The Man Who Died Twice by Alexandra Maher

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A fan-fiction crossover piece combining Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Set in the Christmas of 1920, as the episode preceding the most recent Downton Abbey Christmas special (set in September 1921). This is the untold story of what happened to the mysterious Major Gordon, when he spent the Christmas period with the Crawley family; Lord and Lady Grantham and their daughters Edith, Mary, and their son in law Matthew, Mary’s husband. Monsieur Poirot and his associate Captain Hastings investigate the case…

 

I

 

It was only when we were on the train back to London after those extraordinary events, sitting across from Poirot as we pulled out from the station, that he finally explained it all to me.

‘It was simply a matter of method, Hastings. It was one, tiny detail, which revealed to me the truth.’ Poirot smiled at me, his eyes glinting in the wintery light which poured through the train window in a blur of colour, as the rolling Yorkshire countryside flew past the glass.

The public interest has since subsided in this incident, and yet my personal interests in the Crawley family have encouraged me to write my account of that eventful Christmas of 1920. My story begins on one particularly bitter day in the first week of December. I can recall attempting to shift some stubborn snow from the underneath of my shoe as I entered Poirot’s rooms in Charterhouse Square.

He was stood in front of the mirror with a look of concentration embossed on his face as he neatened his already immaculate moustache. He didn’t look up as I entered, tossing my hat on the side table as I made myself comfortable on the empty armchair across from his desk.

‘Hullo old chap, I’ve got a question for you,’ and reaching into my pocket I withdrew the letter I had received earlier that morning.

‘Un moment, Hastings. I am aiming for total symmetry which is something that therefore requires total attention.’ He held the tortoiseshell moustache comb vertically down the middle of his already perfect jet black moustache, before making one final indeterminable adjustment to the left side. ‘Bon. Now, mon ami, there was something you wished to discuss?’ He moved over to sit behind his desk, and as he did so I placed the letter in front of him.

‘Yes, I got a letter this morning from a friend of mine, an old army colleague I met over in France. It was only a brief encounter but- well, we got along jolly well all the same.’

Poirot surveyed the letter. ‘A Captain Crawley? Yes, I remember reading about him in the society pages. He has recently become heir to an Earldom, I believe – and married, also? ’

‘That’s right, bitterly disappointed not to make it to the wedding, but hey ho. We’ve been invited to spend Christmas at the family home though Poirot. You’re not busy, are you?’

‘I most certainly am; I have an exquisite box of the finest Belgian truffles and my electric heater for company.’

‘The truth is, well, it’s rather difficult to explain, but they have a man staying with them who is- well, he’s already supposed to be dead. The family have asked if I might persuade you to help.’

Poirot looked up at me, his eyes flashing green they way they always did when this attention was aroused. ‘Where is it your Captain Crawley lives, Hastings?’

‘Downton, Poirot. Downton Abbey.’

 

II

The sun was hanging low in the sky, casting long shadows across Downton station by the time we arrived. The last of our luggage was just being taken off the train, when I first heard her.

‘Is that you, Captain Hastings? Monsieur Poirot?’

We turned to see a fair, slender, kind faced woman smiling at us through the steam on the platform, her crimson cloche hat coyly peeping over her eyes. She extended her hand, ‘Lady Edith Crawley, how do you do.’

If Poirot was surprised, he did not show it, although I doubt I was as successful in concealing my amazement at a Lady of the house being the one to greet us, rather than a chauffeur. Poirot tipped his hat, smiling genially. ‘Bien sur, Mademoiselle, a pleasure.’

We were soon all assembled in the Rolls, Poirot naturally in the front passenger seat next to Lady Edith.

‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am, Monsieur Poirot,’ Lady Edith said with her eyes fixed on the road ahead. ‘We’re all a little tense just now, you understand. I’m sure your celebrity presence could do us all good.’ I noticed Lady Edith’s gloved hands gripped the wheel rather more firmly than necessary, making the leather pull taught across her knuckles.

