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!”

But Who Ate The Cake?

You know, there are some things for which I just have to accept that I am too old. As we return to the welcome embrace of Old College, I come to realise that staying up all night is one of them. Although, I have had to endure probably the worst fancy dress party ever held and that is bound to take the wind out of anyone’s sails. None more so than three of the guests, who I imagine will be waking any moment on the floor of Professor Duke’s rooms. I am not particularly relishing that event, but it seems there is no avoiding it as that is exactly where we are headed.

“You’re looking like a dead flower, you know,” says the Professor. A night of nun-related shenanigans certainly hasn’t tempered his spirit. “Look forward to that competition which is in a few hours. That’s what I’m doing. Must convince yourself of these things, see.”

A small, involuntary whimper escapes my lips. I mean, it should be fun, certainly. But sleep might be better. The Professor shakes his head.

“Oh dadblameit. You’re just mad you look like a nun. I am, too. But you can’t let these trivial things bother you. The Master’s Wife is going to be escorted by Head Porter. That should be a thing or a few. And remember the itchy powder? Haha. That’s a triumph, I tell you.”

He has a point. I cannot deny that it will be very satisfying to watch those smug buggers from Hawkins squirm. Hey ho. A nice cup of tea and I shall be as perky as a perky thing. 

Someone who is decidedly perkier than she should be is Headmistress. On entering the Professor’s rooms, we find her perched happily on the arm of the enormous settee, chatting away and taking frequent sips from what looks like The Dean’s whiskey. This is a risky manoeuvre on her part, but as The Dean appears to still be in heavy slumber, a cushion propped thoughtfully under his head, perhaps it’s worth the risk.

Head Porter, who has now abandoned his milkman outfit, slumps on the settee, regarding Headmistress with adoring but heavy eyes. He snatches an envious glance at The Dean, who is making a noise like logs being sawn. There is no sign of The Master’s Wife or Organ Scholar.

“Goodness!” exclaims Professor Duke. “What’s up in my rooms?”

“Oh there you are,” replies Headmistress “Where have you two been? Look, someone has eaten nearly all of the cake.”

I look across to the ragged remains of the green cake residing reproachfully on the coffee table. Some crumbs have found their way onto the rug, which won’t please the Professor at all. Who ate that?

“Now, Headmistress, I feel like I should maybe apologize,” says the Professor. “You know, for putting stuff in your drink. But you see, if I apologized for real, I wouldn’t be a rogue anymore. And we all know I’m a rogue of many sorts. Hope you didn’t mind, though, still.”

“Oh, I didn’t mind that at all,” Headmistress purrs in response. “It is a party after all. It reminds me of the Seventies.”

There is a question that I know I must ask. I do not necessarily want to know the actual answer, but there is nothing for it.

“What have you done with The Master’s Wife?”

Glances are exchanged between Head Porter and Headmistress. I knew I shouldn’t have asked.

“Me and Organ Scholar carried her back to The Lodge and tucked her up in bed whilst she was still out of it,” Head Porter replies.

There is a tutting from Headmistress.

“Organ Scholar and I, dear.”

“Right. Anyway, I think we got her in there without anyone noticing. Then I sent off young Organ Scholar to get some rest.”

“But what about her nose?” I ask. “Surely she’s going to remember getting punched in the face?”

Headmistress throws back her head and fills the room with a throaty laugh.

“I rather hope she does remember it!” Headmistress exclaims, winking at Head Porter. “Cheeky moo, she is.”

Well, that is fair enough, I suppose. I am too tired to contemplate it further and make the suggestion that those of us still conscious should find our way to our beds while we still can. Head Porter grasps this opportunity eagerly, heaving himself from the settee and placing a protective arm around Headmistress. Bidding us goodnight (which should more properly be a good morning) they leave the Professor and me with the conundrum that is the sleeping Dean. I spent a night with The Dean, once. It is not something I would heartily recommend but thankfully I was too intoxicated to remember much about it.

