Also by Agatha Christie
About the Publisher
CHAPTER 1 (#u5112c1bd-1ede-5ce1-8f9d-a9cc0bedcd85)
Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window. The window looked over her garden, once a source of pride to her. That was no longer so. Nowadays she looked out of the window and winced. Active gardening had been forbidden her for some time now. No stooping, no digging, no planting—at most a little light pruning. Old Laycock who came three times a week, did his best, no doubt. But his best, such as it was (which was not much) was only the best according to his lights, and not according to those of his employer. Miss Marple knew exactly what she wanted done, and when she wanted it done, and instructed him duly. Old Laycock then displayed his particular genius which was that of enthusiastic agreement and subsequent lack of performance.
‘That’s right, missus. We’ll have them mecosoapies there and the Canterburys along the wall and as you say it ought to be got on with first thing next week.’
Laycock’s excuses were always reasonable, and strongly resembled those of Captain George’s in Three Men in a Boat for avoiding going to sea. In the captain’s case the wind was always wrong, either blowing off shore or in shore, or coming from the unreliable west, or the even more treacherous east. Laycock’s was the weather. Too dry—too wet—waterlogged—a nip of frost in the air. Or else something of great importance had to come first (usually to do with cabbages or brussels sprouts of which he liked to grow inordinate quantities). Laycock’s own principles of gardening were simple and no employer, however knowledgeable, could wean him from them.
They consisted of a great many cups of tea, sweet and strong, as an encouragement to effort, a good deal of sweeping up of leaves in the autumn, and a certain amount of bedding out of his own favourite plants, mainly asters and salvias—to ‘make a nice show’, as he put it, in summer. He was all in favour of syringeing roses for green-fly, but was slow to get around to it, and a demand for deep trenching for sweet peas was usually countered by the remark that you ought to see his own sweet peas! A proper treat last year, and no fancy stuff done beforehand.
To be fair, he was attached to his employers, humoured their fancies in horticulture (so far as no actual hard work was involved) but vegetables he knew to be the real stuff of life; a nice Savoy, or a bit of curly kale; flowers were fancy stuff such as ladies liked to go in for, having nothing better to do with their time. He showed his affection by producing presents of the aforementioned asters, salvias, lobelia edging, and summer chrysanthemums.
‘Been doing some work at them new houses over at the Development. Want their gardens laid out nice, they do. More plants than they needed so I brought along a few, and I’ve put ’em in where them old-fashioned roses ain’t looking so well.’
Thinking of these things, Miss Marple averted her eyes from the garden, and picked up her knitting.
One had to face the fact: St Mary Mead was not the place it had been. In a sense, of course, nothing was what it had been. You could blame the war (both the wars) or the younger generation, or women going out to work, or the atom bomb, or just the Government—but what one really meant was the simple fact that one was growing old. Miss Marple, who was a very sensible lady, knew that quite well. It was just that, in a queer way, she felt it more in St Mary Mead, because it had been her home for so long.
St Mary Mead, the old world core of it, was still there. The Blue Boar was there, and the church and the vicarage and the little nest of Queen Anne and Georgian houses, of which hers was one. Miss Hartnell’s house was still there, and also Miss Hartnell, fighting progress to the last gasp. Miss Wetherby had passed on and her house was now inhabited by the bank manager and his family, having been given a face-lift by the painting of doors and windows a bright royal blue. There were new people in most of the other old houses, but the houses themselves were little changed in appearances since the people who had bought them had done so because they liked what the house agent called ‘old world charm’. They just added another bathroom, and spent a good deal of money on plumbing, electric cookers, and dish-washers.
But though the houses looked much as before, the same could hardly be said of the village street. When shops changed hands there, it was with a view to immediate and intemperate modernization. The fishmonger was unrecognizable with new super windows behind which the refrigerated fish gleamed. The butcher had remained conservative—good meat is good meat, if you have the money to pay for it. If not, you take the cheaper cuts and the tough joints and like it! Barnes, the grocer, was still there, unchanged, for which Miss Hartnell and Miss Marple and others daily thanked Heaven. So obliging, comfortable chairs to sit in by the counter, and cosy discussions as to cuts of bacon, and varieties of cheese. At the end of the street, however, where Mr Toms had once had his basket shop stood a glittering new supermarket—anathema to the elderly ladies of St Mary Mead.
