This short and sophisticated story is, in my eyes, one of Agatha Christie’s finest, being both like and unlike her other stories. It takes place in the familiar British countryside and focuses on a criminal who is concealing his crime. A random local inadvertently helps reveal the truth, and order is finally restored when the identity of the murder is uncovered by the person who was supposed to be his last victim. So far, it seems like a classic Christie story, but in many respects “Philomel Cottage” is a deep, intricate and unusual story.
“The psychology is what counts most” Hercule Poirot the short Belgian detective once said and this story is all about psychology and the subconscious of the most private places in the human soul.
The protagonists of the story are Alix and Gerald Martin, newlyweds who have just moved in to a nice little cottage, but hidden secrets and dark shadows sneak in at the very start of their relationship. The story begins with a dream Alix has in which she is happy about her husband’s death and continues with a darkness that tightens its grip around them as the story unfolds. But who is the truly dark one among them? The murderer or the victim? Who is the one manipulating the relationship? and who is the one who knows his “better half” better? Ostensibly, this is another crime story, but in my eyes this is also a story with fascinating psychological significance. The story of spouses who turn out to be strangers; their alienation is absolute, final – it is an alienation that ends in death.
Even now, long after reading the story, I still feel trapped in the mental world woven by “Philomel Cottage”.
Alix Martin stood leaning over the small rustic gate, watching the retreating figure of her husband, as he walked down the road in the direction of the village.
Presently he turned a bend and was lost to sight, but Alix still stayed in the same position, absent-mindedly smoothing a lock of the rich brown hair which had blown across her face, her eyes far-away and dreamy. Alix Martin was not beautiful, nor even, strictly speaking, pretty. But her face, the face of a woman no longer in her first youth, was irradiated and softened until her former colleagues of the old office days would hardly have recognized her. Miss Alix King had been a trim business-like young woman, efficient, slightly brusque in manner, obviously capable and matter-of-fact.
Alix had graduated in a hard school. For fifteen years, from the age of eighteen until she was thirty-three, she had kept herself (and for seven years of the time, an invalid mother) by her work as a shorthand-typist. It was the struggle for existence which had hardened the soft lines of her girlish face. True, there had been romance -of a kind -Dick Windyford, a fellow-clerk. Very much of a woman at heart, Alix had always known without seeming to know that he cared. Outwardly they had been friends, nothing more. Out of his slender salary, Dick had been hard put to it to provide for the schooling of a younger brother. For the moment, he could not think of marriage.
And then suddenly deliverance from daily toil had come to the girl in the most unexpected manner. A distant cousin had died leaving her money to Alix -a few thousand pounds, enough to bring in a couple of hundred a year. To Alix, it was freedom, life, independence. Now she and Dick need wait no longer. Nevertheless, when Alix envisaged the future, it was with the half acknowledged certainty that she would one day be Dick’s wife. They cared for one another, so she would have put it, but they were both sensible people. Plenty of time, no need to do anything rash. So the years had gone on. But Dick reacted unexpectedly. He had never directly spoken of his love to Alix, now he seemed less inclined to do so than ever. He avoided her, became morose and gloomy. Alix was quick to realize the truth. She had become a woman of means. Delicacy and pride stood in the way of Dick’s asking her to be his wife. She liked him none the worse for it and was indeed deliberating as to whether herself might not take the first step when for the second time the unexpected descended upon her. She met Gerald Martin at a friend’s house. He fell violently in love with her and within a week they were engaged. Alix, who had always considered herself “not the falling-in-love kind,” was swept clean off her feet.
Unwittingly she had found the way to arouse her former lover. Dick Windyford had come to her stammering with rage and anger.
“The man’s a perfect stranger to you! You know nothing about him!”
“I know that I love him.”
“How can you know -in a week?”
“It doesn’t take everyone eleven years to find out that they’re in love with a girl,” cried Alix angrily. His face went white.
“I’ve cared for you ever since I met you. I thought that you cared also.”
Alix was truthful.
“I thought so, too,” she admitted, “But that was because I didn’t know what love was.” Then Dick had burst out again. Prayers, entreaties, even threats. Threats against the man who had supplanted him It was amazing to Alix to see the volcano that existed beneath the reserved exterior of the man she thought she knew so well.
Her thoughts had gone back to that interview now, on this sunny morning, as she leaned on the gate of the cottage. She had been married a month, and she was idyllically happy. Yet, in the momentary absence of the husband who was everything to her, a tinge of anxiety invaded her perfect happiness, and the cause of that anxiety was Dick Windyford.
Three times since her marriage she had dreamed the same dream. The environment differed, but the main facts were always the same. She saw her husband lying dead and Dick Windyford standing over him, and she knew clearly and distinctly that his was the hand which had dealt the fatal blow.
But horrible though that was, there was something more horrible still -horrible that was, on awakening, for in the dream it seemed perfectly natural and inevitable. She, Alix Martin, was glad that her husband was dead -she stretched out grateful hands to the murderer, sometimes she thanked him. The dream always ended the same way, with herself clasped in Dick Windyford’s arms.
