A Christmas Tragedy By Agatha Christie
‘A Christmas Tragedy’ was first published as ‘The Hat
and the Alibi’ in Storyteller, January 1930.
‘I have a complaint to make,’ said Sir Henry Clithering. His eyes twinkled gently as he looked round at the assembled company. Colonel Bantry, his legs stretched out, was frowning at the mantelpiece as though it were a delinquent soldier on parade, his wife was surreptitiously glancing at a catalogue of bulbs which had come by the late post, Dr Lloyd was gazing with frank admiration at Jane Helier, and that beautiful young actress herself was thoughtfully regarding her pink polished nails. Only that elderly, spinster lady, Miss Marple, was sitting bolt upright, and her faded blue eyes met Sir Henry’s with an answering twinkle.
‘A complaint?’ she murmured. ‘A very serious complaint. We are a company of six, three representatives of each sex, and I protest on behalf of the downtrodden males. We have had three stories told tonight – and told by the three men! I protest that the ladies have not done their fair share.’
‘Oh!’ said Mrs Bantry with indignation. ‘I’m sure we have. We’ve listened with the most intelligent appreciation. We’ve displayed the true womanly attitude – not wishing to thrust ourselves in the limelight!’
‘It’s an excellent excuse,’ said Sir Henry; ‘but it won’t do. And there’s a very good precedent in the Arabian Nights! So, forward, Scheherazade.’
‘Meaning me?’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘But I don’t know anything to tell. I’ve never been surrounded by blood or mystery.’
‘I don’t absolutely insist upon blood,’ said Sir Henry. ‘But I’m sure one of you three ladies has got a pet mystery. Come now, Miss Marple – the “Curious Coincidence of the Charwoman” or the “Mystery of the Mothers’ Meeting”. Don’t disappoint me in St Mary Mead.’
Miss Marple shook her head. ‘Nothing that would interest you, Sir Henry. We have our little mysteries, of course – there was that gill of picked shrimps that disappeared so incomprehensibly; but that wouldn’t interest you because it all turned out to be so trivial, though throwing a considerable light on human nature.’
‘You have taught me to dote on human nature,’ said Sir Henry solemnly.
‘What about you, Miss Helier?’ asked Colonel Bantry. ‘You must have had some interesting experiences.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Dr Lloyd. ‘Me?’ said Jane. ‘You mean – you want me to tell you something that happened to me?’
‘Or to one of your friends,’ amended Sir Henry. ‘Oh!’ said Jane vaguely. ‘I don’t think anything has ever happened to me – I mean not that kind of thing. Flowers, of course, and queer messages – but that’s just men, isn’t it? I don’t think’ – she paused and appeared lost in thought.
‘I see we shall have to have that epic of the shrimps,’ said Sir Henry. ‘Now then, Miss Marple.’
‘You’re so fond of your joke, Sir Henry. The shrimps are only nonsense; but now I come to think of it, I do remember one incident – at least not exactly an incident, something very much more serious – a tragedy. And I was, in a way, mixed up in it; and for what I did, I have never had any regrets – no, no regrets at all. But it didn’t happen in St Mary Mead.’
‘That disappoints me,’ said Sir Henry. ‘But I will endeavour to bear up. I knew we should not rely upon you in vain.’
He settled himself in the attitude of a listener. Miss Marple grew slightly pink.
‘I hope I shall be able to tell it properly,’ she said anxiously. ‘I fear I am very inclined to become rambling. One wanders from the point – altogether without knowing that one is doing so. And it is so hard to remember each fact in its proper order. You must all bear with me if I tell my story badly. It happened a very long time ago now.
‘As I say, it was not connected with St Mary Mead. As a matter of fact, it had to do with a Hydro -‘
‘Do you mean a seaplane?’ asked Jane with wide eyes. ‘You wouldn’t know, dear,’ said Mrs Bantry, and explained. Her husband added his quota:
‘Beastly places – absolutely beastly! Got to get up early and drink filthy- tasting water. Lot of old women sitting about. Ill-natured tittle tattle. God, when I think -‘
‘Now, Arthur,’ said Mrs Bantry placidly. ‘You know it did you all the good in the world.’
‘Lot of old women sitting round talking scandal,’ grunted Colonel Bantry.
