The mystery begins on the first of November.
Mais, non; Poirot must not leap to conclusions. The mystery is first noticed on the first of November, and it is very likely that it began before this time.
This particular November is in the first year of Hastings taking up a room in Poirot’s flat; ostensibly temporarily, and indeed Hastings is insistent that this is the case, but in reality the apartment hunt is slow and already two months long, and Poirot is in no hurry to lose the long, stretched-out form on the sofa of an evening, slowly falling asleep behind the sports pages. The cold mornings see them both breakfasting together in companionable silence, reading their correspondence or filling out the crossword, occasionally consulting the other on a clue. It’s endearingly domestic and Poirot endures it for Hastings’ sake - honestly.
The first of November is no different, except that it marks the beginning of Poirot’s notice of the mystery, and it does so thusly:
Poirot opens a letter from a client - a Lieutenant Beresford - within which is a note for Hastings personally and passes the note to its recipient. The lieutenant outlines his case, invites the pair down to the ancestral pile for the week, and notes the pleasure he and his family would derive from a visit, especially from Hastings. Poirot assumes a war connection between the two men from the rank, and the case of missing jewelry seems curious enough to warrant the detective’s interest and an excursion to Hampshire.
Hastings huffs in amusement opposite him, smiling down at Lieutenant Beresford’s note. “He’s promised me a go in his Morgan,” he explains when Poirot raises an eyebrow. “Known me too long. Well? Are you interested? and if you aren’t, can you spare me for the week?”
Poirot smiles behind his moustache. “The Morgan, she calls to you, n’est ce pas?” Hastings laughs with a little self-deprecating shrug. “And the case, she calls to Poirot. We will go together, mon ami.”
Hastings beams and Poirot is pre-emptively rewarded for his services with that alone. “We could trundle down tomorrow morning, if you fancy; I’ll wire and let him know. He’ll have to clear it with his mother - ghastly woman, but-” Outside, in the street, a car loudly and violently backfires and Hastings, reaching for his coffee, starts abruptly and flinches away from the noise. The coffee mug clatters against his plate, spilling everywhere, and Hastings leaps up, cursing and rushing to right everything. “Damn - so sorry - don’t know - I’ll just-” The captain flees, returning with a cloth to mop up the coffee.
Poirot notices that his hands are shaking, but he does not mention it. “The car backfiring - it gave you a start, no?”
“Yes,” Hastings says, almost a gasp, latching onto the explanation rather desperately. “Yes, yes, made me jump, that’s all; silly, really.” He returns the cloth to the little kitchen and then hesitates, hanging around in the doorway uncertainly.
Poirot gestures at his plate of unfinished but now coffee-soaked toast. “You would perhaps like some more toast?”
Hastings blinks. “What? Oh, no. No, I’m not hungry. I think - think I’ll go and wire Tommy, take a stroll. I’ll see you later, Poirot.” With that, he taps his fingers agitatedly against the doorjamb, turns, and almost runs out the door, leaving Poirot to breakfast alone in a state of some confusion and with a mystery on his hands.
Hastings returns after lunch in better spirits; so much improved, in fact, that Poirot would almost doubt the evidence of this morning. Perhaps the captain had merely slept poorly? Would that not explain it? But one of the characteristics most appealing to Poirot of Hastings’ is his complete unfamiliarity with deception and consequent inability to practise it.
“You are feeling well, Hastings?” Poirot drops into conversation casually.
“Yes, quite, thanks,” Hastings replies cheerfully, looking about him at his room.
Poirot hands him the tie, abandoned on the dresser, that would match the suit his friend had just packed and is rewarded with a grateful smile. “You slept well?”
“Yes - Poirot, what are you driving at?” Hastings says, smile bemused but fond.
The detective shrugs with feigned nonchalance. “It is only, this morning…?”
“Oh,” Hastings says, turning back to the case on his bed and refusing to look at his friend. “Sorry about that - took me by surprise, that’s all. Don’t worry, shouldn’t be too many backfires at Haye’s Court. I won’t throw tea on the hosts and embarrass you.” He smiles tightly and edges past Poirot into the bathroom, and Poirot gets the distinct feeling he’s missing something important, and that Hastings wants him to leave it alone.
But a mystery! For Poirot, the irresistible temptation beyond all others. He will be quiet about it, but he will know.
The next morning, Poirot breakfasts well and Hastings yawns into the paper. Miss Lemon sees them off and Poirot is happy to leave his affairs in her capable hands and his luggage in those of Captain Hastings, who insists upon carrying both cases to the station.
The nine-thirty train should deposit them near Haye’s Court around lunchtime, so Poirot settles into the newspaper with the intention of demolishing the crossword by the time they arrive. Hastings stows their luggage and seats himself opposite, staring out of the window as London whips past and gives way to green fields and trees. Poirot spares a fond glance for this charming, yet slightly childish fascination with speed; planes, trains and automobiles in their various forms never fail to interest Hastings.
He looks up again about an hour later, rustling his paper to catch his companion’s attention. Poirot can complete Belgian crosswords easily, but their English counterparts tend to include bizarre British slang, for which he requires Hastings. He suspects that this clue is one such: a vain, capricious woman; a charming fish. Really!
But Hastings doesn’t respond to the newspaper, so Poirot puts it down - and finds his dependable companion lounging in his seat, fast asleep.
Sleeping well? Poirot scoffs at the thought - silently, of course. Until ensconced in a warm apartment on a comfortable sofa with the paper of a late evening, Hastings is most alert and not at all prone to sleeping on trains. Why would the captain be sleeping so poorly, then? And why would he deny it to Poirot?
The mystery thus deepened, Poirot allows his companion to continue sleeping for another hour or so before gently bumping his ankle against Hasting’s. He stirs, blinking slowly awake and staring in bleary incomprehension at his surroundings before remembering where he is and why.
Then he spots Poirot watching him with a superior little smile and offers a sheepish smile in return. “Sorry, old thing. I don’t snore, do I?”
Poirot waves his hand dismissively. “Not at all, mon ami. Poirot, he merely requires assistance with the crossword.”
“Right-o,” Hastings says, sitting up. “Some daft Britishism?”
“Naturellement,” Poirot replies.
After Hastings has filled in the last few clues - gillflirt, what ridiculousness - Poirot returns to the subtle offensive against his mystery. “The train is more comfortable than your bed, eh?”
Hastings rolls his eyes, embarrassed. “I actually didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all.”
“But why not?” Poirot exclaims, all concern.
Hastings shrugs and looks away, as he is wont to do when he doesn’t want to tell Poirot something. “Oh, no idea, really. Must have been restless or something. I’m sure I’m fine now.”
Poirot, sensing a dead end, lets the subject drop.
It’s a short and pleasant walk from the station in the village to Haye’s Court, so Hastings employs a porter to run their bags up to the house on his bike and he and Poirot meander rather more leisurely up the road and across the grounds. Poirot watches his companion carefully, but he presently seems perfectly content to stroll without a hint of what has been ailing him visible to Poirot, aside from light shadows beneath his eyes - as anyone might have after a poor night’s rest and a catnap on a train.
“Here we are,” Hastings says as they turn off the path to stride over a lawn towards the great Tudor manor house. “Haye’s Court. Not bad, is it?”
“Not at all,” Poirot says, rubbing his hands together, “but I believe inside it will be warmer?”
