Wireless By Agatha Christie
‘Wireless’ was first published in the Sunday Chronicle
Annual 1925, September 1925.
‘Above all, avoid worry and excitement,’ said Dr Meynell, in the comfortable fashion affected by doctors.
Mrs Harter, as is often the case with people hearing these soothing but meaningless words, seemed more doubtful than relieved.
‘There is a certain cardiac weakness,’ continued the doctor fluently, ‘but nothing to be alarmed about. I can assure you of that.
‘All the same,’ he added, ‘it might be as well to have a lift installed. Eh? What about it?’
Mrs Harter looked worried.
Dr Meynell, on the contrary, looked pleased with himself. The reason he liked attending rich patients rather than poor ones was that he could exercise his active imagination in prescribing for their ailments.
‘Yes, a lift,’ said Dr Meynell, trying to think of something else even more dashing – and failing. ‘Then we shall avoid all undue exertion. Daily exercise on the level on a fine day, but avoid walking up hills. And above all,’ he added happily, ‘plenty of distraction for the mind. Don’t dwell on your health.’
To the old lady’s nephew, Charles Ridgeway, the doctor was slightly more explicit.
‘Do not misunderstand me,’ he said. ‘Your aunt may live for years, probably will. At the same time shock or over-exertion might carry her off like that!’ He snapped his fingers. ‘She must lead a very quiet life. No exertion. No fatigue. But, of course, she must not be allowed to brood. She must be kept cheerful and the mind well distracted.’
‘Distracted,’ said Charles Ridgeway thoughtfully.
Charles was a thoughtful young man. He was also a young man who believed in furthering his own inclinations whenever possible.
That evening he suggested the installation of a wireless set.
Mrs Harter, already seriously upset at the thought of the lift, was disturbed and unwilling. Charles was fluent and persuasive.
‘I do not know that I care for these new-fangled things.’ said Mrs Harter piteously. ‘The waves, you know – the electric waves. They might affect me.’
Charles in a superior and kindly fashion pointed out the futility of this idea.
Mrs Harter, whose knowledge of the subject was of the vaguest, but who was tenacious of her own opinion, remained unconvinced.
‘All that electricity,’ she murmured timorously. ‘You may say what you like, Charles, but some people are affected by electricity. I always have a terrible headache before a thunderstorm. I know that.’
She nodded her head triumphantly.
Charles was a patient young man. He was also persistent.
‘My dear Aunt Mary,’ he said, ‘let me make the thing clear to you.’
He was something of an authority on the subject. He delivered now quite a lecture on the theme; warming to his task, he spoke of bright-emitter valves, of dull-emitter valves, of high frequency and low frequency, of amplification and of condensers.
Mrs Harter, submerged in a sea of words that she did not understand, surrendered.
‘Of course, Charles,’ she murmured, ‘if you really think -‘
‘My dear Aunt Mary,’ said Charles enthusiastically. ‘It is the very thing for you, to keep you from moping and all that.’
The lift prescribed by Dr Meynell was installed shortly afterwards and was very nearly the death of Mrs Harter since, like many other old ladies, she had a rooted objection to strange men in the house. She suspected them one and all of having designs on her old silver.
After the lift the wireless set arrived. Mrs Harter was left to contemplate the, to her, repellent object – a large ungainly-looking box, studded with knobs.
It took all Charles’ enthusiasm to reconcile her to it.
Charles was in his element, he turned knobs, discoursing eloquently the while.
Mrs Harter sat in her high-backed chair, patient and polite, with a rooted conviction in her own mind that these new fangled notions were neither more nor less than unmitigated nuisances.
‘Listen, Aunt Mary, we are on to Berlin, isn’t that splendid? Can you hear the fellow?’
‘I can’t hear anything except a good deal of buzzing and clicking,’ said Mrs Harter.
Charles continued to twirl knobs. ‘Brussels,’ he announced with enthusiasm.
‘Is it really?’ said Mrs Harter with no more than a trace of interest.
Charles again turned knobs and an unearthly howl echoed forth into the room.
‘Now we seem to be on to the Dogs’ Home,’ said Mrs Harter, who was an old lady with a certain amount of spirit.
