The Invisible Guest
Mr. Satterthwaite was uncomfortable. A dusty purple velvet curtain hung oppressively at his back, while all around him the cast of the shabby little theatre’s new production, heavily made up in black and white greasepaint, chattered and gesticulated in the giddy triumph of a successful opening night. In common with many backstages he had visited, the room had a curious property of being both stiflingly warm and given to sudden drafts. The chills cut through his neat, exquisite evening clothes to his dry, elderly bones, and made him shiver like a man glimpsing a spirit.
As a longtime patron of the arts, Mr. Satterthwaite named many notable figures of the English stage among his friends, and was generally quite willing to extend his acquaintance to promising new artists. Such a one was Derek Munsell, the director of the night’s performance, who had been brought to Mr. Satterthwaite’s attention as a rising star, with a knack for restaging traditional material in a way calculated to appeal to an avant-garde audience.
In this case, the ancient antic forms of the commedia dell'arte had been transposed onto a modern political allegory. Mr. Satterthwaite, who had a strong old-maidenish streak, was a little put off by the bawdy physicality of the clowning, but could not deny the cleverness of its composition. Still, there had been several scenes, particularly those between Colombina and Arlecchino, that flicked upon something raw and unacknowledged in his cozy little psyche, and though the young director’s manner was flatteringly attentive to his guest, Mr. Satterthwaite found himself wishing himself elsewhere, away from the electric atmosphere and the press of too many bodies in too little space.
“I think we’ve got a hit,” said Derek Munsell, with a certain smug delight. “I was a little worried – there are three new shows opening in town, you know. But the house was packed. I think the only empty seat was the one next to you.”
Mr. Satterthwaite did not quite know how to answer this observation, which might have been seen as a faint reproach, though playfully spoken. He had been presented with two tickets days before, but had been oddly reluctant to seek out a friend to accompany him; some part of him had, perhaps, expected the perfect companion to materialize beside him. “I think the reviews will be good,” he offered. “The critic for the Times seemed very favorably struck. I heard him praising the costumes as we went out – and I must say, I do agree.”
“Marvelous, aren’t they? That’s Sylvia Chaffey’s work – clever girl, wonderful eye for colour. You ought to meet her,” he went on, enthusiastically, and before Mr. Satterthwaite could demur he had turned to a stagehand and demanded, “Find me Syl, won’t you? Where is she hiding?”
“She popped off a few minutes ago,” said a passing zanni, his cultured accent incongruous with his motley dress. “She had a letter or a telegram or something.”
“She left on opening night?” demanded Munsell.
The zanni shrugged. “A chappie came in with a communiqué of some sort, just after curtain. Odd, really – he was in costume, but he wasn’t one of the cast. I thought perhaps he was from the ballet.”
An undefinable thrill went down Mr. Satterthwaite’s spine. “I beg your pardon,” he said, “but the man’s costume – was he dressed as Harlequin?”
“That’s right,” said the zanni. “Dark, good-looking fellow. Anyway, Syl read the letter and she was off like a shot. Left her wrap behind.”
“Do you know something about this?” asked Munsell, curiously, taking in Mr. Satterthwaite’s barely repressed excitement.
“No-o,” he hedged. “I think – I think the messenger may be an acquaintance of mine.” With this thought in mind, he made his excuses as politely and swiftly as he could, and departed out a side door into the smokey, glimmering night, in search of a cab.
Aged nearly seventy, Mr. Satterthwaite had passed his life in a thoroughly blameless and uneventful fashion. He was accustomed to move in the exalted spheres of art and aristocracy, among many brilliant and temperamental figures, but no hint of scandal had ever attached to his name: he had been an observer of Life’s drama, but never a participant. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. If there was ever anything uncharitable said in his regard, it was only that he had a trick of being present when some comedy or tragedy of human nature was played out, for he had a deep inquisitiveness about his fellow man and a sixth sense for the places and times when man’s character would be put on interesting display. If Mr. Satterthwaite visited your home, some would say, it was a sign that either your cook was unusually good or something was about to go drastically awry in your household.
A few years ago, on a dark and blustery night at the dying of the old year, Mr. Satterthwaite had met and struck up a friendship with a man who gave his name as Mr. Harley Quin. A curious, attractive, elusive fellow, he seemed to exert a strange influence over those around him, and in his company Mr. Satterthwaite had found himself uncovering long-buried secrets of the past. They had had dealings several times, and on each occasion there had been a new mystery to be solved.
