Нет обложки

While the Light Lasts

Some of Agatha Christie’s earliest stories – including her very first – which show the Queen of Crime in the making…A macabre recurring dream … revenge against a blackmailer … jealousy, infidelity and a tortured conscience … a stolen gemstone … the haunting attraction of an ancient relic … a race against time … a tragic love triangle … a body in a box … an unexpected visitor from beyond the grave…Nine quintessential examples of Agatha Christie's brilliance are contained in this collection of early short stories – including the very first one she ever wrote – and provide a unique glimpse of the Queen of Crime in the making.
Содержание:

While the Light Lasts

   


   Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF

   

   First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 1997

   Agatha Christie®While the Light Lasts

   copyright © Agatha Christie Limited 1997. All rights reserved.

   

   Cover by © HarperCollins/Agatha Christie Ltd 2008

   Agatha Christie asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

   A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.

   This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

   All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

   Source ISBN: 9780008196462

   Ebook Edition © December 2016 ISBN: 9780007422913

   Version: 2017-04-17

   Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   Agatha Christie, the original Queen of Crime, still reigns supreme as the greatest and best known writer of the classical detective story. Her most famous novel, and very possibly the most famous of all detective stories, is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in which she outraged the critics and, by doing so, established herself in the first rank of writers in the genre. That case was solved by Hercule Poirot, late of the Belgian Police Force, who appeared in 33 novels including Murder on the Orient Express (1930), The ABC Murders (1936), Five Little Pigs (1942), After the Funeral (1953), Hallowe’en Party (1969) and Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975). Christie’s own favourite among her detectives was Miss Jane Marple, an elderly spinster who appeared in 12 novels, including The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and its sequel Nemesis (1971), and finally in Sleeping Murder (1976), which like Curtain had been written during the Blitz nearly 30 years earlier. And among the 21 novels that do not feature any of Christie’s series detectives are And Then There Were None (1939), in which there is no detective at all, Crooked House (1949), Ordeal by Innocence (1959), and Endless Night (1967).

   In a career that lasted more than half a century, Christie wrote 66 novels, an autobiography, six ‘Mary Westmacott’ books, a memoir of her expedition to Syria, two books of poetry, another of poems and children’s stories, more than 20 stage and radio mysteries and around 150 short stories. This new collection brings together nine stories that, with a couple of exceptions, have not previously been reissued since their original publication (in some cases, 60 to 70 years ago). Poirot appears in two stories, ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ and ‘Christmas Adventure’. These are Christie’s original versions of two novellas included in the collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960). ‘The Edge’ is a tense psychological story and ‘The Actress’ involves a clever deception. The enigmatic ‘Within a Wall’ and ‘The Lonely God’ are romantic stories, dating from the earliest years of Christie’s career; and there is a spice of the supernatural in ‘The House of Dreams’ and ‘While the Light Lasts’. Finally, there is ‘Manx Gold’, a story whose form and concept was unique in its time but which has since become very popular all over the world.

   Nine stories that all display the inimitable style of Agatha Christie. A true banquet for connoisseurs!

   Tony Medawar

   London

   December 1996

   This is the story of John Segrave—of his life, which was unsatisfactory; of his love, which was unsatisfied; of his dreams, and of his death; and if in the two latter he found what was denied in the two former, then his life may, after all, be taken as a success. Who knows?

   John Segrave came of a family which had been slowly going downhill for the last century. They had been landowners since the days of Elizabeth, but their last piece of property was sold. It was thought well that one of the sons at least should acquire the useful art of money making. It was an unconscious irony of Fate that John should be the one chosen.

   With his strangely sensitive mouth, and the long dark blue slits of eyes that suggested an elf or a faun, something wild and of the woods, it was incongruous that he should be offered up, a sacrifice on the altar of Finance. The smell of the earth, the taste of the sea salt on one’s lips, and the free sky above one’s head—these were the things beloved by John Segrave, to which he was to bid farewell.

   At the age of eighteen he became a junior clerk in a big business house. Seven years later he was still a clerk, not quite so junior, but with status otherwise unchanged. The faculty for ‘getting on in the world’ had been omitted from his make-up. He was punctual, industrious, plodding—a clerk and nothing but a clerk.

   And yet he might have been—what? He could hardly answer that question himself, but he could not rid himself of the conviction that somewhere there was a life in which he could have—counted. There was power in him, swiftness of vision, a something of which his fellow toilers had never had a glimpse. They liked him. He was popular because of his air of careless friendship, and they never appreciated the fact that he barred them but by that same manner from any real intimacy.

   The dream came to him suddenly. It was no childish fantasy growing and developing through the years. It came on a midsummer night, or rather early morning, and he woke from it tingling all over, striving to hold it to him as it fled, slipping from his clutch in the elusive way dreams have.

   Desperately he clung to it. It must not go—it must not—he must remember the house. It was the House, of course! The House he knew so well. Was it a real house, or did he merely know it in dreams? He didn’t remember—but he certainly knew it—knew it very well.

   The faint grey light of the early morning was stealing into the room. The stillness was extraordinary. At four-thirty a.m. London, weary London, found her brief instant of peace.

   John Segrave lay quiet, wrapped in the joy, the exquisite wonder and beauty of his dream. How clever it had been of him to remember it! A dream flitted so quickly as a rule, ran past you just as with waking consciousness your clumsy fingers sought to stop and hold it. But he had been too quick for this dream! He had seized it as it was slipping swiftly by him.

   It was really a most remarkable dream! There was the house and—his thoughts were brought up with a jerk, for when he came to think of it, he couldn’t remember anything but the house. And suddenly, with a tinge of disappointment, he recognized that, after all, the house was quite strange to him. He hadn’t even dreamed of it before.

   It was a white house, standing on high ground. There were trees near it, blue hills in the distance, but its peculiar charm was independent of surroundings for (and this was the point, the climax of the dream) it was a beautiful, a strangely beautiful house. His pulses quickened as he remembered anew the strange beauty of the house.

   The outside of it, of course, for he hadn’t been inside. There had been no question of that—no question of it whatsoever.

   Then, as the dingy outlines of his bed-sitting-room began to take shape in the growing light, he experienced the disillusion of the dreamer. Perhaps, after all, his dream hadn’t been so very wonderful—or had the wonderful, the explanatory part, slipped past him, and laughed at his ineffectual clutching hands? A white house, standing on high ground—there wasn’t much there to get excited about, surely? It was rather a big house, he remembered, with a lot of windows in it, and the blinds were all down, not because the people were away (he was sure of that), but because it was so early that no one was up yet.

   Then he laughed at the absurdity of his imaginings, and remembered that he was to dine with Mr Wetterman that night.

   Maisie Wetterman was Rudolf Wetterman’s only daughter, and she had been accustomed all her life to having exactly what she wanted. Paying a visit to her father’s office one day, she had noticed John Segrave. He had brought in some letters that her father had asked for. When he had departed again, she asked her father about him. Wetterman was communicative.

