The Dream
by Agatha Christie — (narrated by Hugh Fraser)

THE DREAM

Hercule Poirot gave the house a steady appraising glance. His eyes wandered a moment to its surroundings, the shops, the big factory building on the right, the blocks of cheap mansion flats opposite.

Then once more his eyes returned to Northway House, relic of an earlier age—an age of space and leisure, when green fields had surrounded its well-bred arrogance. Now it was an anachronism, submerged and forgotten in the hectic sea of modern London, and not one man in fifty could have told you where it stood.

Furthermore, very few people could have told you to whom it belonged, though its owner’s name would have been recognized as one of the world’s richest men. But money can quench publicity as well as flaunt it. Benedict Farley, that eccentric millionaire, chose not to advertise his choice of residence. He himself was rarely seen, seldom making a public appearance. From time to time, he appeared at board meetings, his lean figure, beaked nose, and rasping voice easily dominating the assembled directors. Apart from that, he was just a well-known figure of legend. There were his strange meannesses, his incredible generosities, as well as more personal details—his famous patchwork dressing gown, now reputed to be twenty-eight years old, his invariable diet of cabbage soup and caviare, his hatred of cats. All these things the public knew.

Hercule Poirot knew them also. It was all he did know of the man he was about to visit. The letter which was in his coat pocket told him little more.

After surveying this melancholy landmark of a past age for a minute or two in silence, he walked up the steps to the front door and pressed the bell, glancing as he did so at the neat wristwatch which had at last replaced an old favourite—the large turnip-faced watch of earlier days. Yes, it was exactly nine thirty. As ever, Hercule Poirot was exact to the minute.

The door opened after just the right interval. A perfect specimen of the genus butler stood outlined against the lighted hall.

“Mr. Benedict Farley?” asked Hercule Poirot.

The impersonal glance surveyed him from head to foot, inoffensively but effectively.

En gros et en détail, thought Hercule Poirot to himself with appreciation.

“You have an appointment, sir?” asked the suave voice.

“Yes.”

“Your name, sir?”

“Monsieur Hercule Poirot.”

The butler bowed and drew back. Hercule Poirot entered the house. The butler closed the door behind him.

But there was yet one more formality before the deft hands took hat and stick from the visitor.

“You will excuse me, sir. I was to ask for a letter.”

With deliberation Poirot took from his pocket the folded letter and handed it to the butler. The latter gave it a mere glance, then returned it with a bow. Hercule Poirot returned it to his pocket. Its contents were simple.

Northway House, W.8

M. Hercule Poirot

Dear Sir,

Mr. Benedict Farley would like to have the benefit of your advice. If convenient to yourself he would be glad if you would call upon him at the above address at 9:30 tomorrow (Thursday) evening.

Yours truly,

HUGO CORNWORTHY

(Secretary)

P.S. Please bring this letter with you.

Deftly the butler relieved Poirot of hat, stick and overcoat. He said:

“Will you please come up to Mr. Cornworthy’s room?”

He led the way up the broad staircase. Poirot followed him, looking with appreciation at such objets d’art as were of an opulent and florid nature! His taste in art was always somewhat bourgeois.

On the first floor the butler knocked on a door.

Hercule Poirot’s eyebrows rose very slightly. It was the first jarring note. For the best butlers do not knock at doors—and yet indubitably this was a first-class butler!

It was, so to speak, the first intimation of contact with the eccentricity of a millionaire.

A voice from within called out something. The butler threw open the door. He announced (and again Poirot sensed the deliberate departure from orthodoxy):

“The gentleman you are expecting, sir.”

Poirot passed into the room. It was a fair-sized room, very plainly furnished in a workmanlike fashion. Filing cabinets, books of reference, a couple of easy chairs, and a large and imposing desk covered with neatly docketed papers. The corners of the room were dim, for the only light came from a big green-shaded reading lamp which stood on a small table by the arm of one of the easy chairs. It was placed so as to cast its full light on anyone approaching from the door. Hercule Poirot blinked a little, realizing that the lamp bulb was at least 150 watts. In the armchair sat a thin figure in a patchwork dressing gown—Benedict Farley. His head was stuck forward in a characteristic attitude, his beaked nose projecting like that of a bird. A crest of white hair like that of a cockatoo rose above his forehead. His eyes glittered behind thick lenses as he peered suspiciously at his visitor.