‘No, Mademoiselle, it is a most interesting case. But tell me, if you please, what is it that makes you so sure he is the real Patrick Crawley? You say there is no real evidence?’ Poirot examined her face as he spoke, and I noticed her pained expression as she paused.

‘I can’t explain, it’s just a feeling. When Major Gordon- Patrick- first visited, I was overwhelmed. The shock of seeing any man in that condition is enough to turn one’s head, but the thought he might be our Patrick…’ Edith trailed off as we pulled up to the grounds. Over the tops of the fir trees the turrets of Downton Abbey became visible as they stroked the cotton underbelly of the darkening clouds.

We pulled up along the gravel, and were greeted by an entourage of servants along with the smiling family, but Major Gordon did not appear to be with them. I could see Matthew standing next to a striking woman with dark features whom I took to be his wife, Lady Mary. He came up and helped us from the car, and shook my hand fervently.

‘Hastings my dear fellow, it’s terribly good to see you.’

Lord Grantham, clearly not prepared to forget the formalities of welcoming strangers into his home, stepped forward as we got out of the car, and took each of our hands warmly with a sincere smile.

‘Monsieur Poirot, Captain Hastings, welcome to Downton Abbey.’

Lady Mary took my arm and whispered to me in jovial confidence as we walked into the house, ‘Dear Captain Hastings, I’m awfully glad you and your friend are here, we’ve all heard so much about you from Matthew. I suppose he’s told you everything?’

‘Yes quite, it really is extraordinary. May I ask, where is Major Gordon now?’

‘Upstairs, resting. He’ll join us for dinner.’ Lady Mary stopped, and pulled me to one side, lowering her voice. ‘Hastings, I don’t trust him. Edith persuaded him to stay more for her own sake than for his I believe, but I don’t trust him one jot. You and Monsieur Poirot must get to the bottom of this. If he is who he says he is, that changes everything.’

I consoled her as best I could, but I confess I was somewhat taken aback that a woman of her breeding would plead with me in this manner before my having even been shown to my room. I left Lady Mary at the foot of the stairs as Poirot and I were led up by the Butler, Mr Carson. Poirot turned to me and whispered something which I had already been turning over in my mind, ‘Mon ami, I fear this evening will not fail to be eventful. This is a most unusual case, n’est pas?’

 

III

On my way to join the family for aperitifs later that night, I saw Lady Edith at the top of the staircase in a rich wine coloured gown, quite unlike anything the ladies of my acquaintance had ever worn. I offered to escort her down, and as she took my arm I caught the exotic scent of her perfume tinged with setting lotion. Her hair had golden finger waves set fashionably into place, which became her remarkably well.

As we walked into the Drawing Room, I saw Poirot standing by a man in front of the glow of the fireplace. The man’s back was facing me, but from the Canadian accent and the bandages visible from the back of his head, I already knew who this was. Matthew was stood nearby making drinks, whilst Lady Mary listened to the bandaged man next to Poirot, clearly struggling to keep her contempt for the Major off her face.

Edith guided me over to make the introductions, and as we approached I heard a snippet of Major Gordon’s conversation.

‘I couldn’t remember anything with clarity, not even my name. Just vague images I couldn’t understand at the time. I took the name Gordon from a green gin bottle when I was rescued and brought to Canada. It wasn’t until after my accident in the war that it all came flooding back.’

Poirot nodded, ‘Yes, the iconic green bottle. Not a man in England who would not recognise it. Ah, Lady Edith – Hastings, please join us.’

I turned to face Major Gordon, and despite the warning I had received as to the extent of his injuries, it nevertheless took all my reserves to maintain composure. His entire face seemed amateurishly moulded from melted candle wax; the eyes seemed glassy, pressed into the eye sockets like afterthoughts. His nose was the most human feature of his face, only slightly bubbled like pig crackling, but it sat above two thin, taught slits which had once been a mouth. It was instantly apparent why no one could confirm who this man was; he barely looked like a man at all.