The last time – but Mr. Satterthwaite did not like to think of the last time he had seen Mr. Quin. A woman had died, a legendary prima ballerina, and the circumstances of her death were never fully explained. She had danced that night with Mr. Quin, Columbine to his Harlequin, and afterward Mr. Satterthwaite had seen them walking together. But in the same moment, the only other witness said she saw the lady entirely alone. And when Mr. Satterthwaite had run up to his friend –
Well, in the light of morning, he was not quite sure what he had seen, or said. It had been a terrible night, full of beauty and catastrophe, and it would be little wonder if, at his age, his nerves had been overset and he imagined things that could not have been.
So Mr. Satterthwaite thought during the day. But at odd moments of dusk and midnight, he remembered facing his friend and seeing something more than mortal, something that made his soft, complacent heart nearly stop with terror. He had turned away in fear, his feelings told him at such moments, and something extraordinary had gone out of his life as a result.
In consequence, as the months passed and he had no further contact with the mysterious Mr. Quin, Satterthwaite began to seek out places where they had met before. He did so with a half-superstitious wistfulness, never knowing quite what he would say if he did see his friend again. So far, he had not had occasion to find out: Sylvia Chaffey’s unexplained departure was the first solid clue he had had, and he was not sure why he felt it to be solid at all, or how he might go about seeking her out. He did not know the girl, and his respectable soul shrank from making inquiries about a young lady without any proper reason for doing so.
In lieu of any better idea, the next day around noon he set out for one of Mr. Quin’s former haunts, a small inn called the Bells and Motley in a disregarded village near Salisbury Plain.
The trip seemed ill-omened, for the drab grey clouds that had hung above him as he set out from London turned thunderous as he passed into Wiltshire. His chauffeur, Masters, contrived to take a wrong turn in the rain, and just as Mr. Satterthwaite had begun to think of giving up his fool’s errand, there was a grinding sound from the front of the car, and they shuddered to a halt.
Mr. Satterthwaite sat very still in the back seat of his car, like a little bird with its plumage ruffled up in irritation, and carefully did not say any of the things that were passing through his mind.
“Nothing for it, sir,” said Masters, coming around with an umbrella after checking the engine. “It’ll have to go into a garage. I’ll walk back a few miles and see if I can find a house with a ‘phone. You can stay here and keep dry.”
Mr. Satterthwaite waited as his man trudged away, disappearing into the thickening storm, and then waited some more. He had a lap blanket to keep away the chill, but only the tap and clatter of the raindrops for company.
Ah, Colombina, what a fool you are! he remembered the pretty, impish little maid sighing to herself in the play the night before. You might have had an easy life – a life without love, perhaps, but a comfortable one with plenty of pretty things around you. Instead you listened to Arlecchino’s sweet-talk, and where has it got you?
This lament echoing in his mind, Mr. Satterthwaite was drowsing slightly when a flash of light woke him, and he heard the splash of another car’s wheels approaching. The headlights slowed and stopped as they came behind him, and a figure came out and knocked on his window. He gratefully rolled it down, and was confronted with a pair of rain-spotted glasses and an enormous white moustache.
“Had a bit of trouble? Why, damn me, it’s Satterthwaite, isn’t it?” The new arrival beamed at him as warmly as could be expected in the inclement conditions: Mr. Satterthwaite recognized him as Captain Agley, an acquaintance of over twenty years’ standing.
Mr. Satterthwaite explained that he had been on his way to meet a friend on a matter of business, and lost his way. Captain Agley listened to a description of the car trouble – which was necessarily vague, as Mr. Satterthwaite had very little grasp of the subtle workings of automobiles – and shook his head. “You’d better come along with us. The wife and I were just on our way to Trivelin Hall – old Peter Lane’s place, d’you remember? There’ll be a phone there – no sense in you waiting out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Very readily assenting to this plan, Mr. Satterthwaite left a scribbled note on the driver’s seat, and then accompanied the Captain back to the car. He was greeted by Lady Venetia Agley, a handsome, well-dressed woman of middle age, who offered him a blanket and her condolences for his trying day.
“It’s a lucky thing we happened by, for us as well as for you, Satterthwaite,” she told him as they drove away. “We were in need of a little sensible company for this visit. It’s the Lanes – my goddaughter Rosalie married the son, Caspar, and we felt obliged to come when they invited us. But it’s going to be frightful. We haven’t been there since the – well, the death.”
Mr. Satterthwaite cast his mind back. Peter Lane, he remembered, had been a successful businessman, rising out of the merchant banks to marry a pretty society girl and buy a country estate. He had had two children with her before being widowed, and then six years ago… “There was something irregular, wasn’t there,” said Mr. Satterthwaite slowly, “in the way he died?”
Lady Venetia snorted. “Irregular! He was murdered, that’s the long and short of it.”
“It was never proven,” interjected Captain Agley, frowning at the steering wheel. “She was acquitted for lack of evidence.”
