stepped sidewards and swept into a low bow, indicating for his visitors to enter the house. The hallway was not quite so grand as Poirot had hoped; second-rate furniture jostled for position with working boots and gardening implements. Hastings breathed a sigh of relief. It was pleasant to be among more regular surroundings, for a change.
“Please excuse the disarray, sirs,” their host babbled. “My staff are urgently preparing the estate for this evening’s formalities. And forgive me, I have not yet even introduced myself. I am Derbyshire, butler to Lord and Lady Bottomclutch. Welcome to Somersby Hall.”
“I was in the army with a chap called Derbyshire,” said Hastings, airily. “Funnily enough he came from Berkshire, can you imagine?”
Hastings tittered to himself but his mirth was not shared. Handing his hat and cane to Derbyshire, Poirot continued in a more businesslike manner.
“It is our pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said. “It is clear that you have much to occupy your time at present, so we will do our best not to keep you too long. Tell me, Monsieur Derbyshire, do you have working here a young lady by the name of Mademoiselle Maggie?”
Derbyshire tightened his grip on the hat and cane and his reverential smile froze upon his face.
“Indeed we do, sir.”
Derbyshire’s words were stilted and, if further information was available, it was not to be readily given.
“Bien. I have a message for her from her old friend in Cambridge, Madame Toppocket. It is most important.” Poirot smiled once more but the warmth was not returned. There was only the briefest of pauses before Derbyshire made his reply, but it was noticeable.
“Certainly, sir, I would be happy to pass on any message.”
“Monsieur, this is a message most personal,” Poirot continued. “I am instructed to speak it only to her, je suis désolé.”
Hastings remained steely in his regard of Derbyshire, lest he be foolish enough to consider trifling with Poirot. It was clear to him that Poirot intended to see Maggie for himself and not be swayed by the words of a butler, however gracious he might be.
“I think, sir, that perhaps you had best speak to the Lady of the house regarding this matter,” mumbled Derbyshire, fidgeting only slightly. “The staff are under the strictest of instructions to pursue preparations for this evening and are not to be waylaid. However, if the message is as urgent as you say, Lady Bottomclutch may make an exception. If you gentleman would be good enough to wait here, I will let her know of your intentions. Excuse me.”
The heat of the afternoon sun was unrelenting, broken only by the occasional zephyr of coastal breeze gasping across the terrace as Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings politely sipped tea with Lady Bottomclutch. Poirot noted that the tea set at Somersby Hall was very different to that of the tasteful Wedgwood found at Queens’ College in Cambridge; this was a gaudy gilded affair, probably originating from China and purchased, no doubt, by the family in order to portray an air of exotic stylistic leaning. Hastings, meanwhile, noted that, although the tea was very good, a small gin or similar would be more preferable at this juncture. Lady Bottomclutch had received them both with good grace and had turned her attentions directly to the dashing Captain in a most unexpectedly warm manner. Whilst Hastings was initially delighted to be the focus of proceedings for once, the Lady’s familiarity was becoming unseemly at an alarming rate and he didn’t quite know where to put himself.
“Pardon, Lady Bottomclutch,” began Poirot, hoping to deflect another attempt at the pawing of Hastings’ knee. “But did your butler Derbyshire not mention the purpose of our visit?”
“Hmm?” Lady Bottomclutch retracted her wandering hand and hid her blushes behind a tea cup. She was an elegant woman of a certain age, clearly past her best and rather like an old oil painting in need of refurbishment. “About the maid, wasn’t it? She’s very busy at the moment, I’m afraid.”
“Oui, madame, so I am given to understand,” Poirot retained his usual charm but his moustache had an edge to it. “We do not wish to intrude on your formalities, merely to pass on the message most important from Cambridge, oui?”
“Oh, I say, the good Captain can intrude on my formalities any time he pleases!” Lady Bottomclutch descended into ribald giggling that caused the sharp rise of Poirot’s eyebrow and a mild terror in poor Hastings.
Just as Poirot began to think that the afternoon was lost entirely to farce, onto the terrace burst a tall and gangling young woman, dancing and spinning and throwing her tapering limbs in every direction. She was a curious sight, dressed as she was in an over-sized tweed jacket that had seen better days and a battered flat cap upon her chestnut curls. She looked to be about twenty-two or so, but she sang and capered like a small child, her guileless eyes limpid pools of pure innocence and joy.
“Clara! My dear girl, can’t you see we have guests?”
Clara ceased her windmilling and hopped into position before Poirot and Hastings, hands clutched before her, bobbing her knees in what she expected was a formal greeting.
“Good afternoon, mademoiselle,” replied Poirot, raising a tea cup in salute.
“You have a peculiar voice!” retorted Clara, suppressing an embarrassed chuckle.
“Clara, this is the famous detective, Hercule Poirot,” Lady Bottomclutch said gently. “And his assistant, the ravishing Captain Hastings!”
“Oh!” Clara gasped. “Have they come for the party? I do hope you will stay for the party – it’s fancy dress! You can borrow one of my costumes, if you like. I have a great many.”
“I’m sure they would love that, my dear,” soothed Lady Bottomclutch, patting her daughter’s hand. “Why don’t you run along now and see to Pippin? I’m sure that he must be missing you.”
Clara nodded and, offering a little wave to her guests, skipped away back towards the house.
“Pippin is her little dog,” explained Lady Bottomclutch. “She won’t have children of her own, poor thing, but she is a very affectionate girl and don’t we all deserve a little love in one way or another?”
“C’est vrai, madame. She is a charming young woman.”
“And she is right, you know, you must come to the party this evening,” Lady Bottomclutch said, with quite some enthusiasm. “My youngest son is returning from the army for a few days and I do like to make a fuss. He will arrive on the train from London this evening. Perhaps you will be able to offer him some career advice, Captain? And I know my guests will be delighted to meet the famous Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot!”
Poirot shifted a little in his chair, repressing a mutter and reaching for his tea cup.
“I’m not sure we’re properly prepared for fancy dress,” replied Hastings, warily.
“Oh, don’t mind that,” Lady Bottomclutch waved a hand. “That’s just Clara’s way. She has a predilection for dressing up, I see no reason to suppress it.”
“And we will have an opportunity to speak to your maid Maggie, when she is perhaps not so engaged with the preparations?” asked Poirot.
“I dare say,” replied Lady Bottomclutch, her lips stretched into a tight line of vermillion. “But if you want to know anything about the maid, I suggest you speak to my husband. Lord Bottomclutch is very attentive to certain members of the staff.”
The torrid heat of the afternoon had given way to a balmy and golden summer’s evening at Somersby Hall, nestled in the coastal Norfolk village of Tunkle-on-Wyme. A number of guests had joined Lord and Lady Bottomclutch to await the return of their youngest son, on leave from his endeavours in the army and making his way from London as canapés and small, colourful drinks were served at his family seat. Lady Bottomclutch had already availed herself of rather too many of the drinks which, although small, were notably potent. She was rhapsodic in her telling of a ribald tale from her youth, her somewhat nervous audience including the dashing Captain Hastings, who on the advice of young Clara had borrowed an outfit for the occasion. Clara had insisted that the party was fancy dress but it seemed that she and Hastings were the only advocates of the theme.
“Oh, Captain, you look marvellous in your hunting pinks!” drawled Lady Bottomclutch, dragging an unsteady hand across his shoulder, bedecked in a scarlet hunting jacket. “How fortunate that you are the same size as my husband.”
“I do wish you wouldn’t refer to the outfit as such,” huffed a gruff and sturdy gentleman with a moustache the size of a hedge. “It is an invention of the tabloid press! A hunting jacket is red and that’s all there is to it.”
The man behind the moustache was Major Bernard Walker who, despite his title, had never seen military service but people were too polite to press the point. Ironic, then, that he was so particular about the misuse by others of facts and phrases. Ignoring the rolling eyes of the other guests, Major Walker continued.
“It is a common misconception that the jackets are named after their maker, Samuel Pink. Also the inventor of the pinking shears, interestingly enough,” said Major Walker, unaware that this was interesting to no one but himself. “It’s a damn fool notion to be wearing it to a party, Mister Hastings.”
“It’s Captain, actually,” Hastings replied through gritted teeth.
“Nonsense!” cried Lady Bottomclutch. “The Captain looks positively darling, don’t you Captain?”