   ‘One of Sir Edward Segrave’s sons. Fine old family, but on its last legs. This boy will never set the Thames on fire. I like him all right, but there’s nothing to him. No punch of any kind.’

   Maisie was, perhaps, indifferent to punch. It was a quality valued more by her parent than herself. Anyway, a fortnight later she persuaded her father to ask John Segrave to dinner. It was an intimate dinner, herself and her father, John Segrave, and a girl friend who was staying with her.

   The girl friend was moved to make a few remarks.

   ‘On approval, I suppose, Maisie? Later, father will do it up in a nice little parcel and bring it home from the city as a present to his dear little daughter, duly bought and paid for.’

   ‘Allegra! You are the limit.’

   Allegra Kerr laughed.

   ‘You do take fancies, you know, Maisie. I like that hat—I must have it! If hats, why not husbands?’

   ‘Don’t be absurd. I’ve hardly spoken to him yet.’

   ‘No. But you’ve made up your mind,’ said the other girl. ‘What’s the attraction, Maisie?’

   ‘I don’t know,’ said Maisie Wetterman slowly. ‘He’s—different.’

   ‘Different?’

   ‘Yes. I can’t explain. He’s good looking, you know, in a queer sort of way, but it’s not that. He’s a way of not seeing you’re there. Really, I don’t believe he as much as glanced at me that day in father’s office.’

   Allegra laughed.

   ‘That’s an old trick. Rather an astute young man, I should say.’

   ‘Allegra, you’re hateful!’

   ‘Cheer up, darling. Father will buy a woolly lamb for his little Maisiekins.’

   ‘I don’t want it to be like that.’

   ‘Love with a capital L. Is that it?’

   ‘Why shouldn’t he fall in love with me?’

   ‘No reason at all. I expect he will.’

   Allegra smiled as she spoke, and let her glance sweep over the other. Maisie Wetterman was short—inclined to be plump—she had dark hair, well shingled and artistically waved. Her naturally good complexion was enhanced by the latest colours in powder and lipstick. She had a good mouth and teeth, dark eyes, rather small and twinkly, and a jaw and chin slightly on the heavy side. She was beautifully dressed.

   ‘Yes,’ said Allegra, finishing her scrutiny. ‘I’ve no doubt he will. The whole effect is really very good, Maisie.’

   Her friend looked at her doubtfully.

   ‘I mean it,’ said Allegra. ‘I mean it—honour bright. But just supposing, for the sake of argument, that he shouldn’t. Fall in love, I mean. Suppose his affection was to become sincere, but platonic. What then?’

   ‘I may not like him at all when I know him better.’

   ‘Quite so. On the other hand you may like him very much indeed. And in that latter case—’

   Maisie shrugged her shoulders.

   ‘I should hope I’ve too much pride—’

   Allegra interrupted.

   ‘Pride comes in handy for masking one’s feelings—it doesn’t stop you from feeling them.’

   ‘Well,’ said Maisie, flushed. ‘I don’t see why I shouldn’t say it. I am a very good match. I mean—from his point of view, father’s daughter and everything.’

   ‘Partnership in the offing, et cetera,’ said Allegra. ‘Yes, Maisie. You’re father’s daughter, all right. I’m awfully pleased. I do like my friends to run true to type.’

   The faint mockery of her tone made the other uneasy.

   ‘You are hateful, Allegra.’

   ‘But stimulating, darling. That’s why you have me here. I’m a student of history, you know, and it always intrigued me why the court jester was permitted and encouraged. Now that I’m one myself, I see the point. It’s rather a good rôle, you see, I had to do something. There was I, proud and penniless like the heroine of a novelette, well born and badly educated. “What to do, girl? God wot,” saith she. The poor relation type of girl, all willingness to do without a fire in her room and content to do odd jobs and “help dear Cousin So-and-So”, I observed to be at a premium. Nobody really wants her—except those people who can’t keep their servants, and they treat her like a galley slave.

   ‘So I became the court fool. Insolence, plain speaking, a dash of wit now and again (not too much lest I should have to live up to it), and behind it all, a very shrewd observation of human nature. People rather like being told how horrible they really are. That’s why they flock to popular preachers. It’s been a great success. I’m always overwhelmed with invitations. I can live on my friends with the greatest ease, and I’m careful to make no pretence of gratitude.’

   ‘There’s no one quite like you, Allegra. You don’t mind in the least what you say.’

   ‘That’s where you’re wrong. I mind very much—I take care and thought about the matter. My seeming outspokenness is always calculated. I’ve got to be careful. This job has got to carry me on to old age.’

   ‘Why not marry? I know heaps of people have asked you.’

   Allegra’s face grew suddenly hard.

   ‘I can never marry.’

   ‘Because—’ Maisie left the sentence unfinished, looking at her friend. The latter gave a short nod of assent.

   Footsteps were heard on the stairs. The butler threw open the door and announced:

   ‘Mr Segrave.’

   John came in without any particular enthusiasm. He couldn’t imagine why the old boy had asked him. If he could have got out of it he would have done so. The house depressed him, with its solid magnificence and the soft pile of its carpet.

   A girl came forward and shook hands with him. He remembered vaguely having seen her one day in her father’s office.

   ‘How do you do, Mr Segrave? Mr Segrave—Miss Kerr.’

   Then he woke. Who was she? Where did she come from? From the flame-coloured draperies that floated round her, to the tiny Mercury wings on her small Greek head, she was a being transitory and fugitive, standing out against the dull background with an effect of unreality.

   Rudolf Wetterman came in, his broad expanse of gleaming shirt-front creaking as he walked. They went down informally to dinner.

   Allegra Kerr talked to her host. John Segrave had to devote himself to Maisie. But his whole mind was on the girl on the other side of him. She was marvellously effective. Her effectiveness was, he thought, more studied than natural. But behind all that, there lay something else. Flickering fire, fitful, capricious, like the will-o’-the-wisps that of old lured men into the marshes.

   At last he got a chance to speak to her. Maisie was giving her father a message from some friend she had met that day. Now that the moment had come, he was tongue-tied. His glance pleaded with her dumbly.

   ‘Dinner-table topics,’ she said lightly. ‘Shall we start with the theatres, or with one of those innumerable openings beginning, “Do you like—?”’

   John laughed.

   ‘And if we find we both like dogs and dislike sandy cats, it will form what is called a “bond” between us?’

   ‘Assuredly,’ said Allegra gravely.

   ‘It is, I think, a pity to begin with a catechism.’

   ‘Yet it puts conversation within the reach of all.’

   ‘True, but with disastrous results.’

   ‘It is useful to know the rules—if only to break them.’

   John smiled at her.

   ‘I take it, then, that you and I will indulge our personal vagaries. Even though we display thereby the genius that is akin to madness.’