“Hey,” he said at last—and his voice was shrill and harsh, with a rasping note in it. “So you’re Hercule Poirot, hey?”

“At your service,” said Poirot politely and bowed, one hand on the back of the chair.

“Sit down—sit down,” said the old man testily.

Hercule Poirot sat down—in the full glare of the lamp. From behind it the old man seemed to be studying him attentively.

“How do I know you’re Hercule Poirot—hey?” he demanded fretfully. “Tell me that—hey?”

Once more Poirot drew the letter from his pocket and handed it to Farley.

“Yes,” admitted the millionaire grudgingly. “That’s it. That’s what I got Cornworthy to write.” He folded it up and tossed it back. “So you’re the fellow, are you?”

With a little wave of his hand Poirot said:

“I assure you there is no deception!”

Benedict Farley chuckled suddenly.

“That’s what the conjurer says before he takes the goldfish out of the hat! Saying that is part of the trick, you know!”

Poirot did not reply. Farley said suddenly:

“Think I’m a suspicious old man, hey? So I am. Don’t trust anybody! That’s my motto. Can’t trust anybody when you’re rich. No, no, it doesn’t do.”

“You wished,” Poirot hinted gently, “to consult me?”

The old man nodded.

“Go to the expert and don’t count the cost. You’ll notice, M. Poirot, I haven’t asked you your fee. I’m not going to! Send me in the bill later—I shan’t cut up rough over it. Damned fools at the dairy thought they could charge me two and nine for eggs when two and seven’s the market price—lot of swindlers! I won’t be swindled. But the man at the top’s different. He’s worth the money. I’m at the top myself—I know.”

Hercule Poirot made no reply. He listened attentively, his head poised a little on one side.

Behind his impassive exterior he was conscious of a feeling of disappointment. He could not exactly put his finger on it. So far Benedict Farley had run true to type—that is, he had conformed to the popular idea of himself; and yet—Poirot was disappointed.

“The man,” he said disgustedly to himself, “is a mountebank—nothing but a mountebank!”

He had known other millionaires, eccentric men too, but in nearly every case he had been conscious of a certain force, an inner energy that had commanded his respect. If they had worn a patchwork dressing gown, it would have been because they liked wearing such a dressing gown. But the dressing gown of Benedict Farley, or so it seemed to Poirot, was essentially a stage property. And the man himself was essentially stagy. Every word he spoke was uttered, so Poirot felt assured, sheerly for effect.

He repeated again unemotionally, “You wished to consult me, Mr. Farley?”

Abruptly the millionaire’s manner changed.

He leaned forward. His voice dropped to a croak.

“Yes. Yes . . . I want to hear what you’ve got to say—what you think . . . Go to the top! That’s my way! The best doctor—the best detective—it’s between the two of them.”

“As yet, Monsieur, I do not understand.”

“Naturally,” snapped Farley. “I haven’t begun to tell you.”

He leaned forward once more and shot out an abrupt question.

“What do you know, M. Poirot, about dreams?”

The little man’s eyebrows rose. Whatever he had expected, it was not this.

“For that, M. Farley, I should recommend Napoleon’s Book of Dreams—or the latest practising psychologist from Harley Street.”

Benedict Farley said soberly, “I’ve tried both. . . .”

There was a pause, then the millionaire spoke, at first almost in a whisper, then with a voice growing higher and higher.

“It’s the same dream—night after night. And I’m afraid, I tell you—I’m afraid . . . It’s always the same. I’m sitting in my room next door to this. Sitting at my desk, writing. There’s a clock there and I glance at it and see the time—exactly twenty-eight minutes past three. Always the same time, you understand.

“And when I see the time, M. Poirot, I know I’ve got to do it. I don’t want to do it—I loathe doing it—but I’ve got to. . . .”

His voice had risen shrilly.

Unperturbed, Poirot said, “And what is it that you have to do?”

“At twenty-eight minutes past three,” Benedict Farley said hoarsely, “I open the second drawer down on the right of my desk, take out the revolver that I keep there, load it and walk over to the window. And then—and then—”

“Yes?”

Benedict Farley said in a whisper:

“Then I shoot myself . . .”

There was silence.

Then Poirot said, “That is your dream?”

“Yes.”

“The same every night?”

“Yes.”

“What happens after you shoot yourself?”

“I wake up.”