She had said nothing of this dream to her husband, but secretly it had perturbed her more than she liked to admit. Was it a warning -a warning against Dick Windyford?
Alix was roused from her thoughts by the sharp ringing of the telephone bell from within the house. She entered the cottage, and picked up the receiver. Suddenly she swayed, and put out a hand against the wall.
“Who did you say was speaking?”
“Why, Alix, what’s the matter with your voice? I wouldn’t have known it. It’s Dick.”
“Oh!” said Alix. “Oh! Where -are you?”
“At the Traveller’s Arms -that’s the right name, isn’t it? Or don’t you even know of the existence of your village pub? I’m on my holiday -doing a bit of fishing here. Any objection to my looking you two good people up this evening after dinner?”
“No,” said Alix sharply. “You mustn’t come.”
There was a pause, and Dick’s voice, with a subtle alteration in it, spoke again.
“I beg your pardon,” he said formally. “Of course I won’t bother you -“
Alix broke in hastily. Of course he must think her behaviour too extraordinary. It was extraordinary. Her nerves must be all to pieces.
“I only meant that we were -engaged tonight,” she explained, trying to make her voice sound as natural as possible. “Won’t you -won’t you come to dinner tomorrow night?”
But Dick evidently noticed the lack of cordiality in her tone.
“Thanks very much,” he said, in the same formal voice. “But I may be moving on any time. Depends upon whether a pal of mine turns up or not. Good-bye, Alix.” He paused, and then added hastily, in a different tone: “Best of luck to you, my dear.”
Alix hung up the receiver with a feeling of relief.
“He mustn’t come here,” she repeated to herself. “He mustn’t come here. Oh! what a fool I am! To imagine myself into a state like this. All the same, I’m glad he’s not coming.”
She caught up a rustic rush hat from a table, and passed out into the garden again, pausing to look up at the name carved over the porch: Philomel Cottage.
“Isn’t it a very fanciful name?” she had said to Gerald once before they were married. He had laughed. “You little Cockney,” he had said, affectionately. “I don’t believe you have ever heard a nightingale. I’m glad you haven’t. Nightingales should sing only for lovers. We’ll hear them together on a summer’s evening outside our own home.
” And at the remembrance of how they had indeed heard them, Alix, standing in the doorway of her home, blushed happily.
It was Gerald who had found Philomel Cottage. He had come to Alix bursting with excitement. He had found the very spot for them -unique -a gem -the chance of a lifetime. And when Alix had seen it, she too was captivated. It was true that the situation was rather lonely -they were two miles from the nearest village -but the cottage itself was so exquisite with its Old World appearance, and its solid comfort of bathrooms, hot-water system, electric light and telephone, that she fell a victim to its charm immediately. And then a hitch occurred. The owner, a rich man who had made it his whim, declined to rent it. He would only sell. Gerald Martin, though possessed of a good income, was unable to touch his capital. He could raise at most a thousand pounds. The owner was asking three. But Alix, who had set her heart on the place, came to the rescue. Her own capital was easily realized, being in bearer bonds. She would contribute half of it to the purchase of the home. So Philomel Cottage became their choice. It was true that servants did not appreciate the rural solitude -indeed at the moment they had none at all -but Alix, who had been starved of domestic life, thoroughly enjoyed cooking dainty little meals and looking after the house. The garden, which was magnificently stocked with flowers, was attended to by an old man from the village who came twice a week.
As she rounded the corner of the house, Alix was surprised to see the old gardener in question busy over the flower beds. She was surprised because his days for work were Mondays and Fridays, and today was Wednesday.
“Why, George, what are you doing here?” she asked, as she came towards him.
The old man straightened up with a chuckle, touching the brim of an aged cap.
“I thought as how you’d be surprised, ma’am. But ’tis this way. There be a fête over to Squire’s on Friday, and I sez to myself, I sez, neither Mr. Martin nor yet his good lady won’t take it amiss if I comes for once on a Wednesday instead of a Friday.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Alix. “I hope you’ll enjoy yourself at the fête.”
“I reckon to,” said George simply. “It’s a fine thing to be able to eat your fill and know all the time as it’s not you as is paying for it. Squire allus has a proper sit-down tea for ‘is tenants. Then I thought too, ma’am, as I might as well see you before you goes away so as to learn your wishes for the borders. You’ll have no idea when you’ll be back, ma’am, I suppose?”
“But I’m not going away.”
George stared at her.
“Bain’t you going to Lunnon tomorrow?”
“No. What put such an idea into your head?”
George jerked his head over his shoulder.
“Met Maister down to village yesterday. He told me you was both going away to Lunnon tomorrow, and it was uncertain when you’d be back again.”
“Nonsense,” said Alix, laughing. “You must have misunderstood him.”