   With a sharp unguarded movement, the girl’s hand swept a wineglass off the table. There was the tinkle of broken glass. Maisie and her father stopped speaking.

   ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Wetterman. I’m throwing glasses on the floor.’

   ‘My dear Allegra, it doesn’t matter at all, not at all.’

   Beneath his breath John Segrave said quickly:

   ‘Broken glass. That’s bad luck. I wish—it hadn’t happened.’

   ‘Don’t worry. How does it go? “Ill luck thou canst not bring where ill luck has its home.”’

   She turned once more to Wetterman. John, resuming conversation with Maisie, tried to place the quotation. He got it at last. They were the words used by Sieglinde in the Walküre when Sigmund offers to leave the house.

   He thought: ‘Did she mean—?’

   But Maisie was asking his opinion of the latest Revue. Soon he had admitted that he was fond of music.

   ‘After dinner,’ said Maisie, ‘we’ll make Allegra play for us.’

   They all went up to the drawing-room together. Secretly, Wetterman considered it a barbarous custom. He liked the ponderous gravity of the wine passing round, the handed cigars. But perhaps it was as well tonight. He didn’t know what on earth he could find to say to young Segrave. Maisie was too bad with her whims. It wasn’t as though the fellow were good looking—really good looking—and certainly he wasn’t amusing. He was glad when Maisie asked Allegra Kerr to play. They’d get through the evening sooner. The young idiot didn’t even play Bridge.

   Allegra played well, though without the sure touch of a professional. She played modern music, Debussy and Strauss, a little Scriabin. Then she dropped into the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique, that expression of a grief that is infinite, a sorrow that is endless and vast as the ages, but in which from end to end breathes the spirit that will not accept defeat. In the solemnity of undying woe, it moves with the rhythm of the conqueror to its final doom.

   Towards the end she faltered, her fingers struck a discord, and she broke off abruptly. She looked across at Maisie and laughed mockingly.

   ‘You see,’ she said. ‘They won’t let me.’

   Then, without waiting for a reply to her somewhat enigmatical remark, she plunged into a strange haunting melody, a thing of weird harmonies and curious measured rhythm, quite unlike anything Segrave had ever heard before. It was delicate as the flight of a bird, poised, hovering—suddenly, without the least warning, it turned into a mere discordant jangle of notes, and Allegra rose laughing from the piano.

   In spite of her laugh, she looked disturbed and almost frightened. She sat down by Maisie, and John heard the latter say in a low tone to her:

   ‘You shouldn’t do it. You really shouldn’t do it.’

   ‘What was the last thing?’ John asked eagerly.

   ‘Something of my own.’

   She spoke sharply and curtly. Wetterman changed the subject.

   That night John Segrave dreamt again of the House.

   John was unhappy. His life was irksome to him as never before. Up to now he had accepted it patiently—a disagreeable necessity, but one which left his inner freedom essentially untouched. Now all that was changed. The outer world and the inner intermingled.

   He did not disguise to himself the reason for the change. He had fallen in love at first sight with Allegra Kerr. What was he going to do about it?

   He had been too bewildered that first night to make any plans. He had not even tried to see her again. A little later, when Maisie Wetterman asked him down to her father’s place in the country for a weekend, he went eagerly, but he was disappointed, for Allegra was not there.

   He mentioned her once, tentatively, to Maisie, and she told him that Allegra was up in Scotland paying a visit. He left it at that. He would have liked to go on talking about her, but the words seemed to stick in his throat.

   Maisie was puzzled by him that weekend. He didn’t appear to see—well, to see what was so plainly to be seen. She was a direct young woman in her methods, but directness was lost upon John. He thought her kind, but a little overpowering.

   Yet the Fates were stronger than Maisie. They willed that John should see Allegra again.

   They met in the park one Sunday afternoon. He had seen her from far off, and his heart thumped against the side of his ribs. Supposing she should have forgotten him—

   But she had not forgotten. She stopped and spoke. In a few minutes they were walking side by side, striking out across the grass. He was ridiculously happy.

   He said suddenly and unexpectedly:

   ‘Do you believe in dreams?’

   ‘I believe in nightmares.’

   The harshness of her voice startled him.

   ‘Nightmares,’ he said stupidly. ‘I didn’t mean nightmares.’

   Allegra looked at him.

   ‘No,’ she said. ‘There have been no nightmares in your life. I can see that.’

   Her voice was gentle—different.

   He told her then of his dream of the white house, stammering a little. He had had it now six—no, seven times. Always the same. It was beautiful—so beautiful!

   He went on.

   ‘You see—it’s to do with you—in some way. I had it first the night before I met you.’

   ‘To do with me?’ She laughed—a short bitter laugh. ‘Oh, no, that’s impossible. The house was beautiful.’

   ‘So are you,’ said John Segrave.

   Allegra flushed a little with annoyance.

   ‘I’m sorry—I was stupid. I seemed to ask for a compliment, didn’t I? But I didn’t really mean that at all. The outside of me is all right, I know.’

   ‘I haven’t seen the inside of the house yet,’ said John Segrave. ‘When I do I know it will be quite as beautiful as the outside.’

   He spoke slowly and gravely, giving the words a meaning that she chose to ignore.

   ‘There is something more I want to tell you—if you will listen.’

   ‘I will listen,’ said Allegra.

   ‘I am chucking up this job of mine. I ought to have done it long ago—I see that now. I have been content to drift along knowing I was an utter failure, without caring much, just living from day to day. A man shouldn’t do that. It’s a man’s business to find something he can do and make a success of it. I’m chucking this, and taking on something else—quite a different sort of thing. It’s a kind of expedition in West Africa—I can’t tell you the details. They’re not supposed to be known; but if it comes off—well, I shall be a rich man.’

   ‘So you, too, count success in terms of money?’

   ‘Money,’ said John Segrave, ‘means just one thing to me—you! When I come back—’ he paused.

   She bent her head. Her face had grown very pale.

   ‘I won’t pretend to misunderstand. That’s why I must tell you now, once and for all: I shall never marry.’

   He stayed a little while considering, then he said very gently:

   ‘Can’t you tell me why?’

   ‘I could, but more than anything in the world I do not want to tell you.’

   Again he was silent, then he looked up suddenly and a singularly attractive smile illumined his faun’s face.

   ‘I see,’ he said. ‘So you won’t let me come inside the House—not even to peep in for a second? The blinds are to stay down.’

   Allegra leaned forward and laid her hand on his.

   ‘I will tell you this much. You dream of your House. But I—don’t dream. My dreams are nightmares!’

   And on that she left him, abruptly, disconcertingly.

   That night, once more, he dreamed. Of late, he had realized that the House was most certainly tenanted. He had seen a hand draw aside the blinds, had caught glimpses of moving figures within.

   Tonight the House seemed fairer than it had ever done before. Its white walls shone in the sunlight. The peace and the beauty of it were complete.

