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Authors: Agatha Christie

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There was dancing that evening at the hotel. Nick Buckley dined there with her friends and waved a gay greeting to us.

She was dressed that evening in floating scarlet chiffon that dragged on the floor. Out of it rose her white neck and shoulders and her small impudent dark head.

‘An engaging young devil,’ I remarked.

‘A contrast to her friend—eh?’

Frederica Rice was in white. She danced with a languorous weary grace that was as far removed from Nick’s animation as anything could be.

‘She is very beautiful,’ said Poirot suddenly.

‘Who? Our Nick?’

‘No—the other. Is she evil? Is she good? Is she merely unhappy? One cannot tell. She is a mystery. She is, perhaps, nothing at all. But I tell you, my friend, she is an
allumeuse
.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked curiously.

He shook his head, smiling.

‘You will feel it sooner or later. Remember my words.’

Presently to my surprise, he rose. Nick was dancing with George Challenger. Frederica and Lazarus had just stopped and had sat down at their table. Then Lazarus got up and went away. Mrs Rice was alone. Poirot went straight to her table. I followed him.

His methods were direct and to the point.

‘You permit?’ He laid a hand on the back of a chair, then slid into it. ‘I am anxious to have a word with you while your friend is dancing.’

‘Yes?’ Her voice sounded cool, uninterested.

‘Madame, I do not know whether your friend has told you. If not, I will. Today her life has been attempted.’

Her great grey eyes widened in horror and surprise. The pupils, dilated black pupils, widened too.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mademoiselle Buckley was shot at in the garden of this hotel.’

She smiled suddenly—a gentle, pitying, incredulous smile.

‘Did Nick tell you so?’

‘No, Madame, I happened to see it with my own eyes. Here is the bullet.’

He held it out to her and she drew back a little.

‘But, then—but, then—’

‘It is no fantasy of Mademoiselle’s imagination, you understand. I vouch for that. And there is more. Several very curious accidents have happened in the last few days. You will have heard—no, perhaps you will not. You only arrived yesterday, did you not?’

‘Yes—yesterday.’

‘Before that you were staying with friends, I understand. At Tavistock.’

‘Yes.’

‘I wonder, Madame, what were the names of the friends with whom you were staying.’

She raised her eyebrows.

‘Is there any reason why I should tell you that?’ she asked coldly.

Poirot was immediately all innocent surprise.

‘A thousandpardons, Madame. I was most
maladroit
. But I myself, having friends at Tavistock, fancied that you might have met them there…Buchanan—that is the name of my friends.’

Mrs Rice shook her head.

‘I don’t remember them. I don’t think I can have met them.’ Her tone now was quite cordial. ‘Don’t let us talk about boring people. Go on about Nick. Who shot at her? Why?’

‘I do not know who—
as yet
, said Poirot. ‘But I shall find out. Oh! yes, I shall find out. I am, you know, a
detective. Hercule Poirot is my name.’

‘A very famous name.’

‘Madame is too kind.’

She said slowly:

‘What do you want me to do?’

I think she surprised us both there. We had not expected just that.

‘I will ask you, Madame, to watch over your friend.’

‘I will.’

‘That is all.’

He got up, made a quick bow, and we returned to our own table.

‘Poirot,’ I said, ‘aren’t you showing your hand very plainly?’


Mon ami
, what else can I do? It lacks subtlety, perhaps, but it makes for safety.
I can take no chances
. At any rate one thing emerges plain to see.’

‘What is that?’


Mrs Rice was not at Tavistock
. Where was she? Ah! but I will find out. Impossible to keep information from Hercule Poirot. See—the handsome Lazarus has returned. She is telling him. He looks over at us. He is clever, that one. Note the shape of his head. Ah! I wish I knew—’

‘What?’ I asked, as he came to a stop.

‘What I shall know on Monday,’ he returned, ambiguously.

I looked at him but said nothing. He sighed.

‘You have no longer the curiosity, my friend. In the old days—’

‘There are some pleasures,’ I said, coldly, ‘that it is good for you to do without.’

‘You mean—?’

‘The pleasure of refusing to answer questions.’

‘Ah c’est malin.’

‘Quite so.’

‘Ah, well, well,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The strong silent man beloved of novelists in the Edwardian age.’

His eyes twinkled with their old glint.

