Everybody has been at me, right and left, to write this story, from the great (represented by Lord Nasby) to the small (represented by our late maid-of-all-work, Emily, whom I saw when I was last in England. “Lor, miss, what a beyewtiful book you might make out of it all—just like the pictures!”)
I’ll admit that I’ve certain qualifications for the task. I was mixed up in the affair from the very beginning, I was in the thick of it all through, and I was triumphantly “in at the death.” Very fortunately, too, the gaps that I cannot supply from my own knowledge are amply covered by Sir Eustace Pedler’s diary, of which he has kindly begged me to make use.
So here goes. Anne Beddingfeld starts to narrate her adventures.
I’d always longed for adventures. You see, my life had such a dreadful sameness. My father, Professor Beddingfeld, was one of England’s greatest living authorities on Primitive Man. He really was a genius—everyone admits that. His mind dwelt in Palaeolithic times, and the inconvenience of life for him was that his body inhabited the modern world. Papa did not care for modern man—even Neolithic Man he despised as a mere herder of cattle, and he did not rise to enthusiasm until he reached the Mousterian period.
Unfortunately one cannot entirely dispense with modern men. One is forced to have some kind of truck with butchers and bakers and milkmen and greengrocers. Therefore, Papa being immersed in the past, Mamma having died when I was a baby, it fell to me to undertake the practical side of living. Frankly, I hate Palaeolithic Man, be he Aurignacian, Mousterian, Chellian, or anything else, and though I typed and revised most of Papa’s Neanderthal Man and his Ancestors, Neanderthal men themselves fill me with loathing, and I always reflect what a fortunate circumstance it was that they became extinct in remote ages.
I do not know whether Papa guessed my feelings on the subject, probably not, and in any case he would not have been interested. The opinion of other people never interested him in the slightest degree. I think it was really a sign of his greatness. In the same way, he lived quite detached from the necessities of daily life. He ate what was put before him in an exemplary fashion, but seemed mildly pained when the question of paying for it arose. We never seemed to have any money. His celebrity was not of the kind that brought in a cash return. Although he was a fellow of almost every important society and had rows of letters after his name, the general public scarcely knew of his existence, and his long-learned books, though adding signally to the sum total of human knowledge, had no attraction for the masses. Only on one occasion did he leap into the public gaze. He had read a paper before some society on the subject of the young of the chimpanzee. The young of the human race show some anthropoid features, whereas the young of the chimpanzee approach more nearly to the human than the adult chimpanzee does. That seems to show that whereas our ancestors were more Simian than we are, the chimpanzee’s were of a higher type than the present species—in other words, the chimpanzee is a degenerate. That enterprising newspaper, the Daily Budget, being hard up for something spicy, immediately brought itself out with large headlines. “We are not descended from monkeys, but are monkeys descended from us? Eminent Professor says chimpanzees are decadent humans.” Shortly afterwards, a reporter called to see Papa, and endeavoured to induce him to write a series of popular articles on the theory. I have seldom seen Papa so angry. He turned the reporter out of the house with scant ceremony, much to my secret sorrow, as we were particularly short of money at the moment. In fact, for a moment I meditated running after the young man and informing him that my father had changed his mind and would send the articles in question. I could easily have written them myself, and the probabilities were that Papa would never have learnt of the transaction, not being a reader of the Daily Budget. However, I rejected this course as being too risky, so I merely put on my best hat and went sadly down the village to interview our justly irate grocer.
The reporter from the Daily Budget was the only young man who ever came to our house. There were times when I envied Emily, our little servant, who “walked out” whenever occasion offered with a large sailor to whom she was affianced. In between times, to “keep her hand in,” as she expressed it, she walked out with the greengrocer’s young man, and the chemist’s assistant. I reflected sadly that I had no one to “keep my hand in” with. All Papa’s friends were aged Professors—usually with long beards. It is true that Professor Peterson once clasped me affectionately and said I had a “neat little waist” and then tried to kiss me. The phrase alone dated him hopelessly. No self-respecting female has had a “neat little waist” since I was in my cradle.