   Then, suddenly, he became aware of a fuller ripple of the waves of joy. Someone was coming to the window. He knew it. A hand, the same hand that he had seen before, laid hold of the blind, drawing it back. In a minute he would see …

   He was awake—still quivering with the horror, the unutterable loathing of the Thing that had looked out at him from the window of the House.

   It was a Thing utterly and wholly horrible, a Thing so vile and loathsome that the mere remembrance of it made him feel sick. And he knew that the most unutterably and horribly vile thing about it was its presence in that House—the House of Beauty.

   For where that Thing abode was horror—horror that rose up and slew the peace and the serenity which were the birthright of the House. The beauty, the wonderful immortal beauty of the House was destroyed for ever, for within its holy consecrated walls there dwelt the Shadow of an Unclean Thing!

   If ever again he should dream of the House, Segrave knew he would awake at once with a start of terror, lest from its white beauty that Thing might suddenly look out at him.

   The following evening, when he left the office, he went straight to the Wettermans’ house. He must see Allegra Kerr. Maisie would tell him where she was to be found.

   He never noticed the eager light that flashed into Maisie’s eyes as he was shown in, and she jumped up to greet him. He stammered out his request at once, with her hand still in his.

   ‘Miss Kerr. I met her yesterday, but I don’t know where she’s staying.’

   He did not feel Maisie’s hand grow limp in his as she withdrew it. The sudden coldness of her voice told him nothing.

   ‘Allegra is here—staying with us. But I’m afraid you can’t see her.’

   ‘But—’

   ‘You see, her mother died this morning. We’ve just had the news.’

   ‘Oh!’ He was taken aback.

   ‘It is all very sad,’ said Maisie. She hesitated just a minute, then went on. ‘You see, she died in—well, practically an asylum. There’s insanity in the family. The grandfather shot himself, and one of Allegra’s aunts is a hopeless imbecile, and another drowned herself.’

   John Segrave made an inarticulate sound.

   ‘I thought I ought to tell you,’ said Maisie virtuously. ‘We’re such friends, aren’t we? And of course Allegra is very attractive. Lots of people have asked her to marry them, but naturally she won’t marry at all—she couldn’t, could she?’

   ‘She’s all right,’ said Segrave. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her.’

   His voice sounded hoarse and unnatural in his own ears.

   ‘One never knows, her mother was quite all right when she was young. And she wasn’t just—peculiar, you know. She was quite raving mad. It’s a dreadful thing—insanity.’

   ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s a most awful Thing.’

   He knew now what it was that had looked at him from the window of the House.

   Maisie was still talking on. He interrupted her brusquely.

   ‘I really came to say goodbye—and to thank you for all your kindness.’

   ‘You’re not—going away?’

   There was alarm in her voice.

   He smiled sideways at her—a crooked smile, pathetic and attractive.

   ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘To Africa.’

   ‘Africa!’

   Maisie echoed the word blankly. Before she could pull herself together he had shaken her by the hand and gone. She was left standing there, her hands clenched by her sides, an angry spot of colour in each cheek.

   Below, on the doorstep, John Segrave came face to face with Allegra coming in from the street. She was in black, her face white and lifeless. She took one glance at him then drew him into a small morning room.

   ‘Maisie told you,’ she said. ‘You know?’

   He nodded.

   ‘But what does it matter? You’re all right. It—it leaves some people out.’

   She looked at him sombrely, mournfully.

   ‘You are all right,’ he repeated.

   ‘I don’t know,’ she almost whispered it. ‘I don’t know. I told you—about my dreams. And when I play—when I’m at the piano—those others come and take hold of my hands.’

   He was staring at her—paralysed. For one instant, as she spoke, something looked out from her eyes. It was gone in a flash—but he knew it. It was the Thing that had looked out from the House.

   She caught his momentary recoil.

   ‘You see,’ she whispered. ‘You see—but I wish Maisie hadn’t told you. It takes everything from you.’

   ‘Everything?’

   ‘Yes. There won’t even be the dreams left. For now—you’ll never dare to dream of the House again.’

   The West African sun poured down, and the heat was intense.

   John Segrave continued to moan.

   ‘I can’t find it. I can’t find it.’

   The little English doctor with the red head and the tremendous jaw, scowled down upon his patient in that bullying manner which he had made his own.

   ‘He’s always saying that. What does he mean?’

   ‘He speaks, I think, of a house, monsieur.’ The soft-voiced Sister of Charity from the Roman Catholic Mission spoke with her gentle detachment, as she too looked down on the stricken man.

   ‘A house, eh? Well, he’s got to get it out of his head, or we shan’t pull him through. It’s on his mind. Segrave! Segrave!’

   The wandering attention was fixed. The eyes rested with recognition on the doctor’s face.

   ‘Look here, you’re going to pull through. I’m going to pull you through. But you’ve got to stop worrying about this house. It can’t run away, you know. So don’t bother about looking for it now.’

   ‘All right.’ He seemed obedient. ‘I suppose it can’t very well run away if it’s never been there at all.’

   ‘Of course not!’ The doctor laughed his cheery laugh. ‘Now you’ll be all right in no time.’ And with a boisterous bluntness of manner he took his departure.

   Segrave lay thinking. The fever had abated for the moment, and he could think clearly and lucidly. He must find that House.

   For ten years he had dreaded finding it—the thought that he might come upon it unawares had been his greatest terror. And then, he remembered, when his fears were quite lulled to rest, one day it had found him. He recalled clearly his first haunting terror, and then his sudden, his exquisite, relief. For, after all, the House was empty!

   Quite empty and exquisitely peaceful. It was as he remembered it ten years before. He had not forgotten. There was a huge black furniture van moving slowly away from the House. The last tenant, of course, moving out with his goods. He went up to the men in charge of the van and spoke to them. There was something rather sinister about that van, it was so very black. The horses were black, too, with freely flowing manes and tails, and the men all wore black clothes and gloves. It all reminded him of something else, something that he couldn’t remember.

   Yes, he had been quite right. The last tenant was moving out, as his lease was up. The House was to stand empty for the present, until the owner came back from abroad.

   And waking, he had been full of the peaceful beauty of the empty House.

   A month after that, he had received a letter from Maisie (she wrote to him perseveringly, once a month). In it she told him that Allegra Kerr had died in the same home as her mother, and wasn’t it dreadfully sad? Though of course a merciful release.

   It had really been very odd indeed. Coming after his dream like that. He didn’t quite understand it all. But it was odd.

   And the worst of it was that he’d never been able to find the House since. Somehow, he’d forgotten the way.

   The fever began to take hold of him once more. He tossed restlessly. Of course, he’d forgotten, the House was on high ground! He must climb to get there. But it was hot work climbing cliffs—dreadfully hot. Up, up, up—oh! he had slipped! He must start again from the bottom. Up, up, up—days passed, weeks—he wasn’t sure that years didn’t go by! And he was still climbing.

