The Coming of Mr. Quin
Written by Agatha Christie - Narrated by Hugh Fraser

 

It was New Year's Eve.

The elder members of the house party at Royston were assembled in the big hall.

Mr. Satterthwaite was glad that the young people had gone to bed. He was not fond of young people in herds. He thought them uninteresting and crude. They lacked subtlety and as life went he had become increasingly fond of subtleties

Mr. Satterthwaite was sixty-two-- a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people's lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded now something a little out of the common.

There was no doubt that he had a flair for these things. He knew instinctively when the elements of drama were at hand. Like a war horse, he sniffed the scent. Since his arrival at Royston this afternoon, that strange inner sense of his had stirred and bid him be ready. Something interesting was happening or going to happen.

The house party was not a large one. There was Tom Evesham their genial good-humoured host and his serious political wife who had been before her marriage Lady Laura Keene. There was Sir Richard Conway, soldier, traveler and sportsman, there were six or seven young people whose names Mr. Satterthwaite had not grasped and there were the Portals.

It was the Portals who interested Mr. Satterthwaite.

He had never met Alex. Portal before, but he knew all about him. Had known his father and his grandfather. Alex Portal ran pretty true to type. He was a man of close on forty, fair-haired, and blue-eyed like all the Portals, fond of sport, good at games, devoid of imagination. Nothing unusual about Alex Portal. The usual good sound English stock.

But his wife was different. She was, Mr. Satterthwaite knew, an Australian. Portal had been out in Australia two years ago, had met her out there and had married her and brought her home. She had never been to England previous to her marriage. All the same, she wasn't at all like any other Australian woman Mr. Satterthwaite had met.

He observed her now, covertly. Interesting woman--very. So still, and yet so--alive. Alive! That was just it! Not exactly beautiful--no, you wouldn't call her beautiful, but there was a kind of calamitous magic about her that you couldn't miss-- that no man could miss. The masculine side of Mr. Satterthwaite spoke there, but the feminine side (for Mr. Satterthwaite had a large share of femininity) was equally interested in another question. Why did Mrs. Portal dye her hair?

No other man would probably have known that she dyed her hair, but Mr. Satterthwaite knew. He knew all those things. And it puzzled him. Many dark women dye their hair blonde-- he had never before come across a fair woman who dyed her hair black.

Everything about her intrigued him. In a queer intuitive way, he felt certain that she was either very happy or very unhappy-- but tie didn't know which, and it annoyed him not to know. Furthermore there was the curious effect she had upon her husband.

"He adores her," said Mr. Satterthwaite to himself, "but sometimes he's--yes, afraid of her! That's very interesting. That's uncommonly interesting."

Portal drank too much. That was certain. And he had a curious way of watching his wife when she wasn't looking

"Nerves," said Mr. Satterthwaite. "The fellow's all nerves. She knows it too, but she won't do anything about it."

He felt very curious about the pair of them. Something was going on that he couldn't fathom.

He was roused from his meditations on the subject by the solemn chiming of the big clock in the corner.

"Twelve o'clock," said Evesham." New Year's Day. Happy New Year everybody. As a matter of fact that clock's five minutes fast-- I don't know why the children wouldn't wait up and see the New Year in?"

"I don't suppose for a minute they've really gone to bed, " said his wife placidly. "They're probably putting hairbrushes or something in our beds. That sort of thing does so amuse them. I can't think why. We should never have been allowed to do such a thing in my young days."

"Autre temps, autre moeurs," said Conway, smiling.

He was a tall soldierly-looking man. Both he and Evesham were much of the same type honest upright kindly men with no great pretensions to brains.

"In my young days we all joined hands in a circle and sand Auld Lang Syne," continued Lady Laura. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot so touching, I always think the words are."

Evesham moved uneasily.

"Oh! Drop it, Laura," He muttered. "Not here."

He strode across the wide hall where they were sitting, and switched on an extra light.

"Very stupid of me, " said Lady Laura, sotto voce. "Reminds him of poor Mr. Capel, of course. My dear, is the fire too hot for you?"

Eleanor Portal made a brusque movement.

"Thank you. I'll move my chair back a little."

What a lovely voice she had-- one of those low murmuring echoing voices that stay in your memory, thought Mr. Satterthwaite. Her face was in shadow now. What a pity.

From her place in the shadow she spoke again,

"Mr. Capel?"

"Yes. The man who originally owned this house. He shot himself you know--oh! Very well, Tom dear, I won't speak of it unless you like. It was a great shock for Tom, of course, because he was here when it happened. So were you, weren't you, Sir Richard?" "Yes, Lady Laura."

