The Coming of Mr. Quin
Written by Agatha Christie - Narrated by Hugh Fraser
Sitting well back in his chair, secure in his role of audience, Mr. Satterthwaite watched the drama unfold before his eyes Quietly and naturally, Mr. Quin was pulling the strings, setting his puppets in motion.
"A woman--yes," he murmured thoughtfully. "There was no mention of any woman at dinner?"
"Why, of course," cried Evesham. " he announced his engagement. That's just what made it seem so absolutely mad. Very bucked about it he was. Said it wasn't to be announced just yet--but gave us the hint that he was in the running for the Benedick stakes."
"Of course we all guessed who the lady was," said Conway. "Marjorie Dilke. Nice girl."
It seemed to be Mr. Quin's turn to speak, but he did not do so, and something about his silence seemed oddly provocative. It was as though he challenged the last statement. It had the effect of putting Conway in a defensive position.
"Who else could it have been? Eh, Evesham?"
"I don't know," said Tom Evesham slowly "What did he say exactly now? Something about being in the running for the Benedick stakes--that he couldn't tell us the lady's name till he had her permission--it wasn't to be announced yet. He said, I remember, that he was a damned lucky fellow. That he wanted his two old friends to know that by that time next year he'd be a happy married man. Of course, we assumed it was Marjorie. They were great friends and he'd been about with her a lot."
"The only thing------"began Conway and stopped.
"What were you going to say, Dick?"
"Well, I mean, it was odd in a way, if it were Marjorie, that the engagement shouldn't be announced at once. I mean, why the secrecy? Sounds more as though it were a married woman--you know, someone whose husband had just died, or who was divorcing him."
"That's true," said Evesham. "If that were the case, of course, the engagement couldn't be announced at once. And you know, thinking back about it, I don't believe he had been seeing much of Marjorie. All that was the year before. I remember thinking things seemed to have cooled off between them."
"Curious," said Mr. Quin.
"Yes--looked almost as though someone had come between them."
"Another woman," said Conway thoughtfully.
"By Jove," said Evesham. "You know, there was something almost indecently hilarious about old Derek that night. He looked almost drunk with happiness. And yet--I can't quite explain what I mean--but he looked oddly defiant too."
"Like a man defying Fate," said Alex Portal heavily.
Was it of Derek Capel he was speaking--or was it of himself? Mr. Satterthwaite, looked at him, inclined to the latter view. Yes, that was what Alex Portal represented--a man defying Fate.
His imagination, muddled by drink, responded suddenly to that note in the story which recalled his own secret preoccupation.
Mr. Satterthwaite looked up. She was still there. Watching, listening--still motionless, frozen--like a dead woman.
"Perfectly true," said Conway. "Capel was excited-- curiously so. I'd describe him as a man who has staked heavily and won against well nigh overwhelming odds."
"Getting up courage, perhaps, for what he's made up his mind to do?" suggested Portal.
And as though moved by an association of ideas, he got up and helped himself to another drink.
"Not a bit of it," said Evesham sharply. "I'd almost swear nothing of that kind was in his mind. Conway's right. A successful gambler who has brought off a long shot and can hardly believe in his own good fortune. That was the attitude."
Conway gave a gesture of discouragement.
"And yet," he said. "Ten minutes later------"
They sat in silence. Evesham brought his hand down with a bang on the table.
"Something must have happened in that ten minutes," he cried. "It must! But what? Let's go over it carefully. We were all talking. In the middle of it Capel got up suddenly and left the room------"
"Why?" said Mr. Quin.
The interruption seemed to disconcert Evesham.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I only said: Why?" said Mr. Quin. Evesham frowned in an effort of memory.
"It didn't seem vital at the time. Oh! Of course, the post. Don't you remember that jangling bell, and how excited we were. We'd been snowed up for three days, remember. Biggest snowstorm for years and years. All the roads were impassable. No newspapers, no letters. Capel went out to see if something had come through at last, and got a great pile of things. Newspapers and letters. He opened the paper to see if there was any news, and then went upstairs with his letters. Three minutes afterwards, we heard a shot... Inexplicable--absolutely inexplicable."
"That's not inexplicable," said Portal "Of course the fellow got some unexpected news in a letter. Obvious, I should have said."
"Oh! Don't think we missed anything so obvious as that. It was one of the Coroner's first questions. But Capel never opened one of his letters. The whole pile lay unopened on his dressing-table."
Portal looked crestfallen.
"You're sure he didn't open just one of them? He might have destroyed it after reading it?"
"No, I'm quite positive. Of course, that would have been the natural solution. No, every one of the letters was unopened. Nothing burnt--nothing torn up------ There was no fire in the room?"
Portal shook his head.
"It was a ghastly business altogether," said Evesham in a low voice. "Conway and I went up when we heard the shot, and found him------ It gave me a shock, I can tell you."
"Nothing to be done but telephone for the police, I suppose?" said Mr. Quin.