At this moment, Captain Crawley joined us with a glass tumbler in his hand. ‘Here you are dear chap, G&T. Hope you don’t think it to be in terribly bad taste.’ As the rest of the group by the fire laughed at the poor attempt at a joke, Lady Mary turned, stony faced to join her mother and grandmother on the chaise longue, sipping her drink through pursed lips.

 

IV

Lady Edith went to sit with her sister, and I took the opportunity to catch up with Matthew, who was now talking with Lord Grantham by one of the occasional tables near the ladies. They discontinued their conversation as I came over, and I got the distinct impression I had been interrupting something.

‘So, you’ve met the Major then, eh? Poor fellow. Whether he’s our Patrick or not, one can’t help but feel sympathy for the man.’ Lord Grantham talked to his whiskey glass as he spoke. ‘Although my lawyer, Murray, remains convinced he’s really Peter Gordon, a friend of Patricks, who’s decide to take advantage of his… well, his new condition, in order to improve his circumstances.’

Matthew scoffed as he popped a salted peanut into his mouth from a glass dish on the table. ‘Come now, surely you don’t believe the man capable of coming up with such a story? In addition to the things he’s told Edith about their childhood here…’

It was Lord Grantham’s turn to scoff. ‘Now there I don’t believe him. The only things he’s told her have been the usual bits and bobs any one off the street could guess at; making fun of governesses? Stealing peanuts from the pantry? Playing in the grounds as children? You know as well as I do that a gypsy at a fair could tell you as much as that. Don’t you agree, Hastings?’

I felt uncomfortable being put on the spot. ‘Well, it’s not enough to categorically prove he is Patrick Crawley – but then his story is so very viable. There were plenty of souls who were never identified after the Titanic sank, and his amnesia would explain why it took so long for him to remember his past. It’s just so unfortunate the poor fellow’s face had been so disfigured, otherwise the truth would be clear.’

‘I don’t doubt that it’s unfortunate,’ interrupted Lord Grantham, ‘only that it’s unfortunate for us that we can’t get rid of him without any proof contradicting his story. And if we can’t disprove that he is who he says he is, then Downton is entailed back to him.’ Lord Grantham looked over at the man by the fireplace, his brow furrowed. ‘Poor Matthew here loses everything.’

 

V

It was just as the dinner gong was sounded that it happened. I saw a commotion over by the fireplace, with Lady Edith crouched over someone on the floor, who was convulsing violently. I rushed over, and saw Major Gordon. His face was almost purple, and he was making grotesque choking sounds, spluttering as his grasped for breath.

‘Please, someone do something!’

‘What happened?’

‘It’s Patrick, he said he couldn’t breathe, and the next minute…’ Lady Edith was almost hysterical. ‘Not again, not again!’

I ran into the hallway and found Mr Carson, and told him to call the doctor as quickly as possible. By the time I had gone back into the room, all was silent. Someone had placed a cushion underneath the Major’s head, but his convulsions had stopped, and so had his breathing. The room was completely still, apart from Edith, who was knelt beside him, rocking and sobbing quietly. Poirot felt his pulse, then looking towards me gave a subtle shake of his head. Major Gordon was dead.

Lady Edith noticed the gesture, ‘No it’s impossible!’ She was still knelt by his side, so I helped her up an allowed her to rest her weight on me as she wept. Lady Mary rolled her eyes.

‘Really Edith, stop being so melodramatic.’

Edith looked up at her sister, her face illustrating her disbelief at her sister’s coldness. ‘Melodramatic? We’ve already lost Patrick once, and now we’ve lost him again. How can you say such a thing? Have you no heart at all?’

‘That’s not Patrick’ was Mary’s simple reply. ‘As far as I’m concerned, we’ve lost no-one.’

There was a deathly silence. I noticed Poirot examining the body quietly as the tension built steadily around him. Edith’s expression changed, ‘It was you, wasn’t it? You did this!’

