Three Act Tragedy
‘That’s right,’ said Sir Charles. ‘I forget what her real name is—Wills, I think. I’ve only met her once. I asked her to please Angela. That’s the lot—of the house-party, I mean.’
‘And the locals?’ asked the doctor.
‘Oh, the locals! Well, there are the Babbingtons—he’s the parson, quite a good fellow, not too parsonical, and his wife’s a really nice woman. Lectures me on gardening. They’re coming—and Lady Mary and Egg. That’s all. Oh, yes, there’s a young fellow called Manders, he’s a journalist, or something. Good-looking young fellow. That completes the party.’
Mr Satterthwaite was a man of methodical nature. He counted heads.
‘Miss Sutcliffe, one, the Dacres, three, Anthony Astor, four, Lady Mary and her daughter, six, the parson and his wife, eight, the young fellow nine, ourselves twelve. Either you or Miss Milray must have counted wrong, Sir Charles.’
‘It couldn’t be Miss Milray,’ said Sir Charles with assurance. ‘That woman’s never wrong. Let me see: Yes, by Jove, you’re right. I have missed out one guest. He’d slipped my memory.’
He chuckled. ‘Wouldn’t be best pleased at that, either. The fellow is the most conceited little devil I ever met.’
Mr Satterthwaite’s eyes twinkled. He had always been of the opinion that the vainest men in creation were actors. He did not exempt Sir Charles Cartwright. This instance of the pot calling the kettle black amused him.
‘Who is the egoist?’ he asked.
‘Rum little beggar,’ said Sir Charles. ‘Rather a celebrated little beggar, though. You may have heard of him. Hercule Poirot. He’s a Belgian.’
‘The detective,’ said Mr Satterthwaite. ‘I have met him. Rather a remarkable personage.’
‘He’s a character,’ said Sir Charles.
‘I’ve never met him,’ said Sir Bartholomew, ‘but I’ve heard a good deal about him. He retired some time ago, though, didn’t he? Probably most of what I’ve heard is legend. Well, Charles, I hope we shan’t have a crime this weekend.’
‘Why? Because we’ve got a detective in the house? Rather putting the cart before the horse, aren’t you, Tollie?’
‘Well, it’s by way of being a theory of mine.’
‘What is your theory, doctor?’ asked Mr Satterthwaite.
‘That events come to people—not people to events. Why do some people have exciting lives and other people dull ones? Because of their surroundings? Not at all. One man may travel to the ends of the earth and nothing will happen to him. There will be a massacre a week before he arrives, and an earthquake the day after he leaves, and the boat that he nearly took will be shipwrecked. And another man may live at Balham and travel to the City every day, and things will happen to him. He will be mixed up with blackmailing gangs and beautiful girls and motor bandits. There are people with a tendency to shipwrecks—even if they go on a boat on an ornamental lake something will happen to it. In the same way men like your Hercule Poirot don’t have to look for crime—it comes to them.’
‘In that case,’ said Mr Satterthwaite, ‘perhaps it is as well that Miss Milray is joining us, and that we are not sitting down thirteen to dinner.’
‘Well,’ said Sir Charles handsomely, ‘you can have your murder, Tollie, if you’re so keen on it. I make only one stipulation—that I shan’t be the corpse.’
And, laughing, the three men went into the house.
CHAPTER 2 (#u07fdeff0-05e8-53a1-87f6-b47085dc3b31)
Incident Before Dinner (#u07fdeff0-05e8-53a1-87f6-b47085dc3b31)
The principal interest of Mr Satterthwaite’s life was people.
He was on the whole more interested in women than men. For a manly man, Mr Satterthwaite knew far too much about women. There was a womanish strain in his character which lent him insight into the feminine mind. Women all his life had confided in him, but they had never taken him seriously. Sometimes he felt a little bitter about this. He was, he felt, always in the stalls watching the play, never on the stage taking part in the drama. But in truth the role of onlooker suited him very well.