‘That I am afraid is true,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I myself -‘
‘My dear Miss Marple,’ cried the Colonel, horrified. ‘I didn’t mean for one moment -‘
With pink cheeks and a little gesture of the hand, Miss Marple stopped him.
‘But it is true, Colonel Bantry. Only I should just like to say this. Let me recollect my thoughts. Yes. Talking scandal, as you say – well, it is done a good deal. And people are very down on it – especially young people. My nephew, who writes books – and very clever ones, I believe – has said some most scathing things about taking people’s characters away without any kind of proof – and how wicked it is, and all that. But what I say is that none of these young people ever stop to think. They really don’t examine the facts. Surely the whole crux of the matter is this: How often is tittle tattle, as you call it, true! And I think if, as I say, they really examined the facts they would find that it was true nine times out of ten! That’s really just what makes people so annoyed about it.’
‘The inspired guess,’ said Sir Henry. ‘No, not that, not that at all! It’s really a matter of practice and experience. An Egyptologist, so I’ve heard, if you show him one of those curious little beetles, can tell you by the look and the feel of the thing what date bc it is, or if it’s a Birmingham imitation. And he can’t always give a definite rule for doing so. He just knows. His life has been spent handling such things.
‘And that’s what I’m trying to say (very badly, I know). What my nephew calls “superfluous women” have a lot of time on their hands, and their chief interest is usually people. And so, you see, they get to be what one might call experts. Now young people nowadays – they talk very freely about things that weren’t mentioned in my young days, but on the other hand their minds are terribly innocent. They believe in everyone and everything. And if one tries to warn them, ever so gently, they tell one that one has a Victorian mind – and that, they say, is like a sink.’
‘After all,’ said Sir Henry, ‘what is wrong with a sink?’
‘Exactly,’ said Miss Marple eagerly. ‘It’s the most necessary thing in any house; but, of course, not romantic. Now I must confess that I have my feelings, like everyone else, and I have sometimes been cruelly hurt by unthinking remarks. I know gentlemen are not interested in domestic matters, but I must just mention my maid Ethel – a very good-looking girl and obliging in every way. Now I realized as soon as I saw her that she was the same type as Annie Webb and poor Mrs Bruitt’s girl. If the opportunity arose mine and thine would mean nothing to her. So I let her go at the month and I gave her a written reference saying she was honest and sober, but privately I warned old Mrs Edwards against taking her; and my nephew, Raymond, was exceedingly angry and said he had never heard of anything so wicked – yes, wicked. Well, she went to Lady Ashton, whom I felt no obligation to warn – and what happened? All the lace cut off her underclothes and two diamond brooches taken – and the girl departed in the middle of the night and never heard of since!’
Miss Marple paused, drew a long breath, and then went on.
‘You’ll be saying this has nothing to do with what went on at Keston Spa Hydro – but it has in a way. It explains why I felt no doubt in my mind the first moment I saw the Sanders together that he meant to do away with her.’
‘Eh?’ said Sir Henry, leaning forward.
Miss Marple turned a placid face to him.
‘As I say, Sir Henry, I felt no doubt in my own mind. Mr Sanders was a big, good-looking, florid-faced man, very hearty in his manner and popular with all. And nobody could have been pleasanter to his wife than he was. But I knew! He meant to make away with her.’
‘My dear Miss Marple -‘
‘Yes, I know. That’s what my nephew, Raymond West, would say. He’d tell me I hadn’t a shadow of proof. But I remember Walter Hones, who kept the Green Man. Walking home with his wife one night she fell into the river – and he collected the insurance money! And one or two other people that are walking about scot-free to this day – one indeed in our own class of life. Went to Switzerland for a summer holiday climbing with his wife. I warned her not to go – the poor dear didn’t get angry with me as she might have done – she only laughed. It seemed to her funny that a queer old thing like me should say such things about her Harry. Well, well, there was an accident – and Harry is married to another woman now. But what could I do? I knew, but there was no proof.’
‘Oh! Miss Marple,’ cried Mrs Bantry. ‘You don’t really mean -‘
‘My dear, these things are very common – very common indeed. And gentlemen are especially tempted, being so much the stronger. So easy if a thing looks like an accident. As I say, I knew at once with the Sanders. It was on a tram. It was full inside and I had had to go on top. We all three got up to get off and Mr Sanders lost his balance and fell right against his wife, sending her headfirst down the stairs. Fortunately the conductor was a very strong young man and caught her.’