An old grandfather clock in the corner groaned, wheezed, snorted asthmatically, and then struck twelve.

"Happy New Year, Tom," grunted Evesham perfunctorily.

Lady Laura wound up her knitting with some deliberation.

"Well, we've seen the New Year in, "she observed, and added, looking towards Mrs. Portal, "What do you think, my dear?"

Eleanor Portal rose quickly to her feet "Bed, by all means, "she said lightly. "She's very pale, "thought Mr. Satterthwaite, as he too rose, and began busying himself with candlesticks. "She's not usually as pale as that."

He lighted her candle and handed it to her with a funny little old-fashioned bow. She took it from him with a word of acknowledgment and went slowly up the stairs.

Suddenly a very odd impulse swept over Mr. Satterthwaite. He wanted to go after her, to reassure her-- he had the strangest feeling that she was in danger of some kind. The impulse died down, and he felt ashamed. He was getting nervy too.

She hadn't looked at her husband as she went up the stairs, but now she turned her head over her shoulder and gave him a long searching glance which had a queer intensity in it. It affected Mr. Satterthwaite very oddly.

He found himself saying good night to his hostess in quite a flustered manner.

"I'm sure I hope it will be a happy New Year, "Lady Laura was saying. "But the political situation seems to me to be fraught with grave uncertainty."

"I'm sure it is, " said Mr. Satterthwaite earnestly. "I'm sure it is."

"I only hope, "continued Lady Laura, without the least change of manner, "that it will be a dark man who first crosses the threshold. You know that superstition, I suppose, Mr. Satterthwaite? No? You surprise me. To bring luck to the house it must be a dark man who first steps over the door step on New Year's Day. Dear me, I hope I shan't find anything very unpleasant in my bed I never trust the children. They have such very high spirits."

Shaking her head in sad foreboding, Lady Laura moved majestically up the staircase.

With the departure of the women, chairs were pulled in closer round the blazing logs on the big open hearth.

"Say when, " said Evesham, hospitably, as he held up the whisky decanter.

When everybody had said when, the talk reverted to the subject which had been tabooed before.

"You knew Derek Capel, didn't you, Satterthwaite? " asked Conway.

"Slightly--yes."

"And you, Portal?"

"No, I never met him."

So fiercely and defensively did he say it that Mr. Satterthwaite looked up in surprise.

"I always hate it when Laura brings up the subject, " said Evesham slowly. "After the tragedy, you know, this place was sold to a big manufacturer fellow. He cleared out after a year--didn't suit him or something. A lot of tommy rot was talked about the place being haunted of course, and it gave the house a bad name. Then, when Laura got me to stand for West Kidleby, of course it meant living up in these parts, and it wasn't so easy to find a suitable house. Royston was going cheap, and--well, in the end I bought it. Ghosts are all tommy rot, but all the same one doesn't exactly care to be reminded that you're living in a house where one of your own friends shot himself. Poor old Derek--we shall never know why he did it."

"He won't be the first or the last fellow who's shot himself without being able to give a reason, " said Alex Portal heavily.

He rose and poured himself out another drink, splashing the whisky in with a liberal hand.

"There's something very wrong with him, " said Mr. Satterthwaite, to himself. "Very wrong indeed. I wish I knew what it was all about."

"Gad!" said Conway. "Listen to the wind. It's a wild night."

"A good night for ghosts to walk, " said Portal with a reckless laugh. "All the devils in Hell are abroad tonight."

"According to Lady Laura, even the blackest of them would bring us luck," observed Conway, with a laugh. "Hark to that!"

The wind rose in another terrific wail, and as it died away there came three loud knocks on the big nailed doorway.

Everyone started.

"Who on earth can that be at this time of night?" cried Evesham.

They stared at each other.

"I will open it," said Evesham. "The servants have gone to bed."

He strode across to the door, fumbled a little over the heavy bars, and finally flung it open. An icy blast of wind came sweeping into the hall

Framed in the doorway stood a man's figure, tall and slender. To Mr. Satterthwaite, watching, he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass above the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow. Then, as he stepped forward, he showed himself to be a thin dark man dressed in motoring clothes.

"I must really apologise for this intrusion," said the stranger, in a pleasant level voice. "But my car broke down. Nothing much, my chauffeur is putting it to rights, but it will take half an hour or so, and it is so confoundedly cold outside------"

He broke off, and Evesham took up the thread quickly.

"I should think it was. Come in and have a drink. We can't give you any assistance about the car, can we?"