‘Ha, ha!’ said Charles, ‘you will have your joke, won’t you, Aunt Mary? Very good that!’
Mrs Harter could not help smiling at him. She was very fond of Charles. For some years a niece, Miriam Harter, had lived with her. She had intended to make the girl her heiress, but Miriam had not been a success. She was impatient and obviously bored by her aunt’s society. She was always out, ‘gadding about’ as Mrs Harter called it. In the end, she had entangled herself with a young man of whom her aunt thoroughly disapproved. Miriam had been returned to her mother with a curt note much as if she had been goods on approval. She had married the young man in question and Mrs Harter usually sent her a handkerchief case or a table-centre at Christmas.
Having found nieces disappointing, Mrs Harter turned her attention to nephews. Charles, from the first, had been an unqualified success. He was always pleasantly deferential to his aunt, and listened with an appearance of intense interest to the reminiscences of her youth. In this he was a great contrast to Miriam, who had been frankly bored and showed it. Charles was never bored, he was always good-tempered, always gay. He told his aunt many times a day that she was a perfectly marvellous old lady.
Highly satisfied with her new acquisition, Mrs Harter had written to her lawyer with instructions as to the making of a new will. This was sent to her, duly approved by her and signed.
And now even in the matter of the wireless, Charles was soon proved to have won fresh laurels.
Mrs Harter, at first antagonistic, became tolerant and finally fascinated. She enjoyed it very much better when Charles went out. The trouble with Charles was that he could not leave the thing alone. Mrs Harter would be seated in her chair comfortably listening to a symphony concert or a lecture on Lucrezia Borgia or Pond Life, quite happy and at peace with the world. Not so Charles. The harmony would be shattered by discordant shrieks while he enthusiastically attempted to get foreign stations. But on those evenings when Charles was dining out with friends Mrs Harter enjoyed the wireless very much indeed. She would turn on two switches, sit in her high-backed chair and enjoy the programme of the evening.
It was about three months after the wireless had been installed that the first eerie happening occurred. Charles was absent at a bridge party.
The programme for that evening was a ballad concert. A well-known soprano was singing ‘Annie Laurie,’ and in the middle of ‘Annie Laurie’ a strange thing happened. There was a sudden break, the music ceased for a moment, the buzzing, clicking noise continued and then that too died away. There was dead silence, and then very faintly a low buzzing sound was heard.
Mrs Harter got the impression, why she did not know, that the machine was tuned into somewhere very far away, and then clearly and distinctly a voice spoke, a man’s voice with a faint Irish accent.
‘Mary – can you hear me, Mary? It is Patrick speaking . . . I am coming for you soon. You will be ready, won’t you, Mary?’
Then, almost immediately, the strains of ‘Annie Laurie’ once more filled the room. Mrs Harter sat rigid in her chair, her hands clenched on each arm of it. Had she been dreaming? Patrick! Patrick’s voice! Patrick’s voice in this very room, speaking to her. No, it must be a dream, a hallucination perhaps. She must just have dropped off to sleep for a minute or two. A curious thing to have dreamed – that her dead husband’s voice should speak to her over the ether. It frightened her just a little. What were the words he had said?
‘I am coming for you soon, Mary. You will be ready, won’t you?’
Was it, could it be a premonition? Cardiac weakness. Her heart. After all, she was getting on in years.
‘It’s a warning – that’s what it is,’ said Mrs Harter, rising slowly and painfully from her chair, and added characteristically:
‘All that money wasted on putting in a lift!’
She said nothing of her experience to anyone, but for the next day or two she was thoughtful and a little pre-occupied.
And then came the second occasion. Again she was alone in the room. The wireless, which had been playing an orchestral selection, died away with the same suddenness as before. Again there was silence, the sense of distance, and finally Patrick’s voice not as it had been in life – but a voice rarefied, far away, with a strange unearthly quality. Patrick speaking to you, Mary, I will be coming for you very soon now . . .’
Then click, buzz, and the orchestral selection was in full swing again.