‘But surely that must have been an accident.’
‘Of course it was an accident – nothing could have looked more accidental! But Mr Sanders had been in the Merchant Service, so he told me, and a man who can keep his balance on a nasty tilting boat doesn’t lose it on top of a tram if an old woman like me doesn’t. Don’t tell me!’
‘At any rate we can take it that you made up your mind, Miss Marple,’ said Sir Henry. ‘Made it up then and there.’
The old lady nodded.
‘I was sure enough, and another incident in crossing the street not long afterwards made me surer still. Now I ask you, what could I do, Sir Henry? Here was a nice contented happy little married woman shortly going to be murdered.’
‘My dear lady, you take my breath away.’
‘That’s because, like most people nowadays, you won’t face facts. You prefer to think such a thing couldn’t be. But it was so, and I knew it. But one is so sadly handicapped! I couldn’t, for instance, go to the police. And to warn the young woman would, I could see, be useless. She was devoted to the man. I just made it my business to find out as much as I could about them. One has a lot of opportunities doing one’s needlework round the fire. Mrs Sanders (Gladys, her name was) was only too willing to talk. It seems they had not been married very long. Her husband had some property that was coming to him, but for the moment they were very badly off. In fact, they were living on her little income. One has heard that tale before. She bemoaned the fact that she could not touch the capital. It seems that somebody had had some sense somewhere! But the money was hers to will away – I found that out. And she and her husband had made wills in favour of each other directly after their marriage. Very touching. Of course, when Jack’s affairs came right – That was the burden all day long, and in the meantime they were very hard up indeed – actually had a room on the top floor, all among the servants – and so dangerous in case of fire, though, as it happened, there was a fire escape just outside their window. I inquired carefully if there was a balcony – dangerous things, balconies. One push – you know!
‘I made her promise not to go out on the balcony; I said I’d had a dream. That impressed her – one can do a lot with superstition sometimes. She was a fair girl, rather washed-out complexion, and an untidy roll of hair on her neck. Very credulous. She repeated what I had said to her husband, and I noticed him looking at me in a curious way once or twice. He wasn’t credulous; and he knew I’d been on that tram.
‘But I was very worried – terribly worried – because I couldn’t see how to circumvent him. I could prevent anything happening at the Hydro, just by saying a few words to show him I suspected. But that only meant his putting off his plan till later. No, I began to believe that the only policy was a bold one – somehow or other to lay a trap for him. If I could induce him to attempt her life in a way of my own choosing – well, then he would be unmasked, and she would be forced to face the truth however much of a shock it was to her.’
‘You take my breath away,’ said Dr Lloyd. ‘What conceivable plan could you adopt?’
‘I’d have found one – never fear,’ said Miss Marple. ‘But the man was too clever for me. He didn’t wait. He thought I might suspect, and so he struck before I could be sure. He knew I would suspect an accident. So he made it murder.’
A little gasp went round the circle. Miss Marple nodded and set her lips grimly together.
‘I’m afraid I’ve put that rather abruptly. I must try and tell you exactly what occurred. I’ve always felt very bitterly about it – it seems to me that I ought, somehow, to have prevented it. But doubtless Providence knew best. I did what I could at all events.
‘There was what I can only describe as a curiously eerie feeling in the air. There seemed to be something weighing on us all. A feeling of misfortune. To begin with, there was George, the hall porter. Had been there for years and knew everybody. Bronchitis and pneumonia, and passed away on the fourth day. Terribly sad. A real blow to everybody. And four days before Christmas too. And then one of the housemaids – such a nice girl – a septic finger, actually died in twenty-four hours.
‘I was in the drawing-room with Miss Trollope and old Mrs Carpenter, and Mrs Carpenter was being positively ghoulish – relishing it all, you know.
‘“Mark my words,” she said. “This isn’t the end. You know the saying? Never two without three. I’ve proved it true time and again. There’ll be another death. Not a doubt of it. And we shan’t have long to wait. Never two without three.”
‘As she said the last words, nodding her head and clicking her knitting needles, I just chanced to look up and there was Mr Sanders standing in the doorway. Just for a minute he was off guard, and I saw the look in his face as plain as plain. I shall believe till my dying day that it was that ghoulish Mrs Carpenter’s words that put the whole thing into his head. I saw his mind working.