   Once he heard the doctor’s voice. But he couldn’t stop climbing to listen. Besides the doctor would tell him to leave off looking for the House. He thought it was an ordinary house. He didn’t know.

   He remembered suddenly that he must be calm, very calm. You couldn’t find the House unless you were very calm. It was no use looking for the House in a hurry, or being excited.

   If he could only keep calm! But it was so hot! Hot? It was cold—yes, cold. These weren’t cliffs, they were icebergs—jagged cold, icebergs.

   He was so tired. He wouldn’t go on looking—it was no good. Ah! here was a lane—that was better than icebergs, anyway. How pleasant and shady it was in the cool, green lane. And those trees—they were splendid! They were rather like—what? He couldn’t remember, but it didn’t matter.

   Ah! here were flowers. All golden and blue! How lovely it all was—and how strangely familiar. Of course, he had been here before. There, through the trees, was the gleam of the House, standing on the high ground. How beautiful it was. The green lane and the trees and the flowers were as nothing to the paramount, the all-satisfying, beauty of the House.

   He hastened his steps. To think that he had never yet been inside! How unbelievably stupid of him—when he had the key in his pocket all the time!

   And of course the beauty of the exterior was as nothing to the beauty that lay within—especially now that the owner had come back from abroad. He mounted the steps to the great door.

   Cruel strong hands were dragging him back! They fought him, dragging him to and fro, backwards and forwards.

   The doctor was shaking him, roaring in his ear. ‘Hold on, man, you can. Don’t let go. Don’t let go.’ His eyes were alight with the fierceness of one who sees an enemy. Segrave wondered who the Enemy was. The black-robed nun was praying. That, too, was strange.

   And all he wanted was to be left alone. To go back to the House. For every minute the House was growing fainter.

   That, of course, was because the doctor was so strong. He wasn’t strong enough to fight the doctor. If he only could.

   But stop! There was another way—the way dreams went in the moment of waking. No strength could stop them—they just flitted past. The doctor’s hands wouldn’t be able to hold him if he slipped—just slipped!

   Yes, that was the way! The white walls were visible once more, the doctor’s voice was fainter, his hands were barely felt. He knew now how dreams laugh when they give you the slip!

   He was at the door of the House. The exquisite stillness was unbroken. He put the key in the lock and turned it.

   Just a moment he waited, to realize to the full the perfect, the ineffable, the all-satisfying completeness of joy.

   Then—he passed over the Threshold.

AFTERWORD

   ‘The House of Dreams’ was first published in the Sovereign Magazine in January 1926. The story is a revised version of ‘The House of Beauty’, which Christie wrote some time before the First World War and identified in her autobiography as being ‘the first thing I ever wrote that showed any sign of promise’. Whereas the original story was obscure and excessively morbid in tone, ‘The House of Dreams’ comes close to the threatening ghost stories of the Edwardian age, and especially those of E. F. Benson. It is a great deal clearer and less introspective than the original which Christie heavily revised for publication: to develop the characters of the two women she toned down the otherworldliness of Allegra and built up Maisie’s rôle. A similar theme is explored in ‘The Call of Wings’, another early story, collected in The Hound of Death (1933).

   In 1938, Christie reflected on ‘The House of Beauty’, recalling that, while she had found ‘the imagining of it pleasant and the writing of it down extremely tedious’, the seed had been sown—‘The pastime grew on me. When I had a blank day—nothing much to do—I would think out a story. They always had sad endings and sometimes very lofty moral sentiments.’ An important spur in these early years was a neighbour on Dartmoor, Eden Phillpotts, a celebrated novelist and a close friend of the family, who advised Christie—Agatha Miller as she was then—on her stories and recommended writers whose style and vocabulary were to provide added inspiration. In later years, when her own fame had long since eclipsed his, Christie described how Phillpotts had provided the tact and sympathy so necessary to sustain the confidence of a young writer—‘I marvel at the understanding with which he doled out only encouragement and refrained from criticism.’ On Phillpotts’ death in 1960, she wrote, ‘For his kindness to me as a young girl just beginning to write, I can never be sufficiently grateful.’

   The shabby man in the fourth row of the pit leant forward and stared incredulously at the stage. His shifty eyes narrowed furtively.

   ‘Nancy Taylor!’ he muttered. ‘By the Lord, little Nancy Taylor!’

   His glance dropped to the programme in his hand. One name was printed in slightly larger type than the rest.

   ‘Olga Stormer! So that’s what she calls herself. Fancy yourself a star, don’t you, my lady? And you must be making a pretty little pot of money, too. Quite forgotten your name was ever Nancy Taylor, I daresay. I wonder now—I wonder now what you’d say if Jake Levitt should remind you of the fact?’

   The curtain fell on the close of the first act. Hearty applause filled the auditorium. Olga Stormer, the great emotional actress, whose name in a few short years had become a household word, was adding yet another triumph to her list of successes as ‘Cora’, in The Avenging Angel.

   Jake Levitt did not join in the clapping, but a slow, appreciative grin gradually distended his mouth. God! What luck! Just when he was on his beam-ends, too. She’d try to bluff it out, he supposed, but she couldn’t put it over on him. Properly worked, the thing was a gold-mine!

   On the following morning the first workings of Jake Levitt’s gold-mine became apparent. In her drawing-room, with its red lacquer and black hangings, Olga Stormer read and re-read a letter thoughtfully. Her pale face, with its exquisitely mobile features, was a little more set than usual, and every now and then the grey-green eyes under the level brows steadily envisaged the middle distance, as though she contemplated the threat behind rather than the actual words of the letter.

   In that wonderful voice of hers which could throb with emotion or be as clear-cut as the click of a typewriter, Olga called: ‘Miss Jones!’

   A neat young woman with spectacles, a shorthand pad and a pencil clasped in her hand, hastened from an adjoining room.

   ‘Ring up Mr Danahan, please, and ask him to come round, immediately.’

   Syd Danahan, Olga Stormer’s manager, entered the room with the usual apprehension of the man whose life it is to deal with and overcome the vagaries of the artistic feminine. To coax, to soothe, to bully, one at a time or all together, such was his daily routine. To his relief, Olga appeared calm and composed, and merely flicked a note across the table to him.

   ‘Read that.’

   The letter was scrawled in an illiterate hand, on cheap paper.

   ‘Dear Madam,

   I much appreciated your performance in The Avenging Angel last night. I fancy we have a mutual friend in Miss Nancy Taylor, late of Chicago. An article regarding her is to be published shortly. If you would care to discuss same, I could call upon you at any time convenient to yourself.

   Yours respectfully,

   Jake Levitt’

   Danahan looked slightly bewildered.

   ‘I don’t quite get it. Who is this Nancy Taylor?’

   ‘A girl who would be better dead, Danny.’ There was bitterness in her voice and a weariness that revealed her thirty-four years. ‘A girl who was dead until this carrion crow brought her to life again.’

   ‘Oh! Then …’

   ‘Me, Danny. Just me.’