“There was plenty of evidence,” said Lady Venetia. “But the judge kept half of it out as inadmissible, and so the jury only saw a sweet child who’d lost her father. And Caspar stood up for her – well, one can’t blame him, she was his sister after all, and of course the whole business was shocking.”
Mr. Satterthwaite was beginning to remember. The affair had been hushed up as much as possible. It had seemed a case of accidental poisoning, at first: a foxglove plant had gotten mixed in among the comfrey in the herb garden, and some of its leaves had been used in a soup. The whole family had been ill, and Mr. Lane, who had a weak heart, had had the worst of it and died.
“It was Caspar who pointed it out: Isabella hadn’t had any of the soup. She came up to dinner late that evening and missed the first courses. She dosed herself,” Lady Venetia said with asperity. “Simply so she could be rolling around in agony like her father and brother. Of course, Caspar didn’t know what it meant when he said it, and as soon as he worked it out – he’s a nice boy, but not terribly clever when it comes to some things – well, he clammed up at once. Wouldn’t hear a word against Isabella. But the coroner had already ordered an inquest, and when they checked Lane’s heart pills, they’d been tampered with.”
“But why should she do such a thing?” asked Mr. Satterthwaite, somewhat appalled but mostly intrigued.
Lady Venetia shook her head. “They do say nowadays some people are simply born without the ability to tell right from wrong. If you ask me, that girl should have been locked up. After the acquittal, Caspar sent her to Canada to live with an aunt. But since she reached her majority she’s been roaming around the globe willy-nilly, and now she’s back. You can imagine how poor Rosalie feels about that.”
Mr. Satterthwaite murmured something sympathetic.
“And the worst of it is – Rosalie called to tell me just before we left today – she’s invited that Chaffey girl to stay. Can you imagine?”
Mr. Satterthwaite felt a prickling at the back of his neck. “Sylvia Chaffey?”
“That’s right. She was the doctor’s daughter, you know, and the cause of it all if she didn’t have a hand in it herself. Lane had been trying to separate them, you see. They were,” Lady Venetia paused delicately, “excessively attached.”
The implication hung in the air. After a moment, Captain Agley harrumphed. “Not a nice thing to talk about,” he said reprovingly.
“They had some absurd plan about going off together to live in the City. Quite impossible, of course.”
Mr. Satterthwaite primmed up his mouth. He was distinctly unhappy with the turn the story had taken. In his day, he thought, two girls being particular friends was not seen as anything out of the ordinary, and though he knew he was living in a more sordid era, he would have preferred to avoid speculating about such matters.
They had passed the gatehouse and were pulling into the drive, so conversation broke off, rather to his relief. Trivelin Hall, glimpsed through the rain, was an 18th century building in the Palladian style. They were escorted inside by servants carrying umbrellas, and stood before an impressive double staircase.
Their host and hostess came in together from another room to greet them. Mr. Satterthwaite had the impression there had been some sort of contretemps underway, for Mrs. Lane, severe and rather fashionable, had her mouth set in an ominous curve, and Caspar Lane, a short, slight young man with a round, guileless face, looked a trifle flushed. Still, they were very cordial in their welcome, and immediately upon introduction pressed Mr. Satterthwaite to stay overnight if his car could not be repaired by evening.
Decending the stairs a short time later, having put his appearance somewhat in order, Mr. Satterthwaite heard someone picking out a melancholy tune on a piano, and followed the sound to an airy, well-appointed parlour, with a cheerful fire flickering on the far side of the room. A young lady, wearing a wild orange and red blaze of silk chiffon, sat at the instrument with her face turned glumly to the keys: she looked up, startled, as he came in. Neither a very pretty face nor an especially plain one beneath the clever makeup, thought Mr. Satterthwaite, who knew more about women’s arts than was good for any man. But one with plenty of animation, and enough character and decision to carry off that dress.
Mr. Satterthwaite asked leave to introduce himself, with one of his quaint, old-fashioned bows, and won a fleeting smile. “Sylvia Chaffey,” she said, shaking his hand. He had surmised as much.
“I had the pleasure of seeing your work last night, I think,” he ventured, and she lit up and began talking at once about the play. She had, he saw, amused, that blend of pragmatism and unworldliness peculiar to those who worked in the more practical areas of theatre; about those things that interested her she was passionate, and the rest of the world she hardly noticed.
Halfway through a discussion of the design of the commedia’s masks, she broke off and said, “Oh! You’re that Mr. Satterthwaite.”
He agreed that this was quite possibly the case.
“Derek was telling me about you. He’d want me to cultivate you, I expect,” she said, her tone dubious. “But I’m not much good at that sort of thing at the best of times, which this is not. I suppose that Lady Venetia person has been telling you all about me and Isabella. Nasty old cat.”