Hastings looked around for his friend Poirot, who had all but abandoned him to his fate. Not only was he battling with the affections of Lady Bottomclutch and the aggressive overtones of the Major, he was also contending with a stream of nonsensical chattering from the Bowley sisters – a couple of sour-faced spinsters who appeared to delight in little else than gossiping about the unfortunate fates of their neighbours. In fact, Hastings had even heard them muttering between themselves about some scandal within these very walls, but he had been far too engaged with the business of keeping the wandering hands of Lady Bottomclutch from venturing where they shouldn’t to be entirely attentive.
A further amorous onslaught was halted at once by the arrival of Clara, now dressed as a maid and happily miming serving drinks to the guests. She had not been entrusted with actual vessels, but seemed entirely content with the imaginary articles she carried on her waitress’ tray. Beaming from ear to ear, she filled glasses with invisible victuals as those assembled acquiesced with stiff-faced jocose. Only Hastings humoured the charade with good grace, raising the offering to his nose, before taking a sip and enthusiastically declaring it the finest wine in all of England. Major Walker mumbled something ungallant and Clara wrinkled her nose at him.
“You needn’t say anything, you’re not even a proper Major!” she snapped, to gasps from the Bowley sisters. “We all know it. I don’t see why you can play make-pretend and I can’t.”
What expression of the Major was visible behind his moustache was at once crimson and bulging, but just when an enraged outburst seemed imminent among his spittle-drenched splutters, Derbyshire the butler glided up alongside Lady Bottomclutch.
“Madame, there is a telephone call for you,” he said.
Lady Bottomclutch made her excuses and tottered on languid feet towards the hallway, while Hastings saw fit to avert the growing animosity between Clara and Major Walker.
“Might I have another glass of that scrumptious wine, my dear?” asked Hastings, charm personified. “It really is quite delicious.”
From across the room, the commotion had caught the eye of the ever astute Hercule Poirot who, upon glancing over, thought for a moment that his dear friend Hastings had gone completely mad. But when he recognised that the maid was in fact young Clara in fancy dress, he smiled at the Captain’s kindness. Poirot had been engaged in lively conversation with Lord Bottomclutch, Tunkle-on-Wyme’s vicar Mr Philpott and the vicar’s son, James. Talk stopped for a moment in order that they might enjoy the scene on the far side of the room.
“My daughter, of course, is a simple girl,” said Lord Bottomclutch, the hint of apology upon his words. “But she is happy enough. Loves to dress up and make-believe. The staff are very good about it, especially Barton, the gamekeeper. She’s always up in his hut, putting on his hats and jackets and pretending to hunt poachers. He’s dreadfully good about it. He has to be careful about locking the guns away, mind, we don’t want her getting a hold of those. Dangerous business, guns.”
“Beastly things,” trilled James, a fey young man with hair a touch longer than it should be and an affectation for velvet jackets. He was idly picking at his already immaculate fingernails with an ivory handled pocket knife, pausing only occasionally to shrug his auburn locks from his eyes.
“I thought for a moment it was our lovely Maggie serving drinks,” remarked Mr Philpott. “Uniforms make everyone look so alike, don’t you think?”
“For goodness sake, father, can’t you go a minute without mentioning that girl?” sighed James, barely looking up from his hands.
“Now, now James, she is as good as family, is it so surprising?” chided the vicar.
“Ah, mademoiselle Maggie, oui?” said Poirot, pleased at last that the reason for his visit had been raised without him needing to force the matter. “She is the very young lady the Captain and I had hoped to meet. As I was telling to your wife, Lord Bottomclutch, we have a message for her from Cambridge.”
The mere mention of the university city sent a violent tick across the Lord’s features and his skin tightened across his skull. It was as if a strange chill had descended upon the man and Poirot watched him with keen interest. Before the great detective could enquire further, a distressed Lady Bottomclutch swept into the room.
“Disappointing news!” she announced, the accentuated slurring of her voice indicating that she had been refreshed by more than Clara’s imaginary wine. “Darling Harold has been waylaid in London! He won’t he joining us this evening. However, he tells me that he will be on the first morning train and we are all to enjoy the party without him.”
The assembled guests did not look quite so forlorn as their staggering hostess, although Clara was clearly crestfallen. Hastings took pity on the girl and moved to comfort her.
“Not to worry, young lady, your brother will be here by breakfast,” he soothed. “Perhaps we can find some exciting way to pass the time. A game, perhaps?”
At this, Clara’s eyes brightened and she clapped her hands.
“Oh, yes, Captain Hastings!” she exclaimed. “We shall all of us play a wonderful game of hide and seek!”
“I say, Poirot, I’m not sure this is the best of hiding places, you know,” remarked Captain Hastings, rubbing his neck where an unfortunate crick was swiftly developing. “It’s been a while since I hid in a wardrobe, but from my recollection it’s always the first place they look.”
“Au contraire, my dear Hastings, this is precisely why it is the very best of hiding places,” replied Poirot, delicately dabbing at the slick of moisture collecting on his brow. “The sooner we are found and can return to the more civilised endeavours of polite society, the better. Mais, c’est vrai that mademoiselle Clara, she is the great lover of games, Hercule Poirot is not so enamoured and wishes to return to the idle chatter and cucumber sandwiches rapidement.”
Whilst not entirely comfortable hiding in a wardrobe, Captain Hastings certainly had no desire to rush back to the idle chatter of Lord and Lady Bottomclutch’s party guests. He had been bombarded by the ferocious Captain Walker and his less than gallant remarks, the Bowley sisters were positively frightful and Lady Bottomclutch herself was getting very close to living up to her name. In fact, she had suggested to him that he should join her in a secluded nook where they were sure to remain undiscovered for quite some time and Hastings had never in his life been so keen to retreat to close quarters with another gentleman. He was hiding from Lady Bottomclutch as much as Clara, the chief ‘seeker’ in this impromptu game of hide and seek.
Poirot had been a far more fortunate participant in the evening’s social intercourse thus far, having enjoyed the relative delights of local vicar Mr Philpott, his floppy-haired son James and Lord Bottomclutch himself. The conversation had just started to become interesting and was far more productive than loitering in a wardrobe with Captain Hastings.
“I’m sure we won’t be in here too long,” Hastings reassured his old friend. “But please, Poirot, I must ask you not to leave me unattended with Lady Bottomclutch again. I fear she has unsavoury designs upon my person.”
“Ah! Oui, the lady of the house has certainly taken a liking to you, Hastings.”
“Well, I imagine it is because her husband doesn’t show her much attention. From what I gather, he seems more interested in the staff.”
“It is true that Lord Bottomclutch does have much affection for his staff,” replied Poirot, nodding slowly. “Notamment, mademoiselle Maggie, to whom we must speak the moment this game is over. My dear Hastings, I believe there is a connection between our gracious host and the young maid that has been kept from us.”
“Yes, I think Lady Bottomclutch is of the same mind,” agreed Hastings, raising a suggestive eyebrow.
“Non, Hastings, it is not as you imply,” said Poirot quickly. “Rather, the connection is none other than Cambridge. The much beloved son Harold, whose arrival we all so eagerly await, was a student at the same college where we were made most welcome by President Venn so very recently, c’est vrai! Monsieur Philpott mentioned in passing but the conversation, it was quickly redirected to matters of Harold’s military service.”
“I say, that’s a coincidence,” remarked Hastings.
“Whether by coincidence or design, mademoiselle Maggie has found her way to Somersby Hall and is kept most hidden by Lord and Lady Bottomclutch. The grey cells, Hastings, they wonder why.”
The grey cells of Captain Hastings were up to this moment more troubled with the intentions of Lady Bottomclutch, but it did occur to him that their persistent requests to speak with Maggie had been met with a curious series of excuses. It would appear that the Bottomclutches would rather allow their simple yet spirited daughter Clara to play her make believe dressing up game and serve their guests, rather than insist upon the maid assuming what should be her usual duties. Hastings knew only too well the queer quirks of the British aristocracy but even the onslaught of small, powerful drinks could not prevent the slowly turning cogs of his mind moving into the realms of suspicion.
“I say, Poirot do you think…”
But Captain Hasting’s thoughts remained unexplored as a burst of primordial howling erupted from somewhere within the house, sharply followed by thumping and banging and commotion of all kind. There was barely time for Poirot and Hastings to exchange troubled glances before the Captain flung back the door of the wardrobe and sprinted towards the source of the calamity, followed some way behind by the diminutive Belgian. Emerging from the bedroom and onto the first floor landing by the principle staircase, Hastings spied Derbyshire hurrying across the hall below. He followed the elderly butler, leaving a panting Poirot in his wake, and soon determined the direction of the disturbance, chasing the anguished cries down a small back staircase and arriving finally in the basement scullery.
