Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Italian by A. E. W. Mason

 

"I AM sorry, Mrs. Quintash," said Police-Inspector Grant. "Our presence is, of course, very distressing, but your parlourmaid, Martha, acted very sensibly when she called us in. You will be free of us all the sooner."

"I don't blame her at all," answered Doria Quintash.

Grant was a large, kindly, middle-aged man, with a dread of emotional scenes which not even his long experience had been able to remove. He was very grateful to Mrs. Quintash for the steadiness of her voice and the quietude of her manner. She was a young woman, trim and complete even at this moment. She might be beautiful, the inspector conjectured, to those who liked something a bit foreign. For himself he preferred the English type, fair, and a trifle buxom perhaps. Doria Quintash had a clear pale face, which at this hour seemed to be owned and occupied by a big, clear pair of eyes black as night, rather full, red lips, and black, shining hair most neatly parted in the middle and sweeping down in great curves to hide all but the lobes of the ears. She was seated at a gilt table covered with a red silk cloth fringed with little red balls; and in front of her was a cup of tea and a plate of buttered toast.

"Whilst you go on with your breakfast, Mrs. Quintash," said the inspector, "I'll read out to you the report I'm making, and by the time I've finished I expect our surgeon will have done."

"Certainly—whatever is usual," Doria Quintash answered. It was quite a surprise to the inspector that there was no trace of a strange accent in her voice. Foreign she looked but English she spoke. "Won't you sit down, Inspector, before you begin?"

"Oh, thank you."

The inspector looked uneasily about the room for a piece of furniture which would bear his weight. It was a drawing-room as he thought a drawing-room ought to be—at once florid and musty, a place with a suite of ebony and gold furniture upholstered in blue satin, a cabinet of ebony and gold painted with staring posies of flowers, little gimcracky tables, a thick Axminster carpet, and a big marble vase in one of the front windows. It was to the inspector nice, a room which a self-respecting person had but didn't use. Only there was not much for a self-respecting person of sixteen stone to sit upon. However, the inspector drew forward a spindle-legged cane chair and lowered himself gingerly on to the edge of it.

"At five minutes past eight a.m.," he read from his notebook, "Martha Green, house-parlourmaid to Mr. Anthony Quintash, the famous explorer, rang up the police station and said that on taking, as per usual, a cup of tea into her employer's bedroom, at eight o'clock, she found him dead, and a book which he had been reading and the bedclothes spattered with blood. The bedside lamp was still burning. Martha Green at once proceeded to the hall where a fixed telephone is installed, and called up the district police-station. I had just come on duty, and instructing Martha Green to see that the room was not entered or touched, I warned the police surgeon, Mr. Graham Buckland, and in company with him repaired to 15A, Ryde Street, Queen's Gate, where the tragedy had occurred. On arriving I found that Martha Green had waked up Mrs. Quintash, who had been sleeping in a room divided from her husband's by a bathroom, and up to that moment was unaware of the catastrophe.

"Anthony Quintash's room was in the front of the house upon the third floor, and his bed stood with its head against the outer wall in the angle of the room. Quintash was lying upon his left side with his face to the wall. A thin, sharp stiletto was driven into his heart, and a book was lying tumbled upon the bedclothes. There was very little blood, and that already dry, both upon the sheets and the page of the book. Upon examination some writing in pencil was found upon the border of the last page of the book, which had been cut. The writing was without doubt in Quintash's hand, although it was weak and faltering and a trifle blurred. But it was easily decipherable. It ran:

"'No one is to blame. I fell asleep and tossed over on to my side. My fault.—Tony.'"

At this point Inspector Grant interrupted his report to ask:

"You heard no cry, Mrs. Quintash?"

"None," Doria answered. "I don't think I could have heard if Tony had cried out. There's always a certain amount of noise from cars and lorries on the Knightsbridge road at night."

Grant nodded.