Hastings looks down at him and smiles fondly, bare hands tucked into his trouser pockets. “Very much so, old chap. In fact, when I was last here-”
“Uncle Arthur!” Poirot looks up in confusion towards the manor and spots a freckled teenage girl with short auburn hair and long limbs, into which she hasn’t yet quite grown, racing across the lawn towards them.
Hastings beams. “Freddie!” He strides forward to catch her as she slows, swinging her around as they both laugh. “Good Lord, you’ve grown.”
“It wouldn’t be so dramatic, you know, if you’d come down more often,” the girl says, reproach barely breaking through her delight.
“Sorry, Fred. You’re right as always. Speaking of,” Hastings says, turning back to Poirot with Freddie tucked under one arm, “this is Hercule Poirot. Poirot, Freddie Beresford, Tommy’s daughter.”
Freddie sticks out a hand with a bright grin and Poirot accepts with a smile. “Enchanté, mademoiselle.”
“S’il vous plait, appellez-moi Freddie. Tout le monde fait.”
Poirot beams at the girl and Hastings chuckles. “Hastings! She speaks French most excellently!”
“Oh, it’s not all that,” Freddie says, glowing with the praise.
“Au contraire, with Hastings alone I had begun to despair of English schooling.”
Hastings rolls his eyes good-naturedly at the teasing. “My French is passable, thank you. Besides, Freddie always was a better student.”
“Evidently,” Freddie says, sticking her tongue out at Hastings’ expression and wriggling free of his half-embrace. “I’ll tell Dad you’re here.” She sprints back across the grass, almost tripping over her feet and clearing a flowerbed in one bound.
The two men follow at a rather slower pace and elect to round the flowers rather than jump them. “She calls you uncle, but I believe she is not your niece, n’est ce pas?” Poirot asks.
“Oh, yes. I’m not her uncle really, I’m her godfather. Well, you know her father and I served together; after the war we both came back here.” Hastings gestures about them at the estate. “I met a lovely nurse who was staying in the village, thought I might marry her, brought her back to meet Tommy and they decided they’d marry each other instead.” Hastings grins at his role in the story and Poirot judges it safe to tease.
“This nurse, she gives to Mademoiselle Freddie the auburn hair?”
Hastings scratches the back of his head awkwardly, red blush rising up his pale neck. “Er, no, actually. That’s Tommy’s side. But anyway, I stayed for two years or so, until Freddie was about eighteen months old, and I’ve been coming down to see them at least once or twice a year since.”
“Ah,” Poirot says, nodding. He may never quite understand the English tradition of randomly assigning uncles and aunts, or how Hastings ended up with quite so many not-nephews and -nieces, but Freddie appears to have cheered him up; the solution to the mystery is not, therefore, trepidation over this trip.
Lieutenant Beresford and his wife, Mary, are also delighted to see Hastings and, to a slightly lesser extent, Poirot. Hastings looks immediately at home in this sprawling country house, even more than he usually does; as the image of a English country gent at leisure, he always suits the estates of their clients more than Poirot does, but in this house he greets the butler by name and is informed that he’s been placed in his “usual room.”
“Thanks awfully, Knight,” he says, and the butler nods with a small smile of welcome. “Where’s Mrs Beresford, Tommy? Your mother, I mean.”
“Oh, she’s in the village, dispensing wisdom to the WI and wiring Ed his allowance,” Tommy says, gesturing them all into a sitting room.
“She’s still insisting on doing it herself, then?” Hastings asks, settling next to Poirot on a settee with his long legs elegantly crossed.
“Heretical to suggest otherwise, dear,” Mary, a pretty, plump, friendly lady, says cheerfully and Hastings chuckles. “My brother-in-law is in America at the moment, Mr Poirot,” she explains, “and Mrs Beresford won’t let anyone else touch his allowance.”
“He still won’t come back and be Baronet Beresford yet either,” Tommy adds. As Hastings had said, his hair is close-cropped and auburn, and he has the casual military bearing common to men of Hastings’ age. “We’re training Freddie just in case,” he says, catching his daughter in a hug as she tries to get past him.
“Help, Uncle Arthur; tell him I’m going to be a mechanic!” Freddie says, twisting to escape.
“You’re going to have to if your uncle keeps spending like he is,” her mother says, her disapproval mild but real.
“Ooh, tell Poirot about the jewelry,” Freddie says, legs folded under her on the sofa until her mother gives them a chiding tap.
And so the Hastings mystery is pushed to one side in favour of stolen diamonds and a locked-box case - until anything new comes to light, of course.
Poirot conducts much of his investigation the next day alone, having lost Hastings to horses, hounds and a rather splendid Morgan. In the morning, he and Freddie hack around the estate and then to the village and back, returning for lunch ruffled and bright-eyed from the exercise. Hastings looks particularly loose-limbed and happy, tucking in to his meal opposite Poirot and keeping up a cheerful conversation with the rather dismissive Mrs Beresford, on which Poirot cannot hold his attention, preferring the study of his friend, bright and cheerful and handsome-
Mais peu importe.
After lunch Freddie has to catch up on her lessons and Hastings reports for duty, slightly apologetic for his absence. Poirot has interrogated the servants and family and now they must examine Mrs Mary Beresford’s room, from whence the jewels were removed.
“Lock the door behind you, Hastings,” Poirot instructs, “and leave the key in the lock. Now the room is the same - or enough so.”
“Things must have been moved since though,” Hastings points out, leaning against the door and scanning the room.
“But the essential problem remains the same,” Poirot says, one finger in the air. “How to remove the necklace from the locked safe, and how to remove oneself from the locked room, without waking the lady.”
Hastings crosses the room and puts his shoulder to the sash window, shoving the stiff panes up and leaning out. “Here, Poirot, I bet you could climb in and out of this window.”
Poirot joins him, assessing the distance between the window and nearby oak tree. “Not possible, surely.”
“Hmm.” Hastings turns to face the sky and shuffles back, sitting on the ledge and swinging one leg out after him. He wedges that foot in the old wisteria that coats the house walls where a hollow of vines has formed and uses the foothold to step out and grab the tree branch, swinging easily to the trunk. “Not so bad,” he says simply.
“Please, mon brave, do not do that again,” Poirot says, one hand to his chest in a futile attempt to calm his heart.
Hastings gives him a boyish grin. “Sorry, old thing. But I can hardly stay here, can I?”
Poirot rolls his eyes. “One moment.” He examines the sturdy vines and spots an old graze on the bark, supporting the tree-climbing theory of escape. “Rentre but be most careful!”
Hastings clambers back in without incident and sits on the windowsill thoughtfully - thankfully, inside the room. “But Poirot, this window’s awfully stiff. One’d wake up if it got opened in the middle of the night.”
Poirot, examining the bedside table, lifts and shakes a small pill bottle. “Mr and Mrs Beresford both are prescribed sleeping pills. Perhaps they are strengthened somehow and the family sleeps through.”
Hastings nods. “Who else has a key to the safe?”
“The key is kept here,” Poirot says, pointing to the bedside table. “The intruder, he can take it and return it easily once he is inside.”
“And no-one has an alibi, I suppose, what with it being the middle of the night.” Hastings frowns, watching Poirot examine the carpet.
Abruptly, there is a scratching at the door and a faint whine. Poirot looks at Hastings for an explanation, who shrugs, and then goes to open the door.
“Oh, hullo,” Hastings says, and allows the family wolfhound to sniff his hand and trot into the room. “I’d quite forgotten that Tommy lets the dog sleep in his room.
