The Harlequin Tea Set: An Agatha Christie Short Story
The Harlequin Tea Set: An Agatha Christie Short Story
A classic Agatha Christie short story, available individually for the first time as an ebook.It’s been many years since Mr. Satterthwaite has seen Mr. Harley Quin, so when Satterthwaite, awaiting his broken down car, goes to a tea shop called the Harlequin café, he begins to think of his friend. A self-described snob, Satterthwaite orders coffee and examines the coloured china when a bolt of sunlight comes in and the very same Mr. Quin walks through the door. Enigmatic as ever Mr. Quin and his diligent dog Hermes stay for a Turkish coffee with the excitable Satterthwaite whilst the car is fixed, and Satterthwaite cannot help but bore Mr. Quin with the very long history of the family he is off to visit. Their conversation is interrupted by the abrupt entrance of the member of that very same family intent upon replacing her harlequin cups. Satterthwaite desperately persuades Quin to accompany him, but, all the bereft Satterthwaite is left with is one word, ‘Daltonism.’ What is the importance of Quin turning up at the tea shop on that day and what does that word have to do with anything, it all comes to make complete sense.
The Harlequin Tea Set
A Short Story
by Agatha Christie
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk)
Copyright © 2011 Agatha Christie Ltd.
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EPub Edition © 2011 ISBN: 9780007452194
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The Harlequin Tea Set
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The Harlequin Tea Set
‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ was first published in Winter’s Crimes by Macmillan in 1971. It was the last of Agatha Christie’s short stories to be published, 48 years after ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ first appeared in The Sketch in 1923.
Mr Satterthwaite clucked twice in vexation. Whether right in his assumption or not, he was more and more convinced that cars nowadays broke down far more frequently than they used to do. The only cars he trusted were old friends who had survived the test of time. They had their little idiosyncrasies, but you knew about those, provided for them, fulfilled their wants before the demand became too acute. But new cars! Full of new gadgets, different kinds of windows, an instrument panel newly and differently arranged, handsome in its glistening wood but being unfamiliar, your groping hand hovered uneasily over fog lights, windscreen wipers, the choke, etcetera. All these things with knobs in a place you didn’t expect them. And when your gleaming new purchase failed in performance, your local garage uttered the intensely irritating words: ‘Teething troubles. Splendid car, sir, these roadsters Super Superbos. All the latest accessories. But bound to have their teething troubles, you know. Ha, ha.’ Just as though a car was a baby.
But Mr Satterthwaite, being now of an advanced age, was strongly of the opinion that a new car ought to be fully adult. Tested, inspected, and its teething troubles already dealt with before it came into its purchaser’s possession.
Mr Satterthwaite was on his way to pay a weekend visit to friends in the country. His new car had already, on the way from London, given certain symptoms of discomfort, and was now drawn up in a garage waiting for the diagnosis, and how long it would take before he could resume progress towards his destination. His chauffeur was in consultation with a mechanic. Mr Satterthwaite sat, striving for patience. He had assured his hosts, on the telephone the night before, that he would be arriving in good time for tea. He would reach Doverton Kingsbourne, he assured them, well before four o’clock.
He clucked again in irritation and tried to turn his thoughts to something pleasant. It was no good sitting here in a state of acute irritation, frequently consulting his wristwatch, clucking once more and giving, he had to realize, a very good imitation of a hen pleased with its prowess in laying an egg.
Yes. Something pleasant. Yes, now hadn’t there been something – something he had noticed as they were driving along. Not very long ago. Something that he had seen through the window which had pleased and excited him. But before he had had time to think about it, the car’s misbehaviour had become more pronounced and a rapid visit to the nearest service station had been inevitable.