"This Street runs up to Knightsbridge, doesn't it? Yes. And there's all the Covent Garden traffic. Besides, I expect Mr. Quintash realized that his injury was fatal and preserved his strength to write those sentences."

He looked again at his report.

"Mr. Quintash, I understand, used that stiletto as a paper-knife regularly, in spite of remonstrances from both you and Martha," he continued.

"Yes, we both thought it dangerous," replied Doria. "I used to put it away the moment Tony went off upon his travels, but it was always lying upon his writing-table the day after he had returned. He had a reason, of course."

Grant looked up.

"Oh! Might I hear it?"

"He read a good many foreign scientific books. I don't know whether you're familiar with the look of them, Mr. Grant. They are heavy books with paper covers and thick uncut pages which do want a lot of cutting."

"Yes, I see. I was puzzled about that paper-knife, Mrs. Quintash, and I was afraid that the coroner might be so too—"

"The coroner?"

Doria Quintash was the puzzled one of the two now. Her forehead set in a frown.

"Do you mean to say that I must have all the publicity of an inquest?" she asked, and there was just a shade of resentment in her voice.

"I don't say that," the inspector hurried to say. "The coroner may issue a certificate right away, as soon as he gets our surgeon's report. I don't see why he shouldn't. But he has to be informed."

"It depends on the surgeon?"

"A good deal. But I hear him coming, Mrs. Quintash."

The police surgeon was a long, thin, shambling man with a grizzled moustache and an aquiline face. He stared for a few moments at Doria Quintash, at a loss to reconcile this young widow who seemed to have stepped straight out from the canvas of an old Italian master with the characterless jumble of tawdry, expensive furniture which cluttered up her drawing-room. If the room had a distinctive feature at all, it was a complete absence of taste, and here she sat at her ease in it.

"Mr. Graham Buckland," said the inspector, introducing him. The surgeon bowed. He carried a parcel under his arm. He spoke with sympathy.

"I think if we could get hold of your doctor now, Mrs. Quintash, we could between us simplify matters for you."

Doria Quintash shook her head, she glanced at him aslant and a little wistful smile glimmered for a second at the corners of her lips.

"We haven't got a doctor," she answered. She was still saying "We" as if her husband was alive. "I moved into this house whilst Tony was away in Brazil, not a year ago, and we were both of us never ill."

The answer disturbed Graham Buckland. He edged away on his long, loose legs to the window which was not covered by the marble vase, and stood with his back to the room. It was somehow outrageous and futile that the man who had burst out of the jungle into Bahia with the remnants of his expedition after a two years' successful search for a lost city of the fourteenth century should come so soon to so unnecessary an end in a dull, flat row of houses, with great porticoes much too big for them, in a side-street of Queen's Gate.

"Then I must put my one question directly to you, Mrs. Quintash."

"Yes?"

"Quintash's death is perfectly explained by the words he wrote in the book," Graham Buckland said bluntly. He had got to get his point clear, and though bluntness sounded cruel, it was, like the surgeon's knife, the kinder on that account. "That stiletto might certainly have caused his death just in that way, and probably did. The smallness of the wound, and the slight loss of blood, would have given him the time to scrawl his message, and probably did. But I was at the great reception last night."

Behind him a chair was suddenly pushed back and knocked against a table.

"Oh, not so much of a coincidence, Mrs. Quintash. When I was a younger man I did a good deal of mountain climbing in odd corners of the world, and I've always taken a great interest in the proceedings of the great Society. Last night was not one to be missed. You were there, weren't you? At the end of the third row."

For a quarter of a minute he waited, and then the answer came, quiet and even and controlled.

"Yes. I was there, of course. And I was at the end of the third row."

"Then perhaps you may have noticed what I noticed."

