Hide & Seek

Hide & Seek – Part Nineteen

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.

 

 

 

In loving memory of Eric James

Musician, Entertainer, Friend

Hide & Seek – Part Eighteen

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?”

Barton sighed.

“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.”

“She wasn’t?”

“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?

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!”