Catching his breath was made all the more arduous by the scene before him and Hastings took a moment of stunned horror to make sense of what he saw. Lady Bottomclutch was gasping for breath between violent sobs, supported by her ashen faced husband. The vicar stuttered urgent adjurations to the good Lord while his son looked as if he might faint. A tall, stout young woman in a maid’s uniform continued to scream and wail as she stood over the prone figure of another maid, sprawled across the flagstone floor, the back of her head resembling a raspberry compote.
But it was not a maid. It was Clara. And she was very dead indeed.
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.
The mood in the drawing room of Somersby Hall was solemn and tinged with suspicion. Lady Bottomclutch was draped across the chaise longue, her tear-streaked face drawn and silent, an empty decanter on the occasional table next to her and a heavy bottomed glass discarded on the floor by a carelessly pendulous hand. Major Walker and Mr Philpott the vicar stood by the fireplace, alternately muttering disbelief and shaking their heads. The Bowley sisters huddled together, spitting poison quietly between them and eyeing a platter of sandwiches that had been forgotten in the melee of events. Family butler Derbyshire loitered stoically by the door, attempting to maintain an air of normalcy whilst acting as a sentry, under strict instructions from Captain Hastings that no one was to leave the premises except with the express permission of Hercule Poirot.
“Will you harridans not refrain from your infernal muttering?” Major Walker snapped at the sisters. Tact was never normally his strong point, but this evening even less so.
The sisters were identical in appearance and dress, the only thing to separate them was that one spoke vile things, the other merely thought them. They were barely in their forties, but spite had prematurely aged their pinched faces, cold beady eyes of icy blue glared out from sunken sockets and turned up little noses sat above thin, mirthless lips. Both were dressed smartly in navy twin sets and pearls, pleated skirts to match and at a respectable length, shoes flat and sensible. Faded brunette locks were forced into tight buns at the base of the skull and, unsurprisingly, left hands were bereft of jewellery of any kind. Only Ethel spoke, while Enid kept guard by her sister’s side.
“We couldn’t help but notice that the girl called you to account good and proper, mister Walker. How galling that must have been for you.”
“How… how dare you, you mischief making witches!” Major Walker spluttered his words as if they were bile in his mouth. “What are you suggesting? If you have something to say… I suggest you say it right now!”
“Calm yourself, Major, calm yourself – this is no time to be fighting among ourselves,” said Mr Philpott, placing a firm hand on Walker’s arm, which was by now trembling with rage.
“And come to think of it, where’s your lovely boy, vicar?” Ethel continued, her toxic tirade now untapped. “He made himself scarce pretty quickly, didn’t he? His face was a picture.”
“My James is completely incapable of such a vile act!” It was the vicar’s turn to battle outrage.
“Some say he is incapable of a great deal of things,” smirked Ethel. “And lord knows, he isn’t especially fond of women, is he?”
Mr Philpott was speechless, which was just as well, as the words that were forming in his mind were most unbecoming of a man of the cloth. Before they could stain his lips, the sound of wood on wood announced an arrival and Derbyshire stretched to attention as the aforementioned James Philpott appeared at the doorway.
“I’ll thank you not to take the lord’s name in vain in front of my father,” trilled James, his dainty nose in the air and hands on hips. This defiant display was hampered somewhat by his reddened eyes, damp cheeks and an unusual air that suggested that the contents of his stomach had been recently evacuated.
“Oh, here he is,” said Ethel, her mouth a cruel gash across her face. “Evidence disposed of, is it?”
James grew pink, but the evening’s events had already drained his resolve and he had not the stomach to make further riposte. Instead, he threw himself into an armchair and, removing the delicate pocket knife from his velvet waistcoat, began cleaning his fingernails in earnest.
Revelling in the young man’s defeat, Ethel stalked the room and settled by the platter of dry, curling sandwiches, Enid shadowing her steps one by one. The Major refilled his glass and offered Mr Philpott and James the same, keeping one eye on the sisters, as if he thought they might attack at any moment.
“Of course, poor Clara wasn’t exactly the apple of her parents’ eye,” continued Ethel, indicating the unconscious Lady Bottomclutch with a deftly brandished sandwich. “She was an embarrassment to polite society. Even more so than their dreadful son…”
Derbyshire cleared his throat in the most deliberate fashion, halting the monstrous monologue not a moment too soon. At his side was Hercule Poirot, flanked by a stoney-faced Lord Bottomclutch and Captain Hastings, who bore a most fearsome expression.
“Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,” huffed Poirot, uncharacteristically stern and moustache especially rigid. “Poirot wishes to speak with you all. This evening’s events have taken a turn most unfortunate, vraiment. There is, perhaps, a killer among us and Poirot intends to find out who it is. In the morning, we will be joined by the formidable Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard. He will be on the first train from London. Until then, Poirot insists that everyone returns to their rooms, locks their doors and awaits further instruction at breakfast. No one is to leave the house. Mes amies, there is evil in this place and Poirot will pluck it out like a rotted feather!”
Poirot stood at the window of his guest room in Somersby Hall, contemplating the scene of morning breaking upon the rambling grounds below. The rear gardens bore scattered signatures of attempted horticultural endeavours, but the areas beyond the terrace were given over to the whims of nature, which in its own way was no bad thing. Clutches of bluebells nodded their heads in haphazard gatherings about the courtyard while campions of white and pink intruded into the flowerbeds whose intended incumbents had long since withered in their presence. Fledgling shoots of yellow archangel were rearing their heads, ready to take the place of the indigo clumps when the bluebells began to fade. A rugged figure loitered on the edge of the copse, shotgun in hand and flat cap pulled low on his brow. From this distance Poirot could not see his face, but guessed it to be Barton, the gamekeeper. No doubt he too was mourning the loss of poor Clara, perhaps already missing her visits to his hut.
The morning had begun rather more abruptly than Poirot would have liked. The prodigal son, Harold Bottomclutch, had returned at dawn and the reunion had not been as auspicious as his parents would have hoped. The news of his sister’s brutal murder had been met at first with confusion, then disbelief, then the bitter grief that one might expect. A night’s sleep (aided, no doubt, by the repeated consumption of small strong drinks) had enabled Lady Bottomclutch to reign in her hysterics – indeed, she had even seen fit to instruct her son to remove his muddy boots in the hallway, before he retreated to his quarters to indulge his anguish in private.
One of the things that both mystified and drew admiration in Poirot about the English was their steadfast refusal to be given over to emotion of any kind. His travails brought him frequently to incidents of high drama, but those involved were often good enough to keep the deep horrors of their feelings very much to themselves. There was a sharp tapping at his door, followed by the arrival of Captain Hastings.
“I’ve come to let you know that breakfast is being served,” said Hastings, not quite his usual chipper self. “I say, Poirot, I’m dreadfully worried about the state of Venn’s car. Whatever will we tell him?”
“Hastings, there has been a murder most foul, yet it is the motor vehicle that worries you?” Poirot chided him, but a smile lurked beneath the formidable moustache.
“Murders are ten a penny for the likes of you and me, old chum,” Hastings replied, thrusting his hands in his pockets and striding over to join Poirot at the window. “But a car like that, well, that’s a rare and beautiful machine. Whatever will we do about the tyres?”
“I am sure, mon amie, that the tyres, they can be fixed,” said Poirot, making great effort to reassure his friend. “And the murder, it can be solved, non?”
“Non. I mean, yes, I’m sure it can… I say, what’s that fellow up to over there?”
“The gentleman with the gun? It is the gamekeeper, non?”
“He hasn’t got a gun, looks like a length of rope,” replied Hastings. “But yes, you’re right, it’s that Barton chap. Poor fellow. Banished into a hut in the woods like that.”
Poirot doubted very much that Barton actually lived in his gamekeeper’s hut, but was in no mood to debate the matter with Hastings. In fact, he might very well be in the mood for breakfast, now that the Captain mentioned it.
