The Witnes for the Prosecution
by Agatha Christie

Mr Mayherne adjusted his pince-nez and cleared his throat with a little dry-as-dust cough that was wholly typical of him. Then he looked again at the man opposite him, the man charged with wilful murder.

Mr Mayherne was a small man precise in manner, neatly, not to say foppishly dressed, with a pair of very shrewd and piercing grey eyes. By no means a fool. Indeed, as a solicitor, Mr Mayherne’s reputation stood very high. His voice, when he spoke to his client, was dry but not unsympathetic.

‘I must impress upon you again that you are in very grave danger, and that the utmost frankness is necessary.’

Leonard Vole, who had been staring in a dazed fashion at the blank wall in front of him, transferred his glance to the solicitor.

‘I know,’ he said hopelessly. ‘You keep telling me so. But I can’t seem to realize yet that I’m charged with murder – murder. And such a dastardly crime too.’

Mr Mayherne was practical, not emotional. He coughed again, took off his pince-nez, polished them carefully, and replaced them on his nose. Then he said:

‘Yes, yes, yes. Now, my dear Mr Vole, we’re going to make a determined effort to get you off – and we shall succeed – we shall succeed. But I must have all the facts. I must know just how damaging the case against you is likely to be. Then we can fix upon the best line of defence.’

Still the young man looked at him in the same dazed, hopeless fashion. To Mr Mayherne the case had seemed black enough, and the guilt of the prisoner assured. Now, for the first time, he felt a doubt.

‘You think I’m guilty,’ said Leonard Vole, in a low voice. ‘But, by God, I swear I’m not! It looks pretty black against me, I know that. I’m like a man caught in a net – the meshes of it all round me, entangling me whichever way I turn. But I didn’t do it, Mr Mayherne, I didn’t do it!’

In such a position a man was bound to protest his innocence. Mr Mayherne knew that. Yet, in spite of himself, he was impressed. It might be, after all, that Leonard Vole was innocent.

‘You are right, Mr Vole,’ he said gravely. ‘The case does look very black against you. Nevertheless, I accept your assurance. Now, let us get to facts. I want you to tell me in your own words exactly how you came to make the acquaintance of Miss Emily French.’

‘It was one day in Oxford Street. I saw an elderly lady crossing the road. She was carrying a lot of parcels. In the middle of the street she dropped them, tried to recover them, found a bus was almost on top of her and just managed to reach the kerb safely, dazed and bewildered by people having shouted at her. I recovered the parcels, wiped the mud off them as best I could, retied the string of one, and returned them to her.’

‘There was no question of your having saved her life?’

‘Oh! dear me, no. All I did was to perform a common act of courtesy. She was extremely grateful, thanked me warmly, and said something about my manners not being those of most of the younger generation – I can’t remember the exact words. Then I lifted my hat and went on. I never expected to see her again. But life is full of coincidences. That very evening I came across her at a party at a friend’s house. She recognized me at once and asked that I should be introduced to her. I then found out that she was a Miss Emily French and that she lived at Cricklewood. I talked to her for some time. She was, I imagine, an old lady who took sudden violent fancies to people. She took one to me on the strength of a perfectly simple action which anyone might have performed. On leaving, she shook me warmly by the hand, and asked me to come and see her. I replied, of course, that I should be very pleased to do so, and she then urged me to name a day. I did not want particularly to go, but it would have seemed churlish to refuse, so I fixed on the following Saturday. After she had gone, I learned something about her from my friends. That she was rich, eccentric, lived alone with one maid and owned no less than eight cats.’

‘I see,’ said Mr Mayherne. ‘The question of her being well off came up as early as that?’

‘If you mean that I inquired –’ began Leonard Vole hotly, but Mr Mayherne stilled him with a gesture.

