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Authors: Agatha Christie

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The first person we saw when we arrived at End House that evening was Nick. She was dancing about the hall wrapped in a marvellous kimono covered with dragons.

‘Oh! it’s only you!’

‘Mademoiselle—I am desolated!’

‘I know. It did sound rude. But you see, I’m waiting for my dress to arrive. They promised—the brutes—promised faithfully!’

‘Ah! if it is a matter of
la toilette
! There is a dance tonight, is there not?’

‘Yes. We are all going on to it after the fireworks. That is, I suppose we are.’

There was a sudden drop in her voice. But the next minute she was laughing.

‘Never give in! That’s my motto. Don’t think of trouble and trouble won’t come! I’ve got my nerve
back tonight. I’m going to be gay and enjoy myself.’

There was a footfall on the stairs. Nick turned.

‘Oh! here’s Maggie. Maggie, here are the sleuths that are protecting me from the secret assassin. Take them into the drawing-room and let them tell you about it.’

In turn we shook hands with Maggie Buckley, and, as requested, she took us into the drawing-room. I formed an immediate favourable opinion of her.

It was, I think, her appearance of calm good sense that so attracted me. A quiet girl, pretty in the old-fashioned sense—certainly not smart. Her face was innocent of make-up and she wore a simple, rather shabby, black evening dress. She had frank blue eyes, and a pleasant slow voice.

‘Nick has been telling me the most amazing things,’ she said. ‘Surely she must be exaggerating? Who ever would want to harm Nick? She can’t have an enemy in the world.’

Incredulity showed strongly in her voice. She was looking at Poirot in a somewhat unflattering fashion. I realized that to a girl like Maggie Buckley, foreigners were always suspicious.

‘Nevertheless, Miss Buckley, I assure you that it is the truth,’ said Poirot quietly.

She made no reply, but her face remained unbelieving.

‘Nick seems quite fey tonight,’ she remarked. ‘I
don’t know what’s the matter with her. She seems in the wildest spirits.’

That word—fey! It sent a shiver through me. Also, something in the intonation of her voice had set me wondering.

‘Are you Scotch, Miss Buckley?’ I asked, abruptly.

‘My mother was Scottish,’ she explained.

She viewed me, I noticed, with more approval than she viewed Poirot. I felt that my statement of the case would carry more weight with her than Poirot’s would.

‘Your cousin is behaving with great bravery,’ I said. ‘She’s determined to carry on as usual.’

‘It’s the only way, isn’t it?’ said Maggie. ‘I mean—whatever one’s inward feelings are—it is no good making a fuss about them. That’s only uncomfortable for everyone else.’ She paused and then added in a soft voice: ‘I’m very fond of Nick. She’s been good to me always.’

We could say nothing more for at that moment Frederica Rice drifted into the room. She was wearing a gown of Madonna blue and looked very fragile and ethereal. Lazarus soon followed her and then Nick danced in. She was wearing a black frock, and round her was wrapped a marvellous old Chinese shawl of vivid lacquer red.

‘Hello, people,’ she said. ‘Cocktails?’

We all drank, and Lazarus raised his glass to her.

‘That’s a marvellous shawl, Nick,’ he said. ‘It’s an old one, isn’t it?’

‘Yes—brought back by Great-Great-Great-Uncle Timothy from his travels.’

‘It’s a beauty—a real beauty. You wouldn’t find another to match it if you tried.’

‘It’s warm,’ said Nick. ‘It’ll be nice when we’re watching the fireworks. And it’s gay. I—I hate black.’

‘Yes,’ said Frederica. ‘I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you in a black dress before, Nick. Why did you get it?’

‘Oh! I don’t know.’ The girl flung aside with a petulant gesture, but I had caught a curious curl of her lips as though of pain. ‘Why does one do anything?’

We went in to dinner. A mysterious manservant had appeared—hired, I presume, for the occasion. The food was indifferent. The champagne, on the other hand, was good.

