The Witness for the Prosecution
by Agatha Christie

She rose suddenly to her feet. All the intense emotion that the lawyer had been conscious of in the atmosphere was now concentrated in her tone.

‘I hate him, I tell you! I hate him. I hate him, I hate him! I would like to see him hanged by the neck till he is dead.’

The lawyer recoiled before her and the smouldering passion in her eyes.

She advanced a step nearer, and continued vehemently:

‘Perhaps I shall see it. Supposing I tell you that he did not come in that night at twenty past nine, but at twenty past ten? You say that he tells you he knew nothing about the money coming to him. Supposing I tell you he knew all about it, and counted on it, and committed murder to get it? Supposing I tell you that he admitted to me that night when he came in what he had done? That there was blood on his coat? What then? Supposing that I stand up in court and say all these things?’

Her eyes seemed to challenge him. With an effort, he concealed his growing dismay, and endeavoured to speak in a rational tone.

‘You cannot be asked to give evidence against your own husband –’

‘He is not my husband!’

The words came out so quickly that he fancied he had misunderstood her.

‘I beg your pardon? I –’

‘He is not my husband.’

The silence was so intense that you could have heard a pin drop.

‘I was an actress in Vienna. My husband is alive but in a madhouse. So we could not marry. I am glad now.’

She nodded defiantly.

‘I should like you to tell me one thing,’ said Mr Mayherne. He contrived to appear as cool and unemotional as ever. ‘Why are you so bitter against Leonard Vole?’

She shook her head, smiling a little.

‘Yes, you would like to know. But I shall not tell you. I will keep my secret …’

Mr Mayherne gave his dry little cough and rose.

‘There seems no point in prolonging this interview,’ he remarked. ‘You will hear from me again after I have communicated with my client.’

She came closer to him, looking into his eyes with her own wonderful dark ones.

‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘did you believe – honestly – that he was innocent when you came here today?’

‘I did,’ said Mr Mayherne.

‘You poor little man,’ she laughed.

‘And I believe so still,’ finished the lawyer. ‘Good evening, madam.’

He went out of the room, taking with him the memory of her startled face.

‘This is going to be the devil of a business,’ said Mr Mayherne to himself as he strode along the street.

Extraordinary, the whole thing. An extraordinary woman. A very dangerous woman. Women were the devil when they got their knife into you.

What was to be done? That wretched young man hadn’t a leg to stand upon. Of course, possibly he did commit the crime …

‘No,’ said Mr Mayherne to himself. ‘No – there’s almost too much evidence against him. I don’t believe this woman. She was trumping up the whole story. But she’ll never bring it into court.’

He wished he felt more conviction on the point.

 

 

The police court proceedings were brief and dramatic. The principal witnesses for the prosecution were Janet Mackenzie, maid to the dead woman, and Romaine Heilger, Austrian subject, the mistress of the prisoner.

Mr Mayherne sat in the court and listened to the damning story that the latter told. It was on the lines she had indicated to him in their interview.

The prisoner reserved his defence and was committed for trial.

Mr Mayherne was at his wits’ end. The case against Leonard Vole was black beyond words. Even the famous KC who was engaged for the defence held out little hope.

‘If we can shake that Austrian woman’s testimony, we might do something,’ he said dubiously. ‘But it’s a bad business.’

Mr Mayherne had concentrated his energies on one single point. Assuming Leonard Vole to be speaking the truth, and to have left the murdered woman’s house at nine o’clock, who was the man whom Janet heard talking to Miss French at half past nine?

The only ray of light was in the shape of a scapegrace nephew who had in bygone days cajoled and threatened his aunt out of various sums of money. Janet Mackenzie, the solicitor learned, had always been attached to this young man, and had never ceased urging his claims upon her mistress. It certainly seemed possible that it was this nephew who had been with Miss French after Leonard Vole left, especially as he was not to be found in any of his old haunts.

In all other directions, the lawyer’s researches had been negative in their result. No one had seen Leonard Vole entering his own house, or leaving that of Miss French. No one had seen any other man enter or leave the house in Cricklewood. All inquiries drew blank.

It was the eve of the trial when Mr Mayherne received the letter which was to lead his thoughts in an entirely new direction.

