The Mysterious 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 recognized 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 realized I was looking at them at the time.’
‘His 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, damn’ 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 had 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 us 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.’