The Listerdale Mystery
                        by Agatha Christie (narrated by Hugh Fraser)

 

II

"Quentin, where did the lilies come from? I really can't buy expensive flowers."

  "They were sent up from King's Cheviot, madam. It has always been the custom here."

  The butler withdrew. Mrs. St. Vincent heaved a sigh of relief. What would she do without Quentin? He made everything so easy. She thought to herself: "It's too good to last. I shall wake up soon, I know I shall, and find it's been all a dream. I'm so happy here - two months already, and it's passed like a flash."

  Life indeed had been astonishingly pleasant. Quentin, the butler, had displayed himself the autocrat of 7 Cheviot Place. "If you will leave everything to me, madam," he had said respectfully. "You will find it the best way."

  Each week, he brought her the housekeeping books, their totals astonishingly low. There were only two other servants, a cook and a housemaid. They were pleasant in manner, and efficient in their duties, but it was Quentin who ran the house. Game and poultry appeared on the table sometimes, causing Mrs. St. Vincent solicitude. Quentin reassured her. Sent up from Lord Listerdale's country seat, King's Cheviot, or from his Yorkshire moor. "It has always been the custom, madam."

  Privately Mrs. St. Vincent doubted whether the absent Lord Listerdale would agree with those words. She was inclined to suspect Quentin of usurping his master's authority. It was clear that he had taken a fancy to them, and that in his eyes nothing was too good for them.

  Her curiosity aroused by Rupert's declaration, Mrs. St. Vincent had made a tentative reference to Lord Listerdale when she next interviewed the house agents. The white-haired old gentleman had responded immediately.

  Yes, Lord Listerdale was in East Africa, had been there for the last eighteen months.

  "Our client is rather an eccentric man," he had said, smiling broadly. "He left London in a most unconventional manner, as you may perhaps remember? Not a word to anyone. The newspapers got hold of it. There were actually inquiries on foot at Scotland Yard. Luckily, news was received from Lord Listerdale himself from East Africa. He invested his cousin, Colonel Carfax, with power of attorney. It is the latter who conducts all Lord Listerdale's affairs. Yes, rather eccentric, I fear. He has always been a great traveller in the wilds - it is quite on the cards that he may not return for years to England, though he is getting on in years."

  "Surely lie is not so very old," said Mrs. St. Vincent, with a sudden memory of a bluff, bearded face, rather like an Elizabethan sailor, which she had once noticed in an illustrated magazine.

  "Middle-aged," said the white-haired gentleman. "Fifty-three, according to Debrett."

  This conversation Mrs. St. Vincent had retailed to Rupert with the intention of rebuking that young gentleman. Rupert, however, was undismayed.

  "It looks fishier than ever to me," he had declared. "Who's this Colonel Carfax? Probably comes into the title if anything happens to Listerdale. The letter from East Africa was probably forged. In three years, or whatever it is, this Carfax will presume death, and take the title. Meantime, he's got all the handling of the estate. Very fishy, I call it."

  He had condescended graciously to approve the house. In his leisure moments he was inclined to tap the panelling and make elaborate measurements for the possible location of a secret room, but little by little his interest in the mystery of Lord Listerdale abated. He was also less enthusiastic on the subject of the tobacconist's daughter. Atmosphere tells.

  To Barbara the house had brought great satisfaction. Jim Masterton had come home, and was a frequent visitor. He and Mrs. St. Vincent got on splendidly together, and he said something to Barbara one day that startled her.

  "This house is a wonderful setting for your mother, you know."

  "For Mother?"

  "Yes. It was made for her! She belongs to it in an extraordinary way. You know there's something queer about this house altogether, something uncanny and haunting."

  "Don't get like Rupert," Barbara implored him. "He is convinced that the wicked Colonel Carfax murdered Lord Listerdale and hid his body under the floor."

  Masterton laughed.

  "I admire Rupert's detective zeal. No, I didn't mean anything of that kind. But there's something in the air, some atmosphere that one doesn't quite understand."

  They had been three months in Cheviot Place when Barbara came to her mother with a radiant face.

  "Jim and I - we're engaged. Yes - last night. Oh, Mother! It all seems like a fairy tale come true."

  "Oh, my dear! I'm so glad - so glad."

  Mother and daughter clasped each other close.

  "You know Jim's almost as much in love with you as he is with me," said Barbara at last, with a mischievous laugh.

  Mrs. St. Vincent blushed very prettily.

  "He is," persisted the girl. "You thought this house would make such a beautiful setting for me, and all the time it's really a setting for you. Rupert and I don't quite belong here. You do."

  "Don't talk nonsense, darling."

  "It's not nonsense. There's a flavour of enchanted castle about it, with you as an enchanted princess and Quentin as - as - oh! - a benevolent magician."

  Mrs. St. Vincent laughed and admitted the last item.

  Rupert received the news of his sister's engagement very calmly.

  "I thought there was something of the kind in the wind," he observed sapiently.

  He and his mother were dining alone together. Barbara was out with Jim.

  Quentin placed the port in front of him and withdrew noiselessly.

  "That's a rum old bird," said Rupert, nodding towards the closed door. "There's something odd about him, you know, something - "

  "Not fishy?" interrupted Mrs. St. Vincent, with a faint smile.

  "Why, Mother, how did you know what I was going to say?" demanded Rupert in all seriousness.

  "It's rather a word of yours, darling. You think everything is fishy. I suppose you have an idea that it was Quentin who did away with Lord Listerdale and put him under the floor?"

  "Behind the panelling," corrected Rupert. "You always get things a little bit wrong, Mother. No, I've inquired about that. Quentin was down at King's Cheviot at the time."

  Mrs. St. Vincent smiled at him, as she rose from the table and went up to the drawing room. In some ways Rupert was a long time growing up.

  Yet a sudden wonder swept over her for the first time as to Lord Listerdale's reasons for leaving England so abruptly. There must be something behind it, to account for that sudden decision. She was still thinking the matter over when Quentin came in with the coffee tray, and she spoke out impulsively.

  "You have been with Lord Listerdale a long time, haven't you, Quentin?"

  "Yes, madam; since I was a lad of twenty-one. That was in the late lord's time. I started as third footman."

  "You must know Lord Listerdale very well. What kind of a man is he?"

  The butler turned the tray a little, so that she could help herself to sugar more conveniently, as he replied in even unemotional tones:

  "Lord Listerdale was a very selfish gentleman, madam; with no consideration for others."

  He removed the tray and bore it from the room. Mrs. St. Vincent sat with her coffee cup in her hand and a puzzled frown on her face. Something struck her as odd in the speech apart from the views it expressed. In another minute it flashed home to her.

  Quentin had used the word "was," not "is." But then, he must think - must believe - She pulled herself up. She was as bad as Rupert! But a very definite uneasiness assailed her. Afterwards she dated her first suspicions from that moment.

  With Barbara's happiness and future assured, she had time to think her own thoughts, and against her will, they began to centre round the mystery of Lord Listerdale. What was the real story? Whatever it was, Quentin knew something about it. Those had been odd words of his - "a very selfish gentleman - no consideration for others." What lay behind them? He had spoken as a judge might speak, detachedly and impartially.

  Was Quentin involved in Lord Listerdale's disappearance? Had he taken an active part in any tragedy there might have been? After all, ridiculous as Rupert's assumption had seemed at the time, that single letter with its power of attorney coming from East Africa was - well, open to suspicion.

  But try as she would, she could not believe any real evil of Quentin. Quentin, she told herself over and over again, was good - she used the word as simply as a child might have done. Quentin was good. But he knew something!

  She never spoke with him again of his master. The subject was apparently forgotten. Rupert and Barbara had other things to think of, and there were no further discussions.

  It was towards the end of August that her vague surmises crystallized into realities. Rupert had gone for a fortnight's holiday with a friend who had a motorcycle and trailer. It was some ten days after his departure that Mrs. St. Vincent was startled to see him rush into the room where she sat writing.

  "Rupert!" she exclaimed.