Mary’s eyes widened in horror as Matthew stepped forward, ‘now wait just a minute, Edith, we don’t know that this was murder-’

‘Yes we do!’ Edith’s voice had reached a pitch of hysteria. ‘It was you and Matthew who had the most to lose if he was able to prove himself. How could you? How could you both!’

I was becoming fearful of yet another terrible scene breaking out, when at this moment the Doctor arrived. Relief broke out on Lord Grantham’s face.

‘Ah, Doctor Clarkson, thank heavens.’ Lord Grantham quickly informed the Doctor of what had passed, showed him to the body of the Major. The Doctor joined Poirot, and together they began to inspect the body, speaking in hushed tones silhouetted against the amber glow of the fire.

 

VI

Sat on the train as it pulled away from Downton the following morning, Poirot lit one of his small Russian cigarettes, holding it tenderly between his fingers as he spoke.

‘It was my very first conversation with Major Gordon which revealed to me the truth. All aspects of his story were parfait, except one small detail.’ Here he paused, drew on his cigarette, and waited for me to ask, so I conceded.

‘What detail was that, Poirot? All I heard you two talking about was gin.’

Poirot’s eyes gleamed green, and his moustache curved with his smile. ‘Précisément. The gin bottle.’

I was utterly lost. I didn’t see how the gin bottle told him a thing, and I said so, but Poirot just chuckled. ‘Non, mon ami. Once again, you underestimate the importance of the little details. Major Gordon told me that he picked his name from a gin bottle when already in Canada, after being rescued from the Titanic, yes?’ I nodded, wondering where this was going. ‘Bien. He also said he picked it off a green gin bottle.’

‘Well yes, of course! Everyone knows Gordon’s gin is bottled in green.’

Poirot shook his head, tapping the ash off the end of his cigarette. ‘Not everyone – every Englishman. English Gordon’s is bottled green, that is true, but the Gordon’s for export has always been bottled in clear glass. So, therefore, the bottle he would have seen in Canada would not have been green.’

I considered this for a moment. ‘Yes, but that doesn’t prove he isn’t the real Patrick, Poirot, surely you can see that?’

‘Indeed. But however Major Gordon came by that name, it certainly was not from a Canadian gin bottle. My suspicions were confirmed by his death.’

This surprised me; his death seemed so suspicious I was convinced he had been murdered. ‘I thought someone had poisoned him, seemed to me the most obvious explanation. He was in the way of Matthew getting his inheritance. I must confess, I was a little worried Matthew might have had something to do with it.’

‘Ah, Hastings, there you are perfectly right. Monsieur Crawley had everything to do with Major Gordon’s death.’

Once again, I was dumbfounded. ‘What? But you said it was an accident!’

‘Oui, c’est ca. Anaphylactic shock, I believe. My guess would be a severe peanut allergy. The autopsy will confirm.’ Poirot stubbed out his cigarette as he spoke, a look of complete calm on his face. ‘The real Patrick Crawley had no such allergy. Indeed, he and the other Crawley children had a fondness for nuts, stealing them from the pantry often, I believe. But Matthew had been eating peanuts before fixing Major Gordon’s drink. It was the oils on Matthew’s hands which killed the Major.’

Neither of us spoke for a while, and as I processed the information all that could be heard was the steady rhythm of the train against the track as we steamed back to London.

‘Poor Lady Edith, she really was terribly upset. Still, it would have been worse for them to have to mourn over the same man twice, I suppose.’

Poirot cocked his head to one side in contemplation, ‘Ah, and yet I think to Lady Edith, with the death of the Major came the death of Patrick all over again. The death of a hope is just as difficult to bear, n’est pas?’

‘Yes, quite, poor woman. Poirot I’m terribly sorry about how this all worked out. You’ll be on your own for Christmas after all.’

Poirot gave a smile, ‘It was all most simple. Hardly worthy of the attention of Hercule Poirot.’ He turned away from the window and closed his eyes. ‘I shall be glad to get back to my Belgian chocolates and electric heater. Now mon ami, you must excuse me. The little grey cells need a rest.’