Mrs Harter glanced at the clock. No, she had not been asleep this time. Awake and in full possession of her faculties, she had heard Patrick’s voice speaking. It was no hallucination, she was sure of that. In a confused way she tried to think over all that Charles had explained to her of the theory of ether waves.
Could it be Patrick had really spoken to her? That his actual voice had been wafted through space? There were missing wave lengths or something of that kind. She remembered Charles speaking of ‘gaps in the scale’. Perhaps the missing waves explained all the so-called psychological phenomena? No, there was nothing inherently impossible in the idea. Patrick had spoken to her. He had availed himself of modern science to prepare her for what must soon be coming.
Mrs Harter rang the bell for her maid, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was a tall gaunt woman of sixty. Beneath an unbending exterior she concealed a wealth of affection and tenderness for her mistress.
‘Elizabeth,’ said Mrs Harter when her faithful retainer had appeared, ‘you remember what I told you? The top left-hand drawer of my bureau. It is locked, the long key with the white label. Everything is there ready.’
‘For my burial,’ snorted Mrs Harter. ‘You know perfectly well what I mean, Elizabeth. You helped me to put the things there yourself.’
Elizabeth’s face began to work strangely.
‘Oh, ma’am,’ she wailed, ‘don’t dwell on such things. I thought you was a sight better.’
‘We have all got to go sometime or another,’ said Mrs Harter practically. ‘I am over my three score years and ten, Elizabeth. There, there, don’t make a fool of yourself. If you must cry, go and cry somewhere else.’
Elizabeth retired, still sniffing.
Mrs Harter looked after her with a good deal of affection.
‘Silly old fool, but faithful,’ she said, ‘very faithful. Let me see, was it a hundred pounds or only fifty I left her? It ought to be a hundred. She has been with me a long time.’
The point worried the old lady and the next day she sat down and wrote to her lawyer asking if he would send her will so that she might look over it. It was that same day that Charles startled her by something he said at lunch.
‘By the way, Aunt Mary,’ he said, ‘who is that funny old josser up in the spare room? The picture over the mantelpiece, I mean. The old johnny with the beaver and side whiskers?’
Mrs Harter looked at him austerely.
‘That is your Uncle Patrick as a young man,’ she said.
‘Oh, I say, Aunt Mary, I am awfully sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.’
Mrs Harter accepted the apology with a dignified bend of the head.
Charles went on rather uncertainly:
‘I just wondered. You see -‘
He stopped undecidedly and Mrs Harter said sharply:
‘Well? What were you going to say?’
‘Nothing,’ said Charles hastily. ‘Nothing that makes sense, I mean.’
For the moment the old lady said nothing more, but later that day, when they were alone together, she returned to the subject.
‘I wish you would tell me, Charles, what it was made you ask me about that picture of your uncle.’
Charles looked embarrassed.
‘I told you, Aunt Mary. It was nothing but a silly fancy of mine – quite absurd.’
‘Charles,’ said Mrs Harter in her most autocratic voice, ‘I insist upon knowing.’
‘Well, my dear aunt, if you will have it, I fancied I saw him – the man in the picture, I mean – looking out of the end window when I was coming up the drive last night. Some effect of the light, I suppose. I wondered who on earth he could be, the face was so – early Victorian, if you know what I mean. And then Elizabeth said there was no one, no visitor or stranger in the house, and later in the evening I happened to drift into the spare room, and there was the picture over the mantelpiece. My man to the life! It is quite easily explained, really, I expect. Subconscious and all that. Must have noticed the picture before without realizing that I had noticed it, and then just fancied the face at the window.’
‘The end window?’ said Mrs Harter sharply.
‘Nothing,’ said Mrs Harter.
But she was startled all the same. That room had been her husband’s dressingroom.
That same evening, Charles again being absent, Mrs Harter sat listening to the wireless with feverish impatience. If for the third time she heard the mysterious voice, it would prove to her finally and without a shadow of doubt that she was really in communication with some other world.
Although her heart beat faster, she was not surprised when the same break occurred, and after the usual interval of deathly silence the faint far-away Irish voice spoke once more.
‘Mary – you are prepared now . . . On Friday I shall come for you . . . Friday at half past nine . . . Do not be afraid – there will be no pain . . . Be ready . . .’
