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Authors: Agatha Christie

The Clocks

BOOK: The Clocks
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Agatha Christie
The Clocks

A Hercule Poirot Mystery

To my old friend Mario
with happy memories of delicious food
at the Caprice.

T
he afternoon of the 9th of September was exactly like any other afternoon. None of those who were to be concerned in the events of that day could lay claim to having had a premonition of disaster. (With the exception, that is, of Mrs. Packer of 47, Wilbraham Crescent, who specialized in premonitions, and who always described at great length afterwards the peculiar forebodings and tremors that had beset her. But Mrs. Packer at No. 47, was so far away from No. 19, and so little concerned with the happenings there, that it seemed unnecessary for her to have had a premonition at all.)

At the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, Principal, Miss K. Martindale, September 9th had been a dull day, a day of routine. The telephone rang, typewriters clicked, the pressure of business was average, neither above nor below its usual volume. None of it was particularly interesting. Up till 2:35, September 9th might have been a day like any other day.

At 2:35 Miss Martindale's buzzer went, and Edna Brent in the outer office answered it in her usual breathy and slightly nasal voice, as she manoeuvred a toffee along the line of her jaw.

“Yes, Miss Martindale?”

“Now, Edna—that is
not
the way I've told you to speak when
answering the telephone. Enunciate
clearly,
and keep your breath
behind
your tone.”

“Sorry, Miss Martindale.”

“That's better. You can do it when you try. Send Sheila Webb in to me.”

“She's not back from lunch yet, Miss Martindale.”

“Ah.” Miss Martindale's eye consulted the clock on her desk. 2:36. Exactly six minutes late. Sheila Webb had been getting slack lately. “Send her in when she comes.”

“Yes, Miss Martindale.”

Edna restored the toffee to the centre of her tongue and, sucking pleasurably, resumed her typing of
Naked Love
by Armand Levine. Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested—as indeed it did most of Mr. Levine's readers, in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography. In spite of lurid jackets and provocative titles, his sales went down every year, and his last typing bill had already been sent in three times.

The door opened and Sheila Webb came in, slightly out of breath.

“Sandy Cat's asking for you,” said Edna.

Sheila Webb made a face.

“Just my luck—on the one day I'm late back!”

She smoothed down her hair, picked up pad and pencil, and knocked at the Principal's door.

Miss Martindale looked up from her desk. She was a woman of forty-odd, bristling with efficiency. Her pompadour of pale reddish hair and her Christian name of Katherine had led to her nickname of Sandy Cat.

“You're late back, Miss Webb.”

“Sorry, Miss Martindale. There was a terrific bus jam.”

“There is always a terrific bus jam at this time of day. You should allow for it.” She referred to a note on her pad. “A Miss Pebmarsh rang up. She wants a stenographer at three o'clock. She asked for you particularly. Have you worked for her before?”

“I can't remember doing so, Miss Martindale. Not lately anyway.”

“The address is 19, Wilbraham Crescent.” She paused questioningly, but Sheila Webb shook her head.

“I can't remember going there.”

Miss Martindale glanced at the clock.

“Three o'clock. You can manage that easily. Have you any other appointments this afternoon? Ah, yes,” her eye ran down the appointment book at her elbow. “Professor Purdy at the Curlew Hotel. Five o'clock. You ought to be back before then. If not, I can send Janet.”

She gave a nod of dismissal, and Sheila went back to the outer office.

“Anything interesting, Sheila?”

“Just another of those dull days. Some old pussy up at Wilbraham Crescent. And at five Professor Purdy—all those awful archaeological names! How I wish something exciting could sometimes happen.”

Miss Martindale's door opened.

“I see I have a memo here, Sheila. If Miss Pebmarsh is not back when you arrive, you are to go in, the door will not be latched. Go in and go into the room on the right of the hall and wait. Can you remember that or shall I write it down?”

“I can remember it, Miss Martindale.”

Miss Martindale went back into her sanctum.

Edna Brent fished under her chair and brought up, secretly, a rather flashy shoe and a stiletto heel that had become detached from it.

“However am I going to get home?” she moaned.

“Oh, do stop fussing—we'll think of something,” said one of the other girls, and resumed her typing.

Edna sighed and put in a fresh sheet of paper:

“Desire had him in its grasp. With frenzied fingers he tore the fragile chiffon from her breasts and forced her down on the soap.”

“Damn,” said Edna and reached for the eraser.

Sheila picked up her handbag and went out.

Wilbraham Crescent was a fantasy executed by a Victorian builder in the 1880's. It was a half-moon of double houses and gardens set back to back. This conceit was a source of considerable difficulty to persons unacquainted with the locality. Those who arrived on the outer side were unable to find the lower numbers and those who hit the inner side first were baffled as to the whereabouts of the higher numbers. The houses were neat, prim, artistically balconied and eminently respectable. Modernization had as yet barely touched them—on the outside, that is to say. Kitchens and bathrooms were the first to feel the wind of change.

There was nothing unusual about No. 19. It had neat curtains and a well-polished brass front doorhandle. There were standard rose trees each side of the path leading to the front door.