Nick passed our table shortly afterwards. She detached herself from her partner and swooped down on us like a gaily-coloured bird.

‘Dancing on the edge of death,’ she said lightly.

‘It is a new sensation, Mademoiselle?’

‘Yes. Rather fun.’

She was off again, with a wave of her hand.

‘I wish she hadn’t said that,’ I said, slowly.

‘Dancing on the edge of death. I don’t like it.’

‘I know. It is too near the truth. She has courage, that little one. Yes, she has courage. But unfortunately it is not courage that is needed at this moment. Caution, not courage—
voilàce qu’il nous faut!

The following day was Sunday. We were sitting on the terrace in front of the hotel, and it was about half-past
eleven when Poirot suddenly rose to his feet.

‘Come, my friend. We will try a little experiment. I have ascertained that M. Lazarus and Madame have gone out in the car and Mademoiselle with them. The coast is clear.’

‘Clear for what?’

‘You shall see.’

We walked down the steps and across a short stretch of grass to the sea. A couple of bathers were coming up it. They passed us laughing and talking.

When they had gone, Poirot walked to the point where an inconspicuous small gate, rather rusty on its hinges, bore the words in half obliterated letters, ‘End House. Private.’ There was no one in sight. We passed quietly through.

In another minute we came out on the stretch of lawn in front of the house. There was no one about. Poirot strolled to the edge of the cliff and looked over. Then he walked towards the house itself. The French windows on to the verandah were open and we passed straight into the drawing-room. Poirot wasted no time there. He opened the door and went out into the hall. From there he mounted the stairs, I at his heels. He went straight to Nick’s bedroom—sat down on the edge of the bed and nodded to me with a twinkle.

‘You see, my friend, how easy it is. No one has seen us come. No one will see us go. We could do any little
affair we had to do in perfect safety. We could, for instance, fray through a picture wire so that it would be bound to snap before many hours had passed. And supposing that by chance anyone did happen to be in front of the house and see us coming. Then we would have a perfectly natural excuse—providing that we were known as friends of the house.’

‘You mean that we can rule out a stranger?’

‘That is what I mean, Hastings. It is no stray lunatic who is at the bottom of this. We must look nearer home than that.’

He turned to leave the room and I followed him. We neither of us spoke. We were both, I think, troubled in mind.

And then, at the bend of the staircase, we both stopped abruptly. A man was coming up.

He too stopped. His face was in shadow but his attitude was one of one completely taken aback. He was the first to speak, in a loud, rather bullying voice.

‘What the hell are you doing here, I’d like to know?’

‘Ah!’ said Poirot. ‘Monsieur—Croft, I think?’

‘That’s my name, but what—’

‘Shall we go into the drawing-room to converse? It would be better, I think.’

The other gave way, turned abruptly and descended, we following close on his heels. In the drawing-room,
with the door shut, Poirot made a little bow.

‘I will introduce myself. Hercule Poirot at your service.’

The other’s face cleared a little.

‘Oh!’ he said slowly. ‘You’re the detective chap. I’ve read about you.’

‘In the St Loo
Herald
?’

‘Eh? I’ve read about you way back in Australia. French, aren’t you?’

‘Belgian. It makes no matter. This is my friend, Captain Hastings.’

‘Glad to meet you. But look, what’s the big idea? What are you doing here? Anything—wrong?’

‘It depends what you call—wrong.’

The Australian nodded. He was a fine-looking man in spite of his bald head and advancing years. His physique was magnificent. He had a heavy, rather underhung face—a crude face, I called it to myself. The piercing blue of his eyes was the most noticeable thing about him.

‘See here,’ he said. ‘I came round to bring little Miss Buckley a handful of tomatoes and a cucumber. That man of hers is no good—bone idle—doesn’t grow a thing. Lazy hound. Mother and I—why, it makes us mad, and we feel it’s only neighbourly to do what we can! We’ve got a lot more tomatoes than we can eat. Neighbours should be matey, don’t you think? I
came in, as usual, through the window and dumped the basket down. I was just going off again when I heard footsteps and men’s voices overhead. That struck me as odd. We don’t deal much in burglars round here—but after all it was possible. I thought I’d just make sure everything was all right. Then I met you two on the stairs coming down. It gave me a bit of a surprise. And now you tell me you’re a bonza detective. What’s it all about?’