‘I have to look at the case as it will be presented by the other side. An ordinary observer would not have supposed Miss French to be a lady of means. She lived poorly, almost humbly. Unless you had been told the contrary, you would in all probability have considered her to be in poor circumstances – at any rate to begin with. Who was it exactly who told you that she was well off?’

‘My friend, George Harvey, at whose house the party took place.’

‘Is he likely to remember having done so?’

‘I really don’t know. Of course it is some time ago now.’

‘Quite so, Mr Vole. You see, the first aim of the prosecution will be to establish that you were in low water financially – that is true, is it not?’

Leonard Vole flushed.

‘Yes,’ he said, in a low voice. ‘I’d been having a run of infernal bad luck just then.’

‘Quite so,’ said Mr Mayherne again. ‘That being, as I say, in low water financially, you met this rich old lady and cultivated her acquaintance assiduously. Now if we are in a position to say that you had no idea she was well off, and that you visited her out of pure kindness of heart –’

‘Which is the case.’

‘I dare say. I am not disputing the point. I am looking at it from the outside point of view. A great deal depends on the memory of Mr Harvey. Is he likely to remember that conversation or is he not? Could he be confused by counsel into believing that it took place later?’

Leonard Vole reflected for some minutes. Then he said steadily enough, but with a rather paler face:

‘I do not think that that line would be successful, Mr Mayherne. Several of those present heard his remark, and one or two of them chaffed me about my conquest of a rich old lady.’

The solicitor endeavoured to hide his disappointment with a wave of the hand.

‘Unfortunately,’ he said. ‘But I congratulate you upon your plain speaking, Mr Vole. It is to you I look to guide me. Your judgement is quite right. To persist in the line I spoke of would have been disastrous. We must leave that point. You made the acquaintance of Miss French, you called upon her, the acquaintanceship progressed. We want a clear reason for all this. Why did you, a young man of thirty-three, good-looking, fond of sport, popular with your friends, devote so much time to an elderly woman with whom you could hardly have anything in common?’

Leonard Vole flung out his hands in a nervous gesture.

‘I can’t tell you – I really can’t tell you. After the first visit, she pressed me to come again, spoke of being lonely and unhappy. She made it difficult for me to refuse. She showed so plainly her fondness and affection for me that I was placed in an awkward position. You see, Mr Mayherne, I’ve got a weak nature – I drift – I’m one of those people who can’t say “No.” And believe me or not, as you like, after the third or fourth visit I paid her I found myself getting genuinely fond of the old thing. My mother died when I was young, an aunt brought me up, and she too died before I was fifteen. If I told you that I genuinely enjoyed being mothered and pampered, I dare say you’d only laugh.’

Mr Mayherne did not laugh. Instead he took off his pince-nez again and polished them, always a sign with him that he was thinking deeply.

‘I accept your explanation, Mr Vole,’ he said at last. ‘I believe it to be psychologically probable. Whether a jury would take that view of it is another matter. Please continue your narrative. When was it that Miss French first asked you to look into her business affairs?’

‘After my third or fourth visit to her. She understood very little of money matters, and was worried about some investments.’

Mr Mayherne looked up sharply.

‘Be careful, Mr Vole. The maid, Janet Mackenzie, declares that her mistress was a good woman of business and transacted all her own affairs, and this is borne out by the testimony of her bankers.’

‘I can’t help that,’ said Vole earnestly. ‘That’s what she said to me.’

Mr Mayherne looked at him for a moment or two in silence. Though he had no intention of saying so, his belief in Leonard Vole’s innocence was at that moment strengthened. He knew something of the mentality of elderly ladies. He saw Miss French, infatuated with the good-looking young man, hunting about for pretexts that should bring him to the house. What more likely than that she should plead ignorance of business, and beg him to help her with her money affairs? She was enough of a woman of the world to realize that any man is slightly flattered by such an admission of his superiority. Leonard Vole had been flattered. Perhaps, too, she had not been averse to letting this young man know that she was wealthy. Emily French had been a strong-willed old woman, willing to pay her price for what she wanted. All this passed rapidly through Mr Mayherne’s mind, but he gave no indication of it, and asked instead a further question.