It had been the night of the season. The big lecture theatre had been crowded. Anthony Quintash had broken silence for the first time since his return and had told a moving story of his long search; the hopes and fears, the elations and disheartenments which had attended it; the discovery of the earthquake-riven, empty city hidden in the foothills of the Andes; the gradual diminution by fever and snake-bite and attack of his company; the death of his young partner and friend, Julian Devenish, by the upsetting of a canoe in a rapid. The photography had been marvellous; the diction of the lecture enthralling; the subsequent presentation of the Society's gold medal had been the opportunity for a demonstration of quite unusual enthusiasm.

"But through it all I seemed to hear," Graham Buckland continued, "a quite tragic note of disillusionment. Do you remember when he threw the portrait of Julian Devenish on the screen, that young, eager friend with the fine face marred by the deep scar from the corner of the eye to the jaw—do you remember his words? 'Was it worth while? What have we done? Added a footnote to "The Golden Bough," perhaps. Was that worth the loss of so loyal and ardent a spirit as Julian Devenish? I wonder.' On that note of depression he ended, Mrs. Quintash, and my one little doubt is whether Quintash's iron nerve had not at last given way. He was forty-two—young as the world goes now—yes. But he had lived a dozen lives; he carried, as I know now, the scars of a dozen hairbreadth escapes. And I just wonder—you, of course, will know, where I only wonder—whether something had cracked within him, whether"—and here the surgeon's voice hesitated—"whether in a moment of revulsion after his great triumph, he suddenly took his own life last night."

He heard a gasp and turned round. Mrs. Quintash was gazing at him with parted lips and a flush of colour in her face. Her great eyes were wide open and curiously bright.

"I never thought of that," she cried, and she added: "I am sure that Tony never did."

The surgeon inclined his head.

"It is for you to say."

"I say 'No.'"

Inspector Grant had been turning over the pages of his report a trifle impatiently. He was against speculations in the air. He liked facts on the ground.

"There's one final point, Mrs. Quintash," he said. "You and your husband had supper here when you returned."

"Yes. We dined early before the lecture and I gave orders that something cold should be left for us."

"Martha didn't stay up for you?"

"Oh, no. We didn't get back until after eleven. Martha had gone to bed."

"Quite, quite," said Inspector Grant. "But the dining-room is still as you left it; and though there are two plates used, there are three glasses used."

Mrs. Quintash turned her face to the inspector, and the enigmatic trifle of a smile shone for the fraction of a second in the sideways glance of her eyes and the curl at the corners of her lips.

"A friend of ours took me to the lecture and drove us both back home after it. He came in. He wouldn't stay for supper, but he had a glass of champagne"—the surgeon felt that that was all wrong; it should have been a glass of Chianti—"before he went away."

"And the name of this friend?" continued Inspector Grant, moistening the tip of his pencil with his tongue.

Dona Quintash moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"Mr. Cleveland Hill," she answered. "But he is just a friend of ours. He can tell you nothing more."

"I am sure," replied the inspector. "But I've got to make a report. If I could see him for a moment, and write down that I've seen him, you get rid of us then altogether, Mrs. Quintash."

The inspector smiled invitingly and waited.

"He lives in Mount Street," Doria Quintash answered. "I have his telephone number somewhere," and she half-rose from her chair.

But Grant was already on his feet.

"He will be in the book, no doubt. You haven't an extension here? No. We'll go down and get on to him from the hall. This is a distressing business for you, Mrs. Quintash."

"But we'll spare you all we can," the surgeon added, tucking the parcel under his arm.

The two men went downstairs. The telephone was fixed on the wall of the passage to the front door, with the directory on a sloping shelf beneath it. The inspector went straight to it. Graham Buckland opened a door upon the right hand. It led into a dining-room at the front of the house. On the threshold he stopped, looking about the room. On the white tablecloth stood the two plates with the remnants of the cold supper upon them. Quintash had sat at the end of the table and carved the ham. There was the gold medal open in its case beside his plate. At the side here Mrs. Quintash had sat—there was the fragment of lace from her gown caught in the joint of her chair—as if, perhaps, she had risen in a hurry. Her plate was pushed forward and the salt-cellar was upset. Graham Buckland drew the plate back to its natural position and suddenly stooped over the tablecloth. He remained in that position and then suddenly stood erect and with his face upturned towards the ceiling. At once he moved back into the passage. He heard the inspector speaking into the mouthpiece.