“Is that...hygienic?” Poirot says hesitantly, engaged in a staring contest with the suddenly suspicious dog.
“Probably not,” Hastings says equably. Poirot moves towards the wardrobe in which the safe resides and the dog growls, placing itself between Poirot and his destination. “Oh, sorry. He’s got delusions of being a guard dog, but he’s a softie really. Seb, come here.” The dog follows Hastings happily as he crosses the room to stand beside Poirot. “Give me your hand.” The detective gives it up easily, allowing Hastings to gently turn it and offer the palm to the dog. His fingers are warm against Poirot’s soft skin, and the pleasure of hand-holding almost takes away his concern for the hound’s large, sharp teeth just inches from his palm.
Seb sniffs quickly, and decides that, as Poirot is clearly a friend of the trusted Hastings, he must be a friend in and of himself. The dog completes a small tour of the room, licks Hastings’ hand, and leaves.
“See? He’s very easy to handle if you know him, or if you’re with someone who does,” Hastings says, going back to his seat on the windowsill.
“So the intruder was familiar to the dog,” Poirot mumbles thoughtfully.
“Family or close staff, then,” Hastings says. “I say, that seems unlikely, though.”
Poirot smiles at his companion. “Mon cher, you think too well of people. You have the disposition most beautiful.”
After dinner the elder Mrs Beresford retires early, and Poirot cannot say he misses her much. She’s a rather overbearing woman, determined to monopolise the conversation and drag it down onto some rather pessimistic level, despite the best and practised efforts of Hastings and the family.
In the sitting room, the atmosphere becomes vastly more relaxed. Freddie - real name Francesca, although it’s so little used that she scarcely remembers to respond to it - switches on a gramophone and plays a record as her parents attempt to lightly cajole Poirot into solving their case.
“Alas, madam, it is too early to say. Poirot needs more time,” he demurs.
Tommy shrugs. “Suppose it was rather ambitious. We’re rather keen to have them back, that’s all.”
“We can wait,” his wife adds, smiling.
Freddie sways to the music idly and rather adeptly. Hastings taps his foot to the beat. The light of an idea shines in Tommy’s eye.
“Fred, get your uncle to dance with you.”
Hastings laughs. “No, no; protect your feet, Fred. Ask your dad.”
“Dad’s no Fred Astaire, Uncle Arthur; you know that,” Freddie says, teasing but serious.
“Good thing too,” Mary adds, nudging her husband beside her. “The only way to do more damage to one’s toes would be to put your father in tap shoes.”
Tommy turns to his wife, mock-offended. “You stand up with me often enough.”
“I’ve had years’ practise, dear,” she says dryly. “My toes are numb.”
He laughs, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and turning back to Hastings. “My family’s quite turned on me, old man; you’ll have to dance with Fred after all.”
Hastings, Poirot can tell, is wavering; it takes only Freddie giving a hopeful pout and big eyes for him to sigh and lever himself off the sofa. “You’ve been warned, mind,” he says, even as Freddie grins up at him in delight.
The gramophone plays a cheerful Italian air as Hastings and Miss Beresford take a ballroom hold and waltz gently around the room. Hastings holds himself straight and proud and, despite his protests, is leading his goddaughter rather well. The clean, sharp lines of his suit contrast nicely with the smooth curves of the hold under the soft, warm light of the lamps. Poirot is content to watch and admire his handsome friend display his elegance.
“Are you a dancer, Poirot?” Tommy says, mistaking the focus of Poirot’s approving gaze.
Poirot opens his mouth to demur, but Hastings cuts in. “Oh, he is. Far better than me, I should say.”
“Won’t you give us a turn about the floor?” Mary asks. “Tom and I will stand up too - oh, but then you won’t have a partner.”
Freddie immediately drops from Hastings’ hold. “He can dance with Uncle Arthur and I’ll man the gramophone.” She trots across the room to sit at its little table and replaces the current record with a jazz piece, leaving Hastings with his arms up and a small smile at her antics.
“Fred,” Mary chides as her husband pulls her up to hold her close and sway inexpertly.
“You made me stand up in the first place,” Hastings complains and Poirot uses this distraction to neatly insinuate himself into his hold. “Oh, hullo.”
There’s a brief fuss over which of the men ought to be leading before they settle into a rhythm: Poirot steps forward, Hastings back, and Poirot turns them about the room. Freddie grins at Poirot when they pass and he wonders for a moment if she hadn’t somehow engineered this entire situation.
He can’t say he minds, however, looking up at Hastings and ensconced safely in his arms. Even being led as he is, Hastings still cuts a strong, protective figure, which Poirot will never admit to sometimes needing. His lean face and alert eyes finish the image of Poirot’s perfect dancing companion exactly.
Hastings spots him looking and smiles down at him. “Should have known you’d want to lead, I suppose.” There’s amusement in his voice and eye, and it’s almost unfairly appealing.
Poirot just shrugs under Hastings’ hand. “I must show off that you can dance backwards, non?”
“Ah, this is a charitable gesture,” Hastings says dryly, “and not at all an attempt to get my little grey cells working on not stepping on your toes rather than forcing yours to make the effort.”
“Hastings!” Poirot says, feigning offence to make him laugh. He make eye contact with Miss Freddie as they turn and the record spins closer to its end; she nods and fishes out another from the case.
Yes, Freddie probably arranged this whole evening, and Poirot does not mind one bit.
The next morning, Poirot begins his more thorough investigation of the household. The cook can be dismissed from inquiries early - Hastings tells Poirot that she lives in the village on account of her virulent and mutual dislike of the dog. The stable-hand, likewise, only ever interacts with the dog out of doors and Seb is deeply suspicious of him whenever he steps foot in the house.
“Who does that leave?” Hastings asks, leaning back against the sofa with his arms propped expansively along the back.
“The maid, the butler, Mademoiselle Freddie and Lieutenant Beresford,” Poirot recites immediately.
“I say!” Hastings exclaims, leaning forward just as Poirot knew he would, and the detective cannot help his delight at the response. “You can’t really suspect Tommy and Freddie, can you?”
“But of course!” Poirot says, spreading his hands. “The lieutenant struggles with his overbearing mother, he needs money that he can get without her influence. And Mademoiselle Freddie wishes to start out as a mechanic but has no funds to leave home. Et naturellement, both wish for the excuse to see you again.”
Hastings is startled into an incredulous laugh. “Poirot, you can’t be serious.”
The detective shrugs. “Eh bien, perhaps not the last one. But they are suspects, mon ami.”
“Well my money’s on the maid, anyway,” Hastings says, settling back onto the sofa. “I can’t believe it of Fred and Tommy - or Knight, for that matter. Why would he?”
“Like Mrs Mary Beresford, Monsieur Knight comes from a poorer background, n’est ce pas? But Madam Beresford, she is used to less and wishes for no more; Monsieur Knight is jealous of his employers’ wealth.”
“But he’s been with the family ages,” Hastings points out. “Why now?”
Poirot raises an eyebrow. “Lieutenant Beresford has most recently bought a new car, but his butler’s wages have not increased.”
Hastings frowns as he digests this. “I suppose the maid would have the same reasons.”
“Certainly. But without the alibis, it is most difficult to know which suspect is most likely.”
“The maid,” Hastings says with certainty.
Poirot cannot help but smile. “If only Poirot also could be so sure.”