Poirot nodded his head slowly and thoughtfully. “As a matter of interest, do you keep a revolver in that particular drawer?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I have always done so. It is as well to be prepared.”

“Prepared for what?”

Farley said irritably, “A man in my position has to be on his guard. All rich men have enemies.”

Poirot did not pursue the subject. He remained silent for a moment or two, then he said:

“Why exactly did you send for me?”

“I will tell you. First of all I consulted a doctor—three doctors to be exact.”

“Yes?”

“The first told me it was all a question of diet. He was an elderly man. The second was a young man of the modern school. He assured me that it all hinged on a certain event that took place in infancy at that particular time of day—three twenty-eight. I am so determined, he says, not to remember the event, that I symbolize it by destroying myself. That is his explanation.”

“And the third doctor?” asked Poirot.

Benedict Farley’s voice rose in shrill anger.

“He’s a young man too. He has a preposterous theory! He asserts that I, myself, am tired of life, that my life is so unbearable to me that I deliberately want to end it! But since to acknowledge that fact would be to acknowledge that essentially I am a failure, I refuse in my waking moments to face the truth. But when I am asleep, all inhibitions are removed, and I proceed to do that which I really wish to do. I put an end to myself.”

“His view is that you really wish, unknown to yourself, to commit suicide?” said Poirot.

Benedict Farley cried shrilly:

“And that’s impossible—impossible! I’m perfectly happy! I’ve got everything I want—everything money can buy! It’s fantastic—unbelievable even to suggest a thing like that!”

Poirot looked at him with interest. Perhaps something in the shaking hands, the trembling shrillness of the voice, warned him that the denial was too vehement, that its very insistence was in itself suspect. He contented himself with saying:

“And where do I come in, Monsieur?”

Benedict Farley calmed down suddenly. He tapped with an emphatic finger on the table beside him.

“There’s another possibility. And if it’s right, you’re the man to know about it! You’re famous, you’ve had hundreds of cases—fantastic, improbable cases! You’d know if anyone does.”

“Know what?”

Farley’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“Supposing someone wants to kill me . . . Could they do it this way? Could they make me dream that dream night after night?”

“Hypnotism, you mean?”

“Yes.”

Hercule Poirot considered the question.

“It would be possible, I suppose,” he said at last. “It is more a question for a doctor.”

“You don’t know of such a case in your experience?”

“Not precisely on those lines, no.”

“You see what I’m driving at? I’m made to dream the same dream, night after night, night after night—and then—one day the suggestion is too much for me—and I act upon it. I do what I’ve dreamed of so often—kill myself!”

Slowly Hercule Poirot shook his head.

“You don’t think that is possible?” asked Farley.

“Possible?” Poirot shook his head. “That is not a word I care to meddle with.”

“But you think it improbable?”

“Most improbable.”

Benedict Farley murmured. “The doctor said so too . . .” Then his voice rising shrilly again, he cried out, “But why do I have this dream? Why? Why?”

Hercule Poirot shook his head. Benedict Farley said abruptly, “You’re sure you’ve never come across anything like this in your experience?”

“Never.”

“That’s what I wanted to know.”

Delicately, Poirot cleared his throat.

“You permit,” he said, “a question?”

“What is it? What is it? Say what you like.”

“Who is it you suspect of wanting to kill you?”

Farley snapped out, “Nobody. Nobody at all.”

“But the idea presented itself to your mind?” Poirot persisted.

“I wanted to know—if it was a possibility.”

“Speaking from my own experience, I should say No. Have you ever been hypnotized, by the way?”

“Of course not. D’you think I’d lend myself to such tomfoolery?”

“Then I think one can say that your theory is definitely improbable.”

“But the dream, you fool, the dream.”

“The dream is certainly remarkable,” said Poirot thoughtfully. He paused and then went on. “I should like to see the scene of this drama—the table, the clock, and the revolver.”

“Of course, I’ll take you next door.”

Wrapping the folds of his dressing gown round him, the old man half rose from his chair. Then suddenly, as though a thought had struck him, he resumed his seat.

“No,” he said. “There’s nothing to see there. I’ve told you all there is to tell.”

“But I should like to see for myself—”

“There’s no need,” Farley snapped. “You’ve given me your opinion. That’s the end.”

Poirot shrugged his shoulders. “As you please.” He rose to his feet. “I am sorry, Mr. Farley, that I have not been able to be of assistance to you.”