‘George hasn’t turned up,’ said Nick. ‘A nuisance his having to go back to Plymouth last night. He’ll get over this evening sometime or other, I expect. In time for the dance anyway. I’ve got a man for Maggie. Presentable, if not passionately interesting.’

A faint roaring sound drifted in through the window.

‘Oh! curse that speedboat,’ said Lazarus. ‘I get so tired of it.’

‘That’s not the speedboat,’ said Nick. ‘That’s a sea-plane.’

‘I believe you’re right.’

‘Of course I’m right. The sound’s quite different.’

‘When are you going to get your Moth, Nick?’

‘When I can raise the money,’ laughed Nick.

‘And then, I suppose you’ll be off to Australia like that girl—what’s her name?’

‘I’d love to—’

‘I admire her enormously,’ said Mrs Rice, in her tired voice. ‘What marvellous nerve! All by herself too.’

‘I admire all these flying people,’ said Lazarus. ‘If Michael Seton had succeeded in his flight round the world he’d have been the hero of the day—and rightly so. A thousand pities he’s come to grief. He’s the kind of man England can’t afford to lose.’

‘He may still be all right,’ said Nick.

‘Hardly. It’s a thousand to one against by now. Poor Mad Seton.’

‘They always called him Mad Seton, didn’t they?’ asked Frederica.

Lazarus nodded.

‘He comes of rather a mad family,’ he said. ‘His uncle, Sir Matthew Seton, who died about a week ago—he was as mad as a hatter.’

‘He was the mad millionaire who ran bird sanctuaries, wasn’t he?’ asked Frederica.

‘Yes. Used to buy up islands. He was a great woman-hater. Some girl chucked him once, I believe, and he took to Natural History by way of consoling himself.’

‘Why do you say Michael Seton is dead?’ persisted Nick. ‘I don’t see any reason for giving up hope—yet.’

‘Of course, you knew him, didn’t you?’ said Lazarus. ‘I forgot.’

‘Freddie and I met him at Le Touquet last year,’ said Nick. ‘He was too marvellous, wasn’t he, Freddie?’

‘Don’t ask me, darling. He was your conquest, not mine. He took you up once, didn’t he?’

‘Yes—at Scarborough. It was simply too wonderful.’

‘Have you done any flying, Captain Hastings?’ Maggie asked of me in polite conversational tones.

I had to confess that a trip to Paris and back was the extent of my acquaintance with air travel.

Suddenly, with an exclamation, Nick sprang up.

‘There’s the telephone. Don’t wait for me. It’s getting late. And I’ve asked lots of people.’

She left the room. I glanced at my watch. It was just nine o’clock. Dessert was brought, and port. Poirot and Lazarus were talking Art. Pictures, Lazarus was saying, were a great drug in the market just now. They went on to discuss new ideas in furniture and decoration.

I endeavoured to do my duty by talking to Maggie Buckley, but I had to admit that the girl was heavy in hand. She answered pleasantly, but without throwing the ball back. It was uphill work.

Frederica Rice sat dreamily silent, her elbows on the table and the smoke from her cigarette curling round her fair head. She looked like a meditative angel.

It was just twenty past nine when Nick put her head round the door.

‘Come out of it, all of you! The animals are coming in two by two.’

We rose obediently. Nick was busy greeting arrivals. About a dozen people had been asked. Most of them were rather uninteresting. Nick, I noticed, made a good hostess. She sank her modernisms and made everyone welcome in an old-fashioned way. Among the guests I noticed Charles Vyse.

Presently we all moved out into the garden to a place overlooking the sea and the harbour. A few chairs had been placed there for the elderly people, but most of us stood. The first rocket flamed to Heaven.

At that moment I heard a loud familiar voice, and turned my head to see Nick greeting Mr Croft.

‘It’s too bad,’ she was saying, ‘that Mrs Croft can’t be here too. We ought to have carried her on a stretcher or something.’