All the same, she wondered exactly what it could have been that Gerald had said to lead the old man into such a curious mistake. Going to London? She never wanted to go to London again. “I hate London,” she said suddenly and harshly.
“Ah!” said George placidly. “I must have been mistook somehow, and et he said it plain enough it seemed to me. I’m glad you’re stopping on here -I don’t hold with all this gallivanting about, and I don’t think nothing of Lunnon. I’ve never needed to go there. Too many moty cars -that’s the trouble nowadays. Once people have got a moty car, blessed if they can stay still anywheres. Mr. Ames, wot used to have this house -nice peaceful sort of gentleman he was until he bought one of them things. Hadn’t’ad it a month before he put up this cottage for sale. A tidy lot he’d spent on it, too, with taps in all the bedrooms, and the electric light and all. ‘You’ll never see your money back,’ I sez to him. ‘It’s not everyone as’ll have your fad for washing themselves in every room in the house, in a manner of speaking. ‘But ‘George,’ he sez to me, ‘I’ll get every penny of two thousand pounds for this house.’ And sure enough, he did.”
“He got three thousand,” said Alix, smiling.
“Two thousand,” repeated George. “The sum he was asking was talked of at the time. And a very high figure it was thought to be.”
“It really was three thousand,” said Alix.
“Ladies never understand figures,” said George, unconvinced. “You’ll not tell me that Mr. Ames had the face to stand up to you, and say three thousand brazen like in a loud voice.”
“He didn’t say it to me,” said Alix. “He said it to my husband.”
George stooped again to his flower bed.
“The price was two thousand,” he said obstinately.
Alix did not trouble to argue with him. Moving to one of the further beds, she began to pick an armful of flowers.
As she moved with her fragrant posy towards the house, Alix noticed a small dark green object, peeping from between some leaves in one of the beds. She stooped and picked it up, recognizing it for her husband’s pocket diary. It must have fallen from his pocket when he was weeding.
She opened it, scanning the entries with some amusement. Almost from the beginning of their married life, she had realised that the impulsive and emotional Gerald had the uncharacteristic virtues of neatness and method. He was extremely fussy about meals being punctual, and always planned his day ahead with the accuracy of a timetable.
Looking through the diary, she was amused to notice the entry on the date of May 14th. “marry Alix St. Peter’s 2:30.”
“The big silly,” murmured Alix to herself, turning the pages. Suddenly she stopped.
“Thursday, June 18th -why that’s today.”
In the space for that day was written in Gerald’s neat precise hand: “9 p.m.” Nothing else. What had Gerald planned to do at 9 p.m.? Alix wondered. She smiled to herself as she realised that had this been a story, like those she had so often read, the diary would doubtless have furnished her with some sensational revelation. It would have had in it for certain the name of another woman. She fluttered the back pages idly. There were dates, appointments, cryptic references to business deals, but only one woman’s name -her own.
Yet as she slipped the book into her pocket and went on with her flowers to the house, she was aware of a vague uneasiness. Those words of Dick Windyford’s recurred to her, almost as though he had been at her elbow repeating them: “The man’s a perfect stranger to you. You know nothing about him.” It was true. What did she know about him. After all, Gerald was forty. In forty years there must have been women in his life …
Alix shook herself impatiently. She must not give way to these thoughts. She had a far more instant preoccupation to deal with. Should she, or should she not, tell her husband that Dick Windyford had rung her up?
There was the possibility to be considered that Gerald might have already run across him in the village. But in that case he would be sure to mention it to her immediately upon his return and matters would be taken out of her hands. Otherwise -what? Alix was aware of a distinct desire to say nothing about it. If she told him, he was sure to suggest asking Dick Windyford to Philomel Cottage. Then she would have to explain that Dick had proposed it himself, and that she had made an excuse to prevent his coming. And when he asked her why she had done so, what could she say? Tell him her dream? But he would laugh -or worse, see that she attached an importance to it which he did not.
In the end, rather shamefacedly, Alix decided to say nothing. It was the first secret she had ever kept from her husband, and the consciousness of it made her feel ill at ease.
When she heard Gerald returning from the village shortly before lunch, she hurried into the kitchen and pretended to be busy with the cooking so as to hide her confusion.
It was evident at once that Gerald had been nothing of Dick Windyford. Alix felt at once relieved and embarrassed. She was definitely committed now to a policy of concealment.
It was not until after their simple evening meal, when they were sitting in the oak beamed living room with the windows thrown open to let in the sweet night air scented with the perfume of the mauve and white stocks that grew outside, that Alix remembered the pocket diary.
“Here’s something you’ve been watering the flowers with,” she said, and threw it into his lap.
“Dropped it in the border, did I?”
“Yes; I know all your secrets now.”
“Not guilty,” said Gerald, shaking his head.
“What about your assignation at nine o’clock tonight?”
“Oh! that -” he seemed taken back for a moment, then he smiled as though something afforded him particular amusement. “It’s an assignation with a particularly nice girl, Alix. She’s got brown hair and blue eyes and she’s particularly like you.”