Then almost cutting short the last word, the music of the orchestra broke out again, clamorous and discordant.
Mrs Harter sat very still for a minute or two. Her face had gone white and she looked blue and pinched round the lips.
Presently she got up and sat down at her writing desk. In a somewhat shaky hand she wrote the following lines:
Tonight, at 9.15, I have distinctly heard the voice of my dead husband. He told me that he would come for me on Friday night at 9.30. If I should die on that day and at that hour I should like the facts made known so as to prove beyond question the possibility of communicating with the spirit world.
Mrs Harter read over what she had written, enclosed it in an envelope and addressed the envelope. Then she rang the bell which was promptly answered by Elizabeth. Mrs Harter got up from her desk and gave the note she had just written to the old woman.
‘Elizabeth,’ she said, ‘if I should die on Friday night I should like that note given to Dr Meynell. No,’ – as Elizabeth appeared to be about to protest – ‘do not argue with me. You have often told me you believe in premonitions. I have a premonition now. There is one thing more. I have left you in my will £50. I should like you to have £100. If I am not able to go to the bank myself before I die Mr Charles will see to it.’
As before, Mrs Harter cut short Elizabeth’s tearful protests. In pursuance of her determination, the old lady spoke to her nephew on the subject the following morning.
‘Remember, Charles, that if anything should happen to me, Elizabeth is to have an extra £50.’
‘You are very gloomy these days, Aunt Mary,’ said Charles cheerfully. ‘What is going to happen to you? According to Dr Meynell, we shall be celebrating your hundredth birthday in twenty years or so!’
Mrs Harter smiled affectionately at him but did not answer. After a minute or two she said:
‘What are you doing on Friday evening, Charles?’
Charles looked a trifle surprised.
‘As a matter of fact, the Ewings asked me to go in and play bridge, but if you would rather I stayed at home -‘
‘No,’ said Mrs Harter with determination. ‘Certainly not. I mean it, Charles. On that night of all nights I should much rather be alone.’
Charles looked at her curiously, but Mrs Harter vouchsafed no further information. She was an old lady of courage and determination. She felt that she must go through with her strange experience singlehanded.
Friday evening found the house very silent. Mrs Harter sat as usual in her straight-backed chair drawn up to the fireplace. All her preparations were made. That morning she had been to the bank, had drawn out £50 in notes and had handed them over to Elizabeth despite the latter’s tearful protests. She had sorted and arranged all her personal belongings and had labelled one or two pieces of jewellery with the names of friends or relations. She had also written out a list of instructions for Charles. The Worcester tea service was to go to Cousin Emma.
The Sevres jars to young William, and so on.
Now she looked at the long envelope she held in her hand and drew from it a folded document. This was her will sent to her by Mr Hopkinson in accordance with her instructions. She had already read it carefully, but now she looked over it once more to refresh her memory. It was a short, concise document. A bequest of £50 to Elizabeth Marshall in consideration of faithful service, two bequests of £500 to a sister and a first cousin, and the remainder to her beloved nephew Charles Ridgeway.
Mrs Harter nodded her head several times. Charles would be a very rich man when she was dead. Well, he had been a dear good boy to her. Always kind, always affectionate, and with a merry tongue which never failed to please her.
She looked at the clock. Three minutes to the half hour. Well she was ready. And she was calm – quite calm. Although she repeated these last words to herself several times, her heart beat strangely and unevenly. She hardly realized it herself, but she was strung up to a fine point of over-wrought nerves.
Half past nine. The wireless was switched on. What would she hear? A familiar voice announcing the weather forecast or that far-away voice belonging to a man who had died twenty-five years before?
But she heard neither. Instead there came a familiar sound, a sound she knew well but which tonight made her feel as though an icy hand were laid on her heart. A fumbling at the door . . .
It came again. And then a cold blast seemed to sweep though the room. Mrs Harter had now no doubt what her sensations were. She was afraid . . . She was more than afraid – she was terrified . . .
And suddenly there came to her the thought: Twenty-five years is a long time. Patrick is a stranger to me now.
Terror! That was what was invading her.
A soft step outside the door – a soft halting footstep. Then the door swung silently open . . .