I yearned for adventure, for love, for romance, and I seemed condemned to an existence of drab utility. The village possessed a lending library, full of tattered works of fiction, and I enjoyed perils and lovemaking at second hand, and went to sleep dreaming of stern silent Rhodesians, and of strong men who always “felled their opponent with a single blow.” There was no one in the village who even looked as though they could “fell” an opponent, with a single blow or several.
There was the cinema too, with a weekly episode of “The Perils of Pamela.” Pamela was a magnificent young woman. Nothing daunted her. She fell out of aeroplanes, adventured in submarines, climbed skyscrapers and crept about in the Underworld without turning a hair. She was not really clever, The Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way, and always doomed her to death in a sewer gas chamber or by some new and marvellous means, the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl—and then I would get home and find a notice from the Gas Company threatening to cut us off if the outstanding account was not paid!
And yet, though I did not suspect it, every moment was bringing adventure nearer to me.
It is possible that there are many people in the world who have never heard of the finding of an antique skull at the Broken Hill Mine in Northern Rhodesia. I came down one morning to find Papa excited to the point of apoplexy. He poured out the whole story to me.
“You understand, Anne? There are undoubtedly certain resemblances to the Java skull, but superficial—superficial only. No, here we have what I have always maintained—the ancestral form of the Neanderthal race. You grant that the Gibraltar skull is the most primitive of the Neanderthal skulls found? Why? The cradle of the race was in Africa. They passed to Europe—”
“Not marmalade on kippers, Papa,” I said hastily, arresting my parent’s absentminded hand. “Yes, you were saying?”
“They passed to Europe on—”
Here he broke down with a bad fit of choking, the result of an immoderate mouthful of kipper bones.
“But we must start at once,” he declared, as he rose to his feet at the conclusion of the meal. “There is no time to be lost. We must be on the spot—there are doubtless incalculable finds to be found in the neighbourhood. I shall be interested to note whether the implements are typical of the Mousterian period—there will be the remains of the primitive ox, I should say, but not those of the woolly rhinoceros. Yes, a little army will be starting soon. We must get ahead of them. You will write to Cook’s today, Anne?”
“What about money, Papa?” I hinted delicately.
He turned a reproachful eye upon me.
“Your point of view always depresses me, my child. We must not be sordid. No, no, in the cause of science one must not be sordid.”
“I feel Cook’s might be sordid, Papa.”
Papa looked pained.
“My dear Anne, you will pay them in ready money.”
“I haven’t got any ready money.”
Papa looked thoroughly exasperated.
“My child, I really cannot be bothered with these vulgar money details. The bank—I had something from the Manager yesterday, saying I had twenty-seven pounds.”
“That’s your overdraft, I fancy.”
“Ah, I have it! Write to my publishers.”
I acquiesced doubtfully, Papa’s books bringing in more glory than money. I liked the idea of going to Rhodesia immensely. “Stern silent men,” I murmured to myself in an ecstasy. Then something in my parent’s appearance struck me as unusual.
“You have odd boots on, Papa,” I said. “Take off the brown one and put on the other black one. And don’t forget your muffler. It’s a very cold day.”
In a few minutes Papa stalked off, correctly booted and well-mufflered.
He returned late that evening, and, to my dismay, I saw his muffler and overcoat were missing.
“Dear me, Anne, you are quite right. I took them off to go into the cavern. One gets so dirty there.”
I nodded feelingly, remembering an occasion when Papa had returned literally plastered from head to foot with rich Pleistocene clay.
Our principal reason for settling in Little Hampsley had been the neighbourhood of Hampsley Cavern, a buried cave rich in deposits of the Aurignacian culture. We had a tiny museum in the village, and the curator and Papa spent most of their days messing about underground and bringing to light portions of woolly rhinoceros and cave bear.
