A classic Agatha Christie short story, available individually for the first time as an ebook.Bunch, engrossed in her flower arrangements for the church is rather dully placing the chrysanthemums when she sees a man crumpled over on the chancel steps, dying. The man can only utter one word, ‘Sanctuary’. Nothing can be done, and his final words ‘please, please’ can’t help anyone at the vicarage to understand what has happened. But, when his relatives arrive very promptly to pick up his possessions Bunch can’t get the word Sanctuary out of her head and she knows just who to turn to, her godmother, Miss Marple. What Bunch and Miss Marple discover is rather more exotic and exciting than can ever be expected to happen in a sleepy village like Chipping Cleghorn, who is this man and what does Sanctuary mean?
A Short Story
by Agatha Christie
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
Copyright © 2011 Agatha Christie Ltd.
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EPub Edition © 2011 ISBN: 9780007452071
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‘Sanctuary’ was first published in the USA as ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ in This Week, 12 & 19 September 1954, and then in Woman’s Journal, October 1954.
The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums. A good deal of rich garden soil was attached to her strong brogue shoes and a few fragments of earth were adhering to her nose, but of that fact she was perfectly unconscious.
She had a slight struggle in opening the vicarage gate which hung, rustily, half off its hinges. A puff of wind caught at her battered felt hat, causing it to sit even more rakishly than it had done before. ‘Bother!’ said Bunch.
Christened by her optimistic parents Diana, Mrs Harmon had become Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since. Clutching the chrysanthemums, she made her way through the gate to the churchyard, and so to the church door.
The November air was mild and damp. Clouds scudded across the sky with patches of blue here and there. Inside, the church was dark and cold; it was unheated except at service times.
‘Brrrrrh!’ said Bunch expressively. ‘I’d better get on with this quickly. I don’t want to die of cold.’
With the quickness born of practice she collected the necessary paraphernalia: vases, water, flower-holders. ‘I wish we had lilies,’ thought Bunch to herself. ‘I get so tired of these scraggy chrysanthemums.’ Her nimble fingers arranged the blooms in their holders.
There was nothing particularly original or artistic about the decorations, for Bunch Harmon herself was neither original nor artistic, but it was a homely and pleasant arrangement. Carrying the vases carefully, Bunch stepped up the aisle and made her way towards the altar. As she did so the sun came out.
It shone through the east window of somewhat crude coloured glass, mostly blue and red – the gift of a wealthy Victorian churchgoer. The effect was almost startling in its sudden opulence. ‘Like jewels,’ thought Bunch. Suddenly she stopped, staring ahead of her. On the chancel steps was a huddled dark form.
Putting down the flowers carefully, Bunch went up to it and bent over it. It was a man lying there, huddled over on himself. Bunch knelt down by him and slowly, carefully, she turned him over. Her fingers went to his pulse – a pulse so feeble and fluttering that it told its own story, as did the almost greenish pallor of his face. There was no doubt, Bunch thought, that the man was dying.
He was a man of about forty-five, dressed in a dark, shabby suit. She laid down the limp hand she had picked up and looked at his other hand. This seemed clenched like a fist on his breast. Looking more closely she saw that the fingers were closed over what seemed to be a large wad or handkerchief which he was holding tightly to his chest. All round the clenched hand there were splashes of a dry brown fluid which, Bunch guessed, was dry blood. Bunch sat back on her heels, frowning.
Up till now the man’s eyes had been closed but at this point they suddenly opened and fixed themselves on Bunch’s face. They were neither dazed nor wandering. They seemed fully alive and intelligent. His lips moved, and Bunch bent forward to catch the words, or rather the word. It was only one word that he said:
There was, she thought, just a very faint smile as he breathed out this word. There was no mistaking it, for after a moment he said it again, ‘Sanctuary …’
Then, with a faint, long-drawn-out sigh, his eyes closed again. Once more Bunch’s fingers went to his pulse. It was still there, but fainter now and more intermittent. She got up with decision.
‘Don’t move,’ she said, ‘or try to move. I’m going for help.’
The man’s eyes opened again but he seemed now to be fixing his attention on the coloured light that came through the east window. He murmured something that Bunch could not quite catch. She thought, startled, that it might have been her husband’s name.
‘Julian?’ she said. ‘Did you come here to find Julian?’ But there was no answer. The man lay with eyes closed, his breathing coming in slow, shallow fashion.
Bunch turned and left the church rapidly. She glanced at her watch and nodded with some satisfaction. Dr Griffiths would still be in his surgery. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the church. She went in, without waiting to knock or ring, passing through the waiting room and into the doctor’s surgery.
‘You must come at once,’ said Bunch. ‘There’s a man dying in the church.’
Some minutes later Dr Griffiths rose from his knees after a brief examination.
‘Can we move him from here into the vicarage? I can attend to him better there – not that it’s any use.’
‘Of course,’ said Bunch. ‘I’ll go along and get things ready. I’ll get Harper and Jones, shall I? To help you carry him.’
‘Thanks. I can telephone from the vicarage for an ambulance, but I’m afraid – by the time it comes …’ He left the remark unfinished.
Bunch said, ‘Internal bleeding?’
Dr Griffiths nodded. He said, ‘How on earth did he come here?’
‘I think he must have been here all night,’ said Bunch, considering. ‘Harper unlocks the church in the morning as he goes to work, but he doesn’t usually come in.’
It was about five minutes later when Dr Griffiths put down the telephone receiver and came back into the morning-room where the injured man was lying on quickly arranged blankets on the sofa. Bunch was moving a basin of water and clearing up after the doctor’s examination.
‘Well, that’s that,’ said Griffiths. ‘I’ve sent for an ambulance and I’ve notified the police.’ He stood, frowning, looking down on the patient who lay with closed eyes. His left hand was plucking in a nervous, spasmodic way at his side.
‘He was shot,’ said Griffiths. ‘Shot at fairly close quarters. He rolled his handkerchief up into a ball and plugged the wound with it so as to stop the bleeding.’