The Gipsy By Agatha Christie
‘The Gipsy’ was first published in the hardback The
Hound of Death and Other Stories (Odhams Press,
1933). No previous appearances have been found.
Macfarlane had often noticed that his friend, Dickie Carpenter, had a strange aversion to gipsies. He had never known the reason for it. But when Dickie’s engagement to Esther Lawes was broken off, there was a momentary tearing down of reserves between the two men.
Macfarlane had been engaged to the younger sister, Rachel, for about a year. He had known both the Lawes girls since they were children. Slow and cautious in all things, he had been unwilling to admit to himself the growing attraction that Rachel’s childlike face and honest brown eyes had for him. Not a beauty like Esther, no! But unutterably truer and sweeter. With Dickie’s engagement to the elder sister, the bond between the two men seemed to be drawn closer.
And now, after a few brief weeks, that engagement was off again, and Dickie, simple Dickie, hard hit. So far in his young life all had gone so smoothly. His career in the Navy had been well chosen. His craving for the sea was inborn. There was something of the Viking about him, primitive and direct, a nature on which subtleties of thought were wasted. He belonged to that inarticulate order of young Englishmen who dislike any form of emotion, and who find it peculiarly hard to explain their mental processes in words.
Macfarlane, that dour Scot, with a Celtic imagination hidden away somewhere, listened and smoked while his friend floundered along in a sea of words. He had known an unburdening was coming. But he had expected the subject matter to be different. To begin with, anyway, there was no mention of Esther Lawes. Only, it seemed, the story of a childish terror.
‘It all started with a dream I had when I was a kid. Not a nightmare exactly. She – the gipsy, you know – would just come into any old dream – even a good dream (or a kid’s idea of what’s good – a party and crackers and things). I’d be enjoying myself no end, and then I’d feel, I’d know, that if I looked up, she’d be there, standing as she always stood, watching me . . . With sad eyes, you know, as though she understood something that I didn’t . . . Can’t explain why it rattled me so – but it did! Every time! I used to wake up howling with terror, and my old nurse used to say: “There! Master Dickie’s had one of his gipsy dreams again!”’
‘Ever been frightened by real gipsies?’
‘Never saw one till later. That was queer, too. I was chasing a pup of mine. He’d run away. I got through the garden door, and along one of the forest paths. We lived in the New Forest then, you know. I came to a sort of clearing at the end, with a wooden bridge over a stream. And just beside it a gipsy was standing – with a red handkerchief over her head – just the same as in my dream. And at once I was frightened! She looked at me, you know . . . Just the same look – as though she knew something I didn’t, and was sorry about it . . . And then she said quite quietly, nodding her head at me: “I shouldn’ go that way, if I were you.” I can’t tell you why, but it frightened me to death. I dashed past her on to the bridge. I suppose it was rotten. Anyway, it gave way, and I was chucked into the stream. It was running pretty fast, and I was nearly drowned. Beastly to be nearly drowned. I’ve never forgotten it. And I felt it had all to do with the gipsy .
‘Actually, though, she warned you against it?’
‘I suppose you could put it like that,’ Dickie paused, then went on: ‘I’ve told you about this dream of mine, not because it has anything to do with what happened after (at least, I suppose it hasn’t), but because it’s the jumping off point, as it were. You’ll understand now what I mean by the “gipsy feeling.” So I’ll go on to that first night at the Lawes’. I’d just come back from the west coast then. It was awfully rum to be in England again. The Lawes were old friends of my people’s. I hadn’t seen the girls since I was about seven, but young Arthur was a great pal of mine, and after he died, Esther used to write to me, and send me out papers. Awfully jolly letters, she wrote! Cheered me up no end. I always wished I was a better hand at writing back. I was awfully keen to see her. It seemed odd to know a girl quite well from her letters, and not otherwise. Well, I went down to the Lawes’ place first thing. Esther was away when I arrived, but was expected back that evening. I sat next to Rachel at dinner, and as I looked up and down the long table a queer feeling came over me. I felt someone was watching me, and it made me uncomfortable. Then I saw her -‘
‘Saw who -‘
‘Mrs Haworth – what I’m telling you about.’
It was on the tip of Macfarlane’s tongue to say: ‘I thought you were telling me about Esther Lawes.’ But he remained silent, and Dickie went on.
