Hide & Seek – Part Twenty

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?

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 Six

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 Bromley 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 send 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!”