‘Packets of things one’s never even heard of,’ exclaimed Miss Hartnell. ‘All these great packets of breakfast cereal instead of cooking a child a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs. And you’re expected to take a basket yourself and go round looking for things—it takes a quarter of an hour sometimes to find all one wants—and usually made up in inconvenient sizes, too much or too little. And then a long queue waiting to pay as you go out. Most tiring. Of course it’s all very well for the people from the Development—’
At this point she stopped.
Because, as was now usual, the sentence came to an end there. The Development, Period, as they would say in modern terms. It had an entity of its own, and a capital letter.
Miss Marple uttered a sharp exclamation of annoyance. She’d dropped a stitch again. Not only that, she must have dropped it some time ago. Not until now, when she had to decrease for the neck and count the stitches, had she realized the fact. She took up a spare pin, held the knitting sideways to the light and peered anxiously. Even her new spectacles didn’t seem to do any good. And that, she reflected, was because obviously there came a time when oculists, in spite of their luxurious waiting-rooms, the up-to-date instruments, the bright lights they flashed into your eyes, and the very high fees they charged, couldn’t do anything much more for you. Miss Marple reflected with some nostalgia on how good her eyesight had been a few (well, not perhaps a few) years ago. From the vantage-point of her garden, so admirably placed to see all that was going on in St Mary Mead, how little had escaped her noticing eye! And with the help of her bird glasses—(an interest in birds was so useful!)—she had been able to see—She broke off there and let her thoughts run back over the past. Ann Protheroe in her summer frock going along to the Vicarage garden. And Colonel Protheroe—poor man—a very tiresome and unpleasant man, to be sure—but to be murdered like that—She shook her head and went on to thoughts of Griselda, the vicar’s pretty young wife. Dear Griselda—such a faithful friend—a Christmas card every year. That attractive baby of hers was a strapping young man now, and with a very good job. Engineering, was it? He always had enjoyed taking his mechanical trains to pieces. Beyond the Vicarage, there had been the stile and the field path with Farmer Giles’s cattle beyond in the meadows where now—now …
And why not? Miss Marple asked herself sternly. These things had to be. The houses were necessary, and they were very well built, or so she had been told. ‘Planning’, or whatever they called it. Though why everything had to be called a Close she couldn’t imagine. Aubrey Close and Longwood Close, and Grandison Close and all the rest of them. Not really Closes at all. Miss Marple knew what a Close was perfectly. Her uncle had been a Canon of Chichester Cathedral. As a child she had gone to stay with him in the Close.
It was like Cherry Baker who always called Miss Marple’s old-world overcrowded drawing-room the ‘lounge’. Miss Marple corrected her gently, ‘It’s the drawing-room, Cherry.’ And Cherry, because she was young and kind, endeavoured to remember, though it was obvious to her ‘drawing-room’ was a very funny word to use—and ‘lounge’ came slipping out. She had of late, however, compromised on ‘living-room’. Miss Marple liked Cherry very much. Her name was Mrs Baker and she came from the Development. She was one of the detachment of young wives who shopped at the supermarket and wheeled prams about the quiet streets of St Mary Mead. They were all smart and well turned out. Their hair was crisp and curled. They laughed and talked and called to one another. They were like a happy flock of birds. Owing to the insidious snares of Hire Purchase, they were always in need of ready money, though their husbands all earned good wages; and so they came and did housework or cooking. Cherry was a quick and efficient cook, she was an intelligent girl, took telephone calls correctly and was quick to spot inaccuracies in the tradesmen’s books. She was not much given to turning mattresses, and as far as washing up went Miss Marple always now passed the pantry door with her head turned away so as not to observe Cherry’s method which was that of thrusting everything into the sink together and letting loose a snowstorm of detergent on it. Miss Marple had quietly removed her old Worcester teaset from daily circulation and put it in the corner cabinet whence it only emerged on special occasions. Instead she had purchased a modern service with a pattern of pale grey on white and no gilt on it whatsoever to be washed away in the sink.