"It will be better if you heard it all here, sir. Yes, sir, it's serious...No, Mrs. Quintash is quite well...No, she can't come for the moment to the telephone..." and Graham Buckland tapped him on the shoulder. "Just a moment, sir."

He covered the mouthpiece with his hand, and Buckland asked in a low voice:

"You left all the doors of the bedroom locked?"

"Yes. I've got the keys."

Grant pulled them out of his pocket and the surgeon glanced at them disparagingly.

"Any sort of door key I should think would open those locks," he said. "However—"

He shrugged his shoulders, and whilst Inspector Grant continued to assure Mr. Cleveland Hill that there was nothing the matter with Mrs. Quintash and that the sooner he threw on his clothes and came to Queen's Gate the quicker he would know what was up, he returned into the dining-room and carefully replaced the plate which he had touched on the spot where he had found it. There was the empty champagne bottle—yes—a glass at the side of each chair—yes, and the third glass at the end of the table where Mr. Cleveland Hill had stood. The surgeon drifted out of the room.

The inspector was hanging up the receiver at last.

"Fairly frantic, that young man, Mr. Buckland. There's one, I reckon, who won't grieve very deeply over the loss to science of Mr. Anthony Quintash."

"That room behind the dining-room is Quintash's study, I suppose—" said Buckland.

"Yes, but there's nothing there, Mr. Buckland. I had a look round when you were making your examination upstairs." Nevertheless, Buckland drifted along the passage and went into the study. Very methodically he looked round the room, taking it by portions. Grant followed him.

"Nothing to see here, Mr. Buckland. This is where that stiletto lay, as a rule, according to Martha. On this big table under the window, on the right of the blotting-pad..." and suddenly the telephone-bell rang. Grant ran out of the room, crying aloud so that he could be heard at once in the kitchen below and in the drawing-room upstairs. "All right, all right. I'll answer it." And the moment he had gone Graham Buckland very quickly and very silently closed the study door, shutting himself in alone.

Outside in the hall, William Grant listened and replied:

"No, sir, this isn't Mrs. Quintash...No, sir, I can't disturb her now. No, no, no, she's really quite well. But it would be very much better if you came here at the quickest...It's impossible to explain over the telephone...Oh, you're dressing. Then we'll expect you in a few minutes...Good!...Oh, very well, sir, if you insist...yes, we are the police."

Inspector Grant was a little exasperated. "That lad doesn't sound too bright to me," he grumbled. "You only hurt yourself if you go off the deep end over the telephone. The telephone's no spring-board."

He turned round to share his dissatisfaction with the surgeon and saw him coming out of the study, dusting his fingers.

"Mr. Buckland, you've left that parcel behind in the study."

"No, I put it on the sideboard in the dining-room. I want to have a look at it now."

But he seemed in no hurry, once he was back in the dining-room. He stood with his nose up in the air as if he could smell some secret.

"I wonder what happened in this room last night," he said, slowly and seriously; and Inspector Grant was startled.

But he knew the surgeon for an astute and reasonable man. Graham Buckland did not go off the deep end, either at a telephone or away from it.

"This young man can tell us if anything happened here," said Grant.

"Can he? I wonder," Buckland answered.

He took his parcel then and opened it.

"Here's the stiletto." It was wrapped in a piece of medical gauze, and he handed it to Grant. "You had better take charge of it—but carefully, for it's as sharp as a razor. It'll have to go to the laboratory, of course, but it's the book which interests me. Have a look at it. Grant."

He had the book wrapped up too, but he sat himself down in a chair by the window, and turned back the gauze. It was a biggish book of quarto size with a paper cover and thick leaves, and it was written in French. Whilst Grant stooped down, Buckland set the book on his knees.

"Travels in the Sