Philomel Cottage
Written by Agatha Christie
Narrated by Hugh Fraser

   ‘Goodbye, darling.’

‘Goodbye, sweetheart.’

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, absentmindedly 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 Alex 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.

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 she 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 had thought she knew so well.

Her thoughts went back to that interview now, on this sunny morning, as she leant 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 – 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 then 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. 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 if a pal of mine turns up or not. Goodbye, 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 let 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 very own, and never for a minute had Alix regretted the 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 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 have no idea when you’ll be back, ma’am, I suppose?’

‘But I’m not going away.’

George stared.

‘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 yet 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 had 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. “But,” 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.’

‘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 farther 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.

She opened it, scanning the entries with some amusement. Almost from the beginning of their married life she had realized 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.

‘“Wednesday, 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 realized 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 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 only 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 seen nothing of Dick Windyford. Alix felt at once relieved and embarrassed. She was definitely committed now to a policy of concealment.


 

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