Hide & Seek

Hide & Seek – Part Seventeen

“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?”

“Nineteen, sir.”

Poirot and Japp exchanged glances. In truth, Harold looked much older and carried himself with a self-possessed assurance of a man several years his senior. It struck Poirot that nineteen was a rather young age for a fellow of Harold’s privilege to have entered service. Surely his father would have preferred a university education to have preceded such a career?

“You were expected here last night, a welcoming party had been arranged for you,” continued Hastings. “Yet you did not arrive until this morning. Why was that?”

“It was a case of over-exuberance, sir,” replied Harold, somewhat bolder, now. “The bright lights of London proved too alluring for us young soldiers. I regret not making it home… perhaps things would have been different if I had… but I was on the first train home this morning, as you know.”

Poirot’s moustache twitched and he could keep his backseat no longer.

Merci, Captain Hastings,” said Poirot, a polite indication of his intention to resume his position of inquisitor. “Tell me, monsieur Bottomclutch, was this over-exuberance, as you say, of a similar nature to that which occurred in Cambridge?”

Japp and Hastings suppressed mild astonishment, but Poirot maintained his resolve. His conversation with Lord Bottomclutch and the vicar the previous evening had been far from certain, but was enough to conjure likelihoods. Harold’s face crumpled like a week-old shirt and his eyes were that of a scolded child.

“It… it was nonsense what they said about me in Cambridge,” he stammered, a hint of forced arrogance failing to disguise his nerves. “President Venn is nothing but a traitor! And him calling himself a friend of my father’s, as well. Didn’t stop me getting sent down, though. For no good reason!”

“And what, monsieur, did they say about you in Cambridge?”

“Why are you asking me this?!” Harold raged, suddenly. “This has nothing to do with my sister’s murder. You ragamuffins want nothing more than to besmirch the Bottomclutch name! And suggesting my father had relations with that maid… poppycock! It was Barton that was sweet on Maggie, not my father. He wanted a son to carry on the pitiful line of Barton gamekeepers and no doubt saw red when the vicar hatched that ridiculous plot to marry her off to his pathetic excuse for a son. There! Now you have it!”

Harold snatched the dwindling cigar from the arm of the chair and stormed out of the study, uttering unheard dreadful things to Derbyshire as he went. As quiet once again settled into the room, Japp helped himself to a large whisky and lit his pipe.

“Well, Poirot, what do you make of that?” asked Japp. “Sent down from Cambridge, eh? Must’ve raised some merry hell to achieve that, especially if Lord Bottomclutch had connections.”

Oui, Chief Inspector, the incident at Cambridge is a source of great distress for Somersby Hall,” Poirot nodded. “Mais, we do not know what it is that has happened. But, it would seem to be no coincidence that Hastings and I were in the company of President Venn only a few days ago, non?

“And what about Barton, then?” said Hastings, joining Japp in a stiff drink. “Could he have been the father of Maggie’s child? Harold seemed very sure.”

“Indeed, he did seem sure, my dear Hastings,” replied Poirot. “Mais, he is keen, no doubt, that it is not his father who falls under suspicion for this, non? Also, do you notice how it is only the murder of his sister which concerns him? Not once has he mentioned the death of mademoiselle Maggie. Curious, non?

“Perhaps he doesn’t care much for the servants,” suggested Japp, puffing great coils of fragrant smoke towards the ceiling. “He certainly gives that impression.”

C’est vrai, Chief Inspector. Mais, the young monsieur Bottomclutch has lied to Poirot at least once today. I am sure you gentlemen noticed it at once, non? But that, it can wait. I have more questions to ask of the gamekeeper – and a very many questions for Lord Bottomclutch!”

Hide & Seek – Part Sixteen

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?”

Hide & Seek – Part Fifteen

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.”