Hide & Seek

Hide & Seek – Part Nine

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!”

Hide & Seek – Part Eight

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.”

Poirot nodded.

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.

Hide & Seek – Part Seven

“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 to 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.