‘He came forward into the room smiling in his genial way. ‘“Any Christmas shopping I can do for you ladies?” he asked. “I’m going down to Keston presently.”
‘He stayed a minute or two, laughing and talking, and then went out. As I tell you, I was troubled, and I said straight away:
‘“Where’s Mrs Sanders? Does anyone know?” ‘Mrs Trollope said she’d gone out to some friends of hers, the Mortimers, to play bridge, and that eased my mind for the moment. But I was still very worried and most uncertain as to what to do. About half an hour later I went up to my room. I met Dr Coles, my doctor, there, coming down the stairs as I was going up, and as I happened to want to consult him about my rheumatism, I took him into my room with me then and there. He mentioned to me then (in confidence, he said) about the death of the poor girl Mary. The manager didn’t want the news to get about, he said, so would I keep it to myself. Of course I didn’t tell him that we’d all been discussing nothing else for the last hour – ever since the poor girl breathed her last. These things are always known at once, and a man of his experience should know that well enough; but Dr Coles always was a simple unsuspicious fellow who believed what he wanted to believe and that’s just what alarmed me a minute later. He said as he was leaving that Sanders had asked him to have a look at his wife. It seemed she’d been seedy of late – indigestion, etc.
‘Now that very self-same day Gladys Sanders had said to me that she’d got a wonderful digestion and was thankful for it.
‘You see? All my suspicions of that man came back a hundredfold. He was preparing the way – for what? Dr Coles left before I could make up my mind whether to speak to him or not – though really if I had spoken I shouldn’t have known what to say. As I came out of my room, the man himself – Sanders – came down the stairs from the floor above. He was dressed to go out and he asked me again if he could do anything for me in the town. It was all I could do to be civil to the man! I went straight into the lounge and ordered tea. It was just on half past five, I remember.
‘Now I’m very anxious to put clearly what happened next. I was still in the lounge at a quarter to seven when Mr Sanders came in. There were two gentlemen with him and all three of them were inclined to be a little on the lively side. Mr Sanders left his two friends and came right over to where I was sitting with Miss Trollope. He explained that he wanted our advice about a Christmas present he was giving his wife. It was an evening bag.
‘“And you see, ladies,” he said. “I’m only a rough sailorman. What do I know about such things? I’ve had three sent to me on approval and I want an expert opinion on them.”
‘We said, of course, that we would be delighted to help him, and he asked if we’d mind coming upstairs, as his wife might come in any minute if he brought the things down. So we went up with him. I shall never forget what happened next – I can feel my little fingers tingling now.
‘Mr Sanders opened the door of the bedroom and switched on the light. I don’t know which of us saw it first . . .
‘Mrs Sanders was lying on the floor, face downwards – dead.
‘I got to her first. I knelt down and took her hand and felt for the pulse, but it was useless, the arm itself was cold and stiff. Just by her head was a stocking filled with sand – the weapon she had been struck down with. Miss Trollope, silly creature, was moaning and moaning by the door and holding her head. Sanders gave a great cry of “My wife, my wife,” and rushed to her. I stopped him touching her. You see, I was sure at the moment he had done it, and there might have been something that he wanted to take away or hide.
‘“Nothing must be touched,” I said. “Pull yourself together, Mr Sanders. Miss Trollope, please go down and fetch the manager.”
‘I stayed there, kneeling by the body. I wasn’t going to leave Sanders alone with it. And yet I was forced to admit that if the man was acting, he was acting marvellously. He looked dazed and bewildered and scared out of his wits.
‘The manager was with us in no time. He made a quick inspection of the room then turned us all out and locked the door, the key of which he took. Then he went off and telephoned to the police. It seemed a positive age before they came (we learnt afterwards that the line was out of order). The manager had to send a messenger to the police station, and the Hydro is right out of the town, up on the edge of the moor; and Mrs Carpenter tried us all very severely. She was so pleased at her prophecy of “Never two without three” coming true so quickly. Sanders, I hear, wandered out into the grounds, clutching his head and groaning and displaying every sign of grief.
‘However, the police came at last. They went upstairs with the manager and Mr Sanders. Later they sent down for me. I went up. The Inspector was there, sitting at a table writing. He was an intelligent-looking man and I liked him.