Mrs Harter staggered to her feet, swaying slightly from side to side, her eyes fixed on the doorway, something slipped from her fingers into the grate.
She gave a strangled cry which died in her throat. In the dim light of the doorway stood a familiar figure with chestnut beard and whiskers and an old- fashioned Victorian coat.
Patrick had come for her!
Her heart gave one terrified leap and stood still. She slipped to the ground in a huddled heap.
There Elizabeth found her, an hour later.
Dr Meynell was called at once and Charles Ridgeway was hastily recalled from his bridge party. But nothing could be done. Mrs Harter had gone beyond human aid.
It was not until two days later that Elizabeth remembered the note given to her by her mistress. Dr Meynell read it with great interest and showed it to Charles Ridgeway.
‘A very curious coincidence,’ he said. ‘It seems clear that your aunt had been having hallucinations about her dead husband’s voice. She must have strung herself up to such a point that the excitement was fatal and when the time actually came she died of the shock.’
‘Auto-suggestion?’ said Charles.
‘Something of the sort. I will let you know the result of the autopsy as soon as possible, though I have no doubt of it myself.’ In the circumstances an autopsy was desirable, though purely as a matter of form.
Charles nodded comprehendingly.
On the preceding night, when the household was in bed, he had removed a certain wire which ran from the back of the wireless cabinet to his bedroom on the floor above. Also, since the evening had been a chilly one, he had asked Elizabeth to light a fire in his room, and in that fire he had burned a chestnut beard and whiskers. Some Victorian clothing belonging to his late uncle he replaced in the camphor-scented chest in the attic.
As far as he could see, he was perfectly safe. His plan, the shadowy outline of which had first formed in his brain when Doctor Meynell had told him that his aunt might with due care live for many years, had succeeded admirably. A sudden shock, Dr Meynell had said. Charles, that affectionate young man, beloved of old ladies, smiled to himself.
When the doctor departed, Charles went about his duties mechanically. Certain funeral arrangements had to be finally settled. Relatives coming from a distance had to have trains looked out for them. In one or two cases they would have to stay the night. Charles went about it all efficiently and methodically, to the accompaniment of an undercurrent of his own thoughts.
A very good stroke of business! That was the burden of them. Nobody, least of all his dead aunt, had known in what perilous straits Charles stood. His activities, carefully concealed from the world, had landed him where the shadow of a prison loomed ahead.
Exposure and ruin had stared him in the face unless he could in a few short months raise a considerable sum of money. Well – that was all right now. Charles smiled to himself. Thanks to – yes, call it a practical joke – nothing criminal about that – he was saved. He was now a very rich man. He had no anxieties on the subject, for Mrs Harter had never made any secret of her intentions.
Chiming in very appositely with these thoughts, Elizabeth put her head round the door and informed him that Mr Hopkinson was here and would like to see him.
About time, too, Charles thought. Repressing a tendency to whistle, he composed his face to one of suitable gravity and repaired to the library. There he greeted the precise old gentleman who had been for over a quarter of a century the late Mrs Harter’s legal adviser.
The lawyer seated himself at Charles’ invitation and with a dry cough entered upon business matters.
‘I did not quite understand your letter to me, Mr Ridgeway. You seemed to be under the impression that the late Mrs Harter’s will was in our keeping?’
Charles stared at him.
‘But surely – I’ve heard my aunt say as much.’
‘Oh! quite so, quite so. It was in our keeping.’
‘That is what I said. Mrs Harter wrote to us, asking that it might be forwarded to her on Tuesday last.’
An uneasy feeling crept over Charles. He felt a far-off premonition of unpleasantness.
‘Doubtless it will come to light amonst her papers,’ continued the lawyer smoothly.
Charles said nothing. He was afraid to trust his tongue. He had already been through Mrs Harter’s papers pretty thoroughly, well enough to be quite certain that no will was amongst them. In a minute or two, when he had regained control of himself, he said so. His voice sounded unreal to himself, and he had a sensation as of cold water trickling down his back.
‘Has anyone been through her personal effects?’ asked the lawyer.