‘It’s bad luck on poor mother altogether. But she
never complains—that woman’s got the sweetest nature—Ha! that’s a good one.’ This as a shower of golden rain showed up in the sky.

The night was a dark one—there was no moon—the new moon being due in three day’s time. It was also, like most summer evenings, cold. Maggie Buckley, who was next to me, shivered.

‘I’ll just run in and get a coat,’ she murmured.

‘Let me.’

‘No, you wouldn’t know where to find it.’

She turned towards the house. At that moment Frederica Rice’s voice called:

‘Oh, Maggie, get mine too. It’s in my room.’

‘She didn’t hear,’ said Nick. ‘I’ll get it, Freddie. I want my fur one—this shawl isn’t nearly hot enough. It’s this wind.’

There was, indeed, a sharp breeze blowing off the sea.

Some set pieces started down on the quay. I fell into conversation with an elderly lady standing next to me who put me through a rigorous catechism as to life, career, tastes and probable length of stay.

Bang! A shower of green stars filled the sky. They changed to blue, then red, then silver.

Another and yet another.

‘“Oh!” and then “Ah!” that is what one says,’ observed Poirot suddenly close to my ear. ‘At the end it becomes
monotonous, do you not find? Brrr! The grass, it is damp to the feet! I shall suffer for this—a chill. And no possibility of obtaining a proper
tisane
!’

‘A chill? On a lovely night like this?’

‘A lovely night! A lovely night! You say that, because the rain it does not pour down in sheets! Always when the rain does not fall, it is a lovely night. But I tell you, my friend, if there were a little thermometer to consult you would see.’

‘Well,’ I admitted, ‘I wouldn’t mind putting on a coat myself.’

‘You are very sensible. You have come from a hot climate.’

‘I’ll bring yours.’

Poirot lifted first one, then the other foot from the ground with a cat-like motion.

‘It is the dampness of the feet I fear. Would it, think you, be possible to lay hands on a pair of goloshes?’

I repressed a smile.

‘Not a hope,’ I said. ‘You understand, Poirot, that it is no longer done.’

‘Then I shall sit in the house,’ he declared. ‘Just for the Guy Fawkes show, shall I want only
enrhumer
myself? And catch, perhaps, a
fluxion de poitrine
?’

Poirot still murmuring indignantly, we bent our footsteps towards the house. Loud clapping drifted up to us from the quay below where another set piece was
being shown—a ship, I believe, with
Welcome to Our Visitors
displayed across it.

‘We are all children at heart,’ said Poirot, thoughtfully. ‘
Les Feux D’Artifices
, the party, the games with balls—yes, and even the conjurer, the man who deceives the eye, however carefully it watches—
mais qu’est-ce que vous avez
?’

I had caught him by the arm, and was clutching him with one hand, while with the other I pointed.

We were within a hundred yards of the house, and just in front of us, between us and the open French window,
there lay a huddled figure wrapped in a scarlet Chinese shawl


Mon Dieu!
’ whispered Poirot. ‘
Mon Dieu
…’

I suppose it was not more than forty seconds that we stood there, frozen with horror, unable to move, but it seemed like an hour. Then Poirot moved forward, shaking off my hand. He moved stiffly like an automaton.

‘It has happened,’ he murmured, and I can hardly describe the anguished bitterness of his voice. ‘In spite of everything—in spite of my precautions, it has happened. Ah! miserable criminal that I am, why did I not guard her better. I should have foreseen. Not for one instant should I have left her side.’

‘You mustn’t blame yourself,’ I said.

My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I could hardly articulate.

Poirot only responded with a sorrowful shake of his head. He knelt down by the body.

And at that moment we received a second shock.

For Nick’s voice rang out, clear and gay, and a
moment later Nick appeared in the square of the window silhouetted against the lighted room behind.

‘Sorry I’ve been so long, Maggie,’ she said. ‘But—’

Then she broke off—staring at the scene before her.