After lunch Hastings slopes off with Tommy to run the Morgan in great loops of the estate, leaving Freddie to aid Poirot.
“You do not want to drive the car, mademoiselle?” Poirot inquires, beginning to build his house of cards.
Freddie shrugs. “It’ll still be there later. Mysteries are far more interesting - and rare.”
Poirot looks up and smiles at her. “How right you are. If only Hastings could be persuaded to see it so.”
“Oh, Uncle Arthur’s always been a bit daft over motors,” she says. “I think it’s where I got it from.”
It’s perfectly clear to Poirot that she cares about his friend, and he recalls the mystery surrounding his friend. “Captain Hastings, he seems to you...perfectly well?” he says, uncharacteristically hesitant, eyes fixed on the card tower.
Freddie considers this seriously. “I’m not sure,” she says at last. “He’s a bit...down in the mouth, sometimes, when he thinks no-one’s looking, like he’s somewhere else inside. Dad gets a bit like that sometimes.”
“This happens often?” Poirot says, frowning.
“Not really.” Freddie pauses to think, tapping her nails on her leg. “It’s usually this time of year, actually. It could be the weather, I suppose?”
Poirot looks up. “Always this time of year?”
“Well, not always. But it was last time: I remember, because Uncle Edward was over and he mentioned it. That was when we hired Miller - our maid - and Uncle Ed said that she was pretty enough to cheer Dad up.” Poirot raises an eyebrow and Fred grins. “Mum and Dad were not amused. Grandma threatened to fire Miller already, but Uncle Ed protected her.”
Poirot’s hands still. “He protected her?”
Freddie nods. “He’s a dreadful flirt, but you mustn’t tell Mum I said so because I’m not supposed to notice.”
“Mademoiselle, I am most grateful that you did notice,” Poirot says and Freddie beams.
“Perhaps I’ll take after you and not Uncle Arthur after all.”
There is a knock at the door and the maid, Miller, enters. “Letter for you, Miss,” she says, holding out one envelope but keeping another in her hand, close to her chest.
“Thanks, Miller,” Freddie says, taking the paper but holding her hand out for the other. “I’ll give that one to my parents if you like.”
Miller’s grip tightens on the letter. “It’s not for them. Miss,” she adds, the formality almost an afterthought.
“Oh. Alright, then, thanks.” Freddie sits back down and Miller almost runs out, closing the door behind her. “It’s from Uncle Ed, I think, by the postmark,” Freddie says, turning her letter over in her hands. “Probably wants me to petition for him to get a bigger allowance.”
“Yes, the American postmark,” Poirot says thoughtfully. “Mademoiselle, you have been most helpful. I shall leave you to your letter.”
There is a muffled clunk from under the car. “Ow,” Hastings says quietly, and Poirot watches the long legs he can see sticking out from beneath the Morgan scramble until their owner slides out after them, rubbing his now slightly bruised forehead. “Oh, hello Poirot.”
Poirot spares a moment to appreciate the sight before him: Hastings, sprawled out on his back without a jacket and his sleeves rolled up to display wiry, muscular forearms, smudges of grease up his arms and on his face and wearing a bright grin. “Bonsoir.”
Hastings frowns. “It’s not evening already, is it?” Poirot tilts his head and shrugs. “Sorry, old boy; didn’t mean to leave you all afternoon. How’s the case?”
“Eh, it is a little advanced, but by tomorrow, it shall be resolved.”
“Jolly good,” Hastings says happily as he gets up. Poirot allows himself a smile in return at his friend’s confidence in him. “Don’t suppose you’ll tell me who did it yet?”
“No, mon ami, not yet. Poirot, he must be sure.”
Hastings chuckles and gives him such a blinding smile at this that Poirot is momentarily stunned, so tempted is he to throw his own advice about surety out of the window, tug Hastings down by his waistcoat and kiss him senseless, never mind the grease.
Thankfully, his companion doesn’t seem to notice the detective’s preoccupation, too busy shivering in the cool air of the stables-cum-garage in which the Morgan is housed. Poirot notices this, however. “Ah! Mon cher Hastings, you will catch a cold!” he exclaims, tugging at the other man’s sleeves and buttoning them neatly at the wrist.
“Oh, it’s not so chilly,” Hastings protests mildly, allowing his shirt to be manhandled as another shiver ripples through him. “Just need my jacket - and anyway, it’s almost dinner.”
Poirot gives him a very dry, unimpressed look. “Hastings,” he says, “you must change. Your shirt, it is a state.” Hastings looks down at his grease-smeared sleeves like he’s never seen them before. “Your face, it is worse.”
“Alright,” Hastings says, mildly offended but smiling.
“You must change immediately,” Poirot concludes, chivvying him back towards the house and up the stairs to their connecting rooms, muttering complaints about Hastings’ lack of care over his shirt all the way and making Hastings laugh, not very repentant.
Poirot pushes his friend into his room and crosses to the wardrobe to fetch Hastings a new suit for dinner. “Nothing very fancy, Poirot; they’ll think I’ve done something awful to the Morgan if I’m dressed too nicely,” Hastings says, leaving his waistcoat on the bed and pushing up his sleeves again to wash his face and arms.
The sight is somewhat - distracting - so Poirot turns his attention to the wardrobe. He settles on a smart grey suit that he’s always believed to complement Hastings’ complexion best.
“Shirts are on the left,” Hastings adds helpfully, and Poirot selects one, turns to give it to him, and almost drops it immediately. The captain has stripped off his stained shirt, content to display his strong, bare chest. Poirot’s gaze - he cannot help himself - travels across the muscles of his chest and stomach, usually hidden beneath clothing and now only covered by a light dusting of fine, pale hair which continues down towards-
Poirot’s gaze snaps back to his friend’s face. “No undershirt?” he manages.
Hastings shrugs, muscles shifting under pale skin. “It’s really not that chilly, Poirot.”
“If you get a cold,” Poirot says warningly.
“Yes, yes, you told me so,” Hastings says easily, taking the shirt from his hand and slipping into it. Poirot tries not to stare too much as his bare skin disappears from view.
“I’ll tell Miss Lemon and she will prepare the steam bowl.”
“A threat indeed,” Hastings laughs, buttoning his waistcoat. Poirot holds out his jacket for him to slide into. “Thanks, old man. Now, am I presentable?” He spreads his arms for Poirot to judge.
Poirot uses the opportunity presented to stare at Hastings from the top of his handsome face to the end of his long, narrow legs, to appreciate his trim form and the way it is shown off by the well-cut suit. Hastings has a peculiarly unselfconscious attractiveness; if told, he wouldn’t know or believe that he is at all. He’s the perfect foil to Poirot’s own ego: good without knowing a bit of it, and so endlessly charming that his every fault is a delight to forgive.
Poirot tilts his head and shrugs. “Eh bien. You will do.”
Poirot is woken by three things at once: a dreadful smell, a choking sensation and the howl of a man in pain and fear. He bolts up, drawing in a breath that seems thick and cloying and is forced immediately to cough, folding almost entirely over with the force of it. He sucks in and coughs out breath after breath, never seeming to get any oxygen in. His vision begins to spot and fade like old film crackling and dissolving and he cannot seem to breathe.
Through his coughing he can hear yelling and a faint hissing - and then there are strong hands on him, hauling him by the shoulders out of his bed and through the bedroom door into the corridor. Poirot sucks in huge, clear lungfuls of air, chest heaving with the effort.