“I don’t understand,” said Alix, with mock severity. “You’re evading the point.”
“No, I’m not. As a matter of fact, that’s a reminder that I’m going to develop some negatives tonight, and I want you to help me.”
Gerald Martin was an enthusiastic photographer. He had a somewhat old-fashioned camera, but with an excellent lens, and he developed his own plates in a small cellar which he had fitted up as a dark room.
“And it must be done at nine o’clock precisely,” said Alix teasingly.
Gerald looked a little vexed.
“My dear girl,” he said, with a shade of testiness in his manner, “one should always plan a thing for a definite time. Then one gets through one’s work properly.”
Alix sat for a minute or two in silence watching her husband as he lay in his chair smoking, his dark head flung back and the clear-cut lines of his clean-shaven face showing up against the sombre background. And suddenly, from some unknown source, a wave of panic surged over her, so that she cried out before she could stop herself. “Oh! Gerald, I wish I knew more about you.”
Her husband turned an astonished face upon her.
“But, my dear Alix, you do know all about me. I’ve told you of my boyhood in Northumberland, of my life in South Africa, and these last ten years in Canada which have brought me success.”
Gerald laughed suddenly.
“I know what you mean -love affairs. You women are all the same. Nothing interests you but the personal element.”
Alix felt her throat go dry, as she muttered indistinctly: “Well, but there must have been -love affairs. I mean -If I onlyknew -“
There was silence again for a minute or two. Gerald Martin was frowning, a look of indecision on his face. When he spoke, it was gravely, without a trace of his former bantering manner.
“Do you think it wise, Alix -this -Bluebeard’s chamber business? There have been women in my life, yes. I don’t deny it. You wouldn’t believe me if I did deny it. But I can swear to you truthfully that not one of them meant anything to me.”
There was a ring of sincerity in his voice which comforted the listening wife.
“Satisfied, Alix?” he asked, with a smile. Then he looked at her with a shade of curiosity.
“What has turned you mind onto these unpleasant subjects tonight of all nights? You never mentioned them before.”
Alix got up and began to walk about restlessly.
“Oh! I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been nervy all day.”
“That’s odd,” said Gerald, in a low voice, as though speaking to himself. “That’s very odd.”
“Why is it odd?”
“Oh, my dear girl, don’t flash out at me so. I only said it was odd because as a rule you’re so sweet and serene.”
Alix forced a smile.
“Everything’s conspired to annoy me today,” she confessed. “Even old George had got some ridiculous idea into his head that we were going away to London. He said you had told him so.”
“Where did you see him?” asked Gerald sharply.
“He came to work today instead of Friday.”
“Damned old fool,” said Gerald angrily.
Alix stared in surprise. Her husband’s face was convulsed with rage. She had never seen him so angry. Seeing her astonishment, Gerald made an effort to regain control of himself.
“Well, he is a damned old fool,” he protested.
“What can you have said to make him think that?”
“I? I never said anything. At least -Oh, yes, I remember. I made some weak joke about being ‘off to London in the morning’ and I suppose he took it seriously. Or else he didn’t hear properly. You undeceived him, of course?”
He waited anxiously for her reply.
“Of course, but he’s the sort of old man who if once he gets an idea in his head -well, it isn’t so easy to get it out again.”
Then she told him of the gardener’s insistence on the sum asked for the cottage.
Gerald was silent for a minute or two, then he said slowly:
“Ames was willing to take two thousand in cash and the remaining thousand on mortgage. That’s the origin of that mistake, I fancy.”
“Very likely,” agreed Alix.
Then she looked up at the clock, and pointed to it with a mischievous finger.
“We ought to be getting down to it, Gerald. Five minutes behind schedule.”
A very peculiar smile came over Gerald Martin’s face.
“I’ve changed my mind, he said quietly. “I shall not do any photography tonight.”
A woman’s mind is a curious thing. When she went to bed that Thursday night, Alix’s mind was contented and at rest. Her momentarily assailed happiness reasserted itself, triumphant as of yore.
But by the evening of the following day, she realised that some subtle forces were at work undermining it. Dick Windyford had not rung up again, nevertheless, she felt what she supposed to be his influence at work. Again and again those words of his recurred to her. “The man’s a perfect stranger. You know nothing about him.” And with them came the memory of her husband’s face, photographed clearly on her brain as she said: “‘Do you think it wise, Alix, this -Bluebeard’s chamber business?” Why had he said that?
There had been warning in them -a hint of menace. It was as though he had said in effect -“You had better not pry into my life, Alix. You may get a nasty shock if you do.” True, a few minutes later, he had sworn to her that there had been no woman in his life that mattered -but Alix tried in vain to recapture her sense of his sincerity: Was he not bound to swear that?
