SANCTUARY
by Agatha Christie

 

I

The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums. A good deal of rich garden soil was attached to her strong brogue shoes and a few fragments of earth were adhering to her nose, but of that fact she was perfectly unconscious.

She had a slight struggle in opening the vicarage gate which hung, rustily, half off its hinges. A puff of wind caught at her battered felt hat, causing it to sit even more rakishly than it had done before. ‘Bother!’ said Bunch.

Christened by her optimistic parents Diana, Mrs Harmon had become Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since. Clutching the chrysanthemums, she made her way through the gate to the churchyard, and so to the church door.

The November air was mild and damp. Clouds scudded across the sky with patches of blue here and there. Inside, the church was dark and cold; it was unheated except at service times.

‘Brrrrrh!’ said Bunch expressively. ‘I’d better get on with this quickly. I don’t want to die of cold.’

With the quickness born of practice she collected the necessary paraphernalia: vases, water, flower-holders. ‘I wish we had lilies,’ thought Bunch to herself. ‘I get so tired of these scraggy chrysanthemums.’ Her nimble fingers arranged the blooms in their holders.

There was nothing particularly original or artistic about the decorations, for Bunch Harmon herself was neither original nor artistic, but it was a homely and pleasant arrangement. Carrying the vases carefully, Bunch stepped up the aisle and made her way towards the altar. As she did so the sun came out.

It shone through the east window of somewhat crude coloured glass, mostly blue and red—the gift of a wealthy Victorian churchgoer. The effect was almost startling in its sudden opulence. ‘Like jewels,’ thought Bunch. Suddenly she stopped, staring ahead of her. On the chancel steps was a huddled dark form.

Putting down the flowers carefully, Bunch went up to it and bent over it. It was a man lying there, huddled over on himself. Bunch knelt down by him and slowly, carefully, she turned him over. Her fingers went to his pulse—a pulse so feeble and fluttering that it told its own story, as did the almost greenish pallor of his face. There was no doubt, Bunch thought, that the man was dying.

He was a man of about forty-five, dressed in a dark, shabby suit. She laid down the limp hand she had picked up and looked at his other hand. This seemed clenched like a fist on his breast. Looking more closely she saw that the fingers were closed over what seemed to be a large wad or handkerchief which he was holding tightly to his chest. All round the clenched hand there were splashes of a dry brown fluid which, Bunch guessed, was dry blood. Bunch sat back on her heels, frowning.

Up till now the man’s eyes had been closed but at this point they suddenly opened and fixed themselves on Bunch’s face. They were neither dazed nor wandering. They seemed fully alive and intelligent. His lips moved, and Bunch bent forward to catch the words, or rather the word. It was only one word that he said:

‘Sanctuary.’

There was, she thought, just a very faint smile as he breathed out this word. There was no mistaking it, for after a moment he said it again, ‘Sanctuary…’

Then, with a faint, long-drawn-out sigh, his eyes closed again. Once more Bunch’s fingers went to his pulse. It was still there, but fainter now and more intermittent. She got up with decision.

‘Don’t move,’ she said, ‘or try to move. I’m going for help.’

The man’s eyes opened again but he seemed now to be fixing his attention on the coloured light that came through the east window. He murmured something that Bunch could not quite catch. She thought, startled, that it might have been her husband’s name.

‘Julian?’ she said. ‘Did you come here to find Julian?’ But there was no answer. The man lay with eyes closed, his breathing coming in slow, shallow fashion.

Bunch turned and left the church rapidly. She glanced at her watch and nodded with some satisfaction. Dr Griffiths would still be in his surgery. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the church. She went in, without waiting to knock or ring, passing through the waiting room and into the doctor’s surgery.

‘You must come at once,’ said Bunch. ‘There’s a man dying in the church.’

Some minutes later Dr Griffiths rose from his knees after a brief examination.

‘Can we move him from here into the vicarage? I can attend to him better there—not that it’s any use.’

