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Authors: Agatha Christie

While the Light Lasts

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Agatha Christie
While the Light Lasts

Background notes by Tony Medawar

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
–originally published as
Ten Little Niggers
–(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 a dozen 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

I

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.

II

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.

BOOK: While the Light Lasts
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