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Authors: Agatha Christie

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BOOK: Peril at End House
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Miss Buckley rose.

‘I knew they’d be getting in a state. Attaboy—George—here I am.’

‘Freddie’s frantic for a drink. Come on, girl.’

He cast a glance of frank curiosity at Poirot, who must have differed considerably from most of Nick’s friends.

The girl performed a wave of introduction.

‘This is Commander Challenger—er—’

But to my surprise Poirot did not supply the name for which she was waiting. Instead he rose, bowed very ceremoniously and murmured:

‘Of the English Navy. I have a great regard for the English Navy.’

This type of remark is not one that an Englishman acclaims most readily. Commander Challenger flushed and Nick Buckley took command of the situation.

‘Come on, George. Don’t gape. Let’s find Freddie and Jim.’

She smiled at Poirot.

‘Thanks for the cocktail. I hope the ankle will be all right.’

With a nod to me she slipped her hand through the sailor’s arm and they disappeared round the corner together.

‘So that is one of Mademoiselle’s friends,’ murmured Poirot thoughtfully. ‘One of her cheery crowd. What about him? Give me your expert judgement, Hastings. Is he what you call a good fellow—yes?’

Pausing for a moment to try and decide exactly what Poirot thought I should mean by a ‘good fellow’, I gave a doubtful assent.

‘He seems all right—yes,’ I said. ‘So far as one can tell by a cursory glance.’

‘I wonder,’ said Poirot.

The girl had left her hat behind. Poirot stooped to pick it up and twirled it round absent-mindedly on his finger.

‘Has he a
tendresse
for her? What do you think, Hastings?’

‘My dear Poirot! How
can
I tell? Here—give me that hat. The lady will want it. I’ll take it to her.’

Poirot paid no attention to my request. He continued to revolve the hat slowly on his finger.


Pas encore. Ça m’amuse
.’

‘Really, Poirot!’

‘Yes, my friend, I grow old and childish, do I not?’

This was so exactly what I was feeling that I was somewhat disconcerted to have it put into words. Poirot gave a little chuckle, then leaning forward he laid a finger against the side of his nose.

‘But no—I am not so completely imbecile as you think! We will return the hat—but assuredly—but later! We will return it to End House and thus we shall have the opportunity of seeing the charming Miss Nick again.’

‘Poirot,’ I said. ‘I believe you have fallen in love.’

‘She is a pretty girl—eh?’

‘Well—you saw for yourself. Why ask me?’

‘Because, alas! I cannot judge. To me, nowadays, anything young is beautiful.
Jeunesse—jeunesse
…It is the tragedy of my years. But you—I appeal to you! Your judgement is not up-to-date, naturally, having lived in the Argentine so long. You admire the figure of five years ago, but you are at any rate more modern than I am. She is pretty—yes? She has the appeal to the sexes?’

‘One sex is sufficient, Poirot. The answer, I should say, is very much in the affirmative. Why are you so interested in the lady?’

‘Am I interested?’

‘Well—look at what you’ve just being saying.’

‘You are under a misapprehension,
mon ami
. I may be interested in the lady—yes—but I am much more interested in her hat.’

I stared at him, but he appeared perfectly serious.

He nodded his head at me.

‘Yes, Hastings, this very hat.’ He held it towards me. ‘You see the reason for my interest?’

‘It’s a nice hat,’ I said, bewildered. ‘But quite an ordinary hat. Lots of girls have hats like it.’

‘Not like this one.’

I looked at it more closely.

‘You see, Hastings?’

‘A perfectly plain fawn felt. Good style—’

‘I did not ask you to describe the hat. It is plain that you do
not
see. Almost incredible, my poor Hastings, how you hardly ever
do
see! It amazes me every time anew! But regard, my dear old imbecile—it is not necessary to employ the grey cells—the eyes will do. Regard—regard—’

And then at last I saw to what he had been trying to draw my attention. The slowly turning hat was revolving on his finger, and that finger was stuck neatly through a hole in the brim of the hat. When he saw that I had realized his meaning, he drew his finger out and held the hat towards me. It was a small neat hole, quite round, and I could not imagine its purpose, if purpose it had.

‘Did you observe the way Mademoiselle Nick flinched when a bee flew past? The bee in the bonnet—the hole in the hat.’

‘But a bee couldn’t make a hole like that.’

‘Exactly, Hastings! What acumen! It could not.
But a bullet could, mon cher!