‘Of course,’ said Bunch. ‘I’ll go along and get things ready. I’ll get Harper and Jones, shall I? To help you carry him.’

‘Thanks. I can telephone from the vicarage for an ambulance, but I’m afraid—by the time it comes…’ He left the remark unfinished.

Bunch said, ‘Internal bleeding?’

Dr Griffiths nodded. He said, ‘How on earth did he come here?’

‘I think he must have been here all night,’ said Bunch, considering. ‘Harper unlocks the church in the morning as he goes to work, but he doesn’t usually come in.’

It was about five minutes later when Dr Griffiths put down the telephone receiver and came back into the morning-room where the injured man was lying on quickly arranged blankets on the sofa. Bunch was moving a basin of water and clearing up after the doctor’s examination.

‘Well, that’s that,’ said Griffiths. ‘I’ve sent for an ambulance and I’ve notified the police.’ He stood, frowning, looking down on the patient who lay with closed eyes. His left hand was plucking in a nervous, spasmodic way at his side.

‘He was shot,’ said Griffiths. ‘Shot at fairly close quarters. He rolled his handkerchief up into a ball and plugged the wound with it so as to stop the bleeding.’

‘Could he have gone far after that happened?’ Bunch asked.

‘Oh, yes, it’s quite possible. A mortally wounded man has been known to pick himself up and walk along a street as though nothing had happened, and then suddenly collapse five or ten minutes later. So he needn’t have been shot in the church. Oh no. He may have been shot some distance away. Of course, he may have shot himself and then dropped the revolver and staggered blindly towards the church. I don’t quite know why he made for the church and not for the vicarage.’

‘Oh, I know that,’ said Bunch. ‘He said it: “Sanctuary.” ’

The doctor stared at her. ‘Sanctuary?’

‘Here’s Julian,’ said Bunch, turning her head as she heard her husband’s steps in the hall. ‘Julian! Come here.’

The Reverend Julian Harmon entered the room. His vague, scholarly manner always made him appear much older than he really was. ‘Dear me!’ said Julian Harmon, staring in a mild, puzzled manner at the surgical appliances and the prone figure on the sofa.

Bunch explained with her usual economy of words. ‘He was in the church, dying. He’d been shot. Do you know him, Julian? I thought he said your name.’

The vicar came up to the sofa and looked down at the dying man. ‘Poor fellow,’ he said, and shook his head. ‘No, I don’t know him. I’m almost sure I’ve never seen him before.’

At that moment the dying man’s eyes opened once more. They went from the doctor to Julian Harmon and from him to his wife. The eyes stayed there, staring into Bunch’s face. Griffiths stepped forward.

‘If you could tell us,’ he said urgently.

But with eyes fixed on Bunch, the man said in a weak voice, ‘Please—please—’ And then, with a slight tremor, he died…

Sergeant Hayes licked his pencil and turned the page of his notebook.

‘So that’s all you can tell me, Mrs Harmon?’

‘That’s all,’ said Bunch. ‘These are the things out of his coat pockets.’

On a table at Sergeant Hayes’s elbow was a wallet, a rather battered old watch with the initials W.S. and the return half of a ticket to London. Nothing more.

‘You’ve found out who he is?’ asked Bunch.

‘A Mr and Mrs Eccles phoned up the station. He’s her brother, it seems. Name of Sandbourne. Been in a low state of health and nerves for some time. He’s been getting worse lately. The day before yesterday he walked out and didn’t come back. He took a revolver with him.’

‘And he came out here and shot himself with it?’ said Bunch. ‘Why?’

‘Well, you see, he’d been depressed…’

Bunch interrupted him. ‘I don’t mean that. I mean, why here?’

Since Sergeant Hayes obviously did not know the answer to that one, he replied in an oblique fashion, ‘Come out here, he did, on the five-ten bus.’

‘Yes,’ said Bunch again. ‘But why?’