"No, thanks. My man knows what to do. By the way, my name is Quin--Harley Quin."

"Sit down, Mr. Quin," said Evesham." Sir Richard Conway, Mr. Satterthwaite. My name is Evesham."

Mr. Quin acknowledged the introductions, and dropped into the chair that Evesham had hospitably pulled forward. As he sat, some effect of the firelight threw a bar of shadow across his face which gave almost the impression of a mask.

Evesham threw a couple more logs on the fire.

"A drink?"

"Thanks."

Evesham brought it to him and asked as he did so:

"So you know this part of the world well, Mr. Quin?"

"I passed through it some years ago."

"Really?"

"Yes. This house belonged then to a man called Capel"

"Ah! Yes," said Evesham. "Poor Derek Capel. You knew him?"

"Yes, I knew him."

Evesham's manner underwent a faint change, almost imperceptible to one who had not studied the English character. Before, it had contained a subtle reserve, now this was laid aside. Mr. Quin had known Derek Capel He was the friend of a friend, and, as such, was vouched for and fully accredited.

"Astounding affair, that," he said confidentially. "We were just talking about it. I can tell you, it went against the grain, buying this place. If there had been anything else suitable, but there wasn't you see. I was in the house the night he shot himself--so was Conway, and upon my word, I've always expected his ghost to walk."

"A very inexplicable business," said Mr. Quin, slowly and deliberately, and he paused with the air of an actor who has just spoken an important cue.

"You may well say inexplicable," burst in Conway. "The thing's a black mystery--always will be."

"I wonder," said Mr. Quin, noncommittally. "Yes, Sir Richard, you were saying?"

"Astounding--that's what it was. Here's a man in the prime of life, gay, light-hearted, without a care in the world. Five or six old pals staying with him. Top of his spirits at dinner, full of plans for the future. And from the dinner table he goes straight upstairs to his room, takes a revolver from a drawer and shoots himself. Why? Nobody ever knew. Nobody ever will know."

"Isn't that rather a sweeping statement, Sir Richard?" asked Mr. Quin, smiling.

Conway stared at him.

"What d'you mean? I don't understand."

"A problem is not necessarily unsolvable because it has remained unsolved."

"Oh! Come, man, if nothing came out at the time, it's not likely to come out now--ten years afterwards?"

Mr. Quin shook his head gently.

"I disagree with you. The evidence of history is against you. The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion. If you like to call it so, it is, like everything else, a question of relativity."

Alex Portal leant forward, his face twitching painfully.

"You are right, Mr. Quin," he cried," you are right. Time does not dispose of a question--it only presents it anew in a different guise."

Evesham was smiling tolerantly.

"Then you mean to say, Mr. Quin, that if we were to hold, let us say, a Court of Inquiry tonight, into the circumstances of Derek Capel's death, we are as likely to arrive at the truth as we should have been at the time?"

"More likely, Mr. Evesham. The personal equation has largely dropped out, and you will remember facts as facts without seeking to put your own interpretation upon them."

Evesham frowned doubtfully.

"One must have a starting point, of course," said Mr. Quin in his quiet level voice.

"A starting point is usually a theory.

One of you must have a theory, I am sure. How about you, Sir Richard?"

Conway frowned thoughtfully.

"Well, of course," he said apologetically," we thought-- naturally we all thought--that there must be a woman in it somewhere. It's usually either that or money, isn't it? And it certainly wasn't money. No trouble of that description. So--what else could it have been?"

Mr. Satterthwaite started. He had leant forward to contribute a small remark of his own and in the act of doing so, he had caught sight of a woman's figure crouched against the balustrade of the gallery above. She was huddled down against it, invisible from everywhere but where he himself sat, and she was evidently listening with strained attention to what was going on below So immovable was she that he hardly believed the evidence of his own eyes.

But he recognised the pattern of the dress easily enough-- an old-world brocade. It was Eleanor Portal.

And suddenly all the events of the night seemed to fall into pattern--Mr. Quin's arrival, no fortuitous chance, but the appearance of an actor when his cue was given. There was a drama being played in the big hall at Royston tonight--a drama none the less real in that one of the actors was dead. Oh! Yes, Derek Capel had a part in the play. Mr. Satterthwaite was sure of that.

And, again suddenly, a new illumination came to him This was Mr. Quin's doing. It was he who was staging the play--was giving the actors their cues. He was at the heart of the mystery pulling the strings, making the puppets work. He knew everything, even to the presence of the woman crouched against the woodwork upstairs. Yes, he knew.