‘“Miss Jane Marple?” he said.
‘“I understand, Madam, that you were present when the body of the deceased was found?”
‘I said I was and I described exactly what had occurred. I think it was a relief to the poor man to find someone who could answer his questions coherently, having previously had to deal with Sanders and Emily Trollope, who, I gather, was completely demoralized – she would be, the silly creature! I remember my dear mother teaching me that a gentlewoman should always be able to control herself in public, however much she may give way in private.’
‘An admirable maxim,’ said Sir Henry gravely. ‘When I had finished the Inspector said: ‘“Thank you, Madam. Now I’m afraid I must ask you just to look at the body once more. Is that exactly the position in which it was lying when you entered the room? It hasn’t been moved in any way?”
‘I explained that I had prevented Mr Sanders from doing so, and the Inspector nodded approval.
‘“The gentleman seems terribly upset,” he remarked. ‘“He seems so – yes,” I replied. ‘I don’t think I put any special emphasis on the “seems”, but the Inspector looked at me rather keenly.
‘“So we can take it that the body is exactly as it was when found?” he said.
‘“Except for the hat, yes,” I replied. ‘The Inspector looked up sharply. ‘“What do you mean – the hat?” ‘I explained that the hat had been on poor Gladys’s head, whereas now it was lying beside her. I thought, of course, that the police had done this. The Inspector, however, denied it emphatically. Nothing had, as yet, been moved or touched. He stood looking down at that poor prone figure with a puzzled frown. Gladys was dressed in her outdoor clothes – a big dark-red tweed coat with a grey fur collar. The hat, a cheap affair of red felt, lay just by her head.
‘The Inspector stood for some minutes in silence, frowning to himself. Then an idea struck him.
‘“Can you, by any chance, remember, Madam, whether there were earrings in the ears, or whether the deceased habitually wore earrings?”
‘Now fortunately I am in the habit of observing closely. I remembered that there had been a glint of pearls just below the hat brim, though I had paid no particular notice to it at the time. I was able to answer his first question in the affirmative.
‘“Then that settles it. The lady’s jewel case was rifled – not that she had anything much of value, I understand – and the rings were taken from her fingers. The murderer must have forgotten the earrings, and come back for them after the murder was discovered. A cool customer! Or perhaps -” He stared round the room and said slowly, “He may have been concealed here in this room
all the time.”
‘But I negatived that idea. I myself, I explained, had looked under the bed. And the manager had opened the doors of the wardrobe. There was nowhere else where a man could hide. It is true the hat cupboard was locked in the middle of the wardrobe, but as that was only a shallow affair with shelves, no one could have been concealed there.
‘The Inspector nodded his head slowly whilst I explained all this. ‘“I’ll take your word for it, Madam,” he said. “In that case, as I said before, he must have come back. A very cool customer.”
‘“But the manager locked the door and took the key!”
‘“That’s nothing. The balcony and the fire escape – that’s the way the thief came. Why, as likely as not, you actually disturbed him at work. He slips out of the window, and when you’ve all gone, back he comes and goes on with his business.”
‘“You are sure,” I said, “that there was a thief?” ‘He said drily: ‘“Well, it looks like it, doesn’t it?” ‘But something in his tone satisfied me. I felt that he wouldn’t take Mr Sanders in the role of the bereaved widower too seriously.
‘You see, I admit it frankly. I was absolutely under the opinion of what I believe our neighbours, the French, call the idee fixe. I knew that that man, Sanders, intended his wife to die. What I didn’t allow for was that strange and fantastic thing, coincidence. My views about Mr Sanders were – I was sure of it
absolutely right and true. The man was a scoundrel. But although his hypocritical assumptions of grief didn’t deceive me for a minute, I do remember feeling at the time that his surprise and bewilderment were marvellously well done. They seemed absolutely natural – if you know what I mean. I must admit that after my conversation with the Inspector, a curious feeling of doubt crept over me. Because if Sanders had done this dreadful thing, I couldn’t imagine any conceivable reason why he should creep back by means of the fire escape and take the earrings from his wife’s ears. It wouldn’t have been a sensible thing to do, and Sanders was such a very sensible man – that’s just why I always felt he was so dangerous.’
Miss Marple looked round at her audience.
