Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
‘Well, did she give you an answer?’
‘She is fascinated to monitor the development of Hatton’s personality, and to see how he will further refine his habits in the future.’
I made an exasperated face, wondering when someone would appear with the offer of a cup of tea. At that moment, the house shook, then stilled, then shook again. I was about to say ‘What on earth …?’ when I noticed, at the top of the staircase, the largest man I had ever seen. He was on his way down. He had straw-coloured hair and a jowly face, and his head looked as tiny as a pebble balanced atop his planet-sized body.
Loud creaking noises came from beneath his feet as he moved, and I feared he might put one of them clean through the wood. ‘Do you hear that appalling noise?’ he demanded of us without introducing himself. ‘Steps shouldn’t groan when you stand on them. Isn’t that what they’re for—to be stood on?’
‘It is,’ Poirot agreed.
‘Well?’ said the man unnecessarily. He had been given his answer. ‘I tell you, they don’t make staircases like they used to. The craftsmanship’s all gone.’
Poirot smiled politely, then took my arm and steered me to the left, whispering, ‘It is the fault of his appetite that the stairs groan. Still, he is a lawyer—if I were that staircase, I would obtain legal advice.’ It was not until he smiled that I realized it was supposed to be a joke.
I followed him into what I assumed was the drawing room, which was large and had a big stone fireplace that was too near the door. No fire burned in the grate, and it was colder in here than it had been in the hall. The room was much longer than it was wide, and the many armchairs were positioned in a sort of messy row at one end and an equally untidy cluster at the other. This arrangement of furniture accentuated the room’s rectangular shape and made for a rather divided effect. There were French windows at the far end. The curtains had not been drawn for the night, though it was dark outside—and darker for the time of day in Clonakilty than in London, I noticed.
Poirot closed the drawing room door. At last, I took a proper look at my old friend. He looked plumper than when I had last seen him, and his moustache seemed larger and more prominent, at least from across the room. As he moved towards me, I decided that in fact he looked exactly the same, and rather it was I whose imagination had shrunk him to a manageable size.
‘What a great pleasure to see you, mon ami! I could not believe it when I arrived and Lady Playford told me that you were to be among the guests for the week.’
His pleasure was evident, and I felt a pang of guilt because my own feelings were less straightforward. I was heartened by his good spirits and relieved that he did not seem in the least disappointed in me. In Poirot’s presence, it is easy to feel that one is a disappointing specimen.
‘You did not know I was coming until you arrived here today?’ I asked.
‘Non. I must ask you at once, Catchpool. Why are you here?’
‘For the same reason as you are, I should think. Athelinda Playford wrote and asked me to come. It is not every day that one is invited to spend a week in the home of a famous writer. I read a few of her books as a child, and—’
‘No, no. You misunderstand me. I chose to come for the same reason—though I have not read any of her books. Please do not tell her so. What I meant to ask was, why does Lady Playford want us here, you and me? I imagined she had perhaps invited Hercule Poirot because, like her, he is the most famous and acclaimed in his field. Now I know that cannot be so, for you are here also. I wonder … Lady Playford must have read about the business in London, the Bloxham Hotel.’
Having no desire to discuss the business in question, I said, ‘Before I knew I would meet you here, I fancied she had invited me to ask me about police matters, so that she can get the detail right in her books. They would certainly benefit from a more realistic—’
‘Oui, oui, biensûr. Tell me, Catchpool, do you have with you the letter of invitation?’
‘Sent to you by Lady Playford.’
‘Oh, yes. It’s in my pocket.’ I fished it out and handed it to him.
He cast his eye over it and passed it back to me, saying, ‘It is the same as the one sent to me. It reveals nothing. Maybe you are right. I wonder if she wishes to consult us in our professional capacities.’
‘But … you have seen her, you said. Did you not ask her?’
‘Mon ami, what sort of oafish guest demands of his hostess on arrival, “What do you want from me?” It would be impolite.’
‘She did not volunteer any information? A hint?’
‘There was barely time. I arrived only a few minutes before she had to go to her study to prepare for a meeting with her lawyer.’
‘The one who was on the stairs? The, er, rather large gentleman?’
‘Mr Orville Rolfe? No, no. He is a lawyer too, but the one with whom Lady Playford had a meeting at four o’clock was a different man. I saw him also. His name is Michael Gathercole. One of the tallest men I have met. He looked very uncomfortable about having to carry himself around.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Only that he gave the impression of wishing he could discard his own skin.’
‘Oh. I see.’ I did not see at all, but I feared that asking for further clarification would have the opposite effect.
Poirot shook his head. ‘Come, take off your coat and sit,’ he said. ‘It is a puzzle. Particularly when one considers who else is here.’
‘I wonder if it would be possible to ask someone to bring some tea,’ I said, looking around. ‘I would have expected the butler to have sent a maid by now, if Lady Playford is busy.’
‘I insisted upon no interruptions. I had some refreshments upon arrival, and soon drinks will be served in this room, I am told. We do not have long, Catchpool.’
‘Long? For what?’
‘If you would sit, you would learn for what.’ Poirot gave a little smile. He had never sounded more reasonable.
With some trepidation, I sat.
CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_0096b200-39da-5800-83ed-99c2b14ca633)
A Particular Interest in Death (#ulink_0096b200-39da-5800-83ed-99c2b14ca633)
‘I must tell you who else is here,’ said Poirot. ‘You and I are not the only guests, mon ami. Altogether, including Lady Playford, there are eleven of us at Lillieoak. If one counts the servants as well, there are three more: Hatton the butler, a maid named Phyllis, and the cook, Brigid. The question is: ought we to count the servants?’
‘Count them as what? Or for what? What are you talking about, Poirot? Are you here to conduct a study of the population of County Cork—how many inhabitants per house, that sort of thing?’
‘I have missed your sense of humour, Catchpool, but we must be serious. As I say, we do not have long. Soon—within the half hour—someone will disturb us to prepare for the serving of drinks. Now, listen. At Lillieoak, apart from ourselves and the servants, there is our hostess, Lady Playford, the two lawyers we have talked about—Gathercole and Rolfe. There is also Lady Playford’s secretary, Joseph Scotcher, a nurse by the name of Sophie Bourlet—’
‘A nurse?’ I perched on the arm of a chair. ‘Is Lady Playford in poor health, then?’
‘No. Let me finish. Also here are Lady Playford’s two children, the wife of one and the young gentleman friend of the other. In fact, I believe Mr Randall Kimpton and Miss Claudia Playford are engaged to be married. She lives at Lillieoak. He is visiting from England. An American by birth, but also an Oxford man, I think Lady Playford said.’
‘So you got all of this from her?’
‘You will discover when you meet her that she is able to convey much in a short space of time, all with great colour and speed.’
‘I see. That sounds alarming. Still, it’s comforting to know that someone in this house is capable of speech—given the butler, I mean. Have you reached the end of your inventory of people?’
‘Yes, but I have not yet named the last two. Mademoiselle Claudia’s brother, Lady Playford’s son, is Harry, the sixth Viscount Playford of Clonakilty. He too I have already met. He lives here with his wife Dorothy, who is referred to by all as Dorro.’
‘All right. And why is it so important that we list these people before we all gather for drinks? Incidentally, I should like to find my room and run a flannel over my face before the evening’s activities get underway, so—’
‘Your face is clean enough,’ said Poirot with authority. ‘Turn around and look at what is mounted above the door.’
I did so, and saw angry eyes, a big black nose and an open mouth full of fangs. ‘Good gracious, what the devil is that?’