‘And you did handle her affairs for her at her request?’

‘I did.’

‘Mr Vole,’ said the solicitor, ‘I am going to ask you a very serious question, and one to which it is vital I should have a truthful answer. You were in low water financially. You had the handling of an old lady’s affairs – an old lady who, according to her own statement, knew little or nothing of business. Did you at any time, or in any manner, convert to your own use the securities which you handled? Did you engage in any transaction for your own pecuniary advantage which will not bear the light of day?’ He quelled the other’s response. ‘Wait a minute before you answer. There are two courses open to us. Either we can make a feature of your probity and honesty in conducting her affairs whilst pointing out how unlikely it is that you would commit murder to obtain money which you might have obtained by such infinitely easier means. If, on the other hand, there is anything in your dealings which the prosecution will get hold of – if, to put it baldly, it can be proved that you swindled the old lady in any way, we must take the line that you had no motive for the murder, since she was already a profitable source of income to you. You perceive the distinction. Now, I beg of you, take your time before you reply.’

But Leonard Vole took no time at all.

‘My dealings with Miss French’s affairs are all perfectly fair and above board. I acted for her interests to the very best of my ability, as anyone will find who looks into the matter.’

‘Thank you,’ said Mr Mayherne. ‘You relieve my mind very much. I pay you the compliment of believing that you are far too clever to lie to me over such an important matter.’

‘Surely,’ said Vole eagerly, ‘the strongest point in my favour is the lack of motive. Granted that I cultivated the acquaintanceship of a rich old lady in the hope of getting money out of her – that, I gather, is the substance of what you have been saying – surely her death frustrates all my hopes?’

The solicitor looked at him steadily. Then, very deliberately, he repeated his unconscious trick with his pince-nez. It was not until they were firmly replaced on his nose that he spoke.

‘Are you not aware, Mr Vole, Miss French left a will under which you are the principal beneficiary?’

‘What?’ The prisoner sprang to his feet. His dismay was obvious and unforced. ‘My God! What are you saying? She left her money to me?’

Mr Mayherne nodded slowly. Vole sank down again, his head in his hands.

‘You pretend you know nothing of this will?’

‘Pretend? There’s no pretence about it. I knew nothing about it.’

‘What would you say if I told you that the maid, Janet Mackenzie, swears that you did know? That her mistress told her distinctly that she had consulted you in the matter, and told you of her intentions?’

‘Say? That she’s lying! No, I go too fast. Janet is an elderly woman. She was a faithful watchdog to her mistress, and she didn’t like me. She was jealous and suspicious. I should say that Miss French confided her intentions to Janet, and that Janet either mistook something she said, or else was convinced in her own mind that I had persuaded the old lady into doing it. I dare say that she believes herself now that Miss French actually told her so.’

‘You don’t think she dislikes you enough to lie deliberately about the matter?’

Leonard Vole looked shocked and startled.

‘No, indeed! Why should she?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Mr Mayherne thoughtfully. ‘But she’s very bitter against you.’

The wretched young man groaned again.

‘I’m beginning to see,’ he muttered. ‘It’s frightful. I made up to her, that’s what they’ll say, I got her to make a will leaving her money to me, and then I go there that night, and there’s nobody in the house – they find her the next day – oh! my God, it’s awful!’

‘You are wrong about there being nobody in the house,’ said Mr Mayherne. ‘Janet, as you remember, was to go out for the evening. She went, but about half past nine she returned to fetch the pattern of a blouse sleeve which she had promised to a friend. She let herself in by the back door, went upstairs and fetched it, and went out again. She heard voices in the sitting-room, though she could not distinguish what they said, but she will swear that one of them was Miss French’s and one was a man’s.’