‘It is very simple,’ said Poirot, smiling. ‘Mademoiselle had a rather alarming experience the other night. A picture fell above her bed. She may have told you of it?’

‘She did. A mighty fine escape.’

‘To make all secure I promised to bring her some special chain—it will not do to repeat the occurrence, eh? She tells me she is going out this morning, but I may come and measure what amount of chain will be needed.
Voilà
—it is simple.’

He flung out his hands with a childlike simplicity and his most engaging smile.

Croft drew a deep breath.

‘So that’s all it is?’

‘Yes—you have had the scare for nothing. We are very law-abiding citizens, my friend and I.’

‘Didn’t I see you yesterday?’ said Croft, slowly. ‘Yesterday evening it was. You passed our little place.’

‘Ah! yes, you were working in the garden and were so polite as to say good-afternoon when we passed.’

‘That’s right. Well—well. And you’re the Monsieur Hercule Poirot I’ve heard so much about. Tell me, are you busy, Mr Poirot? Because if not, I wish you’d come back with me now—have a cup of morning tea, Australian fashion, and meet my old lady. She’s read all about you in the newspapers.’

‘You are too kind, M. Croft. We have nothing to do and shall be delighted.’

‘That’s fine.’

‘You have the measurements correctly, Hastings?’ asked Poirot, turning to me.

I assured him that I had the measurements correctly and we accompanied our new friend.

Croft was a talker; we soon realized that. He told us of his home near Melbourne, of his early struggles, of his meeting with his wife, of their combined efforts and of his final good fortune and success.

‘Right away we made up our minds to travel,’ he said. ‘We’d always wanted to come to the old country. Well, we did. We came down to this part of the world—tried to look up some of my wife’s people—they came from round about here. But we couldn’t trace any of them. Then we took a trip on the Continent—Paris, Rome, the Italian Lakes, Florence—all those places. It was while we were in Italy that we had the train accident.
My poor wife was badly smashed up. Cruel, wasn’t it? I’ve taken her to the best doctors and they all say the same—there’s nothing for it but time—time and lying up. It’s an injury to the spine.’

‘What a misfortune!’

‘Hard luck, isn’t it? Well, there it was. And she’d only got one kind of fancy—to come down here. She kind of felt if we had a little place of our own—something small—it would make all the difference. We saw a lot of messy-looking shacks, and then by good luck we found this. Nice and quiet and tucked away—no cars passing, or gramophones next door. I took it right away.’

With the last words we had come to the lodge itself. He sent his voice echoing forth in a loud ‘Cooee,’ to which came an answering ‘Cooee.’

‘Come in,’ said Mr Croft. He passed through the open door and up the short flight of stairs to a pleasant bedroom. There, on a sofa, was a stout middle-aged woman with pretty grey hair and a very sweet smile.

‘Who do you think this is, mother?’ said Mr Croft. ‘The extra-special, world-celebrated detective, Mr Hercule Poirot. I brought him right along to have a chat with you.’

‘If that isn’t too exciting for words,’ cried Mrs Croft, shaking Poirot warmly by the hand. ‘Read about that Blue Train business, I did, and you just happening to be on it, and a lot about your other cases. Since this
trouble with my back, I’ve read all the detective stories that ever were, I should think. Nothing else seems to pass the time away so quick. Bert, dear, call out to Edith to bring the tea along.’

‘Right you are, mother.’

‘She’s a kind of nurse attendant, Edith is,’ Mrs Croft explained. ‘She comes along each morning to fix me up. We’re not bothering with servants. Bert’s as good a cook and a house-parlourman as you’d find anywhere, and it gives him occupation—that and the garden.’

‘Here we are,’ cried Mr Croft, reappearing with a tray. ‘Here’s the tea. This is a great day in our lives, mother.’

‘I suppose you’re staying down here, Mr Poirot?’ Mrs Croft asked, as she leaned over a little and wielded the teapot.

‘Why, yes, Madame, I take the holiday.’

‘But surely I read that you had retired—that you’d taken a holiday for good and all.’

‘Ah! Madame, you must not believe everything you read in the papers.’

‘Well, that’s true enough. So you still carry on business?’

‘When I find a case that interests me.’

BOOK: Peril at End House
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