   ‘This means blackmail, of course?’

   She nodded. ‘Of course, and by a man who knows the art thoroughly.’

   Danahan frowned, considering the matter. Olga, her cheek pillowed on a long, slender hand, watched him with unfathomable eyes.

   ‘What about bluff? Deny everything. He can’t be sure that he hasn’t been misled by a chance resemblance.’

   Olga shook her head.

   ‘Levitt makes his living by blackmailing women. He’s sure enough.’

   ‘The police?’ hinted Danahan doubtfully.

   Her faint, derisive smile was answer enough. Beneath her self-control, though he did not guess it, was the impatience of the keen brain watching a slower brain laboriously cover the ground it had already traversed in a flash.

   ‘You don’t—er—think it might be wise for you to—er—say something yourself to Sir Richard? That would partly spike his guns.’

   The actress’s engagement to Sir Richard Everard, MP, had been announced a few weeks previously.

   ‘I told Richard everything when he asked me to marry him.’

   ‘My word, that was clever of you!’ said Danahan admiringly.

   Olga smiled a little.

   ‘It wasn’t cleverness, Danny dear. You wouldn’t understand. All the same, if this man Levitt does what he threatens, my number is up, and incidentally Richard’s Parliamentary career goes smash, too. No, as far as I can see, there are only two things to do.’

   ‘Well?’

   ‘To pay—and that of course is endless! Or to disappear, start again.’

   The weariness was again very apparent in her voice.

   ‘It isn’t even as though I’d done anything I regretted. I was a half-starved little gutter waif, Danny, striving to keep straight. I shot a man, a beast of a man who deserved to be shot. The circumstances under which I killed him were such that no jury on earth would have convicted me. I know that now, but at the time I was only a frightened kid—and—I ran.’

   Danahan nodded.

   ‘I suppose,’ he said doubtfully, ‘there’s nothing against this man Levitt we could get hold of?’

   Olga shook her head.

   ‘Very unlikely. He’s too much of a coward to go in for evil-doing.’ The sound of her own words seemed to strike her. ‘A coward! I wonder if we couldn’t work on that in some way.’

   ‘If Sir Richard were to see him and frighten him,’ suggested Danahan.

   ‘Richard is too fine an instrument. You can’t handle that sort of man with gloves on.’

   ‘Well, let me see him.’

   ‘Forgive me, Danny, but I don’t think you’re subtle enough. Something between gloves and bare fists is needed. Let us say mittens! That means a woman! Yes, I rather fancy a woman might do the trick. A woman with a certain amount of finesse, but who knows the baser side of life from bitter experience. Olga Stormer, for instance! Don’t talk to me, I’ve got a plan coming.’

   She leant forward, burying her face in her hands. She lifted it suddenly.

   ‘What’s the name of that girl who wants to understudy me? Margaret Ryan, isn’t it? The girl with the hair like mine?’

   ‘Her hair’s all right,’ admitted Danahan grudgingly, his eyes resting on the bronze-gold coil surrounding Olga’s head. ‘It’s just like yours, as you say. But she’s no good any other way. I was going to sack her next week.’

   ‘If all goes well, you’ll probably have to let her understudy “Cora”.’ She smothered his protests with a wave of her hand. ‘Danny, answer me one question honestly. Do you think I can act? Really act, I mean. Or am I just an attractive woman who trails round in pretty dresses?’

   ‘Act? My God! Olga, there’s been nobody like you since Duse!’

   ‘Then if Levitt is really a coward, as I suspect, the thing will come off. No, I’m not going to tell you about it. I want you to get hold of the Ryan girl. Tell her I’m interested in her and want her to dine here tomorrow night. She’ll come fast enough.’

   ‘I should say she would!’

   ‘The other thing I want is some good strong knockout drops, something that will put anyone out of action for an hour or two, but leave them none the worse the next day.’

   Danahan grinned.

   ‘I can’t guarantee our friend won’t have a headache, but there will be no permanent damage done.’

   ‘Good! Run away now, Danny, and leave the rest to me.’ She raised her voice: ‘Miss Jones!’

   The spectacled young woman appeared with her usual alacrity.

   ‘Take down this, please.’

   Walking slowly up and down, Olga dictated the day’s correspondence. But one answer she wrote with her own hand.

   Jake Levitt, in his dingy room, grinned as he tore open the expected envelope.

   ‘Dear Sir,

   I cannot recall the lady of whom you speak, but I meet so many people that my memory is necessarily uncertain. I am always pleased to help any fellow actress, and shall be at home if you will call this evening at nine o’clock.

   Yours faithfully,

   Olga Stormer’

   Levitt nodded appreciatively. Clever note! She admitted nothing. Nevertheless she was willing to treat. The gold-mine was developing.

   At nine o’clock precisely Levitt stood outside the door of the actress’s flat and pressed the bell. No one answered the summons, and he was about to press it again when he realized that the door was not latched. He pushed the door open and entered the hall. To his right was an open door leading into a brilliantly lighted room, a room decorated in scarlet and black. Levitt walked in. On the table under the lamp lay a sheet of paper on which were written the words:

   ‘Please wait until I return.—O. Stormer.’

   Levitt sat down and waited. In spite of himself a feeling of uneasiness was stealing over him. The flat was so very quiet. There was something eerie about the silence.

   Nothing wrong, of course, how could there be? But the room was so deadly quiet; and yet, quiet as it was, he had the preposterous, uncomfortable notion that he wasn’t alone in it. Absurd! He wiped the perspiration from his brow. And still the impression grew stronger. He wasn’t alone! With a muttered oath he sprang up and began to pace up and down. In a minute the woman would return and then—

   He stopped dead with a muffled cry. From beneath the black velvet hangings that draped the window a hand protruded! He stooped and touched it. Cold—horribly cold—a dead hand.

   With a cry he flung back the curtains. A woman was lying there, one arm flung wide, the other doubled under her as she lay face downwards, her golden-bronze hair lying in dishevelled masses on her neck.

   Olga Stormer! Tremblingly his fingers sought the icy coldness of that wrist and felt for the pulse. As he thought, there was none. She was dead. She had escaped him, then, by taking the simplest way out.

   Suddenly his eyes were arrested by two ends of red cord finishing in fantastic tassels, and half hidden by the masses of her hair. He touched them gingerly; the head sagged as he did so, and he caught a glimpse of a horrible purple face. He sprang back with a cry, his head whirling. There was something here he did not understand. His brief glimpse of the face, disfigured as it was, had shown him one thing. This was murder, not suicide. The woman had been strangled and—she was not Olga Stormer!

   Ah! What was that? A sound behind him. He wheeled round and looked straight into the terrified eyes of a maid-servant crouching against the wall. Her face was as white as the cap and apron she wore, but he did not understand the fascinated horror in her eyes until her half-breathed words enlightened him to the peril in which he stood.

   ‘Oh, my Gord! You’ve killed ’er!’