What was it that he had seen? On the left – no, on the right. Yes, on the right as they drove slowly through the village street. Next door to a post office. Yes, he was quite sure of that. Next door to a post office because the sight of the post office had given him the idea of telephoning to the Addisons to break the news that he might be slightly late in his arrival. The post office. A village post office. And next to it – yes, definitely, next to it, next door or if not next door the door after. Something that had stirred old memories, and he had wanted – just what was it that he had wanted? Oh dear, it would come to him presently. It was mixed up with a colour. Several colours. Yes, a colour or colours. Or a word. Some definite word that had stirred memories, thoughts, pleasures gone by, excitement, recalling something that had been vivid and alive. Something in which he himself had not only seen but observed. No, he had done more. He had taken part. Taken part in what, and why, and where? All sorts of places. The answer came quickly at the last thought. All sorts of places.
On an island? In Corsica? At Monte Carlo watching the croupier spinning his roulette wheel? A house in the country? All sorts of places. And he had been there, and someone else. Yes, someone else. It all tied up with that. He was getting there at last. If he could just … He was interrupted at that moment by the chauffeur coming to the window with the garage mechanic in tow behind him.
‘Won’t be long now, sir,’ the chauffeur assured Mr Satterthwaite cheerfully. ‘Matter of ten minutes or so. Not more.’
‘Nothing seriously wrong,’ said the mechanic, in a low, hoarse, country voice. ‘Teething troubles, as you might say.’
Mr Satterthwaite did not cluck this time. He gnashed his own teeth. A phrase he had often read in books and which in old age he seemed to have got into the habit of doing himself, due, perhaps, to the slight looseness of his upper plate. Really, teething trouble! Toothache. Teeth gnashing. False teeth. One’s whole life centred, he thought, about teeth.
‘Doverton Kingsbourne’s only a few miles away,’ said the chauffeur, ‘and they’ve a taxi here. You could go on in that, sir, and I’d bring the car along later as soon as it’s fixed up.’
‘No!’ said Mr Satterthwaite.
He said the word explosively and both the chauffeur and the mechanic looked startled. Mr Satterthwaite’s eyes were sparkling. His voice was clear and decisive. Memory had come to him.
‘I propose,’ he said, ‘to walk along the road we have just come by. When the car is ready, you will pick me up there. The Harlequin Cafe, I think it is called.’
‘It’s not very much of a place, sir,’ the mechanic advised.
‘That is where I shall be,’ said Mr Satterthwaite, speaking with a kind of regal autocracy.
He walked off briskly. The two men stared after him. ‘Don’t know what’s got into him,’ said the chauffeur. ‘Never seen him like that before.’
The village of Kingsbourne Ducis did not live up to the old world grandeur of its name. It was a smallish village consisting of one street. A few houses. Shops that were dotted rather unevenly, sometimes betraying the fact that they were houses which had been turned into shops or that they were shops which now existed as houses without any industrial intentions.
It was not particularly old world or beautiful. It was just simple and rather unobtrusive. Perhaps that was why, thought Mr Satterthwaite, that a dash of brilliant colour had caught his eye. Ah, here he was at the post office. The post office was a simply functioning post office with a pillar box outside, a display of some newspapers and some postcards, and surely, next to it, yes there was the sign up above. The Harlequin Cafe. A sudden qualm struck Mr Satterthwaite. Really, he was getting too old. He had fancies. Why should that one word stir his heart? The Harlequin Cafe.
The mechanic at the service station had been quite right. It did not look like a place in which one would really be tempted to have a meal. A snack perhaps. A morning coffee. Then why? But he suddenly realized why. Because the cafe, or perhaps one could better put it as the house that sheltered the cafe, was in two portions. One side of it had small tables with chairs round them arranged ready for patrons who came here to eat. But the other side was a shop. A shop that sold china. It was not an antique shop. It had no little shelves of glass vases or mugs. It was a shop that sold modern goods, and the show window that gave on the street was at the present moment housing every shade of the rainbow. A tea set of largish cups and saucers, each one of a different colour. Blue, red, yellow, green, pink, purple. Really, Mr Satterthwaite thought, a wonderful show of colour. No wonder it had struck his eye as the car had passed slowly beside the pavement, looking ahead for any sign of a garage or a service station. It was labelled with a large card as ‘A Harlequin Tea Set’.