Mr. Satterthwaite cleared his throat.
“Oh, I know, I ought to be more respectful of my elders. Well, my elders can go hang if they’re going to go around spreading lies. It’s not true, you know. Not even – we weren’t - not then.”
She stared down at the keys of the piano, and Mr. Satterthwaite tactfully averted his eyes. People often confided in him: he was so harmless and inconsequential a person they sometimes hardly seemed to know he was there.
“We were just … very good friends, nothing more. Well, I was seventeen and she was sixteen, and neither of us had any idea there was such a thing as more. I’ve never understood,” she went on meditatively, bitterly, “who put it in Lane’s mind that there was any question of the two of us – it wasn’t the sort of thing I should have expected him to think of himself, nor my father. But the two of them put their heads together, and suddenly Isabella was going to Canada, and we weren’t to write or have any contact ever again. I didn’t understand, neither of us did. Father started giving us both Veronal to keep us calm. And then Lane died, and things were a thousand times worse.”
“We were lucky, I suppose: the judge was of the Queen Victoria mindset: such things were not possible for young ladies.” Sylvia made a face. “He wouldn’t let any of the business between us in as evidence, and of course without that there was no motive at all for Isabella to have done it. Not – I mean – she would never, no matter the reason…”
“I understand,” said Mr. Satterthwaite gently.
“I legged it for London as soon as it was all over, and Isabella had been sent away: never came back until today.”
“You received a letter from her last night?” he suggested.
“That’s right. I hadn’t heard from her in six years – she’s been traveling, you know, been to all sorts of places.” There was a strong note of admiration in Sylvia’s voice. “I’ve only ever been to Paris for a weekend. She’s seen the pyramids. But Caspar’s her trustee for a few years yet, and this creature he’s married doesn’t approve of Isabella doing anything but staying meekly indoors and saying her prayers. So they ordered her back, and she begged me to come. She couldn’t face it here alone.”
“And you came straight away,” said Mr. Satterthwaite, with a touch of wonder. Years had passed, after all, and Sylvia Chaffey had obviously been working very hard to put the tragedy behind her, to become a success in the theatrical world.
“Of course I came!” she answered, fiercely. “She was my friend. And none of it was her fault.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. After a moment, he asked, “What do you think happened to Mr. Lane? It was a case of poisoning?”
“I suppose. People in the village thought I knew all about it, of course – as the doctor’s daughter, I must spend all my time slinging cyanide capsules! But I was never interested in medicine: I’ve not the faintest idea of how you go about poisoning someone with digitalis. But the coroner was sure…” She shook her head.
Mr. Satterthwaite hummed thoughtfully. She went on a moment later, with an uncharacteristic uncertainty, “I did wonder sometimes – perhaps he did it himself?” Mr. Satterthwaite must have looked a trifle incredulous, for she went on defensively, “I know, it’s a jolly complicated way to top yourself, and why not a gun or a noose? But there’s a rule about one’s family not inheriting money in the case of a suicide, isn’t there?” with an artist’s fine lack of understanding for financial matters. “Insurance, or something. Perhaps he was trying to make it look like an accident, and it never occurred to him that anyone else would be suspected.”
“Why should he have killed himself, though?” he asked, politely not giving his opinion of this theory.
“He might have had debts,” Sylvia said vaguely. “I know he was some sort of financial whiz, but perhaps he gambled. Isabella never liked to make bets, not even for penny stakes at bridge. I thought there might have been a reason for that. Perhaps he had creditors, and he thought if he died they wouldn’t have the cheek to come dunning his poor orphaned children.” She shook her head, as though trying to dislodge something. “I don’t know. I’ve never known what to think of it. I’ve tried not to think of it.”
She paused, then went on lowly, passionately, “I would take her away if she would go with me – her allowance doesn’t signify. I don’t make much more than pennies, but the new show’s bound to do well, and we wouldn’t need much to live on, two girls together.”
Mr. Satterthwaite shifted uncomfortably, and then, hesitantly, began to ask, “The man who gave you the letter last night. Do you happen to know - ?”
“Mr. Harley Quin,” announced the butler.
Mr. Satterthwaite stood almost involuntarily.
“Oh,” said Sylvia, surprised, as the tall, familiar figure came in. “It’s you. We were just speaking of you.”
Harley Quin bowed to her, and then turning to Mr. Satterthwaite favoured him with a deliberate, sardonic smile. “Mr. Satterthwaite,” he said. For a moment, the firelight danced in reddish patches on his dark suit.
“My dear fellow,” was all Mr. Satterthwaite could manage. Sylvia, not insensitive to mood, looked between them.