Breakfast should have been a solemn affair, but indeed it was quite raucous. Lady Bottomclutch had positioned herself next to Captain Hastings and seemed to find great vigour lurking in the glass of tomato juice that never left her hand. Her other hand showed no interest in cutlery or toast, but was otherwise engaged under the table, a manoeuvre Hastings was at great pains to avoid as politely as possible. The Bowley sisters did not survive on tragedy alone, it seemed, as both had great appetites for the array of breads and cold meats laid out upon the table. Ethel made snide remarks directed at Major Walker, questioning not only his title but also his parentage, to which he responded with boisterous gusto. Mr Philpott the vicar had been nervously buttering the same slice of toast for more than half an hour, whilst trying to pull the conversation to more genial pastures, but his gentle Norfolk lilt was lost among the rabble. His winsome son James remained breathless and wan, refusing all sustenance yet managing to look remarkably dapper in crushed velvet and lace. It was to everyone’s delight that Harold Bottomclutch had recovered his disposition sufficiently to partake of some sausage and egg and was in muted yet earnest conversation with his father.
Poirot sat quietly, watching the scene and all its players, his little grey cells absorbing all they could. He intended to begin his questioning directly after breakfast; hunger sharpened the mind, therefore Poirot believed that it was so much more difficult to lie on a full stomach. Picking up a silver tea spoon, Poirot prepared to set about the single boiled egg that sat before him; an egg, he noted, that looked remarkably like himself.
“Mr Poirot, I am sorry to disturb you, sir,” Derbyshire the butler appeared, ghost-like, at the detective’s side. “There is a Chief Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard here to see you. He says you are expecting him, sir.”
“Aha! Oui! Merci beaucoup, monsieur Derbyshire!” Poirot replaced the spoon and removed the napkin from his chin. “I will see him at once.”
“Another chap from London?” Lady Bottomclutch called out from the other end of the table. “Oh, bring him in here, please do! The more the merrier!”
At that moment, a reassuringly familiar figure draped in a well-worn overcoat and wearing a battered trilby strode into the room.
“You two ‘erberts can’t go anywhere without finding yourselves a body, can you?” Japp addressed Poirot and Hastings. “Well, well, well. What ‘av we got ‘ere, then? You’d better tell me all about it.”
“Chief Inspector, it is très important that we speak to the maid Maggie,” Poirot whispered to Japp. “She is, after all, the reason we find ourselves at Somersby Hall.”
“D’you think the maid has something to do with the murder, Poirot?” asked Japp, seemingly unconvinced.
“I know not, mon amie, but she is proving to be a lady most elusive. We have been asking to speak to her since our arrival yesterday, but Lord and Lady Bottomclutch find a reason to frustrate us at every turn.”
Poirot, Hastings and Japp stood in silence for a moment, taking in the quiet of the pantry and re-examining the body of poor Clara, who had been left untouched on the flagstones. Still and cold upon the floor, there was a sense of unrest about her body, her pooling blood now congealed into a dark, sticky oasis beneath her bludgeoned head. Japp agreed that the cause of death was likely a blow to the back of the skull with a heavy, blunt object and would soon arrange for the body to be taken away. He was taking a final few moments to satisfy his curiosity about certain matters.
“So, the murderer could have entered the room by either the steps from the main house, or those leading to the courtyard,” said Japp, casting his eyes about the room. “No sign of the murder weapon, the killer must have taken it with them. Do we know the whereabouts of the household at the time the body was discovered?”
“Malheureusement, non,” replied Poirot. “You see, Chief Inspector, we were all engaged in a game of hide and seek at the time of the murder.”
“Aha, hide and seek, eh?” Japp stroked his chin. “Could that have been a ploy by the murderer, do you think? Who suggested the game?”
“It was Clara herself, actually,” said Hastings. “She was a dear, simple girl. Very fond of games and whatnot, so it seems. We were passing the time waiting for her brother, Harold, to come home.”
“She doesn’t sound like the sort of girl to have made herself many enemies,” mused Japp, his eyes flitting across the body, the juxtaposition of such a brutal crime on such a delicate frame unusually disturbing.
“C’est vrai, it is impossible to think of a reason why any person would do such a thing,” Poirot nodded. “Mais, that is exactly what Poirot must do.”
“Well, quite, Poirot. What about our suspects, any murderous types among them, d’you think?”
“Well! I don’t much like those Bowley sisters!” spluttered Hastings, before Poirot was able to consider his reply to the Chief Inspector. “They would kill you soon as look at you, I’d imagine. In fact, if it was either of them battered to death on the floor I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“Oui, they are indeed unusually unpleasant, Hastings,” Poirot replied. “Certainly, they are the masters of what you might say – the ‘tittle-tattle’. They must be questioned most carefully. It is clear to Poirot that they delight in knowing a great many things that they should not, c’est vrai.”
Hastings shifted uneasily from foot to foot. Now talk turned to matters of interrogations, his usefulness raised questions of its own. He had never been in his element during questioning, he could never think of anything sensible to say. He was good at listening, that much is true, but with both Poirot and Japp present to orchestrate proceedings, Hastings felt like something of a spare part. And speaking of spare parts, there was the other, far more pressing, matter to consider.
“I say chaps, I’m frightfully distracted by this problem with the car, you know,” said Hastings. “While you fellows are taking statements, perhaps I should trot along into the village and see if I can’t find someone to fix it?”
“What’s all this?” asked Japp, pulling a pipe from his jacket pocket.
“There has been a case of vandalism most vicious visited upon our vehicle, Chief Inspector,” replied Poirot. “The tyres, they have been slashed.”
“Hmm!” Japp furrowed his brow, either in consternation at the news about the car or in an effort to light the tightly packed tobacco in the bowl of his pipe, it was impossible to tell. “That puts a slant on things. A threat, you think? Are we dealing with a maniac, given to wanton acts of violence?”
The air filled with a cloying, woody aroma and masked for a moment the chill of death that filled every corner of the room.
“It seems to Poirot that the car was vandalised for one particular reason,” said Poirot, his eyes bright with deduction. “And that, mes amies, was to prevent the egress of myself and Captain Hastings. There are persons here who do not want us to leave. Mais, is it to ensure that we remain at Somersby Hall and solve this crime most wicked, or is it to delay escape from our own fates, no doubt also most wicked?”
“If it was someone who wanted you to solve the crime, it was unlikely to be the murderer,” Japp concluded.
“Exactement, Chief Inspector!” Poirot exclaimed, delighted to have put his colleague on the correct train of thought. “Which means that there is someone present who knows more than they might be prepared to say, non?”
“Or someone present who wants to finish us off,” Hastings pointed out. “I say. That’s enough to give a fellow the pip.”
“Right, well, we’d better get on with it, then,” Japp concluded, huffing on his pipe and taking a determined stance. “What say we start with this maid of yours, then, Poirot?”
Poirot felt that this was indeed the logical course of action, but was interrupted by the unannounced arrival of stealth-like butler Derbyshire, whose usual excitable countenance had deserted him. His bustling eyebrows cast dark shadows across his sockets and his long, cratered nose pointed solemnly towards the flagstones.
“I am sorry to disturb you, gentlemen, but you must come at once,” Derbyshire cleared his cracking voice with a delicate cough. “There has been another tragic passing.”
If such a thing were possible, it could be said that what awaited Hercule Poirot in the servants’ quarters was all the more tragic than the brutal discovery in the pantry. Accompanied by Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp, he stood grim-faced, eyes turned skyward towards the crumpled remains of humanity dangling from the main beam. Stout, sensible boots poked out beneath long black skirts, a pristine white apron atop, fastened neatly just below the bust. It would have been impossible to secure the ties at the waist as a protruding swelling of the stomach inhibited them. Further up, the face was not visible, obscured as it was by both the slumped positioning of the head and the presence of a puffed white mop bonnet secured to it. But even so there could be no doubt; this was Maggie the maid hanging by her neck from the ceiling.
Derbyshire had been the first to stumble upon the scene and had made mutterings of suicide, to which Hastings and Japp were in mournful agreement. But Poirot made no such great leaps of faith in his deductions. Although there were several obvious things that presented themselves to his fastidious eyes, the diminutive Belgian knew from his extensive experience that it would be the subtle mundanities where the truth could be found.