It came by the six o’clock post. An illiterate scrawl, written on common paper and enclosed in a dirty envelope with the stamp stuck on crooked.

Mr Mayherne read it through once or twice before he grasped its meaning.

 

 

Dear Mister

Youre the lawyer chap wot acks for the young feller. if you want that painted foreign hussy showd up for wot she is an her pack of lies you come to 16 Shaw’s Rents Stepney tonight. It ul cawst you 2 hundred quid Arsk for Missis Mogson.

 

 

The solicitor read and re-read this strange epistle. It might, of course, be a hoax, but when he thought it over, he became increasingly convinced that it was genuine, and also convinced that it was the one hope for the prisoner. The evidence of Romaine Heilger damned him completely, and the line the defence meant to pursue, the line that the evidence of a woman who had admittedly lived an immoral life was not to be trusted, was at best a weak one.

Mr Mayherne’s mind was made up. It was his duty to save his client at all costs. He must go to Shaw’s Rents.

He had some difficulty in finding the place, a ramshackle building in an evil-smelling slum, but at last he did so, and on inquiry for Mrs Mogson was sent up to a room on the third floor. On this door he knocked and getting no answer, knocked again.

At this second knock, he heard a shuffling sound inside, and presently the door was opened cautiously half an inch and a bent figure peered out.

Suddenly the woman, for it was a woman, gave a chuckle and opened the door wider.

‘So it’s you, dearie,’ she said, in a wheezy voice. ‘Nobody with you, is there? No playing tricks? That’s right. You can come in – you can come in.’

With some reluctance the lawyer stepped across the threshold into the small dirty room, with its flickering gas jet. There was an untidy unmade bed in a corner, a plain deal table and two rickety chairs. For the first time Mr Mayherne had a full view of the tenant of this unsavoury apartment. She was a woman of middle age, bent in figure, with a mass of untidy grey hair and a scarf wound tightly round her face. She saw him looking at this and laughed again, the same curious toneless chuckle.

‘Wondering why I hide my beauty, dear? He, he, he. Afraid it may tempt you, eh? But you shall see – you shall see.’

She drew aside the scarf and the lawyer recoiled involuntarily before the almost formless blur of scarlet. She replaced the scarf again.

‘So you’re not wanting to kiss me, dearie? He, he, I don’t wonder. And yet I was a pretty girl once – not so long ago as you’d think, either. Vitriol, dearie, vitriol – that’s what did that. Ah! but I’ll be even with em –’

She burst into a hideous torrent of profanity which Mr Mayherne tried vainly to quell. She fell silent at last, her hands clenching and unclenching themselves nervously.

‘Enough of that,’ said the lawyer sternly. ‘I’ve come here because I have reason to believe you can give me information which will clear my client, Leonard Vole. Is that the case?’

Her eye leered at him cunningly.

‘What about the money, dearie?’ she wheezed. ‘Two hundred quid, you remember.’

‘It is your duty to give evidence, and you can be called upon to do so.’

‘That won’t do, dearie. I’m an old woman, and I know nothing. But you give me two hundred quid, and perhaps I can give you a hint or two. See?’

‘What kind of hint?’

‘What should you say to a letter? A letter from her. Never mind now how I got hold of it. That’s my business. It’ll do the trick. But I want my two hundred quid.’

Mr Mayherne looked at her coldly, and made up his mind.

‘I’ll give you ten pounds, nothing more. And only that if this letter is what you say it is.’

‘Ten pounds?’ She screamed and raved at him.

‘Twenty,’ said Mr Mayherne, ‘and that’s my last word.’

He rose as if to go. Then, watching her closely, he drew out a pocket book, and counted out twenty one-pound notes.

‘You see,’ he said. ‘That is all I have with me. You can take it or leave it.’

But already he knew that the sight of the money was too much for her. She cursed and raved impotently, but at last she gave in. Going over to the bed, she drew something out from beneath the tattered mattress.

‘Here you are, damn you!’ she snarled. ‘It’s the top one you want.’

It was a bundle of letters that she threw to him, and Mr Mayherne untied them and scanned them in his usual cool, methodical manner. The woman, watching him eagerly, could gain no clue from his impassive face.