“Poirot? Poirot, are you alright?” Hastings is holding him tightly by the shoulders, bending to try and look into his face. He looks more agitated than Poirot has ever seen him, but when he manages to meet the captain’s eyes and even his breathing somewhat, all the fight suddenly rushes out of Hastings and he slumps slightly, also breathing hard.
“What’s going on?” Tommy Beresford calls, running down the corridor. Freddie and Mary are both sticking their heads out of their doors at the commotion, and the butler and maid have appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Gas,” Hastings says, still trying to get his breath back.
“Good God,” Tommy says. “Are you both alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Hastings says automatically. “Poirot, old man, do you want to sit down?”
Poirot waves off this care. “I am fine, mon cher. Do you know the cause of the gas?”
“Faulty pipe, I’d say,” Hastings replies, rather absently. Poirot is rather forcibly reminded of what Freddie had said earlier: like he’s somewhere else inside. “Excuse me a moment, would you?” Without waiting for a reply, Hastings strides quickly away.
Poirot finds him in one of the bathrooms: sitting on the floor, eyes closed, leaning against the radiator beside the toilet with his knees up about his ears and looking distinctly pale. The detective taps two knuckles gently against the door and Hastings looks up, wan and ill-looking. “Hullo,” he says quietly, closing his eyes again and leaning his head back on the wall.
“You are not well, mon cher?” Poirot says worriedly, but speaking softly to match his friend’s volume.
Hastings waves a hand, arms propped up on his knees. “Inhaled too much, probably. Feeling a little sick, that’s all.” He sounds so tired, his voice dead and entirely without its usual lightness and tone.
Poirot resists the urge to run his fingers comfortingly through the hair now at the perfect height. “It has been turned off now,” he says.
One eye opens as Hastings frowns. “Turned off? You mean - someone deliberately turned on the gas in our rooms?”
“I am afraid so,” Poirot sighs. “The thief, they know we are onto them, and-”
But Hastings has started shaking, and he abruptly turns to vomit into the toilet. He rests his head on his arms and sighs. “Sorry,” he says. “Not sure I’m any use tonight.”
“Mon cher Hastings!” Poirot exclaims, horrified. “Not any use - you rescued Poirot from the gas! You awakened the household to the threat! You saved many lives, and I am most extremely grateful.”
Hastings leans back, managing a weak smile. “Thanks,” he says.
Poirot gives in and runs an affectionate hand over Hastings’ head. His eyes shutter closed and he leans into the gesture like a cat, so Poirot repeats it until the minute tremors shuddering through Hastings’ whole body lessen, slow, and finally cease altogether.
It was the maid. It’s testament to how unwell Hastings is that he’s hardly even smug during Poirot’s denouement: Miller had been corresponding with Edward Beresford, with whom she had believed herself in love, and had been persuaded to attempt some scheme to get him more money. His had been the letter she had received, hers had been the boot that scuffed the wisteria; all this could be proven by Poirot, further aided by the presence of her fingerprints on the gas main that had so nearly poisoned the guests the night before.
The younger Mrs Beresford, clutching her returned jewels in her hands, almost weeps with gratitude. The elder Mrs Beresford writes a letter so stern to her eldest son that Poirot’s fanciful side imagines the paper erupting into flame with the sheer heat of her disapproval.
Hastings’ breathing deepens and his eyelids droop; Tommy takes his wife and daughter out for a walk to let him rest.
Poirot settles beside him on the sofa, drinking in the vision Hastings presents as he is so rarely allowed to do. Sleep softens him, eases the lines of worry or confusion that occasionally bother him, and Poirot has learnt to appreciate such times.
Hastings shifts and stirs, offering Poirot a sleepy smile. “Told you,” he mumbles around a yawn.
“Oui, mon ami, you were correct,” the detective allows.
“Anything you need of me today?” Hastings asks, and Poirot smiles: despite his bone-deep exhaustion, he’s ready to help.
“No. This evening, Mademoiselle Freddie has promised fireworks, but after dinner.”
“Jolly good,” Hastings says, leaning more comfortably into the side of the sofa and closing his eyes again.
Poirot likes the fireworks very much. He’s enjoyed Guy Fawkes’ night in London every year he’s been in the city, watching the skies lit by bright colours and showers of sparks. Here in Hampshire it’s even more impressive without the light pollution and cloud cover: against the deep black sky, disturbed only by countless pinpricks of white light, the fireworks seem even more magical - as if the stars themselves are bursting into flame and falling towards the earth. Poirot and Freddie ooh and ahh appropriately every time one explodes, to the amusement of her mother and Knight, who has carried the honour of setting them off every year since long before Mlle. Freddie was born.
Poirot enjoys them less when he realises that he’s lost Hastings.
“Where is cher Hastings?” he inquires of Freddie.
She frowns. “I don’t know. Maybe he and Dad have gone in already.”
“May I be excused to look for him?”
Freddie detaches from his arm. “As you like.”
Inside, Poirot spares a moment to enjoy the warmth of the house before tugging off his gloves and trotting into the sitting room. “Hastings?”
There is no response anywhere on the ground floor, so he ascends the stairs to check the bedrooms. No lights are on, but he knocks on Hastings’ door anyway.
To his surprise, it is Tommy Beresford who answers. He doesn’t open the door very far and the little of the room that he can see is only half-illuminated by moonlight. Poirot frowns. “Hello, Poirot,” Tommy says, friendly but reticent.
“Excuse me, where is Captain Hastings?” Poirot inquires as politely as he can manage.
“Oh,” Tommy says, casting his gaze back over his shoulder into the darkened room, and Poirot is irritated by his surprise - is it not most natural that the friend of a room’s occupant, when knocking on the door of said room, would be looking for said friend? “He’s just, ah, resting, right now.” His hesitation puts Poirot on guard.
“He is unwell?”
“He’s - tired,” Tommy says. He wants the detective gone, but Poirot will not be cowed.
Suddenly, a firework goes off outside the window with a loud bang, a shower of bright sparks and some appreciative cooing. Its light, briefly, illuminates the room and Poirot sees Hastings.
The movement had drawn Poirot’s eye - a sharp flinch and seething intake of breath - to a crevice between bedside table and bedframe, little over a foot wide, into which Hastings has crammed himself. His shoulders, uncomfortably hunched, barely fit in the tiny space and, with his arms folded up against his chest, Poirot wonders if the man can even breathe. Hastings has drawn his long legs up, folded as close to fetal as he can, but even behind them Poirot could see, just for that instant of extra, bright light, his pale face twisted with pain and fear.
Poirot puts his hand to the door as Tommy tries to close it on him, barging in without ceremony, eyes only for his friend. He knows, now, that it had been Hastings’ who had howled in such abject misery the night of the gas; he knows that something is wrong. This mystery is serious.
“Hastings!” he calls.
But Hastings, when he looks up, doesn’t recognise his friend; doesn’t even see him. He flinches away from the noise Poirot is making, cowering further into his corner. Poirot’s horrified surprise at this response gives Tommy the window he needs to take Poirot by the upper arms and haul him out of the room.
“What has happened?” Poirot asks, anger fed by fear.
“It’s the fireworks,” Tommy says helplessly. “They - set him off. And, you know, he’s so tired just now that it’s worse.”
“But why?” Poirot almost wails, agonised by his lack of knowledge and terror of Hastings’ state.