Benedict Farley was staring straight ahead of him.

“Don’t want a lot of hanky-pankying around,” he growled out. “I’ve told you the facts—you can’t make anything of them. That closes the matter. You can send me a bill for the consultation fee.”

“I shall not fail to do so,” said the detective drily. He walked towards the door.

“Stop a minute.” The millionaire called him back. “That letter—I want it.”

“The letter from your secretary?”

“Yes.”

Poirot’s eyebrows rose. He put his hand into his pocket, drew out a folded sheet, and handed it to the old man. The latter scrutinized it, then put it down on the table beside him with a nod.

Once more Hercule Poirot walked to the door. He was puzzled. His busy mind was going over and over the story he had been told. Yet in the midst of his mental preoccupation, a nagging sense of something wrong obtruded itself. And that something had to do with himself—not with Benedict Farley.

With his hand on the door knob, his mind cleared. He, Hercule Poirot, had been guilty of an error! He turned back into the room once more.

“A thousand pardons! In the interest of your problem I have committed a folly! That letter I handed to you—by mischance I put my hand into my right-hand pocket instead of the left—”

“What’s all this? What’s all this?”

“The letter that I handed you just now—an apology from my laundress concerning the treatment of my collars.” Poirot was smiling, apologetic. He dipped into his left-hand pocket. “This is your letter.”

Benedict Farley snatched at it—grunted: “Why the devil can’t you mind what you’re doing?”

Poirot retrieved his laundress’s communication, apologized gracefully once more, and left the room.

He paused for a moment outside on the landing. It was a spacious one. Directly facing him was a big old oak settle with a refectory table in front of it. On the table were magazines. There were also two armchairs and a table with flowers. It reminded him a little of a dentist’s waiting room.

The butler was in the hall below waiting to let him out.

“Can I get you a taxi, sir?”

“No, I thank you. The night is fine. I will walk.”

Hercule Poirot paused a moment on the pavement waiting for a lull in the traffic before crossing the busy street.

A frown creased his forehead.

“No,” he said to himself. “I do not understand at all. Nothing makes sense. Regrettable to have to admit it, but I, Hercule Poirot, am completely baffled.”

That was what might be termed the first act of the drama. The second act followed a week later. It opened with a telephone call from one John Stillingfleet, MD.

He said with a remarkable lack of medical decorum:

“That you, Poirot, old horse? Stillingfleet here.”

“Yes, my friend. What is it?”

“I’m speaking from Northway House—Benedict Farley’s.”

“Ah, yes?” Poirot’s voice quickened with interest. “What of—Mr. Farley?”

“Farley’s dead. Shot himself this afternoon.”

There was a pause, then Poirot said:

“Yes. . . .”

“I notice you’re not overcome with surprise. Know something about it, old horse?”

“Why should you think that?”

“Well, it isn’t brilliant deduction or telepathy or anything like that. We found a note from Farley to you making an appointment about a week ago.”

“I see.”

“We’ve got a tame police inspector here—got to be careful, you know, when one of these millionaire blokes bumps himself off. Wondered whether you could throw any light on the case. If so, perhaps you’d come round?”

“I will come immediately.”

“Good for you, old boy. Some dirty work at the crossroads—eh?”

Poirot merely repeated that he would set forth immediately.

“Don’t want to spill the beans over the telephone? Quite right. So long.”

A quarter of an hour later Poirot was sitting in the library, a low long room at the back of Northway House on the ground floor. There were five other persons in the room. Inspector Barnett, Dr. Stillingfleet, Mrs. Farley, the widow of the millionaire, Joanna Farley, his only daughter, and Hugo Cornworthy, his private secretary.

Of these, Inspector Barnett was a discreet soldierly-looking man. Dr. Stillingfleet, whose professional manner was entirely different from his telephonic style, was a tall, long-faced young man of thirty. Mrs. Farley was obviously very much younger than her husband. She was a handsome dark-haired woman. Her mouth was hard and her black eyes gave absolutely no clue to her emotions. She appeared perfectly self-possessed. Joanna Farley had fair hair and a freckled face. The prominence of her nose and chin was clearly inherited from her father. Her eyes were intelligent and shrewd. Hugo Cornworthy was a good-looking young fellow, very correctly dressed. He seemed intelligent and efficient.