"Royston wasn't on the telephone then. I had it put in when I bought the place. No, luckily enough, the local constable happened to be in the kitchen at the time. One of the dogs--you remember poor old Rover, Conway?--had strayed the day before. A passing carter had found it half buried in a snowdrift and had taken it to the police station. They recognised it as Capel's, and a dog he was particularly fond of, and the constable came up with it. He'd just arrived a minute before the shot was fired. It saved us some trouble."
"Gad, that was a snowstorm," said Conway reminiscently. "About this time of year, wasn't it? Early January."
"February, I think. Let me see, we went abroad soon afterwards."
"I'm pretty sure it was January. My hunter Ned--you remember Ned?--lamed himself the end of January. That was just after this business."
"It must have been quite the end of January then. Funny how difficult it is to recall dates after a lapse of years."
"One of the most difficult things in the world," said Mr. Quin, conversationally. "Unless you can find a landmark in some big public event--an assassination of a crowned head, or a big murder trial."
"Why, of course," cried Conway, "it was just before the Appleton case."
"Just after, wasn't it?"
"No, no, don't you remember--Capel knew the Appletons--he'd stayed with the old man the previous Spring--just a week before he died He was talking of him one night-- what an old curmudgeon he was, and how awful, it must have been for a young and beautiful woman like Mrs. Appleton to be tied to him. There was no suspicion then that she had done away with him."
"By Jove, you're right. I remember reading the paragraph in the paper saying an exhumation order had been granted. It would have been that same day--I remember only seeing it with half my mind, you know, the other half wondering about poor old Derek lying dead upstairs."
"A common, but very curious phenomenon, that," observed Mr. Quin. "In moments of great stress, the mind focuses itself upon some quite unimportant matter which is remembered long afterwards with the utmost fidelity, driven in, as it were, by the mental stress of the moment. It may be some quite irrelevant detail, like the pattern of a wallpaper, but it will never be forgotten."
"Rather extraordinary, your saying that, Mr. Quin," said Conway. "Just as you were speaking, I suddenly felt myself back in Derek Capel's room with Derek lying dead on the floor. I saw as plainly as possible the big tree outside the window, and the shadow it threw upon the snow outside. Yes, the moonlight, the snow, and the shadow of the tree I can see them again this minute. By Gad, I believe I could draw them, and yet I never realised I was looking at them at the time."
" is room was the big one over the porch, was it not?" asked Mr. Quin.
"Yes, and the tree was the big beech, just at the angle of the drive."
Mr. Quin nodded, as though satisfied. Mr. Satterthwaite was curiously thrilled. He was convinced that every word, every inflection of Mr. Quin's voice, was pregnant with purpose. He was driving at something exactly what Mr. Satterthwaite did not know, but he was quite convinced as to whose was the master hand.
There was a momentary pause, and then Evesham reverted to the preceding topic.
"That Appleton case, I remember it very well now. What a sensation it made. She got off, didn't she? Pretty woman, very fair--remarkably fair."
Almost against his will, Mr. Satterthwaite's eyes sought the kneeling figure up above. Was it his fancy, or did he see it shrink a little as though at a blow. Did he see a hand slide upwards to the table cloth--and then pause.
There was a crash of falling glass. Alex Portal, helping himself to whisky, had let the decanter slip.
"I say--sir, dam' sorry. Can't think what came over me."
Evesham cut short his apologies.
"Quite all right. Quite all right, my dear fellow. Curious------ That smash reminded me. That's what she did, didn't she? Mrs. Appleton? Smashed the port decanter?"
"Yes. Old Appleton had his glass of port--only one-- each night. The day after his death, one of the servants saw her take the decanter out and smash it deliberately. That set them talking, of course. They all knew she had been perfectly wretched with him. Rumour grew and grew, and in the end, months later, some of his relatives applied for an exhumation order. And sure enough, the old fellow had been poisoned. Arsenic, wasn't it?"
"No--strychnine, I think. It doesn't much matter. Well, of course, there it was. Only one person was likely to have done it. Mrs. Appleton stood her trial. She was acquitted more through lack of evidence against her than from any overwhelming proof of innocence. In other words, she was lucky. Yes, I don't suppose there's much doubt she did it right enough. What happened to her afterwards?"
"Went out to Canada, I believe. Or was it Australia? She had an uncle or something of the sort out there who offered her a home. Best thing she could do under the circumstances."
Mr. Satterthwaite was fascinated by Alex Portal's right hand as it clasped his glass. How tightly he was gripping it.
"You'll smash that in a minute or two, if you're not careful, "thought Mr. Satterthwaite. "Dear me, how interesting all this is."
Evesham rose and helped himself to a drink.
"Well, we're not much nearer to knowing why poor Derek Capel shot himself," he remarked. "The Court of Inquiry hasn't been a great success, has it, Mr. Quin?"
Mr. Quin laughed...
It was a strange laugh, mocking--yet sad. It made everyone jump.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "You are still living in the past, Mr. Evesham. You are still hampered by your preconceived notion. But I--the man from outside, the stranger passing by, see only--facts!"