“They-” Tommy cuts himself off with a wince. “They sound like shells,” he says at last.
“It’s a bad reminder, you see,” Tommy explains, filling the deafening silence that followed his pronouncement. “So suddenly, to be back in the war - it’s difficult.”
“Can Poirot do anything?” Poirot says at last, voice weak and eyes staring in sympathetic horror.
Tommy smiles grimly and pats him on the shoulder. “Not really. I’ll stay with him tonight. I - know the feeling.”
Poirot nods blankly. “Of course. Of course.” He steps back, still staring at the door, behind which poor Hastings is trapped in a horror of his own invention. “Poirot will be just here,” he says, gesturing at the door of his adjacent room, “if - if he needs anything.”
Tommy nods and returns to the black and white bedroom, resembling nothing so much as the old war newsreels Hastings always hated so much. Poirot sits on his own bed long into the night, flinching at every firework for Hastings’ sake, never more unsure of how he can help.
The conversation leaves Poirot in the unusual position of not knowing what to say - even more uncommon is that he does not know what to say to Hastings. Hastings! to whom he can say anything and everything, forgiver of Poirot’s every fault and unendingly generous. Poirot wishes so deeply to help his friend, but fears hurting him further to such an extent that he is silent entirely, paralysed by care.
The captain himself says nothing of it, though the dark rings under his worn eyes are hard to ignore. Hastings’ attempts to behave normally are almost faultless; excepting the evidence of Poirot’s own eyes, he could believe the tale his dear friend spins for his goddaughter of retiring early with indigestion.
“Are you sure you’re well enough to travel?” Freddie asks. “You could stay a little longer…?”
Hastings offers her a smile. “Sorry, Fred, Poirot wants to get back to his clients.”
“Can’t he spare you?” she says plaintively.
“Are you suggesting I’m not indispensable?” Hastings says with a wry smile, eyebrow raised.
Freddie sits up straighter, folding her arms at her godfather across the breakfast table. “I’m suggesting that you’re indispensable to me, here,” she corrects smartly.
“You’re welcome to stay if Monsieur Poirot can spare you,” Tommy says.
“Oh, do stay a bit longer, Arthur,” Mary adds.
The elder Mrs Beresford merely sniffs and does not outwardly object; Poirot gathers that this is the most ringing endorsement of the captain’s presence that can be expected.
“My dear Hastings, who is Poirot to deprive you of your friends?” Poirot says, spreading his hands. He tries not to think about how much Hastings shall be missed in Poirot’s little flat, replacing such ideas with how much improved Hastings will be with time in the country, with his friends, with a comrade who understands him. Unfortunately, Poirot hates the thought that anyone knows Hastings better than he, but he tries to strangle his jealousy for poor cher Arthur’s sake.
“Thanks, old thing,” Hastings says, reaching out to squeeze Poirot’s arm in gratitude. Poirot savours every moment of this touch, knowing it will be the last he gets from Hastings for days at least. “I’ll walk you to the station.”
They walk back over the lawns towards the road, Poirot’s valise in Hastings’ hands. “I say, you’re sure you don’t need me?”
Poirot shrugs. “And deprive Mademoiselle Freddie of her uncle? Never.”
Hastings chuckles, ducking his head in a way that is so endearing to Poirot. They walk in silence until they reach the road, over which some water has spilt and, overnight, frozen. Poirot places one smart boot upon it and instantly loses his footing, caught and supported by Hastings at his elbow.
“Sacre!” Poirot says, pressing one hand to his chest and clinging to Hastings’ arm with the other.
“Alright, I’ve got you.” Hastings rights him carefully and tucks Poirot’s gloved hand into the crook of his elbow, collecting up the valise with the other hand. “Slowly now, don’t you think?”
Poirot bites back something scathing as his boot slides again, instead hanging with renewed fervour from Hastings’ arm. When he’s stopped sliding, Poirot takes a moment to enjoy this enforced public closeness; although the lane is entirely deserted, there is a pleasant warmness that accompanies this gesture that, in a different world, could have been a staple of their courtship. He readjusts his hand, using the pretext of a slip to bring the other hand up to join it and huddle in closer. Even as the road clears of ice, he remains tucked into Hastings’ side, and fully intends to continue until the captain himself or the train parts them. Poirot risks a glance up at Hastings, to find him smiling fondly back. Both men immediately snap their gazes forward, and their silent, half-embracing walk continues all the way to the station.
Reluctantly, Poirot disentangles himself from Hastings, detecting some reluctance on his friend’s part as well. Perhaps the detective had been keeping him warm; Poirot is convinced that Hastings will take ill, the way he insists upon wearing only one coat and no scarf unless it’s “really cold,” whereupon Poirot refuses to go out at all. Due to their icy delay, the London train is already here, and Hastings promptly hands Poirot onto it, passing the case up after him.
“Say hello to Miss Lemon for me,” Hastings says.
“Keep warm,” Poirot instructs in return, leaning out of the window until their faces are less than a foot apart and delighting in the newness of Hastings looking up at him. “No more lying under cars in just a shirt, comprendre?”
Hastings grins bashfully. “Alright, alright.”
The sight, combined with the reminder of Hastings shirtless, proves too much for Poirot: he takes Hastings’ face between his hands and presses kisses to each cheek. It’s rather more formal than they usually go for and a few days absence is hardly the special occasion for which such a gesture is usually reserved, but Poirot cannot help it and Hastings does not object. Poirot rubs his thumb absently against the nape of Hastings’ neck and feels him shiver. “You must not catch a chill,” Poirot murmurs. “You must - feel better,” is all he can, rather lamely, say about Hastings’ night, as the train beneath him shudders. He lets Hastings go and, as the train pulls away, sees the realisation in Hastings’ eyes that Poirot knows, before a cloud of steam obstructs Poirot’s view and stings his eyes to tears.
The days at the flat without Hastings are long and cold. No matter how he tries, Poirot cannot seem to recreate the usual warmth of his home without Hastings behind a newspaper or attending to correspondence at the table. Everything in London seems - incomplete, somehow, more drab and dreary than the usual Novembers in the metropolis. He must admit it: he misses Hastings, even knowing that he’ll return soon, and he worries over him. How can Poirot know how Hastings is? How can Poirot help? Most distressingly - is Poirot unable to help at all?
So passes the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth of November. He receives and ignores cases, more-or-less politely declines two dinner invitations, and builds over fifty card houses.
On the morning of the eleventh, he discovers a disruption to his flat and quickly after discovers its cause: Hastings is buttering toast and brewing coffee at the table.
“Oh, morning Poirot. Sorry, I got in terribly late last night and thought I’d best not disturb you.”
Poirot feels a smile cover his face and watches an answering one light up Hastings'. “Bonjour, mon cher Hastings. How was your stay?”
Hastings moves some letters to allow Poirot a place at the table. “Good fun. It was nice to get out of the city, but a bit - slow.” Poirot raises an eyebrow and Hastings tosses his paper aside. “No crime, Poirot! Not a bit of it. Nothing to do, really, so I thought I’d come back.”
“And today, after all,” Poirot begins, but then finds himself unable to continue.
“Yes,” Hastings sighs, suddenly solemn as he looks down into the milky depths of his coffee. “Today, indeed.”
