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Steps From Styles

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The mystery involving the denizens of Styles Court had concluded, and with it my need to remain around the Cavendish family.

I had drifted away from the party soon after John Cavendish returned home, quickly going upstairs to collect my things. I had stayed with the family once we had moved to London, but now that I knew everything I wanted to get away as fast as possible. Any reason to stay had quickly evaporated. Heléne had solved the case, and I had stuck out and kept notes throughout, even on most of the more personal or more unpleasant aspects. Cynthia had confided in me early on, just after the murder had happened and Heléne had agreed to take the case, that perhaps it would make a good story someday.

“Something good ought come of this, Martha,” she’d said as we walked through the garden. “You were just telling me the other day how much you loved Conan Doyle’s works, and…well, I want something good to come of this, for someone, and it might as well be you.”

“I can’t hardly be the next Conan Doyle,” I’d protested mildly, while secretly finding myself flattered. I was quite fond of his novels, as Cynthia and I had discussed.

“But you can surely try, can’t you?” she’d begged. “Mme. Poirot and yourself, investigating a mysterious poisoning case…it writes itself! Change some names if you so chose, but keep the facts straight!”

I had been too carried away by her eagerness, besides my own macabre interest, to object to the sheer madness of it all. Here we were, planning on launching my literary career on such a horrid thing—were I in my right mind I would be scandalized!

All the same, I had stayed, stayed and watched and wrote as Heléne worked her magic and solved the case. And now it was closed, and I had to go. I threw my belongings haphazardly into the one battered luggage case I’d brought with me, slammed it shut, dragged it down the stairs, and hurried my way past the parlour where the family was milling about, talking I presumed to Heléne and Jane (I know my readers may be shocked at the coincidence of both of the first female members of Belgium and England’s national police forces respectively being involved. The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction). I could vaguely hear words of congratulations passed around, mingling with exclamations of relief and of disbelief at the strange turns the case had taken. Cynthia did not notice me going, engrossed as she was in her talk with Lawrence Cavendish.

The only decent ones of the lot of them, I thought savagely as I passed. Mary Cavendish noticed the noise and peered out at me from the door. I said nothing to her as I passed, simply dragged my case with me and struggled out the door, closing it rather more forcefully than I should have when attempting a quiet escape. I wanted nothing to do with Mary either, not after…

I didn't know where to go, simply that I had to go. I set off at a quick pace, still feeling some of the anger I had felt earlier when realizing exactly why I had been brought there. For what odious purpose I had been used. Here I had thought that I was being offered a helping hand by a friend after that nasty business that had sent me to the convalescent home…and yet…

“Is that mon ami Martha Hastings?” a voice rang out from my side.

So consumed in my thoughts and so certain was I that Heléne Poirot was in the parlour, preening and basking in the compliments which I did not doubt would come her way, I had not noticed her approach from the side. Yet there she was, green eyes visible even in the light of the street lamp, simply standing there. She had been so very quiet that I had hardly made note of her as I walked past. 

“What are you doing out here?” I demanded, perhaps a bit more bluntly than intended, slowing to allow her to catch up with me. Shorter and stouter than I though she was, her presence made her seem like she was a far more imposing figure. It never failed to impress me; watching her questioning the many suspects with ease, using her willpower when she needed but mostly relying upon her charm. “Weren’t you at the gathering?” I asked further as I kept walking, she falling into step beside me. It wasn't like her to avoid being showered with praise. 

“Ah, non. I go for a walk to clear the head,” she declared. “I have done much rushing about of late. As for you, I see you are doing the bunk.”

“What? Oh, I suppose you could say so,” I said sheepishly. Of course, my suitcase was hardly inconspicuous. Even someone who lacked her observational skills would have noticed.

“And I see you left quite quickly,” she continued, tone now becoming scolding. “Your hair, it is a mess!”

“It hardly matters so late at night when I’m to undo it at bed anyhow,” I protested.

Non, that will not do. One must always have the order and method with oneself, mon ami Hastings.”

I said nothing in response at first as she came over and began fussing with my hair; I had known her to refer to me by my surname the first time we had met when I was still a girl traveling in Belgium, and it had always struck me as odd. Perhaps it was a carryover from her work at the Belgian force.