"What do you mean?" said Evesham,
"I see a clear sequence of facts, outlined by yourselves, but of which you have not seen the significance. Let us go back ten years and look at what we see untrammelled by ideas or sentiment."
Mr. Quin had risen. He looked very tall. The fire leaped fitfully behind him. He spoke in a low compelling voice.
"You are at dinner. Derek Capel announces his engagement. You think then it was to Marjorie Dilke. You are not so sure now. He has the restlessly excited manner of a man who has successfully defied Fate--who, in your own words, has pulled off a big coup against overwhelming odds. Then comes the clanging of the bell. He goes out to get the long overdue mail. He doesn't open his letters, but you mention yourselves that he opened the paper to glance at- the news. It is ten years ago--so we cannot know what the news was that day--a far-off earthquake, a near at hand political crisis? The only thing we do know about the contents of that paper is that it contained one small paragraph--a paragraph stating that the Home Office bad given permission to exhume the body of Mr. Appleton three days ago."
Mr. Quin went on.
"Derek Capel goes up to his room, and there he sees something out of the window. Sir Richard Conway has told u--- that the curtain was not drawn across it and further that it gave on to the drive. What did he see? What could he have seen that forced him to take his life?"
"What do you mean? What did he see?"
"I think," said Mr. Quin, "that he saw a policeman. A policeman who had come about a dog------ But Derek Capel didn't know that--he just saw--a policeman."
There was a long silence--as though it took some time to drive the inference home.
"My God!" whispered Evesham at last. "You can't mean that? Appleton? But he wasn't there at the time Appleton died. The old man was alone with his wife------"
"But he may have been there a week earlier. Strychnine is not very soluble unless it is in the form of hydrochloride. The greater part of it, put into the port, would be taken in the last, glass, perhaps a week after he left."
Portal sprung forward. His voice was hoarse his eyes bloodshot
"Why did she break the decanter?" he cried. "Why did she break the decanter? Tell me that!"
For the first time that evening, Mr. Quin addressed himself to Mr. Satterthwaite.
"You have a wide experience of life, Mr. Satterthwaite. Perhaps you can tell us that."
Mr. Satterthwaite's voice trembled a little. His cue had come at last. He was to speak some.of the most important lines in the play. He was an actor now--not a looker-on.
"As I see it," he murmured modestly, "she--cared for Derek Capel. She was, I think, a good woman--and she had sent him away. When her husband--died, she suspected the truth. And so, to save the man she loved, she tried to destroy the evidence against him. Later, I think, he persuaded her that her suspicions were unfounded, and she consented to marry him. But even then, she hung back-- women, I fancy, have a lot of instinct."
Mr. Satterthwaite had spoken his part.
Suddenly a long trembling sigh filled the air.
"My God!" cried Evesham, starting, "what was that?"
Mr. Satterthwaite could have told him that it was Eleanor Portal in the gallery above, but he was too artistic to spoil a good effect.
Mr. Quin was smiling.
"My car will be ready by now. Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Evesham. I have, I hope, done something for my friend."
They stared at him in blank amazement
"That aspect of the matter has not struck you? He loved this woman, you know. Loved her enough to commit murder for her sake. When retribution overtook him, as he mistakenly thought, he took his own life. But unwittingly, he left her to face the music."
"She was acquitted," muttered Evesham.
"Because the case against her could not be proved. I fancy--it may be only a fancy--that she is still--facing the music."
Portal had sunk into a chair, his face buried in his hands.
Quin turned to Satterthwaite.
"Good-bye, Mr. Satterthwaite. You are interested in the drama, are you not?"
Mr. Satterthwaite nodded--surprised.
"I must recommend the Harlequinade to your attention. It is dying out nowadays---but it repays attention, I assure you. Its symbolism is a little difficult to follow--but the immortals are always immortal, you know. I wish you all good-night."
They saw him stride out into the dark. As before, the coloured glass gave the effect of motley...
Mr. Satterthwaite went upstairs. He went to draw down his window, for the air was cold. The figure of Mr. Quin moved down the drive, and from a side door came a woman's figure, running. For a moment they spoke together, then she retraced her steps to the house. She passed just below the window, and Mr. Satterthwaite was struck anew by the vitality of her face. She moved now like a woman in a happy dream.
Alex Portal had joined her.
"Eleanor, forgive me--forgive me------ You told me the truth, but God forgive me--I did not quite believe..."
Mr. Satterthwaite was intensely interested in other people's affairs, but he was also a gentleman It was borne in upon him that he must shut the window. He did so.
But he shut it very slowly.
He heard her voice, exquisite and indescribable.
"I know-I know. You have been in hell. So was I once. Loving--yet alternately believing and suspecting-- thrusting aside one's doubts and having them spring up again with leering faces... I know, Alex, I know... But there is a worse hell than that, the hell I have lived in with you. I have seen your doubt--your fear of me... poisoning all our love. That man--that chance passer by, saved me. I could bear it no longer, you understand. Tonight--Tonight I was going to kill myself... Alex... Alex..."