With a sharp exclamation, Poirot turned over the body on the lawn and I pressed forward to see.

I looked down into the dead face of Maggie Buckley.

In another minute Nick was beside us. She gave a sharp cry.

‘Maggie—Oh! Maggie—it—it can’t—’

Poirot was still examining the girl’s body. At last very slowly he rose to his feet.

‘Is she—is—’ Nick’s voice broke off.

‘Yes, Mademoiselle. She is dead.’

‘But why? But why? Who could have wanted to kill
her
?’

Poirot’s reply came quickly and firmly.

‘It was not her they meant to kill, Mademoiselle! It was
you
! They were misled by the shawl.’

A great cry broke from Nick.

‘Why couldn’t it have been me?’ she wailed. ‘Oh! why couldn’t it have been me? I’d so much rather. I don’t want to live—
now
. I’d be glad—willing—happy—to die.’

She flung up her arms wildly and then staggered slightly. I passed an arm round her quickly to support her.

‘Take her into the house, Hastings,’ said Poirot. ‘Then ring up the police.’

‘The police?’


Mais oui!
Tell them someone has been shot. And afterwards stay with Mademoiselle Nick.
On no account leave her
.’

I nodded comprehension of these instructions, and supporting the half-fainting girl, made my way through the drawing-room window. I laid the girl on the sofa there, with a cushion under her head, and then hurried out into the hall in search of the telephone.

I gave a slight start on almost running into Ellen. She was standing there with a most peculiar expression on her meek, respectable face. Her eyes were glittering and she was passing her tongue repeatedly over her dry lips. Her hands were trembling, as though with excitement. As soon as she saw me, she spoke.

‘Has—has anything happened, sir?’

‘Yes,’ I said curtly. ‘Where’s the telephone?’

‘Nothing—nothing wrong, sir?’

‘There’s been an accident,’ I said evasively. ‘Somebody hurt. I must telephone.’

‘Who has been hurt, sir?’

There was a positive eagerness in her face.

‘Miss Buckley. Miss Maggie Buckley.’

‘Miss Maggie? Miss
Maggie
? Are you sure, sir—I mean are you sure that—that it’s Miss Maggie?’

‘I’m quite sure,’ I said. ‘Why?’

‘Oh!—nothing. I—I thought it might be one of the other ladies. I thought perhaps it might be—Mrs Rice.’

‘Look here,’ I said. ‘Where’s the telephone?’

‘It’s in the little room here, sir.’ She opened the door for me and indicated the instrument.

‘Thanks,’ I said. And, as she seemed disposed to linger, I added: ‘That’s all I want, thank you.’

‘If you want Dr Graham—’

‘No, no,’ I said. ‘That’s all. Go, please.’

She withdrew reluctantly, as slowly as she dared. In all probability she would listen outside the door, but I could not help that. After all, she would soon know all there was to be known.

I got the police station and made my report. Then, on my own initiative, I rang up the Dr Graham Ellen had mentioned. I found his number in the book. Nick, at any rate, should have medical attention, I felt—even though a doctor could do nothing for that poor girl lying out there. He promised to come at once and I hung up the receiver and came out into the hall again.

If Ellen had been listening outside the door she had managed to disappear very swiftly. There was no one in sight when I came out. I went back into the drawing-room. Nick was trying to sit up.

‘Do you think—could you get me—some brandy?’

‘Of course.’

I hurried into the dining-room, found what I wanted and came back. A few sips of the spirit revived the girl. The colour began to come back into her cheeks. I rearranged the cushion for her head.

‘It’s all—so awful.’ She shivered. ‘Everything—everywhere.’

‘I know, my dear, I know.’

‘No, you don’t! You can’t. And it’s all such a
waste
. If it were only me. It would be all over…’

‘You mustn’t,’ I said, “be morbid”.’

She only shook her head, reiterating: ‘You don’t know! You don’t
know
!’