By Friday morning, Alix had convinced herself that there had been a woman in Gerald’s life -a Bluebeard’s chamber that he had sedulously sought to conceal from her. Her jealousy, slow to awaken, was now rampant. Was it a woman he had been going to meet that night, at 9 p.m.? Was his story of photographs to develop a lie invented upon the spur of the moment?
Three days ago she would have sworn that she knew her husband through and through. Now it seemed to her that he was a stranger of whom she knew nothing. She remembered his unreasonable anger against old George, so at variance with his usual good-tempered manner. A small thing, perhaps, but it showed her that she did not really know the man who was her husband.
There were several little things required on Friday from the village to carry them over the week-end. In the afternoon Alix suggested that she should go for them whilst Gerald remained in the garden, but somewhat toher surprise he opposed this plan vehemently, and insisted on going himself whilst she remained at home. Alix was forced to give way to him, but his insistence surprised and alarmed her. Why was he so anxious to prevent her going to the village?
Suddenly an explanation suggested itself to her which made the whole thing clear. Was it not possible that, whilst saying nothing to her, Gerald had indeed come across Dick Windyford? Her own jealousy, entirely dormant at the time of their marriage, had only developed afterwards. Might it not be the same with Gerald? Might he not be anxious to prevent her seeing Dick Windyford again? This explanation was so consistent with the facts, and so comforting to Alix’s perturbed mind, that she embraced it eagerly. Yet when tea-time had come and past, she was restless and ill at ease. She was struggling with a temptation that had assailed her ever since Gerald’s departure. Finally, pacifying her conscience with the assurance that the room did need a thorough tidying, she went upstairs to her husband’s dressing room. She took a duster with her to keep up the pretence of housewifery.
“If I were only sure,” she repeated to herself. “If I could only be sure.”
In vain she told herself that anything compromising would have been destroyed ages ago. Against that she argued that men do sometimes keep the most damning piece of evidence through an exaggerated sentimentality.
In the end Alix succumbed. Her cheeks burning with the shame of her action, she hunted breathlessly through packets of letters and documents, turned out the drawers, even went through the pockets of her husband’s clothes. Only two drawers eluded her -the lower drawer of the chest of drawers and the small right-hand drawer of the writing desk were both locked. But Alix was by now lost to all shame. In one of those drawers she was convinced that she would find evidence of this imaginary woman of the past who obsessed her.
She remembered that Gerald had left his keys lying carelessly on the sideboard downstairs. She fetched them and tried them one by one. The third key fitted the writing-table drawer. Alix pulled it open eagerly. There was a cheque-book and a wallet well stuffed with notes, and at the back of the drawer a packet of letters tied up with a piece of tape.
Her breath coming unevenly, Alix untied the tape. Then a deep burning blush overspread her face, and she dropped the letters back into the drawer, closing and relocking it. For the letters were her own, written to Gerald Martin before she married him.
She turned now to the chest of drawers, more with a wish to feel that she had left nothing undone, than from any expectation of finding what she sought.
To her annoyance none of the keys on Gerald’s bunch fitted the drawer in question. Not to be defeated, Alix went into the other rooms and brought back a selection of keys with her. To her satisfaction, the key of the spare room wardrobe also fitted the chest of drawers. She unlocked the drawer and pulled it open. But there was nothing in it but a roll of newspaper clippings already dirt and discoloured with age.
Alix breathed a sigh of relief. Nevertheless she glanced at the clippings, curious to know what subject had interested Gerald so much that he had taken the trouble to keep the dusty roll. They were nearly all American papers, dated some seven years ago, and dealing with the trail of the notorious swindler and bigamist, Charles Lemaitre. Lemaitre had been suspected of doing away with his women victims. A skeleton had been found beneath the floor of one of the houses he had rented, and most of the women he had “married” had never been heard of again.
He had defended himself from the charge with consummate skill, aided by some of the best legal talent in the United States. The Scottish verdict of “Non proven” might perhaps have stated the case best. In its absence, eh was found Not Guilty on the capital charge, though sentenced to a long term of imprisonment on the other charges preferred against him.
Alix remembered the excitement caused by the case at the time, and also the sensation aroused by the escape of Lemaitre some three years later. He had never been recaptured. The personality of the man and his extraordinary power over women had been discussed at great length in the English papers at the time, together with an account of his excitability in court, his passionate protestations, and his occasional sudden physical collapses, due to the fact that he had a weak heart, though the ignorant accredited it to his dramatic powers.
There was a picture of him in one of the clippings Alix held, and she studied it with some interest -a long-bearded scholarly-looking gentleman.
Who was it the face reminded her of? Suddenly, with a shock, she realised that it was Gerald himself. The eyes and brows bore a strong resemblance to him. Perhaps he had kept the cutting for that reason. Her eyes went on to the paragraph beside the picture. Certain dates, it seemed, had been entered in the accused’s pocket-book, and it was contended that these were dates when he had done away with his victims. Then awoman gave evidence and identified the prisoner positively by the fact that he had a mole on his left wrist, just below the palm of the left hand.