It was the word ‘harlequin’ of course which had remained fixed in Mr Satterthwaite’s mind, although just far enough back in his mind so that it had been difficult to recall it. The gay colours. The harlequin colours. And he had thought, wondered, had the absurd but exciting idea that in some way here was a call to him. To him specially. Here, perhaps, eating a meal or purchasing cups and saucers might be his own old friend, Mr Harley Quin. How many years was it since he had last seen Mr Quin? A large number of years. Was it the day he had seen Mr Quin walking away from him down a country lane, Lovers’ Lane they had called it? He had always expected to see Mr Quin again, once a year at least. Possibly twice a year. But no. That had not happened.
And so today he had had the wonderful and surprising idea that here, in the village of Kingsbourne Ducis, he might once again find Mr Harley Quin.
‘Absurd of me,’ said Mr Satterthwaite, ‘quite absurd of me. Really, the ideas one has as one gets old!’
He had missed Mr Quin. Missed something that had been one of the most exciting things in the late years of his life. Someone who might turn up anywhere and who, if he did turn up, was always an announcement that something was going to happen. Something that was going to happen to him. No, that was not quite right. Not to him, but through him. That was the exciting part. Just from the words that Mr Quin might utter. Words. Things he might show him, ideas would come to Mr Satterthwaite. He would see things, he would imagine things, he would find out things. He would deal with something that needed to be dealt with. And opposite him would sit Mr Quin, perhaps smiling approval. Something that Mr Quin said would start the flow of ideas, the active person would be he himself. He – Mr Satterthwaite. The man with so many old friends. A man among whose friends had been duchesses, an occasional bishop, people that counted. Especially, he had to admit, people who had counted in the social world. Because, after all, Mr Satterthwaite had always been a snob. He had liked duchesses, he had liked knowing old families, families who had represented the landed gentry of England for several generations. And he had had, too, an interest in young people not necessarily socially important. Young people who were in trouble, who were in love, who were unhappy, who needed help. Because of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite was enabled to give help.
And now, like an idiot, he was looking into an unprepossessing village cafe and a shop for modern china and tea sets and casseroles no doubt.
‘All the same,’ said Mr Satterthwaite to himself, ‘I must go in. Now I’ve been foolish enough to walk back here, I must go in just – well, just in case. They’ll be longer, I expect, doing the car than they say. It will be more than ten minutes. Just in case there was anything interesting inside.’
He looked once more at the window full of china. He appreciated suddenly that it was good china. Well made. A good modern product. He looked back into the past, remembering. The Duchess of Leith, he remembered. What a wonderful old lady she had been. How kind she had been to her maid on the occasion of a very rough sea voyage to the island of Corsica. She had ministered to her with the kindliness of a ministering angel and only on the next day had she resumed her autocratic, bullying manner which the domestics of those days had seemed able to stand quite easily without any sign of rebellion.
Maria. Yes, that’s what the Duchess’s name had been. Dear old Maria Leith. Ah well. She had died some years ago. But she had had a harlequin breakfast set, he remembered. Yes. Big round cups in different colours. Black. Yellow, red and a particularly pernicious shade of puce. Puce, he thought, must have been a favourite colour of hers. She had had a Rockingham tea set, he remembered, in which the predominating colour had been puce decorated with gold.
‘Ah,’ sighed Mr Satterthwaite, ‘those were the days. Well, I suppose I’d better go in. Perhaps order a cup of coffee or something. It will be very full of milk, I expect, and possibly already sweetened. But still, one has to pass the time.’
He went in. The cafe side was practically empty. It was early, Mr Satterthwaite supposed, for people to want cups of tea. And anyway, very few people did want cups of tea nowadays. Except, that is, occasionally elderly people in their own homes. There was a young couple in the far window and two women gossiping at a table against the back wall.