A bullet?


Mai oui!
A bullet like
this
.’

He held out his hand with a small object in the palm of it.

‘A spent bullet,
mon ami
. It was that which hit the terrace just now when we were talking. A spent bullet!’

‘You mean—’


I mean that one inch of a difference and that hole would not be through the hat but through the head
. Now do you see why I am interested, Hastings? You were right, my friend, when you told me not to use the word “impossible”. Yes—one is human! Ah! but he made a grave mistake, that would-be murderer, when he shot at his victim within a dozen yards of Hercule Poirot! For him, it is indeed
la mauvaise chance
. But you see now why we must make our entry into End House and get into touch with Mademoiselle?
Three near escapes from death in three days
. That is what she said. We must act quickly, Hastings. The peril is very close at hand.’

‘Poirot,’ I said. ‘I have been thinking.’

‘An admirable exercise, my friend. Continue it.’

We were sitting facing each other at lunch at a small table in the window.

‘This shot must have been fired quite close to us. And yet we did not hear it.’

‘And you think that in the peaceful stillness, with the rippling waves the only sound, we should have done so?’

‘Well, it’s odd.’

‘No, it is not odd. Some sounds—you get used to them so soon that you hardly notice they are there. All this morning, my friend, speedboats have been making trips in the bay. You complained at first—soon, you did not even notice. But,
ma foi
, you could fire a machine gun almost and not notice it when one of those boats is on the sea.’

‘Yes, that’s true.’

‘Ah!
voilà
,’ murmured Poirot. ‘Mademoiselle and her friends. They are to lunch here, it seems. And therefore I must return the hat. But no matter. The affair is sufficiently serious to warrant a visit all on its own.’

He leaped up nimbly from his seat, hurried across the room, and presented the hat with a bow just as Miss Buckley and her companions were seating themselves at table.

They were a party of four, Nick Buckley, Commander Challenger, another man and another girl. From where we sat we had a very imperfect view of them. From time to time the naval man’s laugh boomed out. He seemed a simple, likeable soul, and I had already taken a fancy to him.

My friend was silent and distrait during our meal. He crumbled his bread, made strange little ejaculations to himself and straightened everything on the table. I tried to talk, but meeting with no encouragement soon gave up.

He continued to sit on at the table long after he had finished his cheese. As soon as the other party had left the room, however, he too rose to his feet. They were just settling themselves at a table in the lounge when Poirot marched up to them in his most military fashion, and addressed Nick directly.

‘Mademoiselle, may I crave one little word with you.’

The girl frowned. I realized her feelings clearly enough. She was afraid that this queer little foreigner was going to be a nuisance. I could not but sympathize with her, knowing how it must appear in her eyes. Rather unwillingly, she moved a few steps aside.

Almost immediately I saw an expression of surprise pass over her face at the low hurried words Poirot was uttering.

In the meantime, I was feeling rather awkward and ill at ease. Challenger with ready tact came to my rescue, offering me a cigarette and making some commonplace observation. We had taken each other’s measure and were inclined to be sympathetic to each other. I fancied that I was more his own kind than the man with whom he had been lunching. I now had the opportunity of observing the latter. A tall, fair, rather exquisite young man, with a rather fleshy nose and over-emphasized good looks. He had a supercilious manner and a tired drawl. There was a sleekness about him that I especially disliked.

Then I looked at the woman. She was sitting straight opposite me in a big chair and had just thrown off her hat. She was an unusual type—a weary Madonna describes it best. She had fair, almost colourless hair, parted in the middle and drawn straight down over
her ears to a knot in the neck. Her face was dead white and emaciated—yet curiously attractive. Her eyes were very light grey with large pupils. She had a curious look of detachment. She was staring at me. Suddenly she spoke.

‘Sit down—till your friend has finished with Nick.’

She had an affected voice, languid and artificial—yet which had a curious attraction—a kind of resonant lingering beauty. She impressed me, I think, as the most tired person I had ever met. Tired in mind, not in body, as though she had found everything in the world to be empty and valueless.

‘Miss Buckley very kindly helped my friend when he twisted his ankle this morning,’ I explained as I accepted her offer.

‘So Nick said.’ Her eyes considered me, still detachedly. ‘Nothing wrong with his ankle now, is there?’

I felt myself blushing.

‘Just a momentary sprain,’ I explained.

‘Oh! well—I’m glad to hear Nick didn’t invent the whole thing. She’s the most heaven-sent little liar that ever existed, you know. Amazing—it’s quite a gift.’

