Ordeal by Innocence
Author:Agatha Christie

Chapter 2
It should have been a sensational announcement.

Instead, it fell flat. Calgary had expected bewilderment, incredulous gladness struggling with incomprehension, eager questions... There was none of that. There seemed only wariness and suspicion. Gwenda

Vaughan was frowning. Hester stared at him with dilated eyes. Well, perhaps it was natural - such an announcement was hard to take in all at once.

Leo Argyle said hesitantly: "You mean, Dr. Calgary, that you agree with my attitude? You don't feel he was responsible for his actions?"

"I mean he didn't do it! Can't you take it in, man? He didn't do it. He couldn't have done it. But for the most extraordinary and unfortunate combination of circumstances he could have proved that he was innocent. I could have proved that he was innocent."

"You?"

"I was the man in the car."

He said it so simply that for the moment they did not take it in. Before they could recover themselves, there was an interruption. The door opened and the woman with the homely face marched in. She spoke directly and to the point.

"I hear as I am passing the door outside. This man is saying that Jacko did not kill Mrs. Argyle. Why does he say this? How does he know?"

Her face, which had been militant and fierce, suddenly seemed to pucker. "I must hear too," she said piteously. "I cannot stay outside and not know."

"Of course not, Kirsty. You're one of the family." Leo Argyle introduced her. "Miss Lindstrom, Dr. Calgary. Dr. Calgary is saying the most incredible things."

Calgary was puzzled by the Scottish name of Kirsty. Her English was excellent but a faint foreign intonation remained.

She spoke accusingly to him.

"You should not come here and say things like that - upsetting people. They have accepted tribulation. Now you upset them by what you tell. What happened was the will of God."

He was repelled by the glib complacence of her statement. Possibly, he thought, she was one of those ghoulish people who positively welcome disaster. Well, she was going to be deprived of all that.

He spoke in a quick, dry voice.

"At five minutes to seven on that evening, I picked up a young man on the main Redmyn to Drymouth road who was thumbing for a lift. I drove him into Drymouth. We talked. He was, I thought, an engaging and likeable young man."

"Jacko had great charm," said Gwenda. "Everyone found him attractive. It was his temper let him down. And he was crooked, of course," she added thoughtfully. "But people didn't find that out for some time."

Miss Lindstrom turned on her.

"You should not speak so when he is dead."

Leo Argyle said with a faint asperity: "Please go on, Dr. Calgary. Why didn't you come forward at the time?"

"Yes." Hester's voice sounded breathless. "Why did you skulk away from it all? There were appeals in the paper - advertisements. How could you be so selfish, so wicked -"

"Hester - Hester!" her father checked her. "Dr. Calgary is still telling us his story."

Calgary addressed the girl direct.

"I know only too well how you feel. I know what I feel myself - what I shall always feel -" He pulled himself together and went on: "To continue with my story: There was a lot of traffic on the roads that evening. It was well after half past seven when I dropped the young man, whose name I did not know, in the middle of Drymouth. That, I understand, clears him completely, since the police are quite definite that the crime was committed between seven and half past."

"Yes," said Hester. "But you -"

"Please be patient. To make you understand, I must go back a little. I had been staying in Drymouth for a couple of days in a friend's flat. This friend, a naval man, was at sea. He had also lent me his car which he kept in a private lock-up. On this particular day, November the 9th, I was due to return to London. I decided to go up by the evening train and to spend the afternoon seeing an old nurse of whom our family were very fond and who lived in a little cottage at Polgarth about forty miles west of Drymouth. I carried out my programme. Though very old

and inclined to wander in her mind, she recognised me and was very pleased to see me, and quite excited because she had read in the papers about my 'going to the Pole,' as she put it. I stayed only a short time, so as not to tire her, and on leaving decided not to return direct to Drymouth along the coast road as I had come, but instead to go north to Redmyn and see old Canon Peasmarsh, who has some very rare books in his library, including an early treatise on navigation from which I was anxious to copy a passage. The old gentleman refuses to have the telephone which he regards as a device of the devil, and on a par with radio, television, cinema organs and jet planes, so I had to take a chance of finding him at home. I was unlucky. His house was shuttered and he was evidently away. I spent a little time in the Cathedral, and then started back to Drymouth by the main road, thus completing the third side of a triangle. I had left myself comfortable time to pick up my bag from the flat, return the car to its lock-up, and catch my train.