This evening, sitting in the large room giving on to the terrace, cleverly decorated by a modern firm to resemble a ship’s cabin de luxe, he was principally interested in the exact shade of hair dye attained by Cynthia Dacres. It was an entirely new tone—straight from Paris, he suspected—a curious and rather pleasing effect of greenish bronze. What Mrs Dacres really looked like it was impossible to tell. She was a tall woman with a figure perfectly disciplined to the demands of the moment. Her neck and arms were her usual shade of summer tan for the country—whether naturally or artificially produced it was impossible to tell. The greenish bronze hair was set in a clever and novel style that only London’s best hairdresser could achieve. Her plucked eyebrows, darkened lashes, exquisitively made-up face, and mouth lipsticked to a curve that its naturally straight line did not possess, seemed all adjuncts to the perfection of her evening gown of a deep and unusual blue, cut very simply it seemed (though this was ludicrously far from the case) and of an unusual material—dull, but with hidden lights in it.
‘That’s a clever woman,’ said Mr Satterthwaite, eyeing her with approval. ‘I wonder what she’s really like.’
But this time he meant in mind, not in body.
Her words came drawlingly, in the mode of the moment.
‘My dear, it wasn’t possible. I mean, things either are possible or they’re not. This wasn’t. It was simply penetrating.’
That was the new word just now—everything was ‘penetrating’.
Sir Charles was vigorously shaking cocktails and talking to Angela Sutcliffe, a tall, grey-haired woman with a mischievous mouth and fine eyes.
Dacres was talking to Bartholomew Strange.
‘Everyone knows what’s wrong with old Ladisbourne. The whole stable knows.’
He spoke in a high clipped voice—a little red, foxy man with a short moustache and slightly shifty eyes.
Beside Mr Satterthwaite sat Miss Wills, whose play, One-Way Traffic, had been acclaimed as one of the most witty and daring seen in London for some years. Miss Wills was tall and thin, with a receding chin and very badly waved fair hair. She wore pince-nez, and was dressed in exceedingly limp green chiffon. Her voice was high and undistinguished.
‘I went to the South of France,’ she said. ‘But, really, I didn’t enjoy it very much. Not friendly at all. But of course it’s useful to me in my work—to see all the goings-on, you know.’
Mr Satterthwaite thought: ‘Poor soul. Cut off by success from her spiritual home—a boarding-house in Bournemouth. That’s where she’d like to be.’ He marvelled at the difference between written works and their authors. That cultivated ‘man-of-the-world’ tone that Anthony Astor imparted to his plays—what faintest spark of it could be perceived in Miss Wills? Then he noticed that the pale-blue eyes behind the pince-nez were singularly intelligent. They were turned on him now with an appraising look that slightly disconcerted him. It was as though Miss Wills were painstakingly learning him by heart.
Sir Charles was just pouring out the cocktails.
‘Let me get you a cocktail,’ said Mr Satterthwaite, springing up.
Miss Wills giggled.
‘I don’t mind if I do,’ she said.
The door opened and Temple announced Lady Mary Lytton Gore and Mr and Mrs Babbington and Miss Lytton Gore.
Mr Satterthwaite supplied Miss Wills with her cocktail and then sidled into the neighbourhood of Lady Mary Lytton Gore. As has been stated before, he had a weakness for titles.
Also, apart from snobbishness, he liked a gentlewoman, and that Lady Mary most undeniably was.
Left as a widow very badly off with a child of three, she had come to Loomouth and taken a small cottage where she had lived with one devoted maid ever since. She was a tall thin woman, looking older than her fifty-five years. Her expression was sweet and rather timid. She adored her daughter, but was a little alarmed by her.
Hermione Lytton Gore, usually known for some obscure reason as Egg, bore little resemblance to her mother. She was of a more energetic type. She was not, Mr Satterthwaite decided, beautiful, but she was undeniably attractive. And the cause of that attraction, he thought, lay in her abounding vitality. She seemed twice as alive as anyone in that room. She had dark hair, and grey eyes and was of medium height. It was something in the way the hair curled crisply in her neck, in the straight glance of the grey eyes, in the curve of the cheek, in the infectious laugh that gave one that impression of riotous youth and vitality.
She stood talking to Oliver Manders, who had just arrived.
‘I can’t think why sailing bores you so much. You used to like it.’
‘Egg—my dear. One grows up.’
He drawled the words, raising his eyebrows.