   Even then he did not quite realize. He replied:

   ‘No, no, she was dead when I found her.’

   ‘I saw yer do it! You pulled the cord and strangled her. I ’eard the gurgling cry she give.’

   The sweat broke out upon his brow in earnest. His mind went rapidly over his actions of the previous few minutes. She must have come in just as he had the two ends of cord in his hands; she had seen the sagging head and had taken his own cry as coming from the victim. He stared at her helplessly. There was no doubting what he saw in her face—terror and stupidity. She would tell the police she had seen the crime committed, and no cross-examination would shake her, he was sure of that. She would swear away his life with the unshakable conviction that she was speaking the truth.

   What a horrible, unforeseen chain of circumstances! Stop, was it unforeseen? Was there some devilry here? On an impulse he said, eyeing her narrowly:

   ‘That’s not your mistress, you know.’

   Her answer, given mechanically, threw a light upon the situation.

   ‘No, it’s ’er actress friend—if you can call ’em friends, seeing that they fought like cat and dog. They were at it tonight, ’ammer and tongs.’

   A trap! He saw it now.

   ‘Where’s your mistress?’

   ‘Went out ten minutes ago.’

   A trap! And he had walked into it like a lamb. A clever devil, this Olga Stormer; she had rid herself of a rival, and he was to suffer for the deed. Murder! My God, they hanged a man for murder! And he was innocent—innocent!

   A stealthy rustle recalled him. The little maid was sidling towards the door. Her wits were beginning to work again. Her eyes wavered to the telephone, then back to the door. At all costs he must silence her. It was the only way. As well hang for a real crime as a fictitious one. She had no weapon, neither had he. But he had his hands! Then his heart gave a leap. On the table beside her, almost under her hand, lay a small, jewelled revolver. If he could reach it first—

   Instinct or his eyes warned her. She caught it up as he sprang and held it pointed at his breast. Awkwardly as she held it, her finger was on the trigger, and she could hardly miss him at that distance. He stopped dead. A revolver belonging to a woman like Olga Stormer would be pretty sure to be loaded.

   But there was one thing, she was no longer directly between him and the door. So long as he did not attack her, she might not have the nerve to shoot. Anyway, he must risk it. Zig-zagging, he ran for the door, through the hall and out through the outer door, banging it behind him. He heard her voice, faint and shaky, calling, ‘Police, Murder!’ She’d have to call louder than that before anyone was likely to hear her. He’d got a start, anyway. Down the stairs he went, running down the open street, then slacking to a walk as a stray pedestrian turned the corner. He had his plan cut and dried. To Gravesend as quickly as possible. A boat was sailing from there that night for the remoter parts of the world. He knew the captain, a man who, for a consideration, would ask no questions. Once on board and out to sea he would be safe.

   At eleven o’clock Danahan’s telephone rang. Olga’s voice spoke.

   ‘Prepare a contract for Miss Ryan, will you? She’s to understudy “Cora”. It’s absolutely no use arguing. I owe her something after all the things I did to her tonight! What? Yes, I think I’m out of my troubles. By the way, if she tells you tomorrow that I’m an ardent spiritualist and put her into a trance tonight, don’t show open incredulity. How? Knock-out drops in the coffee, followed by scientific passes! After that I painted her face with purple grease paint and put a tourniquet on her left arm! Mystified? Well, you must stay mystified until tomorrow. I haven’t time to explain now. I must get out of the cap and apron before my faithful Maud returns from the pictures. There was a “beautiful drama” on tonight, she told me. But she missed the best drama of all. I played my best part tonight, Danny. The mittens won! Jake Levitt is a coward all right, and oh, Danny, Danny—I’m an actress!’

AFTERWORD

   ‘The Actress’ was first published in the Novel Magazine in May 1923 as ‘A Trap for the Unwary’, the title under which it was re-published in the booklet issued in 1990 to mark the centenary of Christie’s birth.

   This story illustrates Christie’s great skill at taking a particular plot device and presenting it again, perhaps in the same form but from a different perspective or with subtle but significant variations to conceal it from the reader. The simple piece of legerdemain in ‘The Actress’ appears in several other stories, most obviously in the intriguing Miss Marple story ‘The Affair at the Bungalow’, collected in The Thirteen Problems (1932), and in the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun (1941).

   This story reminds us that Christie is also one of Britain’s most successful playwrights, even though her first play—which she described as ‘an enormously gloomy play which, if my memory serves me correct, was about incest’—was never performed. Her own favourite was Witness for the Prosecution (1953) but the most famous is undoubtedly The Mousetrap (1952), which is still running in London after nearly 50 years. While the plot of The Mousetrap centres on a murderer’s ability to deceive his potential victims, it depends as a piece of theatre on Christie’s awareness of how people in an audience respond to what they see and hear and her supreme ability to manipulate what they then understand to be happening. After The Mousetrap opened in London, the reviewer in The Times commented that ‘the piece admirably fulfils the special requirements of the theatre’ and, as anyone who has been associated with the play or has studied it carefully knows well, there is a secret to its success, or rather to the success of why so few are able to foresee its astounding denouement.

   Clare Halliwell walked down the short path that led from her cottage door to the gate. On her arm was a basket, and in the basket was a bottle of soup, some homemade jelly and a few grapes. There were not many poor people in the small village of Daymer’s End, but such as there were were assiduously looked after, and Clare was one of the most efficient of the parish workers.

   Clare Halliwell was thirty-two. She had an upright carriage, a healthy colour and nice brown eyes. She was not beautiful, but she looked fresh and pleasant and very English. Everybody liked her, and said she was a good sort. Since her mother’s death, two years ago, she had lived alone in the cottage with her dog, Rover. She kept poultry and was fond of animals and of a healthy outdoor life.

   As she unlatched the gate, a two-seater car swept past, and the driver, a girl in a red hat, waved a greeting. Clare responded, but for a moment her lips tightened. She felt that pang at her heart which always came when she saw Vivien Lee. Gerald’s wife!

   Medenham Grange, which lay just a mile outside the village, had belonged to the Lees for many generations. Sir Gerald Lee, the present owner of the Grange, was a man old for his years and considered by many stiff in manner. His pomposity really covered a good deal of shyness. He and Clare had played together as children. Later they had been friends, and a closer and dearer tie had been confidently expected by many—including, it may be said, Clare herself. There was no hurry, of course—but some day … She left it so in her own mind. Some day.

   And then, just a year ago, the village had been startled by the news of Sir Gerald’s marriage to a Miss Harper—a girl nobody had ever heard of!

   The new Lady Lee had not been popular in the village. She took not the faintest interest in parochial matters, was bored by hunting, and loathed the country and outdoor sports. Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end. It was easy to see where Sir Gerald’s infatuation had come in. Vivien was a beauty. From head to foot she was a complete contrast to Clare Halliwell, small, elfin, dainty, with golden-red hair that curled enchantingly over her pretty ears, and big violet eyes that could shoot a sideways glance of provocation to the manner born.

   Gerald Lee, in his simple man’s way, had been anxious that his wife and Clare should be great friends. Clare was often asked to dine at the Grange, and Vivien made a pretty pretence of affectionate intimacy whenever they met. Hence that gay salutation of hers this morning.

   Clare walked on and did her errand. The Vicar was also visiting the old woman in question and he and Clare walked a few yards together afterwards before their ways parted. They stood still for a minute discussing parish affairs.

   ‘Jones has broken out again, I’m afraid,’ said the Vicar. ‘And I had such hopes after he had volunteered, of his own accord, to take the pledge.’

   ‘Disgusting,’ said Clare crisply.

   ‘It seems so to us,’ said Mr Wilmot, ‘but we must remember that it is very hard to put ourselves in his place and realize his temptation. The desire for drink is unaccountable to us, but we all have our own temptations, and thus we can understand.’

   ‘I suppose we have,’ said Clare uncertainly.

   The Vicar glanced at her.

   ‘Some of us have the good fortune to be very little tempted,’ he said gently. ‘But even to those people their hour comes. Watch and pray, remember, that ye enter not into temptation.’

   Then bidding her goodbye, he walked briskly away. Clare went on thoughtfully, and presently she almost bumped into Sir Gerald Lee.

   ‘Hullo, Clare. I was hoping to run across you. You look jolly fit. What a colour you’ve got.’

   The colour had not been there a minute before. Lee went on:

   ‘As I say, I was hoping to run across you. Vivien’s got to go off to Bournemouth for the weekend. Her mother’s not well. Can you dine with us Tuesday instead of tonight?’

   ‘Oh, yes! Tuesday will suit me just as well.’

   ‘That’s all right, then. Splendid. I must hurry along.’

   Clare went home to find her one faithful domestic standing on the doorstep looking out for her.

   ‘There you are, Miss. Such a to-do. They’ve brought Rover home. He went off on his own this morning, and a car ran clean over him.’

   Clare hurried to the dog’s side. She adored animals, and Rover was her especial darling. She felt his legs one by one, and then ran her hands over his body. He groaned once or twice and licked her hand.

   ‘If there’s any serious injury, it’s internal,’ she said at last. ‘No bones seem to be broken.’

   ‘Shall we get the vet to see him, Miss?’

   Clare shook her head. She had little faith in the local vet.

   ‘We’ll wait until tomorrow. He doesn’t seem to be in great pain, and his gums are a good colour, so there can’t be much internal bleeding. Tomorrow, if I don’t like the look of him, I’ll take him over to Skippington in the car and let Reeves have a look at him. He’s far and away the best man.’

   On the following day, Rover seemed weaker, and Clare duly carried out her project. The small town of Skippington was about forty miles away, a long run, but Reeves, the vet there, was celebrated for many miles round.

   He diagnosed certain internal injuries, but held out good hopes of recovery, and Clare went away quite content to leave Rover in his charge.

   There was only one hotel of any pretensions in Skippington, the County Arms. It was mainly frequented by commercial travellers, for there was no good hunting country near Skippington, and it was off the track of the main roads for motorists.

   Lunch was not served till one o’clock, and as it wanted a few minutes of that hour, Clare amused herself by glancing over the entries in the open visitors’ book.

   Suddenly she gave a stifled exclamation. Surely she knew that handwriting, with its loops and whirls and flourishes? She had always considered it unmistakable. Even now she could have sworn—but of course it was clearly impossible. Vivien Lee was at Bournemouth. The entry itself showed it to be impossible:

   Mr and Mrs Cyril Brown. London.

   But in spite of herself her eyes strayed back again and again to that curly writing, and on an impulse she could not quite define she asked abruptly of the woman in the office:

   ‘Mrs Cyril Brown? I wonder if that is the same one I know?’

   ‘A small lady? Reddish hair? Very pretty. She came in a red two-seater car, madam. A Peugeot, I believe.’

   Then it was! A coincidence would be too remarkable. As if in a dream, she heard the woman go on:

   ‘They were here just over a month ago for a weekend, and liked it so much that they have come again. Newly married, I should fancy.’

   Clare heard herself saying: ‘Thank you. I don’t think that could be my friend.’

   Her voice sounded different, as though it belonged to someone else. Presently she was sitting in the dining-room, quietly eating cold roast beef, her mind a maze of conflicting thought and emotions.

   She had no doubts whatever. She had summed Vivien up pretty correctly on their first meeting. Vivien was that kind. She wondered vaguely who the man was. Someone Vivien had known before her marriage? Very likely—it didn’t matter—nothing mattered, but Gerald.

   What was she—Clare—to do about Gerald? He ought to know—surely he ought to know. It was clearly her duty to tell him. She had discovered Vivien’s secret by accident, but she must lose no time in acquainting Gerald with the facts. She was Gerald’s friend, not Vivien’s.

   But somehow or other she felt uncomfortable. Her conscience was not satisfied. On the face of it, her reasoning was good, but duty and inclination jumped suspiciously together. She admitted to herself that she disliked Vivien. Besides, if Gerald Lee were to divorce his wife—and Clare had no doubts at all that that was exactly what he would do, he was a man with an almost fanatical view of his own honour—then—well, the way would lie open for Gerald to come to her. Put like that, she shrank back fastidiously. Her own proposed action seemed naked and ugly.

   The personal element entered in too much. She could not be sure of her own motives. Clare was essentially a high-minded, conscientious woman. She strove now very earnestly to see where her duty lay. She wished, as she had always wished, to do right. What was right in this case? What was wrong?

   By a pure accident she had come into possession of facts that affected vitally the man she loved and the woman whom she disliked and—yes, one might as well be frank—of whom she was bitterly jealous. She could ruin that woman. Was she justified in doing so?

   Clare had always held herself aloof from the backbiting and scandal which is an inevitable part of village life. She hated to feel that she now resembled one of those human ghouls she had always professed to despise.

   Suddenly the Vicar’s words that morning flashed across her mind:

   ‘Even to those people their hour comes.

   Was this her hour? Was this her temptation? Had it come insidiously disguised as a duty? She was Clare Halliwell, a Christian, in love and charity with all men—and women. If she were to tell Gerald, she must be quite sure that only impersonal motives guided her. For the present she would say nothing.

   She paid her bill for luncheon and drove away, feeling an indescribable lightening of spirit. Indeed, she felt happier than she had done for a long time. She felt glad that she had had the strength to resist temptation, to do nothing mean or unworthy. Just for a second it flashed across her mind that it might be a sense of power that had so lightened her spirits, but she dismissed the idea as fantastic.

   By Tuesday night she was strengthened in her resolve. The revelation could not come through her. She must keep silence. Her own secret love for Gerald made speech impossible. Rather a high-minded view to take? Perhaps; but it was the only one possible for her.

   Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.