“Nothing too elaborate, please,” I said. “If my hair were to look like yours I would never get it untangled.” It was true; Heléne took peculiar pride in her long, dark hair and braided it elaborately each day. How she found the time to take such care of her appearance while also rising to prominence as one of the continent’s noted detectives (and I knew the braids were not a byproduct of her having more time off, for all the newspaper clippings detailing her cases she’d proudly sent me over the years with her photograph had featured the same), I would never know.

“Ah, non non, mon ami, Poirot’s braids are her own. To copy them for you or otherwise would be a great folly. Ah, there.”

I reached back, mercifully realizing she’d simply left it in a neat English braid.

“Thank you,” I said.

De rien. Now allow us to keep walking, and you can tell me what has caused you to leave the Cavendishes in the huff.”

“I’m not 'in a huff,'” I protested, picking up my suitcase. “I’m just leaving quickly. I don’t want to cause a scene.”

“Alright, mon ami, if you say it is not the huff, it is not,” Heléne agreed, eyes twinkling. “Why are you leaving quickly, then? And where to?" 

I hadn't thought of where, I realized sheepishly. “The case is closed," I answered simply.

“Surely you would want to take advantage of the kindness of your old friend, M. Cavendish?”

“No,” I said coolly. My Belgian friend had informed me she knew that I was a bad liar, so I didn’t doubt she picked up on the tremble in my voice.

“No?”

Dash it all, I thought as she inclined her head towards me, mildly quizzical expression on her face. She's on to me. I don't know why I bother

“No,” I said again, trying to put a bit more force into it. I’d learned a bit about speaking firmly on the front line in the hospitals from watching my superiors. “It’s nothing. I’ve had a long enough holiday is all.”

“Surely there is a reason you would fly like this to destination unknown, mon cher.” Perhaps my face expressed my surprise that she'd figured that out, because she chuckled. "You must not worry, Hastings. I have a room rented at a hotel. You may share with me for the night." 

"You might not want to," I replied, suddenly feeling morose. What would Heléne think of my reasons for flight? Perhaps she had a queer approach to listening at doors and other such small things, but I knew her to have ironclad morals beneath it all. 

"Why not? You still have given me nothing, Hastings." 

I sighed. “Alright, Poirot. I’ll tell you the whole thing.” I proceeded to tell the whole story of why I had been at Styles in the first place, how John and Mary Cavendish had of late been involved in an escalating attempt to arouse jealousy in one another, and how what I had initially taken as a friendly gesture was just another step in that plan. And how, worst of all, I did rather hope for a time that the two of us could perhaps have something between us…the time we spent together, just playing tennis or chatting about Emily Inglethorp, sharing suspicions about Alfred, I telling a few of my own reminiscences about Heléne herself after I had run into her in town, John admitting to his struggles with Mary, and other such things. It had been nice…it had been so very nice.

But then John and Mary had reconciled, and he had told me the truth. Angry and humiliated, as well as simply ashamed of my own intentions, I had decided to leave as fast as I could.

"And that's how I got here," I finished, gesturing to my suitcase.

“Ah, I see,” my friend simply said in response. Her eyes had not left me the whole time. “Pauvre ami…it is a difficult situation.”

“That doesn't half describe it. I feel like some sort of scarlet woman involved in all this,” I admitted.

There were many reactions I expected to receive. What I did not expect was for Heléne to burst into giggles when she heard that last.

“What is—this is no laughing matter!” I said indignantly.

“Apologies, Hastings. It is just—you, the scarlet woman?” She managed between giggles. “I cannot see such a thing. You lack the scheming nature. Non, non, do not protest—“ she held up a hand, cutting off my correctly predicted further rebuttals “—I know you had la tendresse towards this man. But thinking and feeling are quite different from acting, and act you did not.”

"I suppose." 

"You do not suppose. You did not do anything wrong. You have the kind heart and the good nature." She laid a hand on my arm to stop us. As she flagged down a taxi, I looked around; we had been walking so long I had trouble recognizing where we were. Suddenly I was quite thankful that my friend had found me before I had gotten too far. A young woman lost alone in London would not likely meet a good end. Heléne gave the cabby the address of the hotel at which she was staying. All the while, I found myself smiling at her last words to me. It was somehow comforting to have her faith. She was an odd woman, but one I was glad to have as a friend.