‘I don’t know, Mrs Harmon,’ said Sergeant Hayes. ‘There’s no accounting. If the balance of the mind is disturbed—’

Bunch finished for him. ‘They may do it anywhere. But it still seems to me unnecessary to take a bus out to a small country place like this. He didn’t know anyone here, did he?’

‘Not so far as can be ascertained,’ said Sergeant Hayes. He coughed in an apologetic manner and said, as he rose to his feet, ‘It may be as Mr and Mrs Eccles will come out and see you, ma’am—if you don’t mind, that is.’

‘Of course I don’t mind,’ said Bunch. ‘It’s very natural. I only wish I had something to tell them.’

‘I’ll be getting along,’ said Sergeant Hayes.

‘I’m only so thankful,’ said Bunch, going with him to the front door, ‘that it wasn’t murder.’

A car had driven up at the vicarage gate. Sergeant Hayes, glancing at it, remarked: ‘Looks as though that’s Mr and Mrs Eccles come here now, ma’am, to talk with you.’

Bunch braced herself to endure what, she felt, might be rather a difficult ordeal. ‘However,’ she thought, ‘I can always call Julian to help me. A clergyman’s a great help when people are bereaved.’

Exactly what she had expected Mr and Mrs Eccles to be like, Bunch could not have said, but she was conscious, as she greeted them, of a feeling of surprise. Mr Eccles was a stout florid man whose natural manner would have been cheerful and facetious. Mrs Eccles had a vaguely flashy look about her. She had a small, mean, pursed-up mouth. Her voice was thin and reedy.

‘It’s been a terrible shock, Mrs Harmon, as you can imagine,’ she said.

‘Oh, I know,’ said Bunch. ‘It must have been. Do sit down. Can I offer you—well, perhaps it’s a little early for tea—’

Mr Eccles waved a pudgy hand. ‘No, no, nothing for us,’ he said. ‘It’s very kind of you, I’m sure. Just wanted to…well…what poor William said and all that, you know?’

‘He’s been abroad a long time,’ said Mrs Eccles, ‘and I think he must have had some very nasty experiences. Very quiet and depressed he’s been, ever since he came home. Said the world wasn’t fit to live in and there was nothing to look forward to. Poor Bill, he was always moody.’

Bunch stared at them both for a moment or two without speaking.

‘Pinched my husband’s revolver, he did,’ went on Mrs Eccles. ‘Without our knowing. Then it seems he come here by bus. I suppose that was nice feeling on his part. He wouldn’t have liked to do it in our house.’

‘Poor fellow, poor fellow,’ said Mr Eccles, with a sigh. ‘It doesn’t do to judge.’

There was another short pause, and Mr Eccles said, ‘Did he leave a message? Any last words, nothing like that?’

His bright, rather pig-like eyes watched Bunch closely. Mrs Eccles, too, leaned forward as though anxious for the reply.

‘No,’ said Bunch quietly. ‘He came into the church when he was dying, for sanctuary.’

Mrs Eccles said in a puzzled voice. ‘Sanctuary? I don’t think I quite…’

Mr Eccles interrupted. ‘Holy place, my dear,’ he said impatiently. ‘That’s what the vicar’s wife means. It’s a sin—suicide, you know. I expect he wanted to make amends.’

‘He tried to say something just before he died,’ said Bunch. ‘He began, “Please,” but that’s as far as he got.’

Mrs Eccles put her handkerchief to her eyes and sniffed. ‘Oh, dear,’ she said. ‘It’s terribly upsetting, isn’t it?’

‘There, there, Pam,’ said her husband. ‘Don’t take on. These things can’t be helped. Poor Willie. Still, he’s at peace now. Well, thank you very much, Mrs Harmon. I hope we haven’t interrupted you. A vicar’s wife is a busy lady, we know that.’

They shook hands with her. Then Eccles turned back suddenly to say, ‘Oh yes, there’s just one other thing. I think you’ve got his coat here, haven’t you?’

‘His coat?’ Bunch frowned.

Mrs Eccles said, ‘We’d like all his things, you know. Sentimental-like.’

‘He had a watch and a wallet and a railway ticket in the pockets,’ said Bunch. ‘I gave them to Sergeant Hayes.’

‘That’s all right, then,’ said Mr Eccles. ‘He’ll hand them over to us, I expect. His private papers would be in the wallet.’

‘There was a pound note in the wallet,’ said Bunch. ‘Nothing else.’

‘No letters? Nothing like that?’

Bunch shook her head.

‘Well, thank you again, Mrs Harmon. The coat he was wearing—perhaps the sergeant’s got that too, has he?’

Bunch frowned in an effort of remembrance.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think…let me see. The doctor and I took his coat off to examine his wound.’ She looked round the room vaguely. ‘I must have taken it upstairs with the towels and basin.’

‘I wonder now, Mrs Harmon, if you don’t mind…We’d like his coat, you know, the last thing he wore. Well, the wife feels rather sentimental about it.’

‘Of course,’ said Bunch. ‘Would you like me to have it cleaned first? I’m afraid it’s rather—well—stained.’

‘Oh, no, no, no, that doesn’t matter.’

Bunch frowned. ‘Now I wonder where…excuse me a moment.’ She went upstairs and it was some few minutes before she returned.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said breathlessly, ‘my daily woman must have put it aside with other clothes that were going to the cleaners. It’s taken me quite a long time to find it. Here it is. I’ll do it up for you in brown paper.’

Disclaiming their protests she did so; then once more effusively bidding her farewell the Eccleses departed.

Bunch went slowly back across the hall and entered the study. The Reverend Julian Harmon looked up and his brow cleared. He was composing a sermon and was fearing that he’d been led astray by the interest of the political relations between Judaea and Persia, in the reign of Cyrus.

‘Yes, dear?’ he said hopefully.

‘Julian,’ said Bunch. ‘What’s Sanctuary exactly?’

Julian Harmon gratefully put aside his sermon paper.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘Sanctuary in Roman and Greek temples applied to the cella in which stood the statue of a god. The Latin word for altar “ara” also means protection.’ He continued learnedly: ‘In three hundred and ninety-nine A.D. the right of sanctuary in Christian churches was finally and definitely recognized. The earliest mention of the right of sanctuary in England is in the Code of Laws issued by Ethelbert in A.D. six hundred…’

He continued for some time with his exposition but was, as often, disconcerted by his wife’s reception of his erudite pronouncement.

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘You are sweet.’

Bending over, she kissed him on the tip of his nose. Julian felt rather like a dog who has been congratulated on performing a clever trick.

‘The Eccleses have been here,’ said Bunch.

The vicar frowned. ‘The Eccleses? I don’t seem to remember…’

‘You don’t know them. They’re the sister and her husband of the man in the church.’

‘My dear, you ought to have called me.’

‘There wasn’t any need,’ said Bunch. ‘They were not in need of consolation. I wonder now…’ She frowned. ‘If I put a casserole in the oven tomorrow, can you manage, Julian? I think I shall go up to London for the sales.’

‘The sails?’ Her husband looked at her blankly. ‘Do you mean a yacht or a boat or something?’

Bunch laughed. ‘No, darling. There’s a special white sale at Burrows and Portman’s. You know, sheets, table cloths and towels and glass-cloths. I don’t know what we do with our glass-cloths, the way they wear through. Besides,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘I think I ought to go and see Aunt Jane.’

 

 

II

That sweet old lady, Miss Jane Marple, was enjoying the delights of the metropolis for a fortnight, comfortably installed in her nephew’s studio flat.

‘So kind of dear Raymond,’ she murmured. ‘He and Joan have gone to America for a fortnight and they insisted I should come up here and enjoy myself. And now, dear Bunch, do tell me what it is that’s worrying you.’