Then, suddenly, she began to cry. A quiet, hopeless sobbing like a child. That, I thought, was probably the best thing for her, so I made no effort to stem her tears.

When their first violence had died down a little, I stole across to the window and looked out. I had heard an outcry of voices a few minutes before. They were all there by now, a semi-circle round the scene of the tragedy, with Poirot like a fantastical sentinel, keeping them back.

As I watched, two uniformed figures came striding across the grass. The police had arrived.

Iwent quietly back to my place by the sofa. Nick lifted her tear-stained face.

‘Oughtn’t I to be doing something?’

‘No, my dear. Poirot will see to it. Leave it to him.’ Nick was silent for a minute or two, then she said:

‘Poor Maggie. Poor dear old Maggie. Such a good sort who never harmed a soul in her life. That this should happen to
her
. I feel as though I’d killed her—bringing her down in the way that I did.’

I shook my head sadly. How little one can foresee the future. When Poirot insisted on Nick’s inviting a friend, how little did he think that he was signing an unknown girl’s death warrant.

We sat in silence. I longed to know what was going on outside, but I loyally fulfilled Poirot’s instructions and stuck to my post.

It seemed hours later when the door opened and Poirot and a police inspector entered the room. With them came a man who was evidently Dr Graham. He came over at once to Nick.

‘And how are you feeling, Miss Buckley? This must have been a terrible shock.’ His fingers were on her pulse.

‘Not too bad.’

He turned to me.

‘Has she had anything?’

‘Some brandy,’ I said.

‘I’m all right,’ said Nick, bravely.

‘Able to answer a few questions, eh?’

‘Of course.’

The police inspector moved forward with a preliminary cough. Nick greeted him with the ghost of a smile.

‘Not impeding the traffic this time,’ she said.

I gathered they were not strangers to each other.

‘This is a terrible business, Miss Buckley,’ said the inspector. ‘I’m very sorry about it. Now Mr Poirot here, whose name I’m very familiar with (and proud we are to have him with us, I’m sure), tells me that to the best of his belief you were shot at in the grounds of the Majestic Hotel the other morning?’

Nick nodded.

‘I thought it was just a wasp,’ she explained. ‘But it wasn’t.’

‘And you’d had some rather peculiar accidents before that?’

‘Yes—at least it was odd their happening so close together.’

She gave a brief account of the various circumstances.

‘Just so. Now how came it that your cousin was wearing your shawl tonight?’

‘We came in to fetch her coat—it was rather cold watching the fireworks. I flung off the shawl on the sofa here. Then I went upstairs and put on the coat I’m wearing now—a light nutria one. I also got a wrap
for my friend Mrs Rice out of her room. There it is on the floor by the window. Then Maggie called out that she couldn’t find her coat. I said it must be downstairs. She went down and called up she still couldn’t find it. I said it must have been left in the car—it was a tweed coat she was looking for—she hasn’t got an evening furry one—and I said I’d bring her down something of mine. But she said it didn’t matter—she’d take my shawl if I didn’t want it. And I said of course but would that be enough? And she said Oh, yes, because she really didn’t feel it particularly cold after Yorkshire. She just wanted
something
. And I said all right, I’d be out in a minute. And when I did—did come out—’

She stopped, her voice breaking…

‘Now, don’t distress yourself, Miss Buckley. Just tell me this. Did you hear a shot—or two shots?’

Nick shook her head.

‘No—only just the fireworks popping and the squibs going off.’

‘That’s just it,’ said the inspector. ‘You’d never notice a shot with all that going on. It’s no good asking you, I suppose, if you’ve any clue to who it is making these attacks upon you?’

‘I haven’t the least idea,’ said Nick. ‘I can’t imagine.’

‘And you wouldn’t be likely to,’ said the inspector. ‘Some homicidal maniac—that’s what it looks like to
me. Nasty business. Well, I won’t need to ask you any more questions to-night, miss. I’m more sorry about this than I can say.’