‘There was something about her quite different from all the rest. She was sitting next to old Lawes – listening to him very gravely with her head bent down. She had some of that red tulle stuff round her neck. It had got torn, I think, anyway it stood up behind her head like little tongues of flame . . . I said to Rachel: “Who’s that woman over there. Dark – with a red scarf?”
‘“Do you mean Alistair Haworth? She’s got a red scarf. But she’s fair. Very fair.”
‘So she was, you know. Her hair was a lovely pale shining yellow. Yet I could have sworn positively she was dark. Queer what tricks one’s eyes play on one . . . After dinner, Rachel introduced us, and we walked up and down in the garden. We talked about reincarnation . . .’
‘Rather out of your line, Dickie!’
‘I suppose it is. I remember saying that it seemed to be a jolly sensible way of accounting for how one seems to know some people right off – as if you’d met them before. She said: “You mean lovers . . .” There was something queer about the way she said it – something soft and eager. It reminded me of something – but I couldn’t remember what. We went on jawing a bit, and then old Lawes called us from the terrace – said Esther had come, and wanted to see me. Mrs Haworth put her hand on my arm and said: “You’re going in?” “Yes,” I said. “I suppose we’d better,” and then – then -‘
‘It sounds such rot. Mrs Haworth said: “I shouldn’t go in if I were you . . .”’ He paused. ‘It frightened me, you know. It frightened me badly. That’s why I told you about the dream . . . Because, you see, she said it just the same way – quietly, as though she knew something I didn’t. It wasn’t just a pretty woman who wanted to keep me out in the garden with her. Her voice was just kind – and very sorry. Almost as though she knew what was to come . . . I suppose it was rude, but I turned and left her – almost ran to the house. It seemed like safety. I knew then that I’d been afraid of her from the first. It was a relief to see old Lawes. Esther was there beside him . . .’ He hesitated a minute and then muttered rather obscurely: ‘There was no question – the moment I saw her. I knew I’d got it in the neck.’
Macfarlane’s mind flew swiftly to Esther Lawes. He had once heard her summed up as ‘Six foot one of Jewish perfection.’ A shrewd portrait, he thought, as he remembered her unusual height and the long slender—
ness of her, the marble whiteness of her face with its delicate down-drooping nose, and the black splendour of hair and eyes. Yes, he did not wonder that the boyish simplicity of Dickie had capitulated. Esther could never have made his own pulses beat one jot faster, but he admitted her magnificence.
‘And then,’ continued Dickie, ‘we got engaged.’
‘Well, after about a week. It took her about a fortnight after that to find out that she didn’t care after all . . .’ He gave a short bitter laugh.
‘It was the last evening before I went back to the old ship. I was coming back from the village through the woods – and then I saw her – Mrs Haworth, I mean. She had on a red tam-o’-shanter, and – just for a minute, you know – it made me jump! I’ve told you about my dream, so you’ll understand . . . Then we walked along a bit. Not that there was a word Esther couldn’t have heard, you know . . .’
‘No?’ Macfarlane looked at his friend curiously. Strange how people told you things of which they themselves were unconscious!
‘And then, when I was turning to go back to the house, she stopped me. She said: “You’ll be home soon enough. I shouldn’t go back too soon if I were you . . .” And then I knew – that there was something beastly waiting for me . . . and . . . as soon as I got back Esther met me, and told me – that she’d found out she didn’t really care . . .’
Macfarlane grunted sympathetically.
‘And Mrs Haworth?’ he asked. ‘I never saw her again – until tonight.’
‘Yes. At the doctor johnny’s nursing home. They had a look at my leg, the one that got messed up in that torpedo business. It’s worried me a bit lately. The old chap advised an operation – it’ll be quite a simple thing. Then as I left the place, I ran into a girl in a red jumper over her nurse’s things, and she said: “I wouldn’t have that operation, if I were you . . .” Then I saw it was Mrs Haworth. She passed on so quickly I couldn’t stop her. I met another nurse, and asked about her. But she said there wasn’t anyone of that name in the home . . . Queer . . .’
‘Sure it was her?’
