Agatha Christie: Dumb Witness

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    Dumb Witness
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Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness

Chapter 1


Miss Arundell died on May 1st. Though her illness was short her death did not occasion much surprise in the little country town of Market Basing, where she had lived since she was a girl of sixteen. For Emily Arundell was well over seventy, the last of a family of five, and she had been known to be in delicate health for many years and had indeed nearly died of a similar attack to the one that killed her some eighteen months before.

But though Miss Arundell's death surprised no one, something else did. The provisions of her will gave rise to varying emotions, astonishment, pleasurable excitement, deep condemnation, fury, despair, anger and general gossip. For weeks and even months Market Basing was to talk of nothing else. Everyone had something to say about it, from Mr Jones at the grocery, according to whom "blood was thicker than water", to Mrs Laphrey, the post-mistress, who repeated ad nauseam that certain to be something behind it. "Mark my words!"

What lead to all these speculations was the fact that the testament was recent, from April 21st. Besides, Emily Arundell's nearest relatives had spent the Easter holidays with her, thus resulting the wildest theories, and nicely breaking the monotony so characteristic of life in Market Basing.

There was one person who was much more suspected than it was apparent. It was the lady companion of the deceased, Miss Wilhelmina Lawson, who knew as much as anybody else, and proclaimed that she was very surprised when the will was read. Of course a lot of people didn't believe it. But there was only one person who knew all about it: the deceased. Emily Arundell, as was her way, hadn't explained anything to anybody, not even to her lawyer.

On the Friday before Easter, Emily Arundell had stood in the hall of Littlegreen House and given instructions to Miss Lawson.

Miss Arundell was saying:

"Now then, Minnie, where have you put them all?"

"Well, I thought – I hope I've done right – Dr and Mrs Tanios in the Oak room and Theresa in the Blue room and Mr Charles in the Old Nursery -"

Miss Arundell interrupted:

"Theresa can have the Old Nursery and Charles will have the Blue room."

"Oh, yes – I'm sorry – I thought the Old Nursery being rather more inconvenient -"

"It will do very nicely for Theresa."

In Miss Arundell's day, women took second place. Men were the important members of society.

"I'm so sorry the dear little children aren't coming," murmured Miss Lawson sentimentally.

She loved children and was quite incapable of managing them.

"Four visitors will be quite enough," said Miss Arundell. "In any case, Bella spoils her children abominably. They never dream of doing what they are told."

Minnie Lawson murmured:

"Mrs Tanios is a very devoted mother."

Miss Arundell said with grave approval:

"Bella is a good woman."

Miss Lawson sighed and said:

"It must be very hard for her sometimes – living in an outlandish place like Smyrna."

Emily Arundell replied:

"She has made her bed and she must lie on it."

And having uttered this final Victorian pronouncement she went on:

"I am going to the village now to speak about the orders for the weekend."

"Oh, Miss Arundell, do let me. I mean -"

"Nonsense. I prefer to go myself. Rogers needs a sharp word. The trouble with you is, Minnie, that you're not emphatic enough. Bob! Bob! Where is the dog?"

A wire-haired terrier came tearing down the stairs. He circled round and round his mistress, uttering short staccato barks of delight and expectation.

Together mistress and dog passed out of the front door and down the short path to the gate.

Miss Lawson stood in the doorway smiling rather foolishly after them, her mouth a little open. Behind her a voice said tartly:

"Them pillow-cases you gave me, miss, isn't a pair."

"What? How stupid of me…"

Minnie Lawson plunged once more into household routine.

Emily Arundell, attended by Bob, made a royal progress down the main street of Market Basing.

It was very much of a royal progress. In each shop she entered the proprietor always hurried forward to attend to her.

She was Miss Arundell of Littlegreen House. She was "one of our oldest customers." She was "one of the old school. Not many about like her nowadays."

"Good-morning, miss. What can I have the pleasure of doing for you – Not tender? Well, I'm sorry to hear that. I thought myself it was as nice a little saddle – Yes, of course, Miss Arundell. If you say so, it is so – No, indeed, I wouldn't think of sending Canterbury to you, Miss Arundell – Yes, I'll see to it myself, Miss Arundell."

Bob and Spot, the butcher's dog, circled slowly round each other, hackles raised, growling gently. Spot was a stout dog of nondescript breed. He knew that he must not fight with customers' dogs, but he permitted himself to tell them, by subtle indication, just exactly what mincemeat he would make of them were he free to do so. Bob, a dog of spirit, replied in kind.

Emily Arundell said "Bob!" sharply and passed on.

In the greengrocer's there was a meeting of heavenly bodies. Another old lady, spherical in outline, but equally distinguished by that air of royalty, said:

"Mornin', Emily."

"Good-morning, Caroline."

Caroline Peabody said:

"Expecting any of your young people down?"

"Yes, all of them. Theresa, Charles and Bella."

"So Bella's home, is she? Husband too?"


It was a simple monosyllable, but underlying it was knowledge common to both ladies.

For Bella Biggs, Emily Arundell's niece, had married a Greek. And Emily Arundell's people, who were what is known as "all service people," simply did not marry Greeks.

By way of being obscurely comforting (for, of course, such a matter could not be referred to openly) Miss Peabody said:

"Bella's husband's got brains. And charming manners!"

"His manners are delightful," agreed Miss Arundell.

Moving out into the street Miss Peabody asked:

"What's this about Theresa being engaged to young Donaldson?"

Miss Arundell shrugged her shoulders.

"Young people are so casual nowadays. I'm afraid it will have to be a rather long engagement – that is, if anything comes of it. He has no money."

"Of course Theresa has her own money," said Miss Peabody.

Miss Arundell said stiffly:

"A man could not possibly wish to live on his wife's money."

Miss Peabody gave a rich, throaty chuckle.

"They don't seem to mind doing it, nowadays. You and I are out of date, Emily. What I can't understand is what the child sees in him. Of all the namby-pamby young men!"

"He's a clever doctor, I believe."

"Those pince-nez – and that stiff way of talking! In my young days we'd have called him a poor stick!"

There was a pause while Miss Peabody's memory, diving into the past, conjured up visions of dashing, bewhiskered young men…

She said with a sigh:

"Send that young dog Charles along to see me – if he'll come."

"Of course. I'll tell him."

The two ladies parted.

They had known each other for considerably over fifty years. Miss Peabody knew of certain regrettable lapses in the life of General Arundell, Emily's father. She knew just precisely what a shock Thomas Arundell's marriage had been to his sisters. She had a very shrewd idea of certain troubles connected with the younger generation.

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