“And now, mon cher, what do you plan on doing? You shall stay with me tonight, but what after?” she asked after a moment as I gazed out the window. The street was dark and quiet beyond us, and I found myself more alert than when we had begun our walk. I wasn’t frightened, however; ‘frightened’ was reserved for the days on the front when I could hear the shells, when the screaming and dying men around me just wouldn’t stop, when the planes would get close to convoys…no, silence didn’t frighten me anymore. It was the greatest relief.

“Hastings?”

I jumped. Heléne was still waiting patiently.

“Sorry,” I quickly said, giving a mollifying grin in case she’d seen my vacant gaze and was wondering where my eyes had gone. “I’m not sure. I probably should go back to the front as keep on with my nursing. I feel I probably should.”

“And that is what you want to do?”

“Haven’t much of a choice, have I?” I tried to keep my tone light. “I don’t have a husband’s salary to rely on, my family’s not rich and both my brothers died in the war, I don’t have much in the way of practical skills…no, old girl, I’m probably headed back.”

“Even if you were injured?”

I shrugged. “Not too badly.”

“Badly enough to be sent back to England?”

“Oh, what do you want?” I finally asked.

Comment?”

“Clearly you’ve got something you want, or else you wouldn’t keep on this track.”

My friend smiled again. “You are not so hopeless as I feared. You too can develop the skill of observation.”

“Thank you,” I grumbled, not particularly flattered by this “compliment.”

“It has meaning, mon ami! I do not flatter idly. I see already the kernel within you. Even if not, you have been most indispensable this case.”

“Well, umm, right,” I stammered, remembering how I could not have told a piece of valuable information from a dud, how I had thought Heléne’s questions suggested senility, how the most useful thing I had done was to make an offhanded comment.

“I mean it. You have as we say the detective’s eye, if not the ability to make sense of it,” she continued. “Which is why I wish to ask if you would go into the business with me.”

I blinked. “Business?”

“Oui. The business of mystery. I have quite capably found Mme. Inglethorp’s murders, n’est ce pa?” At my nod, she continued, “But of course, Alfred Inglethorp and Evie Howard are not the only wrongdoers in need of facing justice. So I propose I go into the business as a private detective, and you shall help me.”

“I’m hardly trained as a secretary,” I protested.

“I am not thinking of a secretary, Hastings! That can be procured most easily. I have inquired at the agencies already. I am thinking of an assistant. You would be perfect as such.”

“Like Dr. Watson?” I asked, brightening. A chance to solve mysteries, do detective work…could this be happening? She was being sincere in her compliments?

“Bah! These detective novels, we must stop you from reading such! They take hold of your imagination!” She waved a hand indignantly.

“Well, let me know when you come up with a better description of what I’ll be doing,” I said lightly, felt my mood lifting at last.

“So you shall say yes?”

“Absolutely.”

Heléne’s face brightened. “Good. I shall be taken far more seriously as the detective with a fine Englishwoman at my side.”

“You mean you’re staying in England?” I exclaimed. “I had thought you were going to do this back in Belgium! All you’ve done while here is gripe about the English weather.”

“Which is odious, Hastings, ever odious. But non, I cannot go back to Belgium. My country, it is devastated in the war. I have no friends or family. England may not my idea of pleasant, but there is nothing for me at home.” She sighed heavily, and I laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. “At least here there is a chance for something,” she finished. “My reputation may bring me a chance at work. And there is the fact that I have a friend here.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said bracingly. Her words sunk in just as she gave me a curious glance, and I realized just what she meant by ‘a friend’. “Oh. Right. Thank you, Poirot.”

She laughed softly. “Ah, mon ami…you still have a ways to go.” The warmth in her eyes as she looked at me, however, kept it from having a sting. The cab soon pulled up to the hotel, Heléne paid the driver, and we climbed out, walking side by side into the lobby. 

I realized then that she and I would be alright. Together, we would make our way in the world.