‘You see, perhaps, what I am coming to? It is, so often, the unexpected that happens in this world. I was so sure, and that, I think, was what blinded me. The result came as a shock to me. For it was proved, beyond any possible doubt, that Mr Sanders could not possibly have committed the crime . . .’
A surprised gasp came from Mrs Bantry. Miss Marple turned to her.
‘I know, my dear, that isn’t what you expected when I began this story. It wasn’t what I expected either. But facts are facts, and if one is proved to be wrong, one must just be humble about it and start again. That Mr Sanders was a murderer at heart I knew – and nothing ever occurred to upset that firm conviction of mine.
‘And now, I expect, you would like to hear the actual facts themselves. Mrs Sanders, as you know, spent the afternoon playing bridge with some friends, the Mortimers. She left them at about a quarter past six. From her friends’ house to the Hydro was about a quarter of an hour’s walk – less if one hurried. She must have come in then about six-thirty. No one saw her come in, so she must have entered by the side door and hurried straight up to her room. There she changed (the fawn coat and skirt she wore to the bridge party were hanging up in the cupboard) and was evidently preparing to go out again, when the blow fell. Quite possibly, they say, she never even knew who struck her. The sandbag, I understand, is a very efficient weapon. That looks as though the attackers were concealed in the room, possibly in one of the big wardrobe cupboards – the one she didn’t open.
‘Now as to the movements of Mr Sanders. He went out, as I have said, at about five-thirty – or a little after. He did some shopping at a couple of shops and at about six o’clock he entered the Grand Spa Hotel where he encountered two friends – the same with whom he returned to the Hydro later. They played billiards and, I gather, had a good many whiskies and sodas together. These two men (Hitchcock and Spender, their names were) were actually with him the whole time from six o’clock onwards. They walked back to the Hydro with him and he only left them to come across to me and Miss Trollope. That, as I told you, was about a quarter to seven – at which time his wife must have been already dead.
‘I must tell you that I talked myself to these two friends of his. I did not like them. They were neither pleasant nor gentlemanly men, but I was quite certain of one thing, that they were speaking the absolute truth when they said that Sanders had been the whole time in their company.
‘There was just one other little point that came up. It seems that while bridge was going on Mrs Sanders was called to the telephone. A Mr Littleworth wanted to speak to her. She seemed both excited and pleased about something – and incidentally made one or two bad mistakes. She left rather earlier than they had expected her to do.
‘Mr Sanders was asked whether he knew the name of Littleworth as being one of his wife’s friends, but he declared he had never heard of anyone of that name. And to me that seems borne out by his wife’s attitude – she too, did not seem to know the name of Littleworth. Nevertheless she came back from the telephone smiling and blushing, so it looks as though whoever it was did not give his real name, and that in itself has a suspicious aspect, does it not?
‘Anyway, that is the problem that was left. The burglar story, which seems unlikely – or the alternative theory that Mrs Sanders was preparing to go out and meet somebody. Did that somebody come to her room by means of the fire escape? Was there a quarrel? Or did he treacherously attack her?’
Miss Marple stopped.
‘Well?’ said Sir Henry. ‘What is the answer?’
‘I wondered if any of you could guess.’
‘I’m never good at guessing,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘It seems a pity that Sanders had such a wonderful alibi; but if it satisfied you it must have been all right.’
Jane Helier moved her beautiful head and asked a question.
‘Why,’ she said, ‘was the hat cupboard locked?’
‘How very clever of you, my dear,’ said Miss Marple, beaming. ‘That’s just what I wondered myself. Though the explanation was quite simple. In it were a pair of embroidered slippers and some pocket handkerchiefs that the poor girl was embroidering for her husband for Christmas. That’s why she locked the cupboard. The key was found in her handbag.’
‘Oh!’ said Jane. ‘Then it isn’t very interesting after all.’
‘Oh! but it is,’ said Miss Marple. ‘It’s just the one really interesting thing – the thing that made all the murderer’s plans go wrong.’
Everyone stared at the old lady. ‘I didn’t see it myself for two days,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I puzzled and puzzled – and then suddenly there it was, all clear. I went to the Inspector and asked him to try something and he did.’
‘What did you ask him to try?’
‘I asked him to fit that hat on the poor girl’s head – and of course he couldn’t. It wouldn’t go on. It wasn’t her hat, you see.’
Mrs Bantry stared.