‘Oh! yes, you see – she’s very beautiful . . .’ He paused, and then added: ‘I shall have the old op, of course – but – but in case my number should be up -‘
‘Of course it’s rot. But all the same I’m glad I told you about this gipsy business . . . You know, there’s more of it if only I could remember . . .’
Macfarlane walked up the steep moorland road. He turned in at the gate of the house near the crest of the hill. Setting his jaw squarely, he pulled the bell.
‘Is Mrs Haworth in?’
‘Yes, sir. I’ll tell her.’ The maid left him in a low long room, with windows that gave on the wildness of the moorland. He frowned a little. Was he making a colossal ass of himself?
Then he started. A low voice was singing overhead:
‘The gipsy woman
Lives on the moor -‘
The voice broke off. Macfarlane’s heart beat a shade faster. The door opened.
The bewildering, almost Scandinavian fairness of her came as a shock. In spite of Dickie’s description, he had imagined her gipsy dark . . . And he suddenly remembered Dickie’s words, and the peculiar tone of them. ‘You see, she’s very beautiful . . .‘ Perfect unquestionable beauty is rare, and perfect unquestionable beauty was what Alistair Haworth possessed.
He caught himself up, and advanced towards her. ‘I’m afraid you don’t know me from Adam. I got your address from the Lawes. But – I’m a friend of Dickie Carpenter’s.’
She looked at him closely for a minute or two. Then she said: ‘I was going out. Up on the moor. Will you come too?’
She pushed open the window, and stepped out on the hillside. He followed her. A heavy, rather foolish-looking man was sitting in a basket-chair smoking.
‘My husband! We’re going out on the moor, Maurice. And then Mr Macfarlane will come back to lunch with us. You will, won’t you?’
‘Thanks very much.’ He followed her easy stride up the hill, and thought to himself: ‘Why? Why, on God’s earth, marry that?‘
Alistair made her way to some rocks. ‘We’ll sit here. And you shall tell me – what you came to tell me.’
‘I always know when bad things are coming. It is bad, isn’t it? About Dickie?’
‘He underwent a slight operation – quite successfully. But his heart must have been weak. He died under the anaesthetic.’
What he expected to see on her face, he scarcely knew – hardly that look of utter eternal weariness . . . He heard her murmur: ‘Again – to wait – so long – so long . . .’ She looked up: ‘Yes, what were you going to say?’
‘Only this. Someone warned him against this operation. A nurse. He thought it was you. Was it?’
She shook her head. ‘No, it wasn’t me. But I’ve got a cousin who is a nurse. She’s rather like me in a dim light. I dare say that was it.’ She looked up at him again. ‘It doesn’t matter, does it?’ And then suddenly her eyes widened. She drew in her breath. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Oh! How funny! You don’t understand . . .’
Macfarlane was puzzled. She was still staring at him. ‘I thought you did . . .
You should do. You look as though you’d got it, too . . .’
‘The gift – curse – call it what you like. I believe you have. Look hard at that hollow in the rocks. Don’t think of anything, just look . . . Ah!’ she marked his slight start. ‘Well – you saw something?’
‘It must have been imagination. Just for a second I saw it full of blood!’ She nodded. ‘I knew you had it. That’s the place where the old sunworshippers sacrificed victims. I knew that before anyone told me. And there are times when I know just how they felt about it – almost as though I’d been there myself . . . And there’s something about the moor that makes me feel as though I were coming back home . . . Of course it’s natural that I should have the gift. I’m a Ferguesson. There’s second sight in the family. And my mother was a medium until my father married her. Cristing was her name. She was rather celebrated.’
‘Do you mean by “the gift” the power of being able to see things before they happen?’
‘Yes, forwards or backwards – it’s all the same. For instance, I saw you wondering why I married Maurice – oh! yes, you did! – It’s simply because I’ve always known that there’s something dreadful hanging over him . . . I wanted to save him from it . . . Women are like that. With my gift, I ought to be able to prevent it happening . . . if one ever can . . . I couldn’t help Dickie. And Dickie wouldn’t understand . . . He was afraid. He was very young.’
‘And I’m thirty. But I didn’t mean that. There are so many ways of being divided, length and height and breadth . . . but to be divided by time is the worst way of all . . .’ She fell into a long brooding silence.
The low peal of a gong from the house below roused them.