‘At half past nine,’ said Leonard Vole. ‘At half past nine …’ He sprang to his feet. ‘But then I’m saved – saved –’

‘What do you mean, saved?’ cried Mr Mayherne, astonished.

‘By half past nine I was at home again! My wife can prove that. I left Miss French about five minutes to nine. I arrived home about twenty past nine. My wife was there waiting for me. Oh! thank God – thank God! And bless Janet Mackenzie’s sleeve pattern.’

In his exuberance, he hardly noticed that the grave expression of the solicitor’s face had not altered. But the latter’s words brought him down to earth with a bump.

‘Who, then, in your opinion, murdered Miss French?’

‘Why, a burglar, of course, as was thought at first. The window was forced, you remember. She was killed with a heavy blow from a crowbar, and the crowbar was found lying on the floor beside the body. And several articles were missing. But for Janet’s absurd suspicions and dislike of me, the police would never have swerved from the right track.’

‘That will hardly do, Mr Vole,’ said the solicitor. ‘The things that were missing were mere trifles of no value, taken as a blind. And the marks on the window were not all conclusive. Besides, think for yourself. You say you were no longer in the house by half past nine. Who, then, was the man Janet heard talking to Miss French in the sitting-room? She would hardly be having an amicable conversation with a burglar?’

‘No,’ said Vole. ‘No –’ He looked puzzled and discouraged. ‘But anyway,’ he added with reviving spirit, ‘it lets me out. I’ve got an alibi. You must see Romaine – my wife – at once.’

‘Certainly,’ acquiesced the lawyer. ‘I should already have seen Mrs Vole but for her being absent when you were arrested. I wired to Scotland at once, and I understand that she arrives back tonight. I am going to call upon her immediately I leave here.’

Vole nodded, a great expression of satisfaction settling down over his face.

‘Yes, Romaine will tell you. My God! it’s a lucky chance that.’

‘Excuse me, Mr Vole, but you are very fond of your wife?’

‘Of course.’

‘And she of you?’

‘Romaine is devoted to me. She’d do anything in the world for me.’

He spoke enthusiastically, but the solicitor’s heart sank a little lower. The testimony of a devoted wife – would it gain credence?

‘Was there anyone else who saw you return at nine-twenty? A maid, for instance?’

‘We have no maid.’

‘Did you meet anyone in the street on the way back?’

‘Nobody I knew. I rode part of the way in a bus. The conductor might remember.’

Mr Mayherne shook his head doubtfully.

‘There is no one, then, who can confirm your wife’s testimony?’

‘No. But it isn’t necessary, surely?’

‘I dare say not. I dare say not,’ said Mr Mayherne hastily. ‘Now there’s just one thing more. Did Miss French know that you were a married man?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Yet you never took your wife to see her. Why was that?’

For the first time, Leonard Vole’s answer came halting and uncertain.

‘Well – I don’t know.’

‘Are you aware that Janet Mackenzie says her mistress believed you to be single, and contemplated marrying you in the future?’

Vole laughed.

‘Absurd! There was forty years difference in age between us.’

‘It has been done,’ said the solicitor drily. ‘The fact remains. Your wife never met Miss French?’

‘No –’ Again the constraint.

‘You will permit me to say,’ said the lawyer, ‘that I hardly understand your attitude in the matter.’

Vole flushed, hesitated, and then spoke.

‘I’ll make a clean breast of it. I was hard up, as you know. I hoped that Miss French might lend me some money. She was fond of me, but she wasn’t at all interested in the struggles of a young couple. Early on, I found that she had taken it for granted that my wife and I didn’t get on – were living apart. Mr Mayherne – I wanted the money – for Romaine’s sake. I said nothing, and allowed the old lady to think what she chose. She spoke of my being an adopted son for her. There was never any question of marriage – that must be just Janet’s imagination.’

‘And that is all?’

‘Yes – that is all.’

Was there just a shade of hesitation in the words? The lawyer fancied so. He rose and held out his hand.

‘Goodbye, Mr Vole.’ He looked into the haggard young face and spoke with an unusual impulse. ‘I believe in your innocence in spite of the multitude of facts arrayed against you. I hope to prove it and vindicate you completely.’

Vole smiled back at him.

‘You’ll find the alibi is all right,’ he said cheerfully.

Again he hardly noticed that the other did not respond.

‘The whole thing hinges a good deal on the testimony of Janet Mackenzie,’ said Mr Mayherne. ‘She hates you. That much is clear.’

‘She can hardly hate me,’ protested the young man.

The solicitor shook his head as he went out.

‘Now for Mrs Vole,’ he said to himself.

He was seriously disturbed by the way the thing was shaping.

The Voles lived in a small shabby house near Paddington Green. It was to this house that Mr Mayherne went.

In answer to his ring, a big slatternly woman, obviously a charwoman, answered the door.

‘Mrs Vole? Has she returned yet?’

‘Got back an hour ago. But I dunno if you can see her.’

‘If you will take my card to her,’ said Mr Mayherne quietly, ‘I am quite sure that she will do so.’

The woman looked at him doubtfully, wiped her hand on her apron and took the card. Then she closed the door in his face and left him on the step outside.

In a few minutes, however, she returned with a slightly altered manner.

‘Come inside, please.’

She ushered him into a tiny drawing-room. Mr Mayherne, examining a drawing on the wall, stared up suddenly to face a tall pale woman who had entered so quietly that he had not heard her.

‘Mr Mayherne? You are my husband’s solicitor, are you not? You have come from him? Will you please sit down?’

Until she spoke he had not realized that she was not English. Now, observing her more closely, he noticed the high cheekbones, the dense blue-black of the hair, and an occasional very slight movement of the hands that was distinctly foreign. A strange woman, very quiet. So quiet as to make one uneasy. From the very first Mr Mayherne was conscious that he was up against something that he did not understand.

‘Now, my dear Mrs Vole,’ he began, ‘you must not give way –’

He stopped. It was so very obvious that Romaine Vole had not the slightest intention of giving way. She was perfectly calm and composed.

‘Will you please tell me all about it?’ she said. ‘I must know everything. Do not think to spare me. I want to know the worst.’ She hesitated, then repeated in a lower tone, with a curious emphasis which the lawyer did not understand: ‘I want to know the worst.’

Mr Mayherne went over his interview with Leonard Vole. She listened attentively, nodding her head now and then.

‘I see,’ she said, when he had finished. ‘He wants me to say that he came in at twenty minutes past nine that night?’

‘He did come in at that time?’ said Mr Mayherne sharply.

‘That is not the point,’ she said coldly. ‘Will my saying so acquit him? Will they believe me?’

Mr Mayherne was taken aback. She had gone so quickly to the core of the matter.

‘That is what I want to know,’ she said. ‘Will it be enough? Is there anyone else who can support my evidence?’

There was a suppressed eagerness in her manner that made him vaguely uneasy.

‘So far there is no one else,’ he said reluctantly.

‘I see,’ said Romaine Vole.

She sat for a minute or two perfectly still. A little smile played over her lips.

The lawyer’s feeling of alarm grew stronger and stronger.

‘Mrs Vole –’ he began. ‘I know what you must feel –’

‘Do you?’ she said. ‘I wonder.’

‘In the circumstances –’

‘In the circumstances – I intend to play a lone hand.’

He looked at her in dismay.

‘But, my dear Mrs Vole – you are overwrought. Being so devoted to your husband –’

‘I beg your pardon?’

The sharpness of her voice made him start. He repeated in a hesitating manner:

‘Being so devoted to your husband –’

Romaine Vole nodded slowly, the same strange smile on her lips.

‘Did he tell you that I was devoted to him?’ she asked softly. ‘Ah! yes, I can see he did. How stupid men are! Stupid – stupid – stupid –’

 


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