Sheila Webb opened the front gate, walked up to the front door
and rang the bell. There was no response and after waiting a minute or two, she did as she had been directed, and turned the handle. The door opened and she walked in. The door on the right of the small hall was ajar. She tapped on it, waited, and then walked in. It was an ordinary quite pleasant sitting room, a little overfurnished for modern tastes. The only thing at all remarkable about it was the profusion of clocks—a grandfather clock ticking in the corner, a Dresden china clock on the mantelpiece, a silver carriage clock on the desk, a small fancy gilt clock on a whatnot near the fireplace and on a table by the window, a faded leather travelling clock, with
ROSEMARY
in worn gilt letters across the corner.

Sheila Webb looked at the clock on the desk with some surprise. It showed the time to be a little after ten minutes past four. Her gaze shifted to the chimney piece. The clock there said the same.

Sheila started violently as there was a whir and a click above her head, and from a wooden carved clock on the wall a cuckoo sprang out through his little door and announced loudly and definitely:
Cuckoo, Cuckoo, Cuckoo!
The harsh note seemed almost menacing. The cuckoo disappeared again with a snap of his door.

Sheila Webb gave a half-smile and walked round the end of the sofa. Then she stopped short, pulling up with a jerk.

Sprawled on the floor was the body of a man. His eyes were half open and sightless. There was a dark moist patch on the front of his dark grey suit. Almost mechanically Sheila bent down. She touched his cheek—cold—his hand, the same … touched the wet patch and drew her hand away sharply, staring at it in horror.

At that moment she heard the click of a gate outside, her head turned mechanically to the window. Through it she saw a woman's
figure hurrying up the path. Sheila swallowed mechanically—her throat was dry. She stood rooted to the spot, unable to move, to cry out … staring in front of her.

The door opened and a tall elderly woman entered, carrying a shopping bag. She had wavy grey hair pulled back from her forehead, and her eyes were a wide and beautiful blue. Their gaze passed unseeingly over Sheila.

Sheila uttered a faint sound, no more than a croak. The wide blue eyes came to her and the woman spoke sharply:

“Is somebody there?”

“I—it's—” The girl broke off as the woman came swiftly towards her round the back of the sofa.

And then she screamed.

“Don't—don't … you'll tread on it—him …
And he's dead
….”

One
C
OLIN
L
AMB'S
N
ARRATIVE

I

T
o use police terms: at 2:59 p.m. on September 9th, I was proceeding along Wilbraham Crescent in a westerly direction. It was my first introduction to Wilbraham Crescent, and frankly Wilbraham Crescent had me baffled.

I had been following a hunch with a persistence becoming more dogged day by day as the hunch seemed less and less likely to pay off. I'm like that.

The number I wanted was 61, and could I find it? No, I could not. Having studiously followed the numbers from 1 to 35, Wilbraham Crescent then appeared to end. A thoroughfare uncompromisingly labelled Albany Road barred my way. I turned back. On the north side there were no houses, only a wall. Behind the wall, blocks of modern flats soared upwards, the entrance of them being obviously in another road. No help there.

I looked up at the numbers I was passing. 24, 23, 22, 21. Diana
Lodge (presumably 20, with an orange cat on the gatepost washing its face), 19—

The door of 19 opened and a girl came out of it and down the path with what seemed to be the speed of a bomb. The likeness to a bomb was intensified by the screaming that accompanied her progress. It was high and thin and singularly inhuman. Through the gate the girl came and collided with me with a force that nearly knocked me off the pavement. She did not only collide. She clutched—a frenzied desperate clutching.

“Steady,” I said, as I recovered my balance. I shook her slightly. “Steady now.”

The girl steadied. She still clutched, but she stopped screaming. Instead she gasped—deep sobbing gasps.

I can't say that I reacted to the situation with any brilliance. I asked her if anything was the matter. Recognizing that my question was singularly feeble I amended it.

“What's the matter?”

The girl took a deep breath.

“In
there!
” she gestured behind her.

“Yes?”

“There's a man on the floor … dead … She was going to step on him.”

“Who was? Why?”

“I think—because she's blind. And there's blood on him.” She looked down and loosened one of her clutching hands. “And on me. There's blood on
me.

“So there is,” I said. I looked at the stains on my coat sleeve. “And on me as well now,” I pointed out. I sighed and considered the situation. “You'd better take me in and show me,” I said.

But she began to shake violently.

“I can't—I
can't
… I won't go in there again.”

“Perhaps you're right.” I looked round. There seemed nowhere very suitable to deposit a half-fainting girl. I lowered her gently to the pavement and sat her with her back against the iron railings.

“You stay there,” I said, “until I come back. I shan't be long. You'll be all right. Lean forward and put your head between your knees if you feel queer.”

“I—I think I'm all right now.”

She was a little doubtful about it, but I didn't want to parley. I gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and strode off briskly up the path. I went in through the door, hesitated a moment in the hallway, looked into the door on the left, found an empty dining room, crossed the hall and entered the sitting room opposite.