At lunch, Macfarlane watched Maurice Haworth. He was undoubtedly madly in love with his wife. There was the unquestioning happy fondness of a dog in his eyes. Macfarlane marked also the tenderness of her response, with its hint of maternity. After lunch he took his leave.
‘I’m staying down at the inn for a day or so. May I come and see you again? Tomorrow, perhaps?’
‘Of course. But -‘
‘But what -‘
She brushed her hand quickly across her eyes. ‘I don’t know. I – I fancied that we shouldn’t meet again – that’s all . . . Good-bye.’
He went down the road slowly. In spite of himself, a cold hand seemed tightening round his heart. Nothing in her words, of course, but –
A motor swept round the corner. He flattened himself against the hedge . . . only just in time. A curious greyish pallor crept across his face . . .
‘Good Lord, my nerves are in a rotten state,’ muttered Macfarlane, as he awoke the following morning. He reviewed the events of the afternoon before dispassionately. The motor, the short-cut to the inn and the sudden mist that had made him lose his way with the knowledge that a dangerous bog was no distance off. Then the chimney pot that had fallen off the inn, and the smell of burning in the night which he had traced to a cinder on his hearthrug. Nothing in it at all! Nothing at all – but for her words, and that deep unacknowledged certainty in his heart that she knew . . .
He flung off his bedclothes with sudden energy. He must go up and see her first thing. That would break the spell. That is, if he got there safely . . . Lord, what a fool he was!
He could eat little breakfast. Ten o’clock saw him starting up the road. At ten- thirty his hand was on the bell. Then, and not till then, he permitted himself to draw a long breath of relief.
‘Is Mr Haworth in?’
It was the same elderly woman who had opened the door before. But her face was different – ravaged with grief.
‘Oh! sir, oh! sir, you haven’t heard then?’
‘Miss Alistair, the pretty lamb. It was her tonic. She took it every night. The poor captain is beside himself, he’s nearly mad. He took the wrong bottle off the shelf in the dark . . . They sent for the doctor, but he was too late -‘
And swiftly there recurred to Macfarlane the words: ‘I’ve always known there was something dreadful hanging over him. I ought to be able to prevent it happening – if one ever can -‘ Ah! but one couldn’t cheat Fate . . . Strange fatality of vision that had destroyed where it sought to save . . .
The old servant went on: ‘My pretty lamb! So sweet and gentle she was, and so sorry for anything in trouble. Couldn’t bear anyone to be hurt.’ She hesitated, then added: ‘Would you like to go up and see her, sir? I think, from what she said, that you must have known her long ago. A very long time ago, she said . . .’
Macfarlane followed the old woman up the stairs, into the room over the drawing-room where he had heard the voice singing the day before. There was stained glass at the top of the windows. It threw a red light on the head of the bed . . . A gipsy with a red handkerchief over her head . . . Nonsense, his nerves were playing tricks again. He took a long last look at Alistair Haworth.
‘There’s a lady to see you, sir.’
‘Eh?’ Macfarlane looked at the landlady abstractedly. ‘Oh! I beg your pardon,
Mrs Rowse, I’ve been seeing ghosts.’
‘Not really, sir? There’s queer things to be seen on the moor after nightfall, I know. There’s the white lady, and the Devil’s blacksmith, and the sailor and the gipsy –‘
‘What’s that? A sailor and a gipsy?’
‘So they say, sir. It was quite a tale in my young days. Crossed in love they were, a while back . . . But they’ve not walked for many a long day now.’
‘No? I wonder if perhaps – they will again now . . .’
‘Lor! sir, what things you do say! About that young lady -‘
‘What young lady?’
‘The one that’s waiting to see you. She’s in the parlour. Miss Lawes, she said her name was.’
Rachel! He felt a curious feeling of contraction, a shifting of perspective. He had been peeping through at another world. He had forgotten Rachel, for Rachel belonged to this life only . . . Again that curious shifting of perspective, that slipping back to a world of three dimensions only.
He opened the parlour door. Rachel – with her honest brown eyes. And suddenly, like a man awakening from a dream, a warm rush of glad reality swept over him. He was alive – alive! He thought: ‘There’s only one life one can be sure about! This one!’
‘Rachel!’ he said, and, lifting her chin, he kissed her lips.