After some brief discussion, we decide that it is in all probability better to leave him where he is rather than risk moving him. He could awaken unexpectedly at any moment and if there is one thing sure to aggravate The Dean, it is the unexpected.

Deciding that there has been enough blood spilt for one night, there is little left to do but beat a hasty retreat to the Land of Nod for whatever time can be stolen from the approaching dawn.

The plan has been executed. All we can do now is hope that it works.

It’s A Knockout

Now, as much as I would dearly love to see The Master’s Wife put firmly in her place by Headmistress, I fear she may be put there rather too firmly and even the students do not routinely brawl in College grounds. Something must be done.

The atmosphere is but butter to a knife as the stand-off between Head Porter’s admirers intensifies. The Master’s Wife dabs daintily at her bloodied nose with one of the sheer scarves that could laughingly be called her outfit. I am an open-minded woman but even I cannot accept that two scarves suffice as attire for a public event. She was pushing it at three, quite frankly.

“You stupid woman,” wails The Master’s Wife “Have you any idea how much this nose cost?!”

“Listen, I think we all need to calm down a bit,” I say, stepping between the bellicose pair. The Dean leans over to whisper in my ear.

“Actually, Deputy Head Porter, maybe we should let this one play out,” he murmurs. “Headmistress has got a cracking right hook. This might be interesting.”

“Check this out,” Professor Duke steps in, brandishing three large glasses filled with something very unlikely looking. “Let’s all have a drink to calm the nerves. And if you all still feel like rioting after this, then I’ll join in. Just because.”

“Great idea!” The Dean claps his hands and reaches for one of the glasses, draining the contents with great enthusiasm.

The Professor forces the remaining glasses into the hands of the warring women and smiles encouragingly.

“You won’t regret this, I’m sure. This Professor’s favorite drink, it is.”

Headmistress snatches up her drink and downs it in one. Head Porter glances at her, somewhat impressed. He has been notably reticent in these current events which – considering they revolve entirely around him – seems like very poor form to me. But it is plain to see that the wretched fellow is absolutely terrified and I cannot say I blame him, especially given the bone-crunching prowess of his lady love.

The violent proceedings are momentarily adjourned whilst the protagonists imbibe but I cannot help but worry about what might happen next. Emboldened by alcohol, surely matters can only get worse. Probably fairly quickly, in my experience. I turn to the Professor.

“Now what?” I ask.

“Oh, it gets great from here.”

I am unconvinced but within a second or two, things have taken a rather unexpected turn. And when I say things, I mean The Dean, Headmistress and The Master’s Wife. The latter hits the floor first, no doubt already diminished by her battered nose. Headmistress is the next to succumb but falls rather elegantly into the arms of Head Porter, who crumples gently with her to the floor. All eyes are now on The Dean.

“What in buggery is going on?!” he fumes, looking about himself, increasingly confused. “It looks like…” he begins to splutter and grasps at his throat. “Bugger! Poisoned..! By crikey..!”

“Poisoned by me, actually” the Professor replies. “But the effect is much the same.”

The Dean at last capitulates to the effects of the Professor’s drink and falls onto the rug like an angry sack of potatoes. Only Professor Duke, Organ Scholar, Head Porter and myself remain upright.

“Now… what the bloody hell just happened there?” Organ Scholar looks at his own drink warily.

“Well, here’s the thing,” replies the Professor, admiring his handiwork with a contented grin. “I only wanted to poison Mr. Dean, because he had to get out of the way and such. But then the ladies started fighting and I thought, ‘Why not poison them, too?’ It was great fun, and we have things to do.”

“I admire your dedication to the cause, Professor,” I say, experimentally prodding the prone Dean with my foot. “But what are we going to do with these chaps?”

“Let’s lock them up here in my rooms. They’ll be out for a bit, bits, and little bits yet.” The Professor’s reply does little to reassure me.

Well, the witching hour is long since passed and we have three unconscious persons scattered about Professor Duke’s floor, one of whom is bleeding messily from the nose. Somehow I feel this does not bode well for what is yet to come, but hey ho. In for a penny, and all that.