He read each letter through, then returned again to the top one and read it a second time. Then he tied the whole bundle up again carefully.

They were love letters, written by Romaine Heilger, and the man they were written to was not Leonard Vole. The top letter was dated the day of the latter’s arrest.

‘I spoke true, dearie, didn’t I?’ whined the woman. ‘It’ll do for her, that letter?’

Mr Mayherne put the letters in his pocket, then he asked a question.

‘How did you get hold of this correspondence?’

‘That’s telling,’ she said with a leer. ‘But I know something more. I heard in court what that hussy said. Find out where she was at twenty past ten, the time she says she was at home. Ask at the Lion Road Cinema. They’ll remember – a fine upstanding girl like that – curse her!’

‘Who is the man?’ asked Mr Mayherne. ‘There’s only a Christian name here.’

The other’s voice grew thick and hoarse, her hands clenched and unclenched. Finally she lifted one to her face.

‘He’s the man that did this to me. Many years ago now. She took him away from me – a chit of a girl she was then. And when I went after him – and went for him too – he threw the cursed stuff at me! And she laughed – damn her! I’ve had it in for her for years. Followed her, I have, spied upon her. And now I’ve got her! She’ll suffer for this, won’t she, Mr Lawyer? She’ll suffer?’

‘She will probably be sentenced to a term of imprisonment for perjury,’ said Mr Mayherne quietly.

‘Shut away – that’s what I want. You’re going, are you? Where’s my money? Where’s that good money?’

Without a word, Mr Mayherne put down the notes on the table. Then, drawing a deep breath, he turned and left the squalid room. Looking back, he saw the old woman crooning over the money.

He wasted no time. He found the cinema in Lion Road easily enough, and, shown a photograph of Romaine Heilger, the commissionaire recognized her at once. She had arrived at the cinema with a man some time after ten o’clock on the evening in question. He had not noticed her escort particularly, but he remembered the lady who had spoken to him about the picture that was showing. They stayed until the end, about an hour later.

Mr Mayherne was satisfied. Romaine Heilger’s evidence was a tissue of lies from beginning to end. She had evolved it out of her passionate hatred. The lawyer wondered whether he would ever know what lay behind that hatred. What had Leonard Vole done to her? He had seemed dumbfounded when the solicitor had reported her attitude to him. He had declared earnestly that such a thing was incredible – yet it had seemed to Mr Mayherne that after the first astonishment his protests had lacked sincerity.

He did know. Mr Mayherne was convinced of it. He knew, but had no intention of revealing the fact. The secret between those two remained a secret. Mr Mayherne wondered if some day he should come to learn what it was.

The solicitor glanced at his watch. It was late, but time was everything. He hailed a taxi and gave an address.

‘Sir Charles must know of this at once,’ he murmured to himself as he got in. The trial of Leonard Vole for the murder of Emily French aroused widespread interest. In the first place the prisoner was young and good-looking, then he was accused of a particularly dastardly crime, and there was the further interest of Romaine Heilger, the principal witness for the prosecution. There had been pictures of her in many papers, and several fictitious stories as to her origin and history.

The proceedings opened quietly enough. Various technical evidence came first. Then Janet Mackenzie was called. She told substantially the same story as before. In cross-examination counsel for the defence succeeded in getting her to contradict herself once or twice over her account of Vole’s association with Miss French, he emphasized the fact that though she had heard a man’s voice in the sitting-room that night, there was nothing to show that it was Vole who was there, and he managed to drive home a feeling that jealousy and dislike of the prisoner were at the bottom of a good deal of her evidence.

Then the next witness was called.

‘Your name is Romaine Heilger?’

‘Yes.’

‘You are an Austrian subject?’

‘Yes.’

‘For the last three years you have lived with the prisoner and passed yourself off as his wife?’

Just for a moment Romaine Heilger’s eye met those of the man in the dock. Her expression held something curious and unfathomable.

‘Yes.’

The questions went on. Word by word the damning facts came out. On the night in question the prisoner had taken out a crowbar with him. He had returned at twenty minutes past ten, and had confessed to having killed the old lady. His cuffs had been stained with blood, and he had burned them in the kitchen stove. He had terrorized her into silence by means of threats.