Maggie’s room was more spacious than one might expect for below-stairs staff and the furnishings, although far from luxurious, were certainly beyond adequate. Poirot noted that the mattress on the bed was well-stuffed and the sheets and blankets in good repair. An elderly but good quality sitting chair stood stoically in the corner, a polished occasional table adorned with a tidy pile of needlework its near neighbour. The chest of drawers on the far wall was of the same design as the wardrobe in which Poirot and Hastings had hidden during the ill-fated game of hide and seek the previous evening. A large, barely-worn rug lay on the stripped wooden floorboards and there was even a little writing desk, adorned with a few chipped trinkets and fripperies. It struck Poirot that this room had been furnished from hand-me-downs of the main house.
“I know it hardly my place, but if I may, gentlemen, offer my thoughts?”
Derbyshire had been mumbling throughout and it seemed to Poirot only a matter of time before he unburdened himself. Japp refilled his pipe and nodded at the butler.
“Maggie has been behaving quite oddly these last few weeks,” began the butler. “We put it down to the nature of her condition, you know…”
“Mademoiselle Maggie, she is… was… with child?” Poirot asked most delicately.
“Yes, Mister Poirot. Such a thing can play havoc with a woman’s whatnots, or so I’m led to believe. Her moods have been quite frightful. Both the master and my good self had warned her that her temper was no good for the little one, but she wouldn’t be told.”
“Lord Bottomclutch, he was concerned for the welfare of the baby?”
“Yes, Mister Poirot. The master was very protective of Maggie,” replied Derbyshire. “That caused a little bit of bad feeling among the staff, as you can imagine. Favouritism towards the new girl, you know. It didn’t go down very well.”
“And Lady Bottomclutch?” continued Poirot. “How did this favouritism, as you say, go down with her?”
Derbyshire fell silent for a moment, perhaps engaged in some internal debate as to how best answer the question without betraying professional loyalties.
“Lady Bottomclutch is a highly strung woman, Mister Poirot,” he replied, at last. “She is irritated by a great many things and the Maggie situation was certainly no different.”
“D’accord, Monsieur Derbyshire. Poirot understands completely.”
“What about the father of Maggie’s baby?” asked Japp, looking up at the body. “Where’s he?”
“The name of the father is not known, Chief Inspector,” replied Derbyshire flatly.
“But surely there must have been some talk of it?” Japp continued. “Some discussion among the staff? Were any names suggested at all?”
“I don’t make it my business to take note of the idle chitter-chatter of the staff, Chief Inspector.”
“You were saying about her moods,” Hastings piped up. “What did you mean by that?”
“Maggie could become quite angry at times,” said Derbyshire. “She seemed to focus a lot of her anger towards Miss Bottomclutch, as if she was jealous of her, almost.”
“Jealous? How so?”
“I really couldn’t say, Captain Hastings,” Derbyshire sighed. “As I say, I put it down to her condition. But, gentlemen, I do fear that perhaps her moods got the better of her and then, she could not live with what she had done.”
“Are you saying that you think Maggie killed Clara in a fit of temper, and then hung herself in remorse?” asked Japp, not sounding entirely convinced.
“It certainly looks that way, Chief Inspector.”
Japp relit his pipe and raised an eyebrow towards Poirot, who was stroking his moustache with great deliberation.
“What do you think, Poirot?”
“It seems to Poirot that Monsieur Derbyshire’s story would make perfect sense, Chief Inspector,” Poirot replied. “It would, that is, if Mademoiselle Maggie’s death was suicide, mais, it is certain that it is not.”
“I say!” exclaimed Hastings. “Not suicide?”
“Non, my dear Hastings. Very much non! It is most obvious to Poirot that this is clearly murder. Allow me, if you please, to tell to you the reasons why…”
Despite the bounteous breakfast consumed not an hour or so since, Captain Hastings felt the beginnings of a small rumble in his stomach. It was another fine day in the Norfolk coastal town of Tunkle-on-Wyme and a salty breeze chased about the streets, gently ruffling his immaculate golden thatch. The sea air is said to be good for the appetite and Hastings was content to attribute to this his unseemly greed. It had been quite an eventful morning thus far, with the discovery of another body; poor Maggie the maid now joining the ill-fated Clara in the list of victims of a unknown rapscallion. Whilst Clara was clearly bludgeoned in the most despicable manner, Hastings and Japp had immediately taken Maggie’s hanging to be suicide. But the great Hercule Poirot had other ideas.
As he continued along steep, narrow streets made all the more treacherous by flint and cobble underfoot, Hastings began to see how obvious it was that Poirot had come to the conclusion he did. Firstly, there was no stool or chair anywhere beneath the body that would have been kicked aside in a suicide. Secondly, the keen eye of the famous detective had spied an unusual wearing of the rope along its length, suggesting that it had been dragged across the beam whilst bearing weight. Maggie was already dead when the noose was placed around her neck and then hoisted into position. Poirot was confident that on examination of the body, another cause of death would be discovered.
The rope was one thing but it gave Hastings the pip to think he hadn’t noticed the absence of a stool beneath the body. Perhaps this was why he had been despatched into town to find a mechanic, rather than assist with the investigation, which had now taken a much more urgent turn. In truth, Hastings did not mind too much. Questioning suspects had never been his strong point and it was true to say that he was slightly more concerned about the state of the car than he was the murders. Murders happened all the time in London and were usually for some good reason or other, but the vandalism of a motor vehicle was a mindless crime against common decency. Also, Derbyshire had mentioned that the mechanic was next to the bakery and Hastings was very much in the mood for a pastry.
Hastings soon found the mechanic’s workshop at the bottom of an unusually severe incline, which struck him as a most inconvenient location to be reached by vehicles of any kind, let alone ones needing the attention of a mechanic. In fact, it struck Hastings that Tunkle-on-Wyme was not at all an ideal place for motor cars. The streets, although pretty in their own way, were crowded on either side by quaint buildings fashioned from the local flint, their painted wooden doors and window frames resplendent in cheerful pastel shades. The cobbles on the roads would make any journey a bone-rattling experience, that is if one could make it more than a few feet before being stopped in one’s tracks by a marauding flock of geese, or old women carrying unfeasibly large baskets of fish or some such thing. Charming, but hardly practical.
Tempting aromas of fresh bread and sweet treats mingled with the briny breeze and Captain Hastings would have followed them directly through the door of the bakery, had the quirky rolling Norfolk lilt of the mechanic not drawn his attention.
“Mornin’, sir, its thar summit thass ah kin help yew with?”
Hastings turned to address the beaming, oil-smeared face of a man who appeared entirely comprised of grime and overalls. He stood beneath a painted sign declaring the premises to be ‘Took’s Automative Centre’ and was wiping his hands on a cloth that was filthier than he was.
“Good morning,” replied Hastings, fervently hoping the fellow didn’t offer him his hand. “My name is Hastings, I’m staying at Somersby Hall and I’m having a problem with my vehicle. You are Mr Took, I take it?”
“Yis. Everrone calls me Tooky,” replied the mechanic. “Somersby Hall, eh? Yew’re a furriner, then?”
Hastings returned a blank stare, wondering if the chap was speaking English.
“A vister to these parts?” Tooky continued. “Nivvermind. Wassisit the matter with your car?”
“All four tyres have been damaged, I’m afraid,” Hastings replied, hoping he was answering the question he thought he was. “It’s a Delage D6-11, do you think you can find me the correct tyres?”
“Thass a hoolly rare ‘un of a car, sir, yew know.”
“Ah dint have the right tyres here but ah can ax about and bring them acrorst to the Hall afore too long,” Tooky pulled a grubby roll-up from his top pocket and rummaged around for a box of matches. Hastings held his breath as oil stained hands fumbled to get the roll-up lit. “Lady Bottomclutch is a primmicky maw, ent she sir? I had the vicar in here yisty axing about the wedding car and he had a raw mouth on him over her Ladyship.”
Tooky sucked the roll-up into life as Hastings tried to make sense of what he was saying.
“Wedding car? Is someone getting married?” asked Hastings.
“Yis! Ent that why yew’re visting? Yew know, it whar the vicar’s son that were putting up parts with their new maid and now they’s havvin to get spliced. Ah allus thought James Philpott ent the marrying kind, if you get my drift, all that velvet an’ lace. Still, tha mardle of the town says they done the dutty and bein’as the maw had a fat pot on ‘er it muss be true.”
“Sorry – are you saying that James Philpott is the father of Maggie’s baby?”
“Yis! Ah’d have said it was squit ’til I seen the girl meeself.”
“And you say that Mr Philpott was complaining about Lady Bottomclutch?” Hastings continued.