How different it had been in the past … Faithful Florence, for instance, that grenadier of a parlourmaid—and there had been Amy and Clara and Alice, those ‘nice little maids’—arriving from St Faith’s Orphanage, to be ‘trained’, and then going on to better-paid jobs elsewhere. Rather simple, some of them had been, and frequently adenoidal, and Amy distinctly moronic. They had gossiped and chattered with the other maids in the village and walked out with the fishmonger’s assistant, or the under-gardener at the Hall, or one of Mr Barnes the grocer’s numerous assistants. Miss Marple’s mind went back over them affectionately thinking of all the little woolly coats she had knitted for their subsequent offspring. They had not been very good with the telephone, and no good at all at arithmetic. On the other hand, they knew how to wash up, and how to make a bed. They had had skills, rather than education. It was odd that nowadays it should be the educated girls who went in for all the domestic chores. Students from abroad, girls au pair, university students in the vacation, young married women like Cherry Baker, who lived in spurious Closes on new building developments.
There were still, of course, people like Miss Knight. This last thought came suddenly as Miss Knight’s tread overhead made the lustres on the mantelpiece tinkle warningly. Miss Knight had obviously had her afternoon rest and would now go out for her afternoon walk. In a moment she would come to ask Miss Marple if she could get her anything in the town. The thought of Miss Knight brought the usual reaction to Miss Marple’s mind. Of course, it was very generous of dear Raymond (her nephew) and nobody could be kinder than Miss Knight, and of course that attack of bronchitis had left her very weak, and Dr Haydock had said very firmly that she must not go on sleeping alone in the house with only someone coming in daily, but—She stopped there. Because it was no use going on with the thought which was ‘If only it could have been someone other than Miss Knight.’ But there wasn’t much choice for elderly ladies nowadays. Devoted maidservants had gone out of fashion. In real illness you could have a proper hospital nurse, at vast expense and procured with difficulty, or you could go to hospital. But after the critical phase of illness had passed, you were down to the Miss Knights.
There wasn’t, Miss Marple reflected, anything wrong about the Miss Knights other than the fact that they were madly irritating. They were full of kindness, ready to feel affection towards their charges, to humour them, to be bright and cheerful with them and in general to treat them as slightly mentally afflicted children.
‘But I,’ said Miss Marple to herself, ‘although I may be old, am not a mentally afflicted child.’
At this moment, breathing rather heavily, as was her custom, Miss Knight bounced brightly into the room. She was a big, rather flabby woman of fifty-six with yellowing grey hair very elaborately arranged, glasses, a long thin nose, and below it a good-natured mouth and a weak chin.
‘Here we are!’ she exclaimed with a kind of beaming boisterousness, meant to cheer and enliven the sad twilight of the aged. ‘I hope we’ve had our little snooze?’
‘I have been knitting,’ Miss Marple replied, putting some emphasis on the pronoun, ‘and,’ she went on, confessing her weakness with distaste and shame, ‘I’ve dropped a stitch.’
‘Oh dear, dear,’ said Miss Knight. ‘Well, we’ll soon put that right, won’t we?’
‘You will,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I, alas, am unable to do so.’
The slight acerbity of her tone passed quite unnoticed. Miss Knight, as always, was eager to help.
‘There,’ she said after a few moments. ‘There you are, dear. Quite all right now.’
Though Miss Marple was perfectly agreeable to be called ‘dear’ (and even ‘ducks’) by the woman at the greengrocer or the girl at the paper shop, it annoyed her intensely to be called ‘dear’ by Miss Knight. Another of those things that elderly ladies have to bear. She thanked Miss Knight politely.
‘And now I’m just going out for my wee toddle,’ said Miss Knight humorously. ‘Shan’t be long.’
‘Please don’t dream of hurrying back,’ said Miss Marple politely and sincerely.
‘Well, I don’t like to leave you too long on your own, dear, in case you get moped.’
‘I assure you I am quite happy,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I probably shall have’ (she closed her eyes) ‘a little nap.’
‘That’s right, dear. Anything I can get you?’
Miss Marple opened her eyes and considered.
‘You might go into Longdon’s and see if the curtains are ready. And perhaps another skein of the blue wool from Mrs Wisley. And a box of blackcurrant lozenges at the chemist’s. And change my book at the library—but don’t let them give you anything that isn’t on my list. This last one was too terrible. I couldn’t read it.’ She held out The Spring Awakens.
‘Oh dear dear! Didn’t you like it? I thought you’d love it. Such a pretty story.’
‘And if it isn’t too far for you, perhaps you wouldn’t mind going as far as Halletts and see if they have one of those up-and-down egg whisks—not the turn-the-handle kind.’