Dr Graham stepped forward.

‘I’m going to suggest, Miss Buckley, that you don’t stay here. I’ve been talking it over with M. Poirot. I know of an excellent nursing home. You’ve had a shock, you know. What you need is complete rest—’

Nick was not looking at him. Her eyes had gone to Poirot.

‘Is it—because of the shock?’ she asked.

He came forward.

‘I want you to feel safe,
mon enfant
. And
I
want to feel, too, that you
are
safe. There will be a nurse there—a nice practical unimaginative nurse. She will be near you all night. When you wake up and cry out—she will be there, close at hand. You understand?’

‘Yes,’ said Nick, ‘I understand. But
you
don’t. I’m not afraid any longer. I don’t care one way or another. If anyone wants to murder me, they can.’

‘Hush, hush,’ I said. ‘You’re over-strung.’

‘You don’t know. None of you know!’

‘I really think M. Poirot’s plan is a good one,’ the doctor broke in soothingly. ‘I will take you in my car. And we will give you a little something to ensure a good night’s rest. Now what do you say?’

‘I don’t mind,’ said Nick. ‘Anything you like. It doesn’t matter.’

Poirot laid his hand on hers.

‘I know, Mademoiselle. I know what you must feel. I stand before you ashamed and stricken to the heart. I, who promised protection, have not been able to protect. I have failed. I am a miserable. But believe me, Mademoiselle, my heart is in agony because of that failure. If you know what I am suffering you would forgive, I am sure.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Nick, still in the same dull voice. ‘You mustn’t blame yourself. I’m sure you did the best you could. Nobody could have helped it—or done more, I’m sure. Please don’t be unhappy.’

‘You are very generous, Mademoiselle.’

‘No, I—’

There was an interruption. The door flew open and George Challenger rushed into the room.

‘What’s all this?’ he cried. ‘I’ve just arrived. To find a policeman at the gate and a rumour that somebody’s dead. What is it all about? For God’s sake, tell me. Is it—is it—Nick?’

The anguish in his tone was dreadful to hear. I suddenly realized that Poirot and the doctor between them completely blotted out Nick from his sight.

Before anyone had time to answer, he repeated his question.

‘Tell me—it can’t be true—Nick isn’t
dead
?’

‘No,
mon ami
,’ said Poirot, gently. ‘She is alive.’

And he drew back so that Challenger could see the little figure on the sofa.

For a moment or two Challenger stared at her incredulously. Then, staggering a little, like a drunken man, he muttered:

‘Nick—Nick.’

And suddenly dropping on his knees beside the sofa and hiding his head in his hands, he cried in a muffled voice:

‘Nick—my darling—I thought that you were dead.’

Nick tried to sit up.

‘It’s all right, George. Don’t be an idiot. I’m quite safe.’

He raised his head and looked round wildly.

‘But
somebody’s
dead? The policeman said so.’

‘Yes,’ said Nick. ‘Maggie. Poor old Maggie. Oh!—’

A spasm twisted her face. The doctor and Poirot came forward. Graham helped her to her feet. He and Poirot, one on each side, helped her from the room.

‘The sooner you get to your bed the better,’ remarked the doctor. ‘I’ll take you along at once in my car. I’ve asked Mrs Rice to pack a few things ready for you to take.’

They disappeared through the door. Challenger caught my arm.

‘I don’t understand. Where are they taking her?’

I explained.

‘Oh! I see. Now, then, Hastings, for God’s sake give me the hang of this thing. What a ghastly tragedy! That poor girl.’

‘Come and have a drink,’ I said. ‘You’re all to pieces.’

‘I don’t mind if I do.’

We adjourned to the dining-room.

‘You see,’ he explained, as he put away a stiff whisky and soda, ‘I thought it was Nick.’

There was very little doubt as to the feelings of Commander George Challenger. A more transparent lover never lived.

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