As the story proceeded, the feeling of the court which had, to begin with, been slightly favourable to the prisoner, now set dead against him. He himself sat with downcast head and moody air, as though he knew he were doomed.

Yet it might have been noted that her own counsel sought to restrain Romaine’s animosity. He would have preferred her to be a more unbiased witness.

Formidable and ponderous, counsel for the defence arose.

He put it to her that her story was a malicious fabrication from start to finish, that she had not even been in her own house at the time in question, that she was in love with another man and was deliberately seeking to send Vole to his death for a crime he did not commit.

Romaine denied these allegations with superb insolence.

Then came the surprising denouement, the production of the letter. It was read aloud in court in the midst of a breathless stillness.

 

 

Max, beloved, the Fates have delivered him into our hands! He has been arrested for murder – but, yes, the murder of an old lady! Leonard who would not hurt a fly! At last I shall have my revenge. The poor chicken! I shall say that he came in that night with blood upon him – that he confessed to me. I shall hang him, Max – and when he hangs he will know and realize that it was Romaine who sent him to his death. And then – happiness, Beloved! Happiness at last!

 

 

There were experts present ready to swear that the handwriting was that of Romaine Heilger, but they were not needed. Confronted with the letter, Romaine broke down utterly and confessed everything. Leonard Vole had returned to the house at the time he said, twenty past nine. She had invented the whole story to ruin him.

With the collapse of Romaine Heilger, the case for the Crown collapsed also. Sir Charles called his few witnesses, the prisoner himself went into the box and told his story in a manly straightforward manner, unshaken by cross-examination.

The prosecution endeavoured to rally, but without great success. The judge’s summing up was not wholly favourable to the prisoner, but a reaction had set in and the jury needed little time to consider their verdict.

‘We find the prisoner not guilty.’

Leonard Vole was free!

Little Mr Mayherne hurried from his seat. He must congratulate his client.

He found himself polishing his pince-nez vigorously, and checked himself. His wife had told him only the night before that he was getting a habit of it. Curious things habits. People themselves never knew they had them.

An interesting case – a very interesting case. That woman, now, Romaine Heilger.

The case was dominated for him still by the exotic figure of Romaine Heilger. She had seemed a pale quiet woman in the house at Paddington, but in court she had flamed out against the sober background. She had flaunted herself like a tropical flower.

If he closed his eyes he could see her now, tall and vehement, her exquisite body bent forward a little, her right hand clenching and unclenching itself unconsciously all the time. Curious things, habits. That gesture of hers with the hand was her habit, he supposed. Yet he had seen someone else do it quite lately. Who was it now? Quite lately –

He drew in his breath with a gasp as it came back to him. The woman in Shaw’s Rents …

He stood still, his head whirling. It was impossible – impossible – Yet, Romaine Heilger was an actress.

The KC came up behind him and clapped him on the shoulder.

‘Congratulated our man yet? He’s had a narrow shave, you know. Come along and see him.’

But the little lawyer shook off the other’s hand.

He wanted one thing only – to see Romaine Heilger face to face.

He did not see her until some time later, and the place of their meeting is not relevant.

‘So you guessed,’ she said, when he had told her all that was in his mind. ‘The face? Oh! that was easy enough, and the light of that gas jet was too bad for you to see the makeup.’

‘But why – why –’

‘Why did I play a lone hand?’ She smiled a little, remembering the last time she had used the words.

‘Such an elaborate comedy!’

‘My friend – I had to save him. The evidence of a woman devoted to him would not have been enough – you hinted as much yourself. But I know something of the psychology of crowds. Let my evidence be wrung from me, as an admission, damning me in the eyes of the law, and a reaction in favour of the prisoner would immediately set in.’

‘And the bundle of letters?’

‘One alone, the vital one, might have seemed like a – what do you call it? – put-up job.’

‘Then the man called Max?’

‘Never existed, my friend.’

‘I still think,’ said little Mr Mayherne, in an aggrieved manner, ‘that we could have got him off by the – er – normal procedure.’

‘I dared not risk it. You see, you thought he was innocent –’

‘And you knew it? I see,’ said little Mr Mayherne.

‘My dear Mr Mayherne,’ said Romaine, ‘you do not see at all.

 I knew – he was guilty!’

 

 

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