Philomel Cottage
Written by Agatha Christie
Narrated by Hugh Fraser

  It was not until after their simple evening meal, when they were sitting in the oak-benched living-room with the windows thrown open to let in the sweet night air scented with the perfume of the mauve and white stocks 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 aback 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 very 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 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.’

‘Oh! business!’ said Alix scornfully.

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 only knew –’

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 denied 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 your mind on to these unpleasant subjects, tonight of all nights?’

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 it 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 George’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 shan’t do any photography tonight.’

A woman’s mind is a curious thing. When she went to bed that Wednesday 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 realized 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 he 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.’

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. In the afternoon Alix suggested that she should go for them whilst Gerald remained in the garden; but somewhat to her 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 passed 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 these 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 dirty 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 trial 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 charges with consummate skill, aided by some of the best legal talent in the United States. The Scottish verdict of ‘Not Proven’ might perhaps have stated the case best. In its absence, he 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 realized that it was Gerald himself. The eyes and brow bore a strong resemblance to his. 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 a woman 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 hand.

Alix dropped the papers and swayed as she stood. On his left wrist, just below the palm, her husband 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 too 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 Wednesday 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 he 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.


 

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