After greetings and introductions, Poirot narrated simply and clearly the circumstances of his visit and the story told him by Benedict Farley. He could not complain of any lack of interest.

“Most extraordinary story I’ve ever heard!” said the inspector. “A dream, eh? Did you know anything about this, Mrs. Farley?”

She bowed her head.

“My husband mentioned it to me. It upset him very much. I—I told him it was indigestion—his diet, you know, was very peculiar—and suggested his calling in Dr. Stillingfleet.”

The young man shook his head.

“He didn’t consult me. From M. Poirot’s story, I gather he went to Harley Street.”

“I would like your advice on that point, Doctor,” said Poirot. “Mr. Farley told me that he consulted three specialists. What do you think of the theories they advanced?”

Stillingfleet frowned.

“It’s difficult to say. You’ve got to take into account that what he passed on to you wasn’t exactly what had been said to him. It was a layman’s interpretation.”

“You mean he had got the phraseology wrong?”

“Not exactly. I mean they would put a thing to him in professional terms, he’d get the meaning a little distorted, and then recast it in his own language.”

“So that what he told me was not really what the doctors said.”

“That’s what it amounts to. He’s just got it all a little wrong, if you know what I mean.”

Poirot nodded thoughtfully. “Is it known whom he consulted?” he asked.

Mrs. Farley shook her head, and Joanna Farley remarked:

“None of us had any idea he had consulted anyone.”

“Did he speak to you about his dream?” asked Poirot.

The girl shook her head.

“And you, Mr. Cornworthy?”

“No, he said nothing at all. I took down a letter to you at his dictation, but I had no idea why he wished to consult you. I thought it might possibly have something to do with some business irregularity.”

Poirot asked: “And now as to the actual facts of Mr. Farley’s death?”

Inspector Barnett looked interrogatively at Mrs. Farley and at Dr. Stillingfleet, and then took upon himself the role of spokesman.

“Mr. Farley was in the habit of working in his own room on the first floor every afternoon. I understand that there was a big amalgamation of business in prospect—”

He looked at Hugo Cornworthy who said, “Consolidated Coachlines.”

“In connection with that,” continued Inspector Barnett, “Mr. Farley had agreed to give an interview to two members of the Press. He very seldom did anything of the kind—only about once in five years, I understand. Accordingly two reporters, one from the Associated Newsgroups, and one from Amalgamated Press-sheets, arrived at a quarter past three by appointment. They waited on the first floor outside Mr. Farley’s door—which was the customary place for people to wait who had an appointment with Mr. Farley. At twenty past three a messenger arrived from the office of Consolidated Coachlines with some urgent papers. He was shown into Mr. Farley’s room where he handed over the documents. Mr. Farley accompanied him to the door, and from there spoke to the two members of the Press. He said:

“ ‘I’m sorry, gentlemen, to have to keep you waiting, but I have some urgent business to attend to. I will be as quick as I can.’

“The two gentlemen, Mr. Adams and Mr. Stoddart, assured Mr. Farley that they would await his convenience. He went back into his room, shut the door—and was never seen alive again!”

“Continue,” said Poirot.

“At a little after four o’clock,” went on the inspector, “Mr. Cornworthy here came out of his room which is next door to Mr. Farley’s and was surprised to see the two reporters still waiting. He wanted Mr. Farley’s signature to some letters and thought he had also better remind him that these two gentlemen were waiting. He accordingly went into Mr. Farley’s room. To his surprise he could not at first see Mr. Farley and thought the room was empty. Then he caught sight of a boot sticking out behind the desk (which is placed in front of the window). He went quickly across and discovered Mr. Farley lying there dead, with a revolver beside him.

“Mr. Cornworthy hurried out of the room and directed the butler to ring up Dr. Stillingfleet. By the latter’s advice, Mr. Cornworthy also informed the police.”

“Was the shot heard?” asked Poirot.

“No. The traffic is very noisy here, the landing window was open. What with lorries and motor horns it would be most unlikely if it had been noticed.”

Poirot nodded thoughtfully. “What time is it supposed he died?” he asked.

Stillingfleet said:

“I examined the body as soon as I got here — that is, at thirty-two minutes past four. Mr. Farley had been dead at least an hour.”

Poirot’s face was very grave.

“So then, it seems possible that his death could have occurred at the time he mentioned to me — that is, at twenty-eight minutes past three.”

“Exactly,” said Stillingfleet.