"On the way, as I have told you, I picked up an unknown hitch-hiker, and after dropping him in the town, I carried out my own programme. After arrival at the station, I still had time in hand, and I went outside the station into the main street to get some cigarettes. As I crossed the road a lorry came round a corner at high speed and knocked me down.

"According to the accounts of passers-by, I got up, apparently uninjured and behaving quite normally. I said I was quite all right and that I had a train to catch and hurried back to the station. When the train arrived at Paddington I was unconscious and taken by ambulance to hospital, where I was found to be suffering from concussion - apparently this delayed effect is not uncommon.

"When I regained consciousness, some days later, I remembered nothing of the accident, or of coming to London. The last thing I could remember was starting out to visit my old nurse at Polgarth. After that, a complete blank. I was reassured by being told that such an occurrence is quite common. There seemed no reason to believe that the missing hours in my life were of any importance. Neither I myself, nor anyone else, had the faintest idea that I had driven along the Redmyn-Drymouth road that evening.

"There was only a very narrow margin of time before I was due to leave England. I was kept in hospital, in absolute quiet, with no newspapers. On leaving I drove straight to the airport to fly to Australia and to join up with the Expedition. There was some doubt as to whether I was fit to go, but this I overruled. I was far too busy with my preparations and anxieties to take any interest in reports of murders, and in any case excitement died down after the arrest, and by the time the case came to trial and was fully reported, I was on my way to the Antarctic."

He paused. They were listening to him with close attention.

"It was about a month ago, just after my return to England, that I made the discovery. I wanted some old newspapers for packing specimens.

My landlady brought me up a pile of old papers out of her stockhold. Spreading one out on the table I saw the reproduced photograph of a young man whose face seemed very familiar to me. I tried to remember where I had met him and who he was. I could not do so and

yet, very strangely, I remembered holding a conversation with him - it had been about eels. He had been intrigued and fascinated by hearing the saga of an eel's life. But when? Where? I read the paragraph, read that this young man was Jack Argyle, accused of murder, read that he had told the police that he had been given a lift by a man in a black saloon car.

"And then, quite suddenly, that lost bit of my life came back I had picked up this selfsame young man, and driven him into Drymouth, parting from him there, going back to the flat - crossing the street on foot to buy my cigarettes. I remembered just a glimpse of the lorry as it hit me - after that, nothing until hospital. I still had no memory of going to the station and taking the train to London. I read and re-read the paragraph. The trial was over a year ago, the case almost forgotten. 'A young fellow what did his mother in,' my landlady remembered vaguely. 'Don't know what happened - think they hanged him.' I read up the files of the newspapers for the appropriate dates, then I went to Marshall & Marshall, who had been the lawyers for the defence. I learned that I was too late to free the unfortunate boy. He had died of pneumonia in prison. Though justice could no longer be done to him, justice could be done to his memory. I went with Mr. Marshall to the police. The case is being laid before the Public Prosecutor. Marshall has little doubt that he will refer it to the Home Secretary.

"You will, of course, receive a full report from him. He has only delayed it because I was anxious to be the one who first acquainted you with the truth. I felt that that was an ordeal it was my duty to go through. You understand, I am sure, that I shall always feel a deep load of guilt. If I had been more careful crossing the street -" He broke off. "I understand that your feelings towards me can never be kindly - though I am, technically, blameless - you, all of you, must blame me."

Gwenda Vaughan said quickly, her voice warm and kindly: "Of course we don't blame you. It's just - one of those things. Tragic - incredible - but there it is."

Hester said: "Did they believe you?"

He looked at her in surprise.

"The police - did they believe you? Why shouldn't you be making it all up?"

He smiled a little in spite of himself.