“Mr. Satterthwaite and I are old friends, Miss Chaffey,” explained Mr. Quin smoothly. “He was coming to see me today when his car broke down.”
The suggestion, thought Mr. Satterthwaite, was that there had been some sort of phone call to bring him here: that would have been the normal thing to have done when you were prevented from meeting a friend by the vagaries of travel. Sylvia seemed to accept the explanation in that spirit, and made a polite inquiry about his journey.
People see what they expect to see, he remembered his friend telling him once. They tack on the interpretations that make sense to them, rather than observing clearly. There had been no phone call: he’d had no way at all of contacting Harley Quin. How had the man known where to find him, and why had he come at all?
Mr. Quin caught his gaze, and the melancholy, mocking light Mr. Satterthwaite knew so well glinted in his eyes.
And yet, surely there was some sort of logical explanation? There was something compelling and picturesque about him, to be sure, but standing in an ordinary English house, his dress neat and conventional, Mr. Quin hardly seemed a supernatural figure.
“I ought to go up to Isabella,” said Sylvia, and Mr. Satterthwaite nearly started: he had, he realized, been gazing at his friend without speaking. There was a note of suppressed mirth in her voice as she said, “I’ll see you both at dinner? A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Satterthwaite.”
He returned the compliment in a flustered manner. Mr. Quin was smiling openly as she went out, teeth bright in his dark face.
“This is a pleasant surprise indeed. I thought – er. That is, I rather supposed – “
Mr. Quin raised his eyebrows at Mr. Satterthwaite’s twittering.
Annoyed with himself, Mr. Satterthwaite forced himself into a more befitting calm. “I have been carrying on as well as I am able, but I am glad you have arrived at last. A strange business!”
“To what do you refer?” asked Mr. Quin. Mr. Satterthwaite looked at him reproachfully.
“You know. I am perfectly convinced that you know.”
Mr. Quin shook his head, slowly, amused. “You will insist on my omniscience. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Still unconvinced, Mr. Satterthwaite could not resist this invitation. With a pleasurable sense of returning to an old and well-beloved routine, he motioned Mr. Quin to a nearby settee, and took a seat beside him.
“You and I have found, again and again, that upon occasion the passage of time can bring certain details of a mystery into focus. Six years ago, the master of this house, one Peter Lane, died suddenly of digitalis poisoning.” With quick and deft strokes, Mr. Satterthwaite sketched out the facts of the case.
“And have you come to any conclusions?” asked Mr. Quin.
Mr. Satterthwaite considered. “The foxglove leaves in the soup, while toxic, were not truly the issue, were they? The effect of digitalis on heart patients is unpredictable, if I remember correctly from my own doctor’s advice. A clumsy murderer might try to poison someone that way, but the chances of getting the correct dosage from the plant itself are small. It might,” he added thoughtfully, “be the sort of murder attempt one would expect of a young girl. But Peter Lane’s medication had been tampered with as well.”
“The foxglove leaves were a blind,” said Mr. Quin.
“Certainly, but to what purpose? They might have been intended to simulate an accident, or to suggest, as I say, a clumsy murderer. And then the girl, Isabella Lane, did not taste the soup, but still she was sick. If she killed her father, she might have feigned illness, but I should anyone with a jot of intelligence and nerve would have been sure to eat at least a little of the poisoned food.” Mr. Satterthwaite shook his head. “I have not seen the young lady, but from what her friend says of her I cannot imagine her to be so foolish.”
“And her friend, Miss Chaffey? As the doctor’s daughter, she might be supposed to have access to Mr. Lane’s medicine.”
“Whatever happened to Peter Lane,” Mr. Satterthwaite said firmly, “Sylvia Chaffey had had no hand in it. That girl may have a great imagination with regard to costuming, but she could no more have plotted a murder than she could breathe underwater.”
“So,” said Mr. Quin. “We have a mystery, and parted lovers, who are now reunited at the scene of their supposed crime.”
“It – it would seem so.” Mr. Satterthwaite, a little embarrassed, cast his gaze around the room. “May I ask – are you acquainted with Isabella Lane? How did you come to carry her letter to Sylvia Chaffey?”
“I have known her for several years,” said Mr. Quin. “The office of messenger is one I have been glad to fill from time to time. As you are aware, Mr. Satterthwaite.”
There was an odd meaning in his tone. Mr. Satterthwaite was not certain he was aware of any such thing, or that he wanted to be. Thus confronted, he fidgeted, but screwed up his little courage and said, “I am very glad you are here this time, then. I – I did not know if we would ever meet again.”
