The Mysterious Mr Quin
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, traveller 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 he 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, autres 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 sang “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.
‘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 goodnight 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.
‘And you, Portal?’