"I'm a very reputable witness," he said gently. "I have no axe to grind, and they have gone into my story very closely; medical evidence, various corroborating details from Drymouth. Oh yes. Marshall was cautious, of course, like all lawyers. He didn't want to raise your hopes until he was pretty certain of success."

Leo Argyle stirred in his chair and spoke for the first time. "What exactly do you mean by success?"

"I apologise," said Calgary quickly. "That is not a word that can rightly be used. Your son was accused of a crime he did not commit, was tried for it, condemned - and died in prison. Justice has come too late for him. But such justice as can be done, almost certainly will be done, and will be seen to be done. The Home Secretary will probably advise the Queen that a free pardon should be granted."

Hester laughed.

"A free pardon - for something he didn't do?"

"I know. The terminology always seems unrealistic. But I understand that the custom is for a question to be asked in the House, the reply to which will make it clear that Jack Argyle did not commit the crime for which he was sentenced, and the newspapers will report that fact freely."

He stopped. Nobody spoke. It had been, he supposed, a great shock to them. But after all, a happy one.

He rose to his feet.

"I'm afraid," he said uncertainly, "that there is nothing more that I can say... To repeat how sorry I am, how unhappy about it all, to ask your forgiveness - all that you must already know only too well. The tragedy that ended his life, has darkened my own. But at least" - he spoke with pleading - "surely it means something - to know that he didn't do this awful thing - that his name - your name - will be cleared in the eyes of the world?"

If he hoped for a reply he did not get one.

Leo Argyle sat slumped in his chair. Gwenda's eyes were on Leo's face. Hester sat staring ahead of her, her eyes wide and tragic. Miss Lindstrom grunted something under her breath and shook her head.

Calgary stood helplessly by the door, looking back at them.

It was Gwenda Vaughan who took charge of the situation. She came up to him and laid a hand on his arm, saying in a low voice: "You'd better go now, Dr. Calgary. It's been too much of a shock. They must have time to take it in."

He nodded and went out. On the landing Miss Lindstrom joined him. "I will let you out," she said.

He was conscious, looking back before the door closed behind him, of Gwenda Vaughan slipping to her knees by Leo Argyle's chair. It surprised him a little.

Facing him, on the landing, Miss Lindstrom stood like a Guardsman and spoke harshly.

"You cannot bring him back to life. So why bring it all back into their minds? Till now, they were resigned. Now they will suffer. It is better, always, to leave well alone."

She spoke with displeasure.

"His memory must be cleared," said Arthur Calgary.

"Fine sentiments! They are all very well. Butyou do not really think of what it all means. Men, they never think." She stamped her foot. "I love them all. I came here, to help Mrs. Argyle, in 1940 when she started here a war nursery - for children whose homes had been bombed. Nothing was too good for those children. Everything was done for them. That is nearly eighteen years ago. And still, even after she is dead, I stay here - to look after them - to keep the house clean and comfortable, to see they get good food. I love them all - yes, I love them... and Jacko he was no good! Oh yes, I loved him too. But - he was no good!"

She turned abruptly away. It seemed she had forgotten her offer to show him out. Calgary descended the stairs slowly. As he was fumbling with the front door which had a safety lock he did not understand, he heard light footsteps on the stairs. Hester came flying down them.

She unlatched the door and opened it. They stood looking at each other. He understood less than ever why she faced him with that tragic reproachful stare.

She said, only just breathing the words: "Why did you come? Oh, why ever did you come?"

He looked at her helplessly.

"I don't understand you. Don't you want your brother's name cleared?

Don't you want him to have justice?"

"Oh, justice!" She threw the word at him. He repeated: "I don't understand..."

"Going on so about justice! What does it matter to Jacko now? He's dead. It's not Jacko who matters. It's the others."

"What do you mean?"

"It's not the guilty who matter. It's the innocent."

She caught his arm, digging her fingers into it.

"It's we who matter. Don't you see what you've done to us all?"

He stared at her.

Out of the darkness outside, a man's figure loomed up.

"Dr. Calgary?" he said. "Your taxi's here, sir. To drive you to Drymouth."

"Oh - er - thank you."

Calgary turned once more to Hester, but she had withdrawn into the house.

The front door banged.