I hardly knew what to say. My discomfiture seemed to amuse her.

‘She’s one of my oldest friends,’ she said, ‘and I always think loyalty’s such a tiresome virtue, don’t you? Principally practised by the Scots—like thrift
and keeping the Sabbath. But Nick is a liar, isn’t she, Jim? That marvellous story about the brakes of the car—and Jim says there was nothing in it at all.’

The fair man said in a soft rich voice:

‘I know something about cars.’

He half turned his head. Outside amongst other cars was a long, red car. It seemed longer and redder than any car could be. It had a long gleaming bonnet of polished metal. A super car!

‘Is that your car?’ I asked on a sudden impulse.

He nodded.

‘Yes.’

I had an insane desire to say, ‘It would be!’

Poirot rejoined us at that moment. I rose, he took me by the arm, gave a quick bow to the party, and drew me rapidly away.

‘It is arranged, my friend. We are to call on Mademoiselle at End House at half-past six. She will be returned from the motoring by then. Yes, yes, surely she will have returned—in safety.’

His face was anxious and his tone was worried.

‘What did you say to her?’

‘I asked her to accord me an interview—as soon as possible. She was a little unwilling—naturally. She thinks—I can see the thoughts passing through her mind: ‘Who is he—this little man? Is he the bounder, the upstart, the Moving Picture director?’ If she could have
refused she would—but it is difficult—asked like that on the spur of the moment it is easier to consent. She admits that she will be back by six-thirty.
Ça y est!

I remarked that that seemed to be all right then, but my remark met with little favour. Indeed Poirot was as jumpy as the proverbial cat. He walked about our sitting-room all the afternoon, murmuring to himself and ceaselessly rearranging and straightening the ornaments. When I spoke to him, he waved his hands and shook his head.

In the end we started out from the hotel at barely six o’clock.

‘It seems incredible,’ I remarked, as we descended the steps of the terrace. ‘To attempt to shoot anyone in a hotel garden. Only a madman would do such a thing.’

‘I disagree with you. Given one condition, it would be quite a reasonably safe affair. To begin with the garden is deserted. The people who come to hotels are like a flock of sheep. It is customary to sit on the terrace overlooking the bay—
eh bien
, so everyone sits on the terrace. Only, I who am an original, sit overlooking the garden. And even then, I
saw
nothing. There is plenty of cover, you observe—trees, groups of palms, flowering shrubs. Anyone could hide himself comfortably and be unobserved whilst he waited for Mademoiselle to pass this way. And she would come this way. To come
round by the road from End House would be much longer. Mademoiselle Nick Buckley, she would be of those who are always late and taking the short cut!’

‘All the same, the risk was enormous. He might have been seen—and you can’t make shooting look like an accident.’

‘Not like an
accident
—no.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing—a little idea. I may or may not be justified. Leaving it aside for a moment, there is what I mentioned just now—an essential
condition
.’

‘Which is?’

‘Surely you can tell me, Hastings.’

‘I wouldn’t like to deprive you of the pleasure of being clever at my expense!’

‘Oh! the sarcasm! The irony! Well, what leaps to the eye is this:
the motive cannot be obvious
. If it
were
—why, then, truly the risk would indeed be too great to be taken! People would say: “I wonder if it were So-and-So. Where was So-and-So when the shot was fired?” No, the murderer—the would-be murderer, I should say—cannot be obvious. And that, Hastings is why I am afraid! Yes, at this minute I am afraid. I reassure myself. I say: “There are four of them.” I say: “Nothing can happen when they are all together.” I say: “It would be madness!” And all the time I am afraid. These “accidents”—I want to hear about them!’

He turned back abruptly.

‘It is still early. We will go the other way by the road. The garden has nothing to tell us. Let us inspect the orthodox approach to End House.’

Our way led out of the front gate of the hotel and up a sharp hill to the right. At the top of it was a small lane with a notice on the wall: ‘TO END HOUSE ONLY.’

We followed it and after a few hundred yards the lane gave an abrupt turn and ended in a pair of dilapidated entrance gates, which would have been the better for a coat of paint.

Inside the gates, to the right, was a small lodge. This lodge presented a piquant contrast to the gates and to the condition of the grass-grown drive. The small garden round it was spick and span, the window frames and sashes had been lately painted and there were clean bright curtains at the windows.