‘But it was on her head to begin with?’
‘Not on her head -‘
Miss Marple stopped a moment to let her words sink in, and then went on.
‘We took it for granted that it was poor Gladys’s body there; but we never looked at the face. She was face downwards, remember, and the hat hid everything.’
‘But she was killed?’
‘Yes, later. At the moment that we were telephoning to the police, Gladys Sanders was alive and well.’
‘You mean it was someone pretending to be her? But surely when you touched her -‘
‘It was a dead body, right enough,’ said Miss Marple gravely. ‘But, dash it all,’ said Colonel Bantry, ‘you can’t get hold of dead bodies right and left. What did they do with the – the first corpse afterwards?’
‘He put it back,’ said Miss Marple. ‘It was a wicked idea – but a very clever one. It was our talk in the drawing-room that put it into his head. The body of poor Mary, the housemaid – why not use it? Remember, the Sanders’ room was up amongst the servants’ quarters. Mary’s room was two doors off. The undertakers wouldn’t come till after dark – he counted on that. He carried the body along the balcony (it was dark at five), dressed it in one of his wife’s dresses and her big red coat. And then he found the hat cupboard locked! There was only one thing to be done, he fetched one of the poor girl’s own hats. No one would notice. He put the sandbag down beside her. Then he went off to establish his alibi.
‘He telephoned to his wife – calling himself Mr Littleworth. I don’t know what he said to her – she was a credulous girl, as I said just now. But he got her to leave the bridge party early and not to go back to the Hydro, and arranged with her to meet him in the grounds of the Hydro near the fire escape at seven o’clock. He probably told her he had some surprise for her.
‘He returns to the Hydro with his friends and arranges that Miss Trollope and I shall discover the crime with him. He even pretends to turn the body over – and I stop him! Then the police are sent for, and he staggers out into the grounds.
‘Nobody asked him for an alibi after the crime. He meets his wife, takes her up the fire escape, they enter their room. Perhaps he has already told her some story about the body. She stoops over it, and he picks up his sandbag and strikes . . . Oh, dear! It makes me sick to think of, even now! Then quickly he strips off her coat and skirt, hangs them up, and dresses her in the clothes from the other body.
‘But the hat won’t go on. Mary’s head is shingled – Gladys Sanders, as I say, had a great bun of hair. He is forced to leave it beside the body and hope no one will notice. Then he carries poor Mary’s body back to her own room and arranges it decorously once more.’
‘It seems incredible,’ said Dr Lloyd. ‘The risks he took. The police might have arrived too soon.’
‘You remember the line was out of order,’ said Miss Marple. ‘That was a piece of his work. He couldn’t afford to have the police on the spot too soon. When they did come, they spent some time in the manager’s office before going up to the bedroom. That was the weakest point – the chance that someone might notice the difference between a body that had been dead two hours and one that had been dead just over half an hour; but he counted on the fact that the people who first discovered the crime would have no expert knowledge.’
Dr Lloyd nodded.
‘The crime would be supposed to have been committed about a quarter to seven or thereabouts, I suppose,’ he said. ‘It was actually committed at seven or a few minutes after. When the police surgeon examined the body it would be about half past seven at the earliest. He couldn’t possibly tell.’
‘I am the person who should have known,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I felt the poor girl’s hand and it was icy cold. Yet a short time later the Inspector spoke as though the murder must have been committed just before we arrived – and I saw nothing!’
‘I think you saw a good deal, Miss Marple,’ said Sir Henry. ‘The case was before my time. I don’t even remember hearing of it. What happened?’
‘Sanders was hanged,’ said Miss Marple crisply. ‘And a good job too. I have never regretted my part in bringing that man to justice. I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.’
Her stern face softened.
‘But I have often reproached myself bitterly with failing to save the life of that poor girl. But who would have listened to an old woman jumping to conclusions? Well, well – who knows? Perhaps it was better for her to die while life was still happy than it would have been for her to live on, unhappy and disillusioned, in a world that would have seemed suddenly horrible. She loved that scoundrel and trusted him. She never found him out.’
‘Well, then,’ said Jane Helier, ‘she was all right. Quite all right. I wish -‘ she stopped.
Miss Marple looked at the famous, the beautiful, the successful Jane Helier and nodded her head gently.
‘I see, my dear,’ she said very gently. ‘I see.’