Alix dropped the papers from a nerveless hand, and swayed as she stood. On his left wrist, just below the palm, Gerald had a small scar …
The room whirled round her. Afterwards it struck her as strange that she should have leaped at once to such absolute certainty. Gerald Martin was Charles Lemaitre! She knew it and accepted it in a flash. Disjointed fragments whirled through her brain, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting into place. The money paid for the house -her money -her money only; the bearer bonds she had entrusted to his keeping. Even her dream appeared in its true significance. Deep down in her, her subconscious self had always feared Gerald Martin and wished to escape from him. And it was to Dick Windyford this self of hers had looked for help. That, too, was why she was able to accept the truth so easily, without doubt or hesitation. She was to have been another of Lemaitre’s victims. Very soon, perhaps … A half cry escaped her as she remembered something. Wednesday 9 p.m. The cellar, with the flagstones that were so easily raised! Once before, he had buried one of his victims in a cellar. It had been all planned for Thursday night. But to write it down beforehand in that methodical manner -insanity! No, it was logical. Gerald always made a memorandum of his engagements -murder was, to him, a business proposition like any other.
But what had saved her? What could possibly have saved her? Had she relented at the last minute? No -in a flash the answer came to her. Old George.
She understood now her husband’s uncontrollable anger. Doubtless he had paved the way by telling everyone he met that they were going to London the next day. Then George had come to work unexpectedly, had mentioned London to her, and she had contradicted the story. Too risky to do away with her that night, with old George repeating that conversation. But what an escape! If she had not happened to mention that trivial matter -Alix shuddered.
And then she stayed motionless as though frozen to stone. She had heard the creak of the gate into the road.
Her husband had returned.
For a moment Alix stayed as though petrified, then she crept on tiptoe to the window, looking out from behind the shelter of the curtain.
Yes, it was her husband. He was smiling to himself and humming a little tune. In his hand he held an object which almost made the terrified girl’s heart stop beating. It was a brand-new spade.
Alix leaped to a knowledge born of instinct. It was to be tonight …
But there was still a chance. Gerald, still humming his little tune, went round to the back of the house. Without hesitating a moment, she ran down the stairs and out of the cottage. But just as she emerged from the door, her husband came round the other side of the house.
“Hallo,” he said. “Where are you running off to in such a hurry?”
Alix strove desperately to appear calm and as usual. Her chance was gone for the moment, but if she was careful not to arouse his suspicions, it would come again later. Even now, perhaps …
“I was going to walk to the end of the lane and back,” she said, in a voice that sounded weak and uncertain to her own ears.
“Right,” said Gerald, “I’ll come with you.”
“No -please, Gerald. I’m -nervy, headachy -I’d rather go alone.”
He looked at her attentively. She fancied a momentary suspicion gleamed in his eye.
“What’s the matter with you, Alix? You’re pale -trembling.”
“Nothing,” she forced herself to be brusque -smiling. “I’ve got a headache, that’s all. A walk will do me good.”
“Well, it’s no good you’re saying you don’t want me,” declared Gerald with his easy laugh. “I’m coming whether you want me or not.”
She dared not protest further. If he suspected that she knew …
With an effort she managed to regain something of her normal manner. Yet she had an uneasy feeling that he looked at her sideways every now and then, as though not quite satisfied. She felt that his suspicions were not completely allayed.
When they returned to the house, he insisted on her lying down, and brought some eau-de-Cologne to bathe her temples. He was, as ever, the devoted husband, yet Alix felt herself as helpless as though bound hand and foot in a trap.
Not for a minute would he leave her alone. He went with her into the kitchen and helped her to bring in the simple cold dishes she had already prepared. Supper was a meal that choked her, yet she forced herself to eat, and even to appear gay and natural. She knew now that she was fighting for her life. She was alone with this man, miles from help, absolutely at his mercy. Her only chance was so to lull his suspicions that he would leave her alone for a few moments -long enough for her to get to the telephone in the hall and summon assistance. That was her only hope now.
A momentary hope flashed over her as she remembered how he had abandoned his plan before. Suppose she told him that Dick Windyford was coming up to see them that evening? The words trembled on her lips -then she rejected them hastily. This man would not be balked a second time. There was a determination, an elation underneath his calm bearing that sickened her. She would only precipitate the crime. He would murder her there and then, and calmly ring up Dick Windyford with a tale of having been suddenly called away. Oh! if only Dick Windyford were coming to the house this evening. If Dick …
A sudden idea flashed into her mind. She looked sharply sideways at her husband as though she feared that he might read her mind. With the forming of a plan, her courage was reinforced. She became so completely natural in manner that she marvelled at herself.
She made the coffee and took it out to the porch where they often sat on fine evenings.
“By the way,” said George suddenly, “we’ll do those photographs later.”
Alix felt a shiver run through her, but she replied nonchalantly, “Can’t you manage alone? I’m rather tired tonight.”