Bending over a flower-bed was a man in a faded Norfolk jacket. He straightened up as the gate creaked and turned to look at us. He was a man of about sixty, six foot at least, with a powerful frame and a weather-beaten face. His head was almost completely bald. His eyes were a vivid blue and twinkled. He seemed a genial soul.

‘Good-afternoon,’ he observed as we passed.

I responded in kind and as we went on up the drive
I was conscious of those blue eyes raking our backs inquisitively.

‘I wonder,’ said Poirot, thoughtfully.

He left it at that without vouchsafing any explanation of what it was that he wondered.

The house itself was large and rather dreary looking. It was shut in by trees, the branches of which actually touched the roof. It was clearly in bad repair. Poirot swept it with an appraising glance before ringing the bell—an old-fashioned bell that needed a Herculean pull to produce any effect and which once started, echoed mournfully on and on.

The door was opened by a middle-aged woman—‘a decent woman in black’—so I felt she should be described. Very respectable, rather mournful, completely uninterested.

Miss Buckley, she said, had not yet returned. Poirot explained that we had an appointment. He had some little difficulty in gaining his point, she was the type that is apt to be suspicious of foreigners. Indeed I flatter myself that it was
my
appearance which turned the scale. We were admitted and ushered into the drawing-room to await Miss Buckley’s return.

There was no mournful note here. The room gave on the sea and was full of sunshine. It was shabby and betrayed conflicting styles—ultra modern of a cheap variety superimposed on solid Victorian. The
curtains were of faded brocade, but the covers were new and gay and the cushions were positively hectic. On the walls were hung family portraits. Some of them, I thought, looked remarkably good. There was a gramophone and there were some records lying idly about. There were a portable wireless, practically no books, and one newspaper flung open on the end of the sofa. Poirot picked it up—then laid it down with a grimace. It was the St Loo
Weekly Herald and Directory
. Something impelled him to pick it up a second time, and he was glancing at a column when the door opened and Nick Buckley came into the room.

‘Bring the ice, Ellen,’ she called over her shoulder, then addressed herself to us.

‘Well, here I am—and I’ve shaken off the others. I’m devoured with curiosity. Am I the long-lost heroine that is badly wanted for the Talkies? You were so very solemn’—she addressed herself to Poirot—‘that I feel it can’t be anything else. Do make me a handsome offer.’

‘Alas! Mademoiselle—’ began Poirot.

‘Don’t say it’s the opposite,’ she begged him. ‘Don’t say you paint miniatures and want me to buy one. But no—with that moustache and staying at the Majestic, which has the nastiest food and the highest prices in England—no, it simply can’t be.’

The woman who had opened the door to us came
into the room with ice and a tray of bottles. Nick mixed cocktails expertly, continuing to talk. I think at last Poirot’s silence (so unlike him) impressed itself upon her. She stopped in the very act of filling the glasses and said sharply:

‘Well?’

‘That is what I wish it to be—well, Mademoiselle.’ He took the cocktail from her hand. ‘To your good health, Mademoiselle—to your continued good health.’

The girl was no fool. The significance of his tone was not lost on her.

‘Is—anything the matter?’

‘Yes, Mademoiselle. This…’

He held out his hand to her with the bullet on the palm of it. She picked it up with a puzzled frown.

‘You know what that is?’

‘Yes, of course I know. It’s a bullet.’

‘Exactly. Mademoiselle—it was not a wasp that flew past your face this morning—it was this bullet.’

‘Do you mean—was some criminal idiot shooting bullets in a hotel garden?’

‘It would seem so.’

‘Well, I’m damned,’ said Nick frankly. ‘I do seem to bear a charmed life. That’s number four.’

‘Yes,’ said Poirot. ‘That is number four. I want, Mademoiselle, to hear about the other three—accidents.’

She stared at him.

‘I want to be very sure, Mademoiselle, that they were—
accidents
.’

‘Why, of course! What else could they be?’

‘Mademoiselle, prepare yourself, I beg, for a great shock. What if someone is attempting your life?’

All Nick’s response to this was a burst of laughter. The idea seemed to amuse her hugely.

‘What a marvellous idea! My dear man, who on earth do you think would attempt my life? I’m not the beautiful young heiress whose death releases millions. I wish somebody
was
trying to kill me—that
would
be a thrill, if you like—but I’m afraid there’s not a hope!’

‘Will you tell me, Mademoiselle, about those accidents?’

BOOK: Peril at End House
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