The first thing I saw was an elderly woman with grey hair sitting in a chair. She turned her head sharply as I entered and said:

“Who's that?”

I realized at once that the woman was blind. Her eyes which looked directly towards me were focused on a spot behind my left ear.

I spoke abruptly and to the point.

“A young woman rushed out into the street saying there was a dead man in here.”

I felt a sense of absurdity as I said the words. It did not seem possible that there should be a dead man in this tidy room with this calm woman sitting in her chair with her hands folded.

But her answer came at once.

“Behind the sofa,” she said.

I moved round the angle of the sofa. I saw it then—the out-flung arms—the glazed eyes—the congealing patch of blood.

“How did this happen?” I asked abruptly.

“I don't know.”

“But—surely. Who is he?”

“I have no idea.”

“We must get the police.” I looked round. “Where's the telephone?”

“I have not got a telephone.”

I concentrated upon her more closely.

“You live here? This is your house?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“Certainly. I came in from shopping—” I noted the shopping bag flung on a chair near the door. “I came in here. I realized at once there was someone in the room. One does very easily when one is blind. I asked who was there. There was no answer—only the sound of someone breathing rather quickly. I went towards the sound—and then whoever it was cried out—something about someone being dead and that I was going to tread on him. And then whoever it was rushed past me out of the room screaming.”

I nodded. Their stories clicked.

“And what did you do?”

“I felt my way very carefully until my foot touched an obstacle.”

“And then?”

“I knelt down. I touched something—a man's hand. It was cold—there was no pulse … I got up and came over here and sat down—to wait. Someone was bound to come in due course. The
young woman, whoever she was, would give the alarm. I thought I had better not leave the house.”

I was impressed with the calm of this woman. She had not screamed, or stumbled panic-stricken from the house. She had sat down calmly to wait. It was the sensible thing to do, but it must have taken some doing.

Her voice inquired:

“Who exactly are you?”

“My name is Colin Lamb. I happened to be passing by.”

“Where is the young woman?”

“I left her propped up by the gate. She's suffering from shock. Where is the nearest telephone?”

“There is a call box about fifty yards down the road just before you come to the corner.”

“Of course. I remember passing it. I'll go and ring the police. Will you—” I hesitated.

I didn't know whether to say “Will you remain here?” or to make it “Will you be all right?”

She relieved me from my choice.

“You had better bring the girl into the house,” she said decisively.

“I don't know that she will come,” I said doubtfully.

“Not into this room, naturally. Put her in the dining room the other side of the hall. Tell her I am making some tea.”

She rose and came towards me.

“But—can you manage—”

A faint grim smile showed for a moment on her face.

“My dear young man. I have made meals for myself in my own
kitchen ever since I came to live in this house—fourteen years ago. To be blind is not necessarily to be helpless.”

“I'm sorry. It was stupid of me. Perhaps I ought to know your name?”

“Millicent Pebmarsh—Miss.”

I went out and down the path. The girl looked up at me and began to struggle to her feet.

“I—I think I'm more or less all right now.”

I helped her up, saying cheerfully:

“Good.”

“There—there was a dead man in there, wasn't there?”

I agreed promptly.

“Certainly there was. I'm just going down to the telephone box to report it to the police. I should wait in the house if I were you.” I raised my voice to cover her quick protest. “Go into the dining room—on the left as you go in. Miss Pebmarsh is making a cup of tea for you.”

“So that was Miss Pebmarsh? And she's blind?”

“Yes. It's been a shock to her, too, of course, but she's being very sensible. Come on, I'll take you in. A cup of tea will do you good whilst you are waiting for the police to come.”

I put an arm round her shoulders and urged her up the path. I settled her comfortably by the dining room table, and hurried off again to telephone.

II

An unemotional voice said, “Crowdean Police Station.”

“Can I speak to Detective Inspector Hardcastle?”

The voice said cautiously:

“I don't know whether he is here. Who is speaking?”

“Tell him it's Colin Lamb.”

“Just a moment, please.”

I waited. Then Dick Hardcastle's voice spoke.

“Colin? I didn't expect you yet awhile. Where are you?”

“Crowdean. I'm actually in Wilbraham Crescent. There's a man lying dead on the floor of Number 19, stabbed I should think. He's been dead approximately half an hour or so.”

“Who found him. You?”

“No, I was an innocent passerby. Suddenly a girl came flying out of the house like a bat out of hell. Nearly knocked me down. She said there was a dead man on the floor and a blind woman was trampling on him.”

“You're not having me on, are you?” Dick's voice asked suspiciously.

“It does sound fantastic, I admit. But the facts seem to be as stated. The blind woman is Miss Millicent Pebmarsh who owns the house.”

“And was she trampling on the dead man?”

“Not in the sense you mean it. It seems that being blind she just didn't know he was there.”

“I'll set the machinery in motion. Wait for me there. What have you done with the girl?”

“Miss Pebmarsh is making her a cup of tea.”

Dick's comment was that it all sounded very cosy.

BOOK: The Clocks
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