“Hold yew hard, ah’m not saying no one said nowt,” replied Tooky, dragging hard on the limp stub of his roll-up. “With all yews furriners about I dussent gev over to mardling!”
“There are other… furry… types… about?” said Hastings, getting a feel for the local lingo.
“Ah seen one ah em lassnight on the way back from The Cat & Compass,” replied Tooky, nodding. “But ah’s full ‘o tha sluss and ah dint see the face. It were late. He was in the telephone box on the high street. Bloody furriners. Howsomever, ah’ll bring tha tyres acrorst tha Hall, arright?”
Tooky threw the tattered remains of the roll-up to the floor, tugged at his cap and sauntered back into the gloom of his garage. Hastings felt that he had garnered some very important information here this morning, if only he knew what the devil the fellow was talking about.
“There’s been nothing but shame brought about the walls of Somersby Hall, I tell you, Mr Poirot – nothing but shame!”
Poirot sat politely, saying nothing and waiting for Ethel Bowley to expand upon her statement. When the great detective and Chief Inspector Japp announced that they would begin their questioning, Ethel Bowley had made it quite apparent that she wished to be at the very front of the queue. Her pinched-faced twin sister Enid sat mute, as ever, at her side. Lord Bottomclutch had been good enough to arrange the use of his private study for these endeavours and loyal butler Derbyshire remained outside the door, guarding against any unwanted ears.
Beady eyes bulging, Ethel glared ferociously at Hercule Poirot, daring him to question her further. In fact, the immaculate Belgian had not yet asked a single question. To his mind, when a lady appeared so keen to have her say, it was better to let her get along with matters unimpeded.
“You realise, of course, that the girl Clara was nothing but a simpleton,” said Ethel, eventually.
An involuntary twitch from Poirot’s moustache was the only tell from his otherwise perfectly tempered visage.
“She was like it from birth,” continued Ethel, oblivious to the distaste her ignorance inspired. “They sent her away somewhere when she was younger, you know, one of those places they send the mentally defective. Couldn’t do much for her, apparently, so they neutered her like a dog and sent her home again. Always been a frightful disappointment to the Lord and Lady, as I’m sure you can imagine, Mister Poirot.”
“I assure you, mademoiselle, that Poirot can imagine nothing of the sort,” replied the detective, a forced smile his only protection against saying something that he might regret. “But please, to continue.”
“Well, I’m just saying, is all,” huffed Ethel, evidently perturbed that her revelation had not had greater effect. “And then there’s the maid, of course. I’m sure you know all about her.”
“How could we know all about her?” asked Japp, reasonably. “We’ve only just arrived.”
“Ah, but Mister Poirot and the Captain were asking after her, weren’t you, Mister Poirot?”
“Oui, c’est vrai,” replied Poirot. “Mademoiselle Maggie had a friend in Cambridge who was asking after her. Captain Hastings and myself had come to pass on a message.”
“Oh, and Cambridge is another thing,” sneered Ethel, bile thick upon her breath. “Another cause of shame for Somersby Hall!”
“Do you have any information regarding either of the murders,” began Japp, banging the bowl of his pipe on the heavy wooden sideboard “Or do you mean to waste our time with idle gossip?”
Ethel spluttered a little and Enid’s eyes widened like saucers. The sour sisters were used to mixing in polite company, where good manners prevented what needed to be said, being said.
“Mademoiselle Maggie, she was pregnant, non? Is this the shame you talk so ardently about?”
“It is, Mister Poirot,” Ethel replied, her cold eyes now aflame with indignation. “One of them, anyway. Of course, talk has it that Lord Bottomclutch is the father, although they were having her married off to that ridiculous fop James Philpott. Anyone can see the boy hasn’t got it in him to make a baby – or anything else – with any woman. That’s why Harold – the prodigal son – came home, for the wedding. A wedding that kills two shameful birds with one stone.”
“Two, mademoiselle?” asked Poirot, his smooth brow furrowed just barely.
“Well, it wouldn’t do for a vicar to have a son like James, would it?” snapped Ethel. “If he marries Maggie, it stops all talk of that and Lord Bottomclutch needn’t answer any awkward questions either. That’s the truth of the matter and if those two girls died because of any of it then I would hardly be surprised.”
“Where were you hiding, during the game of hide and seek, mademoiselle Ethel?” the rictus grin on the detective’s face was straining at the edges, now. “At the time of the murder of poor Clara?”
“Oh. We were tucked behind a couple of pot plants in the conservatory, Mister Poirot,” replied Ethel. “Why, does it matter? You can’t think we have anything to do with any of this?”
“When it comes to ladies such as yourselves, mademoiselle, Hercule Poirot, he will think anything.”
Japp watched through squinted eyes as the venomous Bowley sisters left the study, a distinct air of stringent bile heavy in their wake. Poirot, too, was pleased to be rid of them, for now. He was far too polite to say so, but Ethel’s obvious glee at the misfortune of others was most unbecoming. Inspector Japp had no such compunction.
“Hardly the shining example of grace and manners, those two, eh Poirot?” he said, poking at his pipe. “Don’t strike me as the murdering kind, though. Unless you’re seeing something I’m not?”
“Non, Chief Inspector,” replied Poirot, with a small sigh. “Unless ill-thoughts alone could kill, in which case we would all be as dead as the dodo.”
“And what’s all this talk about Cambridge?” Japp continued. “Didn’t you say our first victim Maggie had recently arrived from there?”
“Oui, c’est vrai,” Poirot nodded, his manicured hand thoughtfully stroking his pocket watch. “She was until recently, a maid at Queens’ College. Indeed, the slightest mention of the university city caused much contention from Lord Bottomclutch at the party last night. It is most perplexing.”
“D’you think there’s anything in what those harridans had to say about Clara, Poirot?” Japp fished in his jacket pocket and drew out a small, fat pouch of tobacco. “Could the Bottomclutches have bumped her off along with the maid, for the sake of the family reputation?”
“It would be a most unusual thing, Chief Inspector, to hold a party whilst executing such devilish acts, non?”
“Don’t discount it, Poirot,” replied Japp, an uncharacteristic smirk on his lips. “We’ve seen many a murder at a country house gathering. Besides, it’s a good way to bump up the suspect list, isn’t it!”
As Japp lit his pipe, Poirot’s attention was drawn to the sound of muffled commotion on the other side of the door. Three voices jostled for position in the exchange, one of which belonged to Captain Hastings. The door opened a few inches and a perturbed-looking Hastings thrust his head into the room.
“I’m sorry, Poirot, but we’ve got Enid Bowley here, absolutely insists she must see you,” explained Hastings. “She’s been giving poor Derbyshire the most terrible gip about it.”
Poirot and Japp raised eyebrows in unison. This would be the first time the usually-mute sister had opened her mouth in their presence. Poirot felt that surely this request must be granted, if only for the sake of curiosity. Nodding his assent to Hastings, Poirot straightened his waistcoat and steadied himself for this unexpected intercourse.
Without her sister Ethel at her side, Enid had an altogether different manner about her. She shuffled into the room with small, apologetic steps and cast her cold beady eyes to the floor. Her claw-like hands were held before her, not quite wringing but clutching themselves in earnest. A small effort at clearing her throat sufficed as a greeting. Captain Hastings strode in behind her, furiously patting at his jacket in an effort to remove a few errant pastry flakes. Poirot clasped his hands before him, mirroring Enid, and stretched his face into his warmest smile, straining his beautiful moustache in the process.
“Mademoiselle Enid, you wish to speak with Poirot?”
The room fell silent in anticipation and all eyes turned to Enid. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, as if rehearsing an unfamiliar action. Finally, she spoke.
“Yes, Mister Poirot, thank you for seeing me.” Her voice was far softer than expected, certainly not the pin-sharp vocal of her loquacious sister. “All I wanted to say – it isn’t quite right what Ethel said. About Clara. The Lord and Lady were not ashamed of her, Mister Poirot, not in the slightest. They loved her deeply. It is true that they cosseted her here in the Hall, but that wasn’t out of shame. They were protecting her from the crueller elements of the outside world, you see. From people like… my sister.”
Enid at once broke off and the smallness of her voice left a silence far bigger than herself. A spindly hand went to her temple, the effort of speaking seemingly too great to bear. Eyes darting about the room, she scuttled back towards the door.
“That is all, Mister Poirot! I thank you for your time!”
With that, she was gone.