At half past ten, they leave the flat and join the masses. Poirot is bundled up in his usual layers and hat, but there is a poppy pinned to his coat and a tiny enamel Belgian flag beside it. Hastings is resplendent as ever in his uniform and medals, but his face is tired and woefully flat - as if he’s somewhere else inside. It fills Poirot with a curious kind of confidence to put aside any and every thing, if it will only make Hastings feel better, and he tucks his hand into Hastings’ elbow. Hastings gives him a surprised look, but then smiles slightly and ever so sadly and places his own hand over Poirot’s in mute gratitude.
They follow the crowd to the cenotaph; it would be impossible to do otherwise, even if they had wanted to, due to the sheer weight of people. The current could easily have split them up, but Hastings’ grip on Poirot tightens and they fight through together.
In previous years, Poirot has left to find his fellow countrymen at this point and Hastings has rejoined his regiment, but this year the unspoken agreement is to stand together, if slightly apart from the other servicemen and refugees, arms tightly linked.
Hastings starts trembling after the first prayer; by the silence, he is shaking, and afterwards he leans on Poirot as if drawing strength from him. Poirot leads them, as soon as it is polite to do so, away from the crowds and into a side street. “Arthur?” he says quietly.
“Just a minute,” he replies shakily, breathing hard. Hastings fixes his gaze on a point on the floor between his shining army boots and just breathes, slowly, until he can look up and meet Poirot’s worried gaze. “Think I’ll be better with some tea in me,” he says, almost attempting levity.
“A café? Or the flat?” Poirot asks gently.
There is a pause. “I want to go home, please,” Hastings says, his voice painfully, tragically small and eyes fixed back on the floor. He sounds for all the world like a lost, frightened child.
“Home. Bien sur,” Poirot murmurs, wrapping Hastings’ arm around his own. “We will go home.”
True to his words and his roots, Hastings is much improved by two mugs of hot, milky tea and a biscuit. A little of the usual light comes back into his eyes and Poirot is vastly reassured, a little part of him fretting that Hastings would never be the same again. When he seems prepared, however, to simply sit on the sofa and stare into space, Poirot chivvies him upright and into his room.
“No more uniform today,” he declares, throwing Hastings’ wardrobe open.
Something cloth hits the bed - Poirot assumes it’s his jacket. “Alright,” Hastings says mildly. “Pass me a shirt, then.”
Poirot is forcibly reminded of Hastings, shirtless and almost glowing in the lamplight, and closes his eyes briefly. He can’t see that again - he’ll do something foolish, or Hastings will find out - but he’s trapped here, facing the wardrobe.
He’s seconds from prayer when the phone rings in the other room. “Moment,” he says quickly and almost flees the room, catching Hastings’ confused expression as he goes. It was rather too much to hope that Hastings wouldn’t question his rush towards a phone that he employs someone else to answer.
Miss Lemon looks up when he appears and places one hand delicately over the receiver. “A Mrs Beresford for you, Monsieur Poirot,” she says.
Poirot smiles and holds out a hand for the phone, waiting until his faithful secretary has retreated before placing the instrument to his ear. “Bonjour, madame.”
“Good morning,” Mary Beresford says, her usual cheeriness slightly dampened.
“I hope nothing has occurred amiss with your jewels,” Poirot asks. He thinks it very unlikely, but the English require prompting to express emotion.
“Oh, no! Not at all,” she says quickly. “It’s just - well, Armistice Day is always difficult, you know. I wanted to ask after Arthur, that’s all.”
“He is-” Poirot stops. Hastings would hate for him to tell the truth here, but it is not in Poirot’s nature to conceal facts for the sake of other people’s pride. Besides, Mary clearly knows what to expect and Poirot would very much like a civilian's opinion. “He is not well this morning,” he says at last.
Mary sighs, unsurprised. “Oh, poor thing,” she says softly. “Tommy’s not tremendously bright today either, but I’m more or less used to it by now - we try and keep the worst of it from Freddie, of course, but some things can’t be helped.” There is a pause. “You’re not used to it, are you?” she asks shrewdly.
“No, madame, I am not,” Poirot blurts out, and Mary makes a sympathetic noise. “I do not know what to do! Poirot, always he knows, but now! And Arthur, he is so very...British that he will not even admit something is wrong and so there is no hope of being told how to help!”
He hears Mary’s sigh crackle down the receiver. “Our men are rather hopeless, aren’t they,” she says, unaware of how Poirot’s heart jumps at the thought of Hastings being his. “Try and persuade him into talking about his feelings, although you have my utmost sympathy on that score. He probably won’t sleep well - nightmares, you know - so you’ll need to be there for him then. Lots of cuddles and kisses usually helps,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Ah, non, madame, Hastings and I-” Poirot says hesitantly. “We do not-”
“Oh!” Mary says, sounding genuinely surprised. “Oh, I am sorry, I just thought - well.” She’s silent for a long time and Poirot, simultaneously mortified, pained and oddly hopeful, cannot break the quiet. “You would like to - with him - wouldn’t you?” she says slyly, at last.
“La femme perspicace,” Poirot mutters, and Mary laughs.
“Afraid you can’t put me off with French, Monsieur: I taught Freddie.”
Poirot smiles, but drops it hastily as Hastings enters and looks at him curiously, as if the smile alone could give away the subject of their conversation. “Ah, Hastings,” he says so that Mary can hear him. “Madame Beresford is kind enough to inquire after you.”
Hastings brightens, holding out a hand for the telephone and sitting at the desk beside Poirot. “Hello, Mary,” he says, smiling up at Poirot.
Poirot beats a hasty retreat before he is compelled to do anything more drastic than beam back at his friend and settles on the sofa with the newspaper. He can’t quite focus on the words, his attention always sliding to the one side of the conversation that he can hear.
Hastings sends him a half-hearted glare. “I’m not that bad; he frets, that’s all.” Poirot spreads his hands in helpless supplication before ostensibly turning back to the newspaper. “The service was - difficult. But I’ll be fine. I’m sorry to hear that - is he any better yet? That’s awfully rough. Well, send him my sympathy and love and such. Yes, I know, thanks.”
Poirot cannot help but think of what else Mary Beresford had said as the other end is passed to Miss Freddie and the conversation lightens. That she had thought that he and Hastings were - companions in more than the usual sense was - gratifying? Perhaps? Poirot certainly finds something pleasing about the idea that those who love Hastings and know him well might think him - fond - of Poirot. But Hastings has shown such little interest in his own sex; perhaps Mrs Beresford was merely mistaken.
Across the room, Hastings laughs and rubs the back of his neck where a red flush rises. “Freddie! That’s scandalous talk.” Poirot looks up curiously, but Hastings refuses to meet his eye.
He is reminded, suddenly, of their walk across the lawn, when Poirot had teased him over his affection for auburn hair and Hastings had blushed comme ça and pointed out that it was his male friend who had such hair. He had not, however, denied any interest. The more Poirot thinks, the more obvious it seems: the case last month, in which Hastings has so vehemently defended a charming young man, and the one three weeks before that wherein he had asked Poirot of his views on a scandal of that persuasion. Could it be?
If this were a case, Poirot would see this as evidence enough: a young man of such a persuasion must be sufficiently subtle that these clues are damning. But this instance is too personal, and Poirot would hate to make assumptions based upon his own hope alone. He couldn’t bear the shame and hurt and rejection, not from Hastings of all people.
