Philomel Cottage
Written by Agatha Christie
Narrated by Hugh Fraser

  Alix leaped to a knowledge born of instinct. It was to be tonight …

But there was still a chance. Gerald, 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 in 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 your 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. 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 baulked 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 Gerald 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 off 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? Can 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 to herself. ‘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 depressed the key again). It’s very important (she released the key). Thank you so much, Mr Hexworthy: you won’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. 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 on to 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 –’

‘No – no.’

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 had used the words at random, but she went on desperately, seeking to hold his arrested attention.

A look of contempt swept over his face.

‘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 slowly, ‘that I had been a shorthand-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. We were married.’ 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.’

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 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 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 the minute you can’t move from your chair – you can’t move –’

If she could keep him there – 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 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 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 –’

‘Yes?’

‘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 –’


 

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