“I say!” exclaimed Hastings. “That’s a turn up for the books. Who would have thought either of those creatures would have a good word to say about anybody!”
“She looked absolutely bloody terrified,” Japp noted. “Guilty conscience, d’you think?”
“Good Lord, anyone would be terrified of having that hideous Ethel as a sister,” replied Hastings, thrusting his hands in his pockets and wrinkling his nose.
“It appears to Poirot that perhaps mademoiselle Enid knows more than she has shared with us,” remarked the Belgian, rearranging his moustache following it’s strenuous activity at forcing a smile. “Mais, for now there is an even more pressing matter at hand.”
Hastings and Japp waited with anticipation for Poirot to elaborate. When he was satisfied with the condition of his moustache, he did.
“Why, Hastings has, this very morning, spied a gentleman wielding the murder weapon from the death of mademoiselle Maggie,” Poirot continued. “From the window in my room, my dear Hastings, when I observed Barton on the edge of the copse. I thought that I saw a gun in his hands, but you correctly identified him as carrying a rope, did you not?”
“I say! You’re right!”
“Oui, Hastings, of course I am right.” Poirot ran his thumb over the smooth surface of his pocket watch, before replacing it in his waistcoat. “Gentleman, we must speak at once to Barton the gamekeeper.”
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?”
“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 unintelligible 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!”
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?”
In Lord Bottomclutch’s private study, Hercule Poirot was in a state of great excitement, albeit artfully restrained. Captain Hastings recognised the signs immediately; the gently pulsating moustache, the lively fire in his eyes and a distracted irritability that all pointed to the inevitable conclusion that the great detective was close to solving a case. Although he would never say as much, Hastings was flabbergasted at this sharp turn of events, as he himself was as baffled by the murders as he had ever been.
Even as Chief Inspector Japp was explaining the results of the investigation by his men into the cause of Maggie’s death, Poirot was unable to tear his brilliant mind from the emerging facts, urgently jostling themselves into perfect positions.
“…So you see, gentlemen, that were it not for the fingermarks on her throat, the broken neck and placing of the body in the noose would have certainly led us to believe that Maggie hanged herself,” explained Japp, unaware he was talking largely to himself (Hastings could hardly be expected to follow such technicalities). “As it is, we can be certain that she was strangled.”
“And what of Clara’s death?” asked Hastings, keen to give the impression of keeping up with proceedings. “Can we be sure of that?”
“Indeed we can, Captain,” replied Japp. “She was definitely killed by the enormous wound to the back of her head. A bloodied mallet has been discovered by one of my lads, up in the copse near the gamekeeper’s hut. We can safely say that it is the murder weapon.”
“That rather puts Barton in a rum position, wouldn’t you say?” Hastings remarked. “But then, he had no reason to kill Clara. He was quite fond of her, from what I gather.”
“He might have had a reason to kill Maggie,” said Japp. “In a jealous rage, perhaps.”
Hastings tapped his lips with his forefinger and knotted his brow.
“It just doesn’t line up,” he said. “Either there is someone with a motive to kill both Clara and Maggie, or we are looking for two killers!”
“And a vandal,” added Japp. “A vicious one at that, after what he did to your car.”
“Monsieurs, it is one killer and one, as you say, vandal, that we look for,” said Poirot, sounding somewhat distracted. “And, I can assure you, that the two are quite different.”
“You seem very sure about that, Poirot,” said Japp. “I don’t suppose you’d care to enlighten us, would you?”
“Chief Inspector, Poirot is always certain about the things that he says. And, if it is enlightenment you seek, then, you need only to look at the facts!”
“Facts? But we don’t even know what the facts are, Poirot!” cried Hastings.
But Poirot did not reply. He simply smiled and stood, straightening his waistcoat as he did so. As if on cue, Lord Bottomclutch entered the room. His noble shoulders were weighted with the heavy burdens of grief and exhaustion, but he retained the kind of cool dignity that only centuries of the proper kind of breeding can produce.
“Ah! Lord Bottomclutch. Poirot is most grateful that you find the time to speak with him.”
“Could we make this swift, Mister Poirot?” Lord Bottomclutch asked, his voice weary. “I’ve got police officers crawling all over the place, not to mention some rather unpleasant mess to be attended to. I’m sure you can appreciate this is a difficult time for me.”
“But of course, Lord Bottomclutch,” Poirot nodded. “I promise not to keep you any longer than necessity requires.”
Lord Bottomclutch settled himself into the armchair by the bookcase, poured himself a very large whisky and picked up the half smoked cigar, abandoned in a fit of pique by his son Harold. Once the cigar was alight, Lord Bottomclutch gestured with his hand, indicating he was ready for Poirot to do his worst. Japp lit his own pungent pipe and leant back against the sideboard next to Captain Hastings, both anticipating an entertaining interlude.
“I am afraid that the questions Poirot must ask are of a nature most delicate, Lord Bottomclutch,” said Poirot, gravely. The reclining gentleman did not speak, but nodded in acquiescence. “The maid Maggie, she was with child, oui? And there has been much talk of the identity of the father. It is true, is it not, that you treated the girl with unusual kindness for a member of your staff? Her quarters are lavishly furnished and it is no secret that your actions were preferable towards her, non?”
“I see what you’re driving at, Poirot,” replied Lord Bottomclutch, spewing thick smoke towards the ceiling. “I can assure you – I am not… was not… the father. Yes, I was perhaps more generous towards her than other members of my staff. I cannot deny that. I suppose, in a way, I felt somewhat… responsible for her.”
“In what way responsible, Lord Bottomclutch?”
Lord Bottomclutch paused to refill his glass. Poirot noticed that his hands shook just slightly.
“It was very likely that the father was Barton,” Lord Bottomclutch replied, at length. “A long-standing member of my household. Maggie was unmarried and I felt a responsibility as her employer to do the best for her.”
“But, monsieur, if Barton was the father, why was Maggie engaged to be married to James Philpott?”
A long, heavy sigh escaped the lips of Lord Bottomclutch, seemingly involuntarily.
“You might as well know the truth about that, Poirot. The vicar is a dear friend of the family and I will not deny that it is an embarrassment that his only son is not the marrying kind. Mister Philpott was keen that James provided him with an heir to continue the family line and for the two to marry seemed a dignified solution to both problems.”
“But did not Barton want an heir also?” Poirot asked. “Has there not always been a Barton at Somersby Hall?”
“Barton will get his chance again, no doubt,” snapped Lord Bottomclutch, sucking furiously on his cigar. “For James, such a thing is not so certain.”
“Bien.” Poirot curled his mouth into a smile that did not reach his eyes. “It is clear to Poirot that you are a man of a generous nature, wanting always to help those around you. Mais, when the time came for President Venn to be of service to you, it was not to be, c’est vrai?”
Lord Bottomclutch narrowed his eyes, beady pupils darting between his inquisitor and the watching faces of Japp and Hastings. He licked his lips and at once looked hunted and afraid. Poirot stepped forward, fixing his gaze and mentally arranging his words with great care and precision.
A bone-crunching THUD! followed by a piercing scream tore through the window and the air in the study froze. Something quite terrible had occurred in the driveway.
The athletic Captain Hastings was the first to witness the aftermath of devastation in the driveway of Somersby Hall. Close on his heels was Chief Inspector Japp, somewhat hampered by his refusal to put out his pipe whilst giving chase. Hercule Poirot arrived shortly afterwards, the exertion of an urgent waddle evident upon his dampened brow. Lord Bottomclutch, his steps leadened by grief and resolve whittled by Poirot’s questioning, followed behind. He grimly wondered if life in Tunkle-on-Wyme would ever return to the peaceful mundanity he loved so much.
Poirot and Japp frowned at the thick stockinged legs, splayed at alarming angles and footed with severe, sensible shoes that lay lifeless before them. Hastings gasped in horror at the sight of the Delage D6-11, rear bumper hopelessly dented, that currently sat atop the crushed limbs. His stunned disgust was reflected in the greasy face of Tooky, who peered timidly from the driving seat, bobbing head on a corkscrewed neck, gaze straining towards the rear of the vehicle.
“Ah nivver sin ‘er, thass ut truth!” wailed Tooky, his comment aimed at a remarkably calm Enid Bowley, who stood quietly mere feet from the stricken bumper.
“Is she dead?”
Enid, so unaccustomed to speaking in the presence of her sister Ethel, formed her words with remarkable conviction for one confronted with the mangled body of her sibling. One might even have said that there was hope in her voice.