Papa coughed badly all the evening, and the following morning I saw he had a temperature and sent for the doctor.
Poor Papa, he never had a chance. It was double pneumonia. He died four days later.
Everyone was very kind to me. Dazed as I was, I appreciated that. I felt no overwhelming grief. Papa had never loved me. I knew that well enough. If he had, I might have loved him in return. No, there had not been love between us, but we had belonged together, and I had looked after him, and had secretly admired his learning and his uncompromising devotion to science. And it hurt me that Papa should have died just when the interest of life was at its height for him. I should have felt happier if I could have buried him in a cave, with paintings of reindeer and flint implements, but the force of public opinion constrained a neat tomb (with marble slab) in our hideous local churchyard. The vicar’s consolations, though well-meant, did not console me in the least.
It took some time to dawn upon me that the thing I had always longed for—freedom—was at last mine. I was an orphan, and practically penniless, but free. At the same time I realized the extraordinary kindness of all these good people. The vicar did his best to persuade me that his wife was in urgent need of a companion help. Our tiny local library suddenly made up its mind to have an assistant librarian. Finally, the doctor called upon me, and after making various ridiculous excuses for failing to send a proper bill, he hummed and hawed a good deal and suddenly suggested I should marry him.
I was very much astonished. The doctor was nearer forty than thirty and a round, tubby little man. He was not at all like the hero of “The Perils of Pamela,” and even less like the stern and silent Rhodesian. I reflected a minute and then asked why he wanted to marry me. That seemed to fluster him a good deal, and he murmured that a wife was a great help to a general practitioner. The position seemed even more unromantic than before, and yet something in me urged towards its acceptance. Safety, that was what I was being offered. Safety—and a Comfortable Home. Thinking it over now, I believe I did the little man an injustice. He was honestly in love with me, but a mistaken delicacy prevented him from pressing his suit on those lines. Anyway, my love of romance rebelled.
“It’s extremely kind of you,” I said. “But it’s impossible. I could never marry a man unless I loved him madly.”
“You don’t think—?”
“No, I don’t,” I said firmly.
“But, my dear child, what do you propose to do?”
“Have adventures and see the world,” I replied, without the least hesitation.
“Miss Anne, you are very much a child still. You don’t understand—”
“The practical difficulties? Yes, I do, doctor. I’m not a sentimental schoolgirl—I’m a hardheaded mercenary shrew! You’d know it if you married me!”
“I wish you would reconsider—”
He sighed again.
“I have another proposal to make. An aunt of mine who lives in Wales is in want of a young lady to help her. How would that suit you?”
“No, doctor, I’m going to London. If things happen anywhere, they happen in London. I shall keep my eyes open and, you’ll see, something will turn up! You’ll hear of me next in China or Timbuctoo.”
My next visitor was Mr. Flemming, Papa’s London solicitor. He came down specially from town to see me. An ardent anthropologist himself, he was a great admirer of Papa’s work. He was a tall, spare man with a thin face and grey hair. He rose to meet me as I entered the room and taking both my hands in his, patted them affectionately.
“My poor child,” he said. “My poor, poor child.”
Without conscious hypocrisy, I found myself assuming the demeanour of a bereaved orphan. He hypnotized me into it. He was benignant, kind and fatherly—and without the least doubt he regarded me as a perfect fool of a girl left adrift to face an unkind world. From the first I felt that it was quite useless to try to convince him of the contrary. As things turned out, perhaps it was just as well I didn’t.
“My dear child, do you think you can listen to me whilst I try to make a few things clear to you?”
“Your father, as you know, was a very great man. Posterity will appreciate him. But he was not a good man of business.”
I knew that quite as well, if not better than Mr. Flemming, but I restrained myself from saying so. He continued: “I do not suppose you understand much of these matters. I will try to explain as clearly as I can.”
Copyright © 2020 by Agatha Christie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.