Hastings sits up straighter. “Alright, Fred, I’ll speak to you soon. Bye. Poirot,” he adds, gesturing him over, “Mary wants a quick chat.” Poirot stands and takes the phone, looking inquiringly at Hastings as he makes to leave the room. “I’m forbidden from listening in,” he explains, spreading his hands and shrugging. “She wants to tell you all her secrets, I suppose; people usually do. I think it’s your face.”
Poirot draws himself up to his full height. “There is nothing wrong with my face, Hastings.”
“Didn’t say there was, old man,” Hastings says brightly and shutting himself in the reception with a smiling Miss Lemon.
Poirot shakes his head fondly and lifts the receiver to his ear. “Apologies, Madame.”
He can almost hear her smile. “Not at all.”
“What is it you wish to tell me?” Poirot inquires.
“Only this: Hastings likes you very much, and I think you might just deserve him.” Her voice has lost its traces of smile and hardened to a point at which Poirot is somewhat taken aback. “So you keep him safe and you look after him and you two can act on your feelings for each other if and only if it makes both of you happier. Do you understand?”
Poirot swallows, mouth dry. “Pardon,” he manages at last, “feelings for - me?”
There is a long pause on the other end. “Yes,” Mary says at last, wrongfooted. “You do know he likes you, don’t you? Like that, I mean.”
“But Hastings - always the pretty women-” Poirot says stiltingly. His brain can’t quite wrap itself around what Mrs Beresford might be telling him; could it be? Could Hastings have such - interests - and could they really extend to him?
“And the pretty men,” Mary says. “He falls in love like it’s going out of style, Monsieur Poirot; it’s never really bothered him whom he falls in love with.”
“Madame,” Poirot begins. “I did not know.”
“Well,” Mary says, “now you do. You seem to have a rather lasting affection for each other and you’re both more or less intelligent-” Poirot makes a rather undignified, affronted noise. “-so I expect great things. And if you sort it out by Christmas, you can come down with Arthur. Look after him today, Poirot; speak to you soon.”
And with that, she leaves him staring in blank astonishment at the wall, holding the receiver to his ear and listening to the dial tone play.
“So what did Mary want, anyway?” Hastings asks over dinner. They’d spent the day in companionable solitude, reading together quietly and enjoying the peace. Poirot appreciated it all the more, knowing what Mary had told him; this could be the kind of courtship they could have, a kind Poirot would truly enjoy, if only he could find a way to broach the subject.
Poirot waves a hand, as if it had been unimportant and not earth-shatteringly, world-shakingly crucial to him. “Madame Beresford gave to Poirot some advice.”
Hastings raises an eyebrow, a small teasing grin on his face, and Poirot falls in love all over again. “For you? Gosh, that’s brave. I wouldn’t dare advise you to save my own skin.”
Poirot puts his fork down. “Hastings! Many times have you advised Poirot most usefully. As indeed did Mary Beresford.”
“Oh yes?” Hastings says curiously. “What about?”
“Ah,” Poirot chides, turning back to his dinner. “A lady must keep her secrets, eh?”
“I suppose,” Hastings says, sounding disappointed.
“She said I may join the family for Christmas with you,” Poirot adds, to cheer him.
Predictably, Hastings beams. “Jolly good! They really do Christmas at Haye’s, right down to Tommy’s mother as Scrooge.”
Poirot smiles back, chuckling. “No ghosts, I hope.”
Hastings’ smile dims a little. “Not at Christmas, usually.”
There is a long pause, filled only by the gentle clinking of cutlery against crockery. It’s so excruciating that Poirot is forced to action. “You may - wake me. Tonight. If I can - help, at all.”
Hastings’ hands still. “Thanks, old thing,” he says at last, rather shakily. “But I’ll try not to.”
And he does try; but Poirot cannot sleep and instead sits up against his headboard long into the night, waiting in the darkness for the slightest sound of distress. He can’t possibly rest when Hastings might be going through any kind of terror on the other side of the wall - it is unthinkable! That the one he loves above all else should be hurt or afraid is most distressing to Poirot, and he knows that Hastings will not deliberately wake him, even if the night is very, very bad.
So when the whimper, and then shortly afterwards the soft cry, break the silence of the flat, Poirot is on his feet and in his friend’s room almost instantly.
“Hastings!” Poirot calls, reaching out to his friend’s shoulder. Hastings’ face is contorted in fear and imagined pain, eyes screwed shut and teeth gritted. He clutches at his wounded leg and breathes hard, occasionally whimpering. It breaks Poirot’s heart. “Mon cher Arthur, wake up! You are safe, mon cher, I am with you.”
When Poirot shakes Hastings’ shoulder gently, his eyes snap open and he flinches away, gasping. His eyes have that haunting emptiness, entirely absent of the usual Hastings, but then he blinks twice and appears to focus. “Poirot?” he breathes.
“Yes, Arthur, I am here,” Poirot says softly, running a hand through Hastings’ tangled hair and feeling the cold sweat prickle on his scalp. “You are in London; you are safe.”
Hastings lets out a sob of relief and sits up, slamming into a hug. He clings to Poirot with white knuckles, sobbing and gasping into his chest. “Oh, God,” he whispers. “Poirot.”
Poirot wraps his arms around his friend, keeping one hand in his hair. “Arthur, dear Arthur. You are safe,” he repeats while combing his fingers through Hastings’ hair until the shuddering sobbing slows and lessens. He leans back to look at Hastings’ tear-stained face, red from crying, and is filled with a gut-wrenching sadness. “Mon cher Arthur,” Poirot says sadly. “Will you tell me what happened?”
Hastings closes his eyes, grimacing. Another tear rolls down his cheek and Poirot catches it with his thumb. “I was - back,” he says hesitantly. “In Belgium. In the trenches, with Tommy and Jenkins and - God, it was awful. The mud and sweat and blood and the gas, Poirot, the gas - the smell stays, you see, and you stink for days of death.” Hastings swallows hard. “It was the day Jenkins - died - and I kept seeing him. He was shot right in front of me, Poirot, but I couldn’t even get his body home.” Poirot rubs circles into the nape of his neck while Hastings sucks in a few gasping breaths. “I keep seeing him, Poirot,” Arthur says, almost keening, and opens his eyes to stare helplessly at Poirot.
“Oh, poor cher Arthur,” he whispers, rubbing his thumb gently over Arthur’s cheekbone. “My poor, dear Arthur.”
Arthur closes his eyes and leans into the gesture, brushing his lips against the heel of Poirot’s palm. Poirot gasps, shivering at the contact, eyes fixated on that point where Arthur’s lips meet his skin.
Hastings makes an odd, desperate noise and surges forward. His nose bumps Poirot’s, their breath mingles, and then Poirot is very much focussed on this new point of contact: the gentle press of their lips and Arthur’s hand on his hip. Then Poirot remembers to kiss back, the soft slide of lips encouraging Arthur to open his mouth and let Poirot show him how much he is loved.
They separate eventually, leaning their foreheads together and just breathing. “I must be dreaming,” Arthur says at last.
“A better dream, n’est ce pas?” Poirot says, and Arthur lets out a hiccuping laugh. “You are not dreaming, cher Arthur. I am very real, and you are safe.”
Hastings’ tired eyes close and he slumps a little more against Poirot. “You’re sure?”
Poirot wraps his arms around Arthur and tugs them both down to lie flat, Arthur’s face buried in the crook of his neck and their legs tangled. “But of course! I know it is not a dream, and Poirot is always right.”