Captain Hastings hitched his trousers at the knees and crouched down on the gravel beside the protruding legs. He took a cautious look beneath the vehicle and the colour drained at once from his dashing features. He took a couple of steadying breaths and leaned back on his heels.
“Well, if she isn’t dead, she will be furious about the mess, no doubt.”
Tooky clambered from the driver’s seat, oily hands shaking, and joined Hastings on the gravel driveway.
“Ah wuss jus’ orf to gev tha new tyres a testin’,” he stammered. “Bloody thing shot orf backways ent I hears the maw blarin’! Ah nivver sin ‘er!”
“Well, I must say, they really are splendid tyres,” remarked Hastings, gently caressing the fresh rubber. “Damn shame about the bumper, though. It will take more than a bit of spit and polish to get that out.”
Poirot and Japp exchanged puzzled glances. Unused to the gentle nuances of the Norfolk dialect, they were still none the wiser.
“What’s happened here, then?” asked Japp.
Hastings got to his feet and delicately dusted down his tweeds.
“This gentleman is from the garage in the village,” replied Hastings, now confident in his grasp of the local lingo. “He replaced the slashed tyres on the Delage and was just trying them out. Seems he slipped the car into reverse by mistake and has run over Ethel Bowley.”
“Oh, I see.” Japp sucked thoughtfully on his pipe.
Poirot turned to Enid, whose gaze hovered over the vehicle, a curious calm upon her face.
“Mademoiselle Enid, I am so very sorry…”
“Oh! Oh. Mister Poirot, please, save your sympathy,” Enid replied. “Everyone else will, I can assure you of that.”
“Even so, mademoiselle, she was your sister.”
“My sister by blood but my jailor by design,” the quiverings of rage tinged her voice. “She trapped me with her bitterness, her bile, her jealousy of others and her cruel thoughts. Never a kind word, never a good deed – and we were hated because of it!”
To the great surprise of all gathered, Enid tore the demure pearls from her neck and flung them to the ground. She kicked off her clumpy shoes and released her greying locks from the viciously tight bun that held them.
“No more!” cried Enid, as if overcome by a passionate insanity. “No more. I shall wear all the colours of the rainbow and sing songs about nonsense. I shall be as Clara was – sweet and carefree, playful and gay. I have never known love in my life, Mister Poirot, but now I shall seek it. Seek it and give it, wherever I go.”
Abandoning the vestiges of her sister’s identity on the gravel driveway, Enid skipped in her stockinged feet away from Somersby Hall and into the village. Quite likely she was mad, but most certainly she was, at last, happy.
“Job for the local rozzers this, I reckon, don’t you Poirot?” said Japp, returning his attentions to more pertinent matters. “I mean, we’ve got enough on our plate as it is and it’s really only an accident.”
“Oui, Chief Inspector, it is but an accident,” replied Poirot. “Mais, the deaths of Clara and Maggie were not accidents, most certainement. And Poirot, now he knows who carried out such deeds and why. Gentlemen, it is time we speak to the household, n’est-ce pas?”
Chapter Twenty One
A crimson late summer sunset bled through the bay windows and the drawing room of Somersby Hall once again played host to the eclectic Bottomclutch household and their friends. Although, the occasion was somewhat more tense than the welcome home party that preceded the wicked murders of Clara Bottomclutch and the unfortunate maid, Maggie. Lady Bottomclutch was attired in a high-necked mourning gown, which swept from her chin downwards to the floor, covering every inch of her slender frame on its way to her feet. A black, wide-brimmed hat with a silk tulle veil hid her silent features, but leaked grief through its soft mesh fabric. Lord Bottomclutch wore his tweeds like a suit of armour, although they did little to protect him from the horror of events. His son Harold stood by his side, rigid, arrogance for once respectfully subdued.
By contrast, Enid had abandoned the twin set and pearls of her previous life and was resplendent in a shimmering fringed flapper dress, a golden band about her head with a large, almost obscene, feather bobbing gayly atop her chestnut mane. Of greater concern was the manner in which she perched upon the knee of Major Bernard Walker, although the fellow showed no signs of objection, perhaps because his gaudy complexion suggested an afternoon spent at the bar. Mr Philpott, the vicar, wrinkled his nose several times, but to no avail. His son James, however, looked on with great approval and privately hoped that whatever Poirot had planned would not take too long. He had a mind to invite the Major and the revitalised Enid to continue their merriment with him in his snug.
Barton and Derbyshire were also present, but kept a professional distance from their masters and betters. Barton in particular was most put out to be summoned and even Derbyshire was a little peeved, very much hoping that the traditional theme of ‘the butler did it’ would not come in to play this evening. The only persons displaying anything of a cheerful demeanour were Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp, positioned tactically by the door, should the guilty party make an attempt at escape when their identity was inevitably revealed by Hercule Poirot.
“This is my absolute favourite bit,” Hastings whispered to Japp, rocking on his heels in a bid to contain his excitement.
“Yes, it’s always something of an event when the old boy shows his hand,” replied Japp, allowing himself the smallest of smiles. “Who do you think is our killer?”
“I haven’t a bally clue!” said Hastings, shaking his head.
“A crown says it’s Barton,” Japp replied, tapping his nose. “See, I’ve got a theory about Clara’s murder. I reckon he didn’t mean to kill her at all…”
“Thank you for joining me, mesdames et messieurs!”
Poirot, who was standing looking out the windows, his back to the room, finally turned to address his expectant audience.
“Captain Hastings and I came to Somersby Hall in order that we might speak with Mademoiselle Maggie, mais, it is to my great regret, that we stayed in order to investigate her murder. And, also the murder of Mademoiselle Clara – a young lady who was most fond of hide and seek, oui? A game most appropriate. For it seems to Poirot that in Somersby Hall, there is much that is hidden and Poirot, he likes nothing more than to seek. To seek the truth, to seek… the murderer.”
“And have you found either, Mister Poirot?” asked James, playing along with the spectacle.
“Oui, Monsieur Philpott,” Poirot replied, a broad smile ruffling his moustache. “Hercule Poirot, he finds them both. Always.”
“Then spit it out, man!” roared Lord Bottomclutch. “Tell me who killed my daughter! I’ll wring their bloody neck!”
“They will be subject to the full force of the law, sir,” said Japp, a note of caution heavy in his voice.
“No one wanted to kill your daughter, Lord Bottomclutch,” Poirot continued. “The death of Clara it was an error, a case of mistaken identity.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed Japp. “She was wearing a maid’s uniform when she was murdered. From behind, in the poorly lit pantry, the killer thought she was Maggie!”
“Très bien, Chief Inspector!” Poirot clapped his hands together and spun on his heels to offer a congratulatory grin to Japp. “So it seems that, enfin, Scotland Yard has solved the crime before Poirot, oui?”
“Well, Poirot, you mustn’t feel too bad about it,” replied Japp, drawing himself up to his full height, a hint of smugness in his eyes. “We are the professionals, after all.”
Japp winked at Hastings and mouthed ‘You owe me a crown.’
“Then, please, Chief Inspector, do not keep us waiting,” Poirot twinkled from the top of his smooth head to the tips of his shiny-shoed toes. “Share with us all your conclusions.”
Japp tucked his hands into his waistcoat pockets and took to the centre of the floor, unable to suppress a triumphant swagger. He cleared his throat and cast a confident gaze around the room.
“There is only one motive behind the murder of Maggie,” he began. “And that was her illegitimate pregnancy. Therefore, there can be only one person with the motive to kill her – the father of her unborn child.”
Japp paused. As the suspects looked from one to the other, there was nothing in their faces to give any one of them away. He noticed, however, that eventually all eyes fell to Lord Bottomclutch and Barton. Now was the time to strike.
“With that in mind, I place you, Mister Barton, under arrest for the murders of Miss Clara Bottomclutch and the maid, Maggie.”
As gasps of disbelief swelled around the room, Poirot held up his hand, shaking his head furiously.
“Ah, Chief Inspector, it seems that perhaps Poirot, he was mistaken.”
“But the baby was the only reason to do away with her!” cried Japp. “And the bloody mallet that killed Clara was found in the copse!”
“Oui, c’est vrai, the father of Maggie’s baby is without doubt the murderer! Mais, Barton, he is not the father. Is that not right, Lord Bottomclutch?”
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!”