Charles replied that her own maid, Elizabeth, had done so. At Mr Hopkinson’s suggestion, Elizabeth was sent for. She came promptly, grim and upright, and answered the questions put to her.
She had been through all her mistress’s clothes and personal belongings. She was quite sure that there had been no legal document such as a will amongst them. She knew what the will looked like – her mistress had had it in her hand only the morning of her death.
‘You are sure of that?’ asked the lawyer sharply.
‘Yes, sir. She told me so, and she made me take fifty pounds in notes. The will was in a long blue envelope.’
‘Quite right,’ said Mr Hopkinson.
‘Now I come to think of it,’ continued Elizabeth, ‘that same blue envelope was lying on this table the morning after – but empty. I laid it on the desk.’
‘I remember seeing it there,’ said Charles.
He got up and went over to the desk. In a minute or two he turned round with an envelope in his hand which he handed to Mr Hopkinson. The latter examined it and nodded his head.
‘That is the envelope in which I despatched the will on Tuesday last.’
Both men looked hard at Elizabeth.
‘Is there anything more, sir?’ she inquired respectfully.
‘Not at present, thank you.’
Elizabeth went towards the door.
‘One minute,’ said the lawyer. ‘Was there a fire in the grate that evening?’
‘Yes, sir, there was always a fire.’
‘Thank you, that will do.’
Elizabeth went out. Charles leaned forward, resting a shaking hand on the table.
‘What do you think? What are you driving at?’
Mr Hopkinson shook his head.
‘We must still hope the will may turn up. If it does not -‘
‘Well, if it does not?’
‘I am afraid there is only one conclusion possible. Your aunt sent for that will in order to destroy it. Not wishing Elizabeth to lose by that, she gave her the amount of her legacy in cash.’
‘But why?’ cried Charles wildly. ‘Why?’
Mr Hopkinson coughed. A dry cough.
‘You have had no – er – disagreement with your aunt, Mr Ridgeway?’ he murmured.
‘No, indeed,’ he cried warmly. ‘We were on the kindest, most affectionate terms, right up to the end.’
‘Ah!’ said Mr Hopkinson, not looking at him.
It came to Charles with a shock that the lawyer did not believe him. Who knew what this dry old stick might not have heard? Rumours of Charles’ doings might have come round to him. What more natural than that he should suppose that these same rumours had come to Mrs Harter, and the aunt and nephew should have had an altercation on the subject?
But it wasn’t so! Charles knew one of the bitterest moments of his career. His lies had been believed. Now that he spoke the truth, belief was withheld. The irony of it!
Of course his aunt had never burnt the will! Of course –
His thoughts came to a sudden check. What was that picture rising before his eyes? An old lady with one hand clasped to her heart . . . something slipping . . . a paper . . . falling on the red-hot embers . . .
Charles’ face grew livid. He heard a hoarse voice – his own – asking:
‘If that will’s never found -?’
‘There is a former will of Mrs Harter’s still extant. Dated September 1920. By it Mrs Harter leaves everything to her niece, Miriam Harter, now Miriam Robinson.’
What was the old fool saying? Miriam? Miriam with her nondescript husband, and her four whining brats. All his cleverness – for Miriam!
The telephone rang sharply at his elbow. He took up the receiver. It was the doctor’s voice, hearty and kindly.
‘That you Ridgeway? Thought you’d like to know. The autopsy’s just concluded. Cause of death as I surmised. But as a matter of fact the cardiac trouble was much more serious than I suspected when she was alive. With the utmost care, she couldn’t have lived longer than two months at the outside. Thought you’d like to know. Might console you more or less.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Charles, ‘would you mind saying that again?’
‘She couldn’t have lived longer than two months,’ said the doctor in a slightly louder tone. ‘All things work out for the best, you know, my dear fellow -‘
But Charles had slammed back the receiver on its hook. He was conscious of the lawyer’s voice speaking from a long way off.
‘Dear me, Mr Ridgeway, are you ill?’
Damn them all! The smug-faced lawyer. That poisonous old ass Meynell. No hope in front of him – only the shadow of the prison wall . . .
He felt that Somebody had been playing with him – playing with him like a cat with a mouse. Somebody must be laughing . . .