“It won’t take long.” He smiled to himself. “And I can promise you you won’t be tired afterwards.”
The words seemed to amuse him. Alix shuddered. Now or never was the time to carry out her plan.
She rose to her feet. “I’m just going to telephone to the butcher,” she announced nonchalantly. “Don’t you bother to move.”
“To the butcher? At this time of night?”
“His shop’s shut, of course, silly. But he’s in his house all right. And tomorrow’s Saturday, and I want him to bring me some veal cutlets early, before someone else grabs them from him. The old dear will do anything for me.”
She passed quickly into the house, closing the door behind her. She heard Gerald say, “Don’t shut the door,” and was quick with her light reply. “It keeps the moths out. I hate moths. Are you afraid I’m going to make love to the butcher, silly?”
Once inside she snatched down the telephone receiver and gave the number of the Traveller’s Arms. She was put through at once.
“Mr. Windyford? Is he still there? May I speak to him?”
Then her heart gave a sickening thump. The door was pushed open and her husband came into the hall.
“Do go away, Gerald,” she said pettishly. “I hate anyone listening when I’m telephoning.”
He merely laughed and threw himself into a chair.
“Sure it really is the butcher you’re telephoning to?” he quizzed.
Alix was in despair. Her plan had failed. In a minute Dick Windyford would come to the phone. Should she risk all and cry out an appeal for help?
And then, as she nervously depressed and released the little key in the receiver she was holding, which permits the voice to be heard or not heard at the other end, another plan flashed into her head.
“It will be difficult,” she thought. “It means keeping my head, and thinking of the right words, and not faltering for a moment, but I believe I could do it. I must do it.”
And at that minute she heard Dick Windyford’s voice at the other end of the phone.
Alix drew a deep breath. Then she depressed the key firmly and spoke.
“Mrs. Martin speaking -from Philomel Cottage. Please come (she released the key) tomorrow morning with six nice veal cutlets (she released the key again) It’s very important (she released the key) Thank you so much, Mr. Hexworthy: you don’t mind my ringing you up so late, I hope, but those veal cutlets are really a matter of (she depressed the key again) life or death (she released it) Very well -tomorrow morning -(she depressed it) as soon as possible.”
She replaced the receiver on the hook and turned to face her husband, breathing hard.
“So that’s how you talk to your butcher, is it?” said Gerald.
“It’s the feminine touch,” said Alix lightly.
She was simmering with excitement. He had suspected nothing. Surely Dick, even if he didn’t understand, would come.
She passed into the sitting room and switched on the electric light. Gerald followed her.
“You seem very full of spirits now,” he said, watching her curiously.
“Yes,” said Alix, “my headache’s gone.”
She sat down in her usual seat and smiled at her husband, as he sank into his own chair opposite her. She was saved. It was only five and twenty past eight. Long before nine o’clock Dick would have arrived.
“I didn’t think much of that coffee you gave me,” complained Gerald. “It tasted very bitter.”
“It’s a new kind I was trying. We won’t have it again if you don’t like it, dear.”
Alix took up a piece of needlework and began to stitch. Gerald read a few pages of his book. Then he glanced up at the clock and tossed the book away.
“Half-past eight. Time to go down to the cellar and start work.”
The sewing slipped from Alix’s fingers.
“Oh, not yet. Let us wait until nine o’clock.”
“No, my girl -half-past eight. That’s the time I fixed. You’ll be able to get to bed all the earlier.”
“But I’d rather wait until nine.”
“You know when I fix a time, I always stick to it. Come along, Alix. I’m not going to wait a minute longer.”
Alix looked up at him, and in spite of herself she felt a wave of terror slide over her. The mask had been lifted. Gerald’s hands were twitching; his eyes were shining with excitement; he was continually passing his tongue over his dry lips. He no longer cared to conceal his excitement.
Alix thought: “It’s true –he can’t wait -he’s like a madman.”
He strode over to her, and jerked her onto her feet with a hand on her shoulder.
“Come on, my girl -or I’ll carry you there.”
His tone was gay, but there was an undisguised ferocity behind it that appalled her. With a supreme effort she jerked herself free and clung cowering against the wall. She was powerless. She couldn’t get away -she couldn’t do anything -and he was coming towards her.
“Now, Alix -“
She screamed, her hands held out impotently to ward him off.
“Gerald -stop -I’ve got something to tell you, something to confess -“
He did stop.
“To confess?” he said curiously.
“Yes, to confess.” She went on desperately, seeking to hold his arrested attention.
A look of contempt swept over his face. The spell was broken.
“A former lover, I suppose,” he sneered.
“No,” said Alix. “Something else. You’d call it, I expect -yes, you’d call it a crime.”
And at once she saw that she had struck the right note. Again his attention was arrested, held. Seeing that, her nerve came back to her. She felt mistress of the situation once more.
“You had better sit down again,” she said quietly.