  "I know, Mother. You didn't expect to see me for another three days. But something's happened. Anderson - my pal, you know - didn't much care where he went, so I suggested having a look in at King's Cheviot - "

  "King's Cheviot? But why - ?"

  "You know perfectly well, Mother, that I've always scented something fishy about things here. Well, I had a look at the old place - it's let, you know - nothing there. Not that I actually expected to find anything - I was just nosing round, so to speak."

  Yes, she thought, Rupert was very like a dog at this moment. Hunting in circles for something vague and undefined, led by instinct, busy and happy.

  "It was when we were passing through a village about eight or nine miles away that it happened - that I saw him, I mean."

  "Saw whom?"

  "Quentin - just going into a little cottage. Something fishy here, I said to myself, and we stopped the bus, and I went back. I rapped on the door and he himself opened it."

  "But I don't understand. Quentin hasn't been away - "

  "I'm coming to that, Mother. If you'd only listen and not interrupt. It was Quentin, and it wasn't Quentin, if you know what I mean."

  Mrs. St. Vincent clearly did not know, so he elucidated matters further.

  "It was Quentin all right, but it wasn't our Quentin. It was the real man."

  "Rupert!"

  "You listen. I was taken in myself at first, and said: 'It is Quentin, isn't it?' And the old johnny said: 'Quite right, sir, that is my name. What can I do for you?' And then I saw that it wasn't our man, though it was precious like him, voice and all. I asked a few questions, and it all came out. The old chap hadn't an idea of anything fishy being on. He'd been butler to Lord Listerdale, all right, and was retired on a pension and given this cottage just about the time that Lord Listerdale was supposed to have gone off to Africa. You see where that leads us. This man's an impostor - he's playing the part of Quentin for purposes of his own. My theory is that he came up to town that evening, pretending to be the butler from King's Cheviot, got an interview with Lord Listerdale, killed him and hid his body behind the panelling. It's an old house, there's sure to be a secret recess - "

  "Oh, don't let's go into all that again," interrupted Mrs. St. Vincent wildly. "I can't bear it. Why should he - that's what I want to know - why? If he did such a thing - which I don't believe for one minute, mind you - what was the reason for it all?"

  "You're right," said Rupert. "Motive - that's important. Now I've made inquiries. Lord Listerdale had a lot of house property. In the last two days I've discovered that practically every one of these houses of his have been let in the last eighteen months to people like ourselves for a merely nominal rent - and with the proviso that the servants should remain. And in every case Quentin himself - the man calling himself Quentin, I mean - has been there for part of the time as butler. That looks as though there were something - jewels, or papers - secreted in one of Lord Listerdale's houses, and the gang doesn't know which. I'm assuming a gang, but of course this fellow Quentin may be in it single-handed. There's a - "

  Mrs. St. Vincent interrupted him with a certain amount of determination:

  "Rupert! Do stop talking for one minute. You're making my head spin. Anyway, what you are saying is nonsense - about gangs and hidden papers."

  "There's another theory," admitted Rupert. "This Quentin may be someone that Lord Listerdale has injured. The real butler told me a long story about a man called Samuel Lowe - an undergardener he was, and about the same height and build as Quentin himself. He'd got a grudge against Listerdale - "

  Mrs. St. Vincent started.

  "With no consideration for others." The words came back to her mind in their passionless, measured accents. Inadequate words, but what might they not stand for?

  In her absorption she hardly listened to Rupert. He made a rapid explanation of something that she did not take in, and went hurriedly from the room.

  Then she woke up. Where had Rupert gone? What was he going to do? She had not caught his last words. Perhaps he was going for the police. In that case ...

  She rose abruptly and rang the bell. With his usual promptness, Quentin answered it.

  "You rang, madam?"

  "Yes. Come in, please, and shut the door."

  The butler obeyed, and Mrs. St. Vincent was silent a moment while she studied him with earnest eyes.

  She thought: "He's been kind to me - nobody knows how kind. The children wouldn't understand. This wild story of Rupert's may be all nonsense - On the other hand, there may - yes, there may - be something in it. Why should one judge? One can't know. The rights and wrongs of it, I mean ... And I'd stake my life - yes, I would! - on his being a good man."