Bunch was Miss Marple’s favourite godchild, and the old lady looked at her with great affection as Bunch, thrusting her best felt hat farther on the back of her head, started her story.

Bunch’s recital was concise and clear. Miss Marple nodded her head as Bunch finished. ‘I see,’ she said. ‘Yes, I see.’

‘That’s why I felt I had to see you,’ said Bunch. ‘You see, not being clever—’

‘But you are clever, my dear.’

‘No, I’m not. Not clever like Julian.’

‘Julian, of course, has a very solid intellect,’ said Miss Marple.

‘That’s it,’ said Bunch. ‘Julian’s got the intellect, but on the other hand, I’ve got the sense.’

‘You have a lot of common sense, Bunch, and you’re very intelligent.’

‘You see, I don’t really know what I ought to do. I can’t ask Julian because—well, I mean, Julian’s so full of rectitude…’

This statement appeared to be perfectly understood by Miss Marple, who said, ‘I know what you mean, dear. We women—well, it’s different.’ She went on. ‘You told me what happened, Bunch, but I’d like to know first exactly what you think.’

‘It’s all wrong,’ said Bunch. ‘The man who was there in the church, dying, knew all about Sanctuary. He said it just the way Julian would have said it. I mean, he was a well-read, educated man. And if he’d shot himself, he wouldn’t drag himself to a church afterwards and say “sanctuary”. Sanctuary means that you’re pursued, and when you get into a church you’re safe. Your pursuers can’t touch you. At one time even the law couldn’t get at you.’

She looked questioningly at Miss Marple. The latter nodded. Bunch went on, ‘Those people, the Eccleses, were quite different. Ignorant and coarse. And there’s another thing. That watch—the dead man’s watch. It had the initials W.S. on the back of it. But inside—I opened it—in very small lettering there was “To Walter from his father” and a date. Walter. But the Eccleses kept talking of him as William or Bill.’

Miss Marple seemed about to speak but Bunch rushed on. ‘Oh, I know you’re not always called the name you’re baptized by. I mean, I can understand that you might be christened William and called “Porgy” or “Carrots” or something. But your sister wouldn’t call you William or Bill if your name was Walter.’

‘You mean that she wasn’t his sister?’

‘I’m quite sure she wasn’t his sister. They were horrid—both of them. They came to the vicarage to get his things and to find out if he’d said anything before he died. When I said he hadn’t I saw it in their faces—relief. I think myself,’ finished Bunch, ‘it was Eccles who shot him.’

‘Murder?’ said Miss Marple.

‘Yes,’ said Bunch. ‘Murder. That’s why I came to you, darling.’

Bunch’s remark might have seemed incongruous to an ignorant listener, but in certain spheres Miss Marple had a reputation for dealing with murder.

‘He said “please” to me before he died,’ said Bunch. ‘He wanted me to do something for him. The awful thing is I’ve no idea what.’

Miss Marple considered for a moment or two, and then pounced on the point that had already occurred to Bunch. ‘But why was he there at all?’ she asked.

‘You mean,’ said Bunch, ‘if you wanted sanctuary you might pop into a church anywhere. There’s no need to take a bus that only goes four times a day and come out to a lonely spot like ours for it.’

‘He must have come there for a purpose,’ Miss Marple thought. ‘He must have come to see someone. Chipping Cleghorn’s not a big place, Bunch. Surely you must have some idea of who it was he came to see?’

Bunch reviewed the inhabitants of her village in her mind before rather doubtfully shaking her head. ‘In a way,’ she said, ‘it could be anybody.’

‘He never mentioned a name?’

‘He said Julian, or I thought he said Julian. It might have been Julia, I suppose. As far as I know, there isn’t any Julia living in Chipping Cleghorn.’

She screwed up her eyes as she thought back to the scene. The man lying there on the chancel steps, the light coming through the window with its jewels of red and blue light.

‘Jewels,’ said Miss Marple thoughtfully.

 

 

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