“At our last parting, I rather thought you did not wish to see me,” said Harley Quin, his tone sardonic, and a little sad. “It was not surprising, of course. You are a very sensible and respectable sort of man, and I – am not any of those things.”
Mr. Satterthwaite remembered that night, standing with Mr. Quin in the moonlight, the body of a suicide lying dead on a rubbish heap a few feet away, on Lover’s Lane. There was something numinous and terrible in the air that night. No, he had not wished to see.
“But you have been looking for me.” It was said with great warmth, and Mr. Satterthwaite looked up in surprise. They were sitting very close together, he realized with something that was not quite dismay, and there was a strange, intent quality in his friend’s eyes.
“I – “ he said. The dinner bell rang, and he leapt to his feet. “Er. Shall we go in and meet the others?”
Mr. Quin shook his head, amused again, and distant. “I will see you later tonight.”
“Of course, of course,” said Mr. Satterthwaite, flustered. He added, “it will be my pleasure,” and that won him a smile.
Dinner was a chilly affair: the food was of middling quality, though the wine was excellent, and the conversation desultory. Mrs. Lane and her godmother talked mainly to each other, in defiance of etiquette – though, thought Mr. Satterthwaite, it was difficult say what proper behavior was in the present circumstances. Captain Agley ate steadily with a military man’s absorbed enthusiasm, and Caspar Lane picked miserably at his plate. The atmosphere was thick and oily with hostility.
Mr. Satterthwaite thought it his duty to try to keep up a little polite chatter. He made some remarks about the plays currently onstage in London to Sylvia Chassey, but though she answered willingly enough her vivacity was quelled by the flat looks she received from half the table’s occupants.
In desperation, and not a little curiosity, he turned and addressed Isabella Lane, who sat at her brother’s side. They were nearly the same age, both very fair with close-cropped hair and of a similar height, but the round face that made Caspar look childish and a little bewildered was transformed in Isabella into beauty, a Raphael Madonna with a gamine haircut.
There was a strange stillness about her, he had thought upon their introduction, like a statue that had somehow been given the gift of movement, but kept lapsing into motionlessness through unfamiliarity. Her manner was careful and correct, but she seemed in the grip of some strong emotion. Fear, thought Mr. Satterthwaite, or anger.
“I understand you have been traveling abroad, Miss Lane,” he said.
“I have,” she said.
“I am much in the habit of travel myself, though of course I have fallen into an old man’s patterns: I go to the Riviera and Monte Carlo, staying always at the same places and meeting much the same people. It is comfortable for me, but it must be a very different thing for you to be out in the world, seeing it with your young eyes.”
He had coaxed the hint of a smile from her, and she seemed about to speak when her sister-in-law interjected, “She has been wandering around quite at her own discretion, and staying in the most lavish sort of hotels. It must be a pretty pleasant life.”
Mr. Satterthwaite saw Isabella Lane’s knuckles go white, twisting her napkin, before she responded. “It has been half a life,” was her retort, her clear, cold voice cutting through the room like a knife. “Mr. Satterthwaite, you say you meet the same people. I never stayed anywhere too long, for fear my friends would hear something about me. I was afraid, always, that I’d arrive at a party or an outing, and I’d see it on their faces.”
“Bella,” said Caspar, pleadingly.
She looked down at her plate. “I have traveled and seen some of the world, and done so with all animal comforts. But I’ve had nothing constant.”
There was a pause. Mr. Satterthwaite broke it by saying, gently, “You are still very young.”
She laughed, a little wildly. “Am I? I do not feel young.”
Mr. Satterthwaite had had little enough of the sort of constancy she meant: he had no family living, no children. He had gone, once, to a garden with a lovely girl beside him, and his head was full of a careful, well-constructed proposal of marriage. Before he could begin this speech, she had told him in a rush of confidence of her love for another. The young man who would become Mr. Satterthwaite had set aside his romantic intentions at once, as though tucking them away in his pocket – had done so almost with relief – and congratulated her sincerely.
He was known in his chosen world; he had sponsored many young artists, and he was never short of invitations and people who would claim him for a friend. It had all been very pleasant, his second-hand life.
“Yes,” he answered. “Yes, I think you are young.”
After dinner they all went together, in the modern style, and withdrew to the music room. Mr. Quin was there, Mr. Satterthwaite was surprised to see: he stood in a shadowy corner, and when the party all took their seats came and sat beside Mr. Satterthwaite without speaking.
Sylvia offered to sing, and though the response was only mixedly positive, there was nothing else suggested. She took her seat at the piano, and began singing an old Scottish song by Robert Burns.