She herself crossed the room to her old chair and sat down. She even stooped and picked up her needlework. But behind her calmness she was thinking and inventing feverishly. For the story she invented must hold his interest until help arrived.
“I told you,” she said, “that I had been a short-hand-typist for fifteen years. That was not entirely true. There were two intervals. The first occurred when I was twenty-two. I came across a man, an elderly man with a little property. He fell in love with me and asked me to marry him. I accepted.” She paused. “I induced him to insure his life in my favour.”
She saw a sudden keen interest spring up in her husband’s face, and went on with renewed assurance. “During the war I worked for a time in a Hospital Dispensary. There I had the handling of all kinds of rare drugs and poisons. Yes, poisons.”
She paused reflectively. He was keenly interested now, not a doubt of it. The murderer is bound to have an interest in murder. She had gambled on that, and succeeded. She stole a glance at the clock. It was five and twenty to nine.
“There is one poison -it is a little white powder. A pinch of it means death. You know something about poisons perhaps?”
She put the question in some trepidation. If he did, she would have to be careful.
“No,” said Gerald, “I know very little about them.”
She drew a breath of relief
. “You have heard of hyoscine, of course? This is a drug that acts much the same way, but it is absolutely untraceable. Any doctor would give a certificate of heart failure. I stole a small quantity of this drug and kept it by me.”
She paused, marshalling her forces.
“Go on,” said Gerald.
“No. I’m afraid. I can’t tell you. Another time.”
“Now,” he said impatiently. “I want to hear.”
“We had been married a month. I was very good to my elderly husband, very kind and devoted. He spoke in praise of me to all the neighbours. Everyone knew what a devoted wife I was. I always made his coffee myself every evening. One evening, when we were alone together, I put a pinch of the deadly alkaloid in his cup -“
Alix paused, and carefully re-threaded her needle. She, who had never acted in her life, rivalled the greatest actress in the world at this moment. She was actually living the part of the cold-blooded poisoner. “It was very peaceful. I sat watching him. Once he gasped a little and asked for air. I opened the window. Then he said he could not move from his chair. Presently he died.“
She stopped, smiling. It was a quarter to nine. Surely they would come soon.
“How much,” said Gerald, “was the insurance money?”
“About two thousand pounds. I speculated with it, and lost it. I went back to my office work. But I never meant to remain there long. Then I met another man. I had stuck to my maiden name at the office. He didn’t know I had been married before. He was a younger man, rather good-looking, and quite well off. We were married quietly in Sussex. He didn’t want to insure his life, but of course he made a will in my favour. He liked me to make his coffee myself also, just as my first husband had done.”
Alix smiled reflectively, and added simply, “I make very good coffee.”
Then she went on.
“I had several friends in the village where we were living. They were very sorry for me, with my husband dying suddenly of heart failure one evening after dinner. I didn’t quite like the doctor. I don’t think he suspected me, but he was certainly very surprised at my husband’s sudden death. I don’t quite know why I drifted back to the office again. Habit, I suppose. My second husband left about four thousand pounds. I didn’t speculate with it this time. I invested it. Then, you see -“
But she was interrupted. Gerald Martin, his face suffused with blood, half-choking, was pointing a shaking forefinger at her.
“The coffee -my God! the coffee!”
She stared at him.
“I understand now why it was bitter. You devil! You’ve been up to your tricks again.”
His hands gripped the arms of his chair. He was ready to spring upon her.
“You’ve poisoned me.”
Alix had retreated from him to the fireplace. Now, terrified, she opened her lips to deny -and then paused. In another minute he would spring upon her. She summoned all her strength. Her eyes held his steadily, compellingly.
“Yes,” she said, “I poisoned you. Already the poison is working. At this minute you can’t move from your chair -you can’t move -“
If she could him three -even a few minutes …
Ah! what was that? Footsteps on the road. The creak of the gate. Then footsteps on the path outside. The outer door opening.
“You can’t move,” she said again.
Then she slipped past him and fled headlong from the room to fall, half fainting, into Dick Windyford’s arms.
“My God! Alix!” he cried.
Then he turned to the man with him, a tall stalwart figure in policeman’s uniform.
“Go and see what’s been happening in that room.”
He laid Alix carefully down on a couch and bent over her.
“My little girl,” he murmured. “My poor little girl. What have they been doing to you?”
Her eyelids fluttered and her lips just murmured his name.
Dick was aroused from tumultuous thoughts by the policeman’s touching him on the arm.
“There’s nothing in that room, sir, but a man sitting in a chair. Looks as though he’d had some kind of bad fright, and -“
“Well, sir, he’s -dead.”
They were startled by hearing Alix’s voice. She spoke as though in some kind of dream, her eyes still closed. “And presently,” she said, almost as though she were quoting from something, “he died -“
*Philomel Cottage Copyright © 1934 Agatha Christie Limited. All rights reserved. AGATHA CHRISTIE is a registered trade mark of Agatha Christie Limited in the UK and/or elsewhere.
Featured image: Livia Marin
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