  Flushed and tremulous, she spoke.

  "Quentin, Mr. Rupert has just got back. He has been down to King's Cheviot - to a village near there - "

  She stopped, noticing the quick start he was not able to conceal.

  "He has - seen someone," she went on in measured accents.

  She thought to herself: "There - he's warned. At any rate, he's warned."

  After that first quick start, Quentin had resumed his unruffled demeanour, but his eyes were fixed on her face, watchful and keen, with something in them she had not seen there before. They were, for the first time, the eyes of a man and not of a servant.

  He hesitated for a minute, then said in a voice which also had subtly changed:

  "Why do you tell me this, Mrs. St. Vincent?"

  Before she could answer, the door flew open and Rupert strode into the room. With him was a dignified middle-aged man with little side whiskers and the air of a benevolent archbishop. Quentin!

  "Here he is," said Rupert. "The real Quentin. I had him outside in the taxi. Now, Quentin, look at this man and tell me - is he Samuel Lowe?"

  It was for Rupert a triumphant moment. But it was short-lived; almost at once he scented something wrong. For while the real Quentin was looking abashed and highly uncomfortable, the second Quentin was smiling a broad smile of undisguised enjoyment.

  He slapped his embarrassed duplicate on the back.

  "It's all right, Quentin. Got to let the cat out of the bag sometime, I suppose. You can tell 'em who I am."

  The dignified stranger drew himself up.

  "This, sir," he announced in a reproachful tone, "is my master, Lord Listerdale, sir."

   

  The next minute beheld many things. First, the complete collapse of the cocksure Rupert. Before he knew what was happening, his mouth still open from the shock of the discovery, he found himself being gently manoeuvred towards the door, a friendly voice that was, and yet was not, familiar in his ear.

  "It's quite all right, my boy. No bones broken. But I want a word with your mother. Very good work of yours, to ferret me out like this."

  He was outside on the landing gazing at the shut door. The real Quentin was standing by his side, a gentle stream of explanation flowing from his lips. Inside the room Lord Listerdale was fronting Mrs. St. Vincent.

  "Let me explain - if I can! I've been a selfish devil all my life - the fact came home to me one day. I thought I'd try a little altruism for a change, and being a fantastic kind of fool, I started my career fantastically. I'd sent subscriptions to odd things, but I felt the need of doing something - well, something personal. I've been sorry always for the class that can't beg, that must suffer in silence - poor gentlefolk. I have a lot of house property. I conceived the idea of leasing these houses to people who - well, needed and appreciated them. Young couples with their way to make, widows with sons and daughters starting in the world. Quentin has been more than butler to me, he's a friend. With his consent and assistance I borrowed his personality. I've always had a talent for acting. The idea came to me on my way to the club one night, and I went straight off to talk it over with Quentin. When I found they were making a fuss about my disappearance, I arranged that a letter should come from me in East Africa. In it, I gave full instructions to my cousin, Marurice Carfax. And - well, that's the long and short of it.'

  He broke off rather lamely, with an appealing glance at Mrs. St. Vincent. She stood very straight, and her eyes met his steadily.

  "It was a kind plan," she said. "A very unusual one, and one that does you credit. I am - most grateful. But - of course, you understand that we cannot stay?"

  "I expected that," he said. "Your pride won't let you accept what you'd probably style 'charity.'"

  "Isn't that what it is?" she asked steadily.

  "No,'" he answered. "Because I ask something in exchange."

  "Something?"

  "Everything." His voice rang out, the voice of one accustomed to dominate.

  "When I was twenty-three," he went on, "I married the girl I loved. She died a year later. Since then I have been very lonely. I have wished very much I could find a certain lady - the lady of my dreams ... "

  "Am I that?" she asked, very low. "I am so old - so faded."

  He laughed.

  "Old? You are younger than either of your children. Now I am old, if you like."

  But her laugh rang out in turn, a soft ripple of amusement.

  "You? You are a boy still. A boy who loves to dress up!"

  She held out her hands and he caught them in his.


 

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