”O Whistle, an' I'll come to ye, my lad, O whistle, an' I'll come to ye, my lad – “
Usually, thought Satterthwaite, it would be at this point that something would happen. They would all begin to discuss the mystery, and there would be some revelation, or at least some sort of hint that he could follow to a destined end. He looked beseechingly at his friend, who smiled and said nothing.
Mr. Satterthwaite had always associated the man with a certain sense of need and urgency: when he arrived, calamity past and present were near, and Mr. Satterthwaite was able to take a principle role in the drama. But there was no way to begin, here: he could not possibly introduce the topic of his host’s father’s murder.
“But steal me a blink o' your bonnie black eye,
Yet look as ye were na lookin' to me – “
The evening dragged by with stilted and painful conversation, and they all went up early to bed.
Mr. Satterthwaite awoke to late morning light shafting in through a crack in the curtains. He was confused for a moment, and could not recall where he was. Once he remembered, he could not understand how he had come to sleep so long – normally he slept lightly, as old men are apt to, and he usually woke early. And why hadn’t a maid come in, at least, to draw the curtain?
He rose and dressed with a flustered sense of worry. His baggage had not arrived, he saw: he had to put on the clothes he had worn yesterday. Something was making him uneasy, besides – his instinct for trouble stirring in him. He had had strange dreams, he thought.
Heading downstairs, he went to the dining room but found only the scraps of what looked like a hastily put-together cold breakfast. Feeling all the more ill-used, he listened for voices, and followed their subdued note to the music room.
The whole house was gathered, the servants standing on the edges of the room, and a man in a policeman’s uniform by the door. Everyone was silent; the girls were still in their wraps, sitting side by side with pale, distressed faces. Mr. Satterthwaite looked around for his hosts; Lady Venetia seemed to be pouring the tea for Caspar Lane, whose eyes were red, and who had not looked up as Satterthwaite came in. Through the wall, he could hear the rumble of Captain Agley’s voice, troubled, and another man speaking in inquiry.
“What has happened?” he asked the nearest maid, who was wringing her hands, and did not answer.
“Murder,” said Mr. Quin, detaching from the shadows and approaching Mr. Satterthwaite, who stared at him, uncomprehending.
Sylvia stretched out her hand to take her friend’s, which was clenched white on her lap. Lady Venetia put the teapot down with a bang and a rattle: Isabella jumped up and fled past Mr. Satterthwaite, her face set. Casper Lane rose, and looked as though he would call after her, but sat down again, abruptly. Isabella’s footsteps, soft in slippers, sounded in the direction of the stairs.
“You’d better go after her,” Lady Venetia told the maid nearest the door. “Stay with her.”
“It was Mrs. Lane?” said Mr. Satterthwaite. It was hardly a question at all. His head was buzzing, and his mouth was dry.
Mr. Quin inclined his head in a nod. “The housemaid found Mrs. Lane’s body when she came down in the morning to light the fire,” he said, as though rehearsing well-known information of no very great consequence. “She was struck on the head with a blunt object. There is a fireplace poker missing: the police are searching the house.”
“Stop – stop talking about it like that,” said Sylvia. Her face was wretched: she was fighting her way through a nightmare, Mr. Satterthwaite thought, one that she had thought past, and which now surrounded her on all sides like a pack of wolves. “As though it’s the weather.”
“It is perfectly clear to everyone what happened,” snapped Lady Venetia. “I heard a sound last night. My husband got up, and saw Isabella coming back upstairs in that blue wrap of hers.”
“Which side of the stairs was she on?” said Mr. Satterthwaite sharply.
Mr. Quin echoed, “Which side of the stairs? There are two landings – one would have been at least fifteen feet away from your door.”
“And it was dark, of course. People see what they expect to see,” said Mr. Satterthwaite, muttering, calculating.
“Who are you?” demanded Caspar Lane, speaking for the first time, and glaring at Harley Quin. “Who the hell is this fellow?”
“A friend of mine,” answered Satterthwaite distractedly. “I was going to see him – about the same height, of course, and you’re both slender.”
“I am Mr. Satterthwaite’s particular friend,” said Mr. Quin.
Caspar snorted, but subsided with ill grace.
“But why?” asked Satterthwaite to himself, feverishly. “Oh, the gambling, of course, Sylvia thought it was the father, but it was the brother. And why should Rosalie Lane worry about her sister-in-law’s allowance unless there wasn’t enough money?”
“It might have been the far staircase,” said Lady Venetia, doubtfully. “I didn’t ask. Is it important?”
“And the doctor was giving the girls Veronal, of course: if you were already tampering with Peter Lane’s medicine it would be easy enough to put a little poison in your sister’s dose that night – ‘But my sister didn’t have any soup.’ I wonder where she was, that she missed those courses. Perhaps you told her you would keep your father busy while she said goodbye to her friend.”
Sylvia looked sick.
“And then of course if your wife was being difficult about money – some of it must have come with the marriage – all you had to do was bring your sister back home, and make sure there were witnesses in the house,” Satterthwaite raced on. He wondered, vaguely, in the part of his mind not occupied with fitting the puzzle pieces together, why no one was interrupting him, but he couldn’t attend to that just now. “Making sure your wife was in the right place at the right time would be easy for a husband – she wouldn’t have been downstairs in the middle of the night at her sister-in-law’s request!”
“You’ll find the fireplace poker in Miss Lane’s room somewhere, I expect,” said Mr. Quin to the police officer at the door, almost casually. “But you might also search for an extra blue night wrap. I rather imagine Mr. Lane gave his sister hers as a gift.”
Caspar Lane sprang to his feet. “You damned…!”
Mr. Quin turned to face him. He was looking away from Mr. Satterthwaite, who could not see what passed between them. Only that Caspar Lane’s face tore open into blank fear, and his knees buckled.
The policeman, looking as though he would have rather been anywhere else in the world, moved forward hesistantly.
Mr. Satterthwaite let out his caught breath slowly, then looked over at Sylvia Chaffey, who was covering her mouth in horror. “You’d better go up to your friend,” he told her. She looked up at him, wide-eyed, and nodded, shaking as she stood up.
Caspar Lane was still staring at Harley Quin as though mesmerized, his eyes like empty wells. “I didn’t –“
“What didn’t you do?” said Mr. Quin, his voice gentle and terrible.
Mr. Satterthwaite patted Sylvia’s shoulder as she passed by him. Her gaze snapped to his, and she went chalky white.
“ - didn’t mean to hurt the old man.”
He frowned at her, concerned. As he stepped towards her, she broke and ran towards the staircase. Mr. Satterthwaite gazed after her, bewildered.
“He was never supposed to be here in the first place! And then he must have heard me going down and followed me…well, what else was I to do?!”
Mr. Satterthwaite turned back and looked around the room. The policeman was plucking at Caspar Lane’s shoulder. The servants had all drawn into a knot in one corner; Lady Venetia was sitting stock still, like a clock that had run out of winding, staring at the tea set. Captain Agley and the other policeman were standing framed in the opposite door, looking stunned.
No one was looking at Mr. Satterthwaite.
He left the music room. His feet made no sound on the stairs as he climbed.
As he entered the dark bedroom, he tried to turn on the light, but his hand went through the switch. There was someone lying on the bed: Mr. Satterthwaite couldn’t think how he had missed it before.
“You’re still breathing,” said a voice behind Mr. Satterthwaite. He turned slightly and saw a figure, a dark man in a domino mask, and a diamond patterned suit of red and black.
“I am – what?”
”Always one looks for one thing – the lover, the perfect, the eternal lover,” Anna Kharsanova had told him before she went to her death. ”It is the music of Harlequin one hears. No lover ever satisfies one, for all lovers are mortal. And Harlequin is only a myth, an invisible presence – unless –“
“You are still breathing,” Harley Quin repeated.
”Unless – his name is – Death!”
Mr. Satterthwaite did as he was commanded. The small, dried up little man on the bed was silent, still – but now that he was looking, he could see that the chest moved slowly, softly, up and down. At his temple, the skin parchment thin and pale, a vein pulsed.
“I heard a noise,” he said, distantly. “I went downstairs. I thought I had dreamed it. I suppose they found me like this, and brought me back up?”
“The only doctor in the village died a few years ago,” Harley Quin told him. “They had to send out to the next village: he will be here in a few minutes, I should think.”
“And then?” asked Mr. Satterthwaite helplessly.
Harley Quin smiled. “That, my friend, is your decision.”
Mr. Satterthwaite looked down at the man on the bed.
“It is not such a bad exit, is it?” asked Harley Quin, his voice low and persuasive. “You were struck down in defense of a lady. Your friends will be astonished to hear it. You have even seen the crime solved.”
”Do you regret?” the figure in the dark had demanded of him, striking fear and wonder into his comfortable little soul. Mr. Satterthwaite looked at his friend, who stood now, holding out his hand, as though in invitation to a dance.
“And – if I chose to stay,” he could not quite help asking. “Will I see you again?”
The corner of Harley Quin’s mouth quirked up, and Mr. Satterthwaite could not help smiling back.
“You may rely on it, my dear.”
“You see,” he explained, half apologetic and half playful. “You see, my dear Mr. Quin, I can’t help it. I always want to see what will happen tomorrow.”
He opened his eyes. The room was dark, and his vision swam, and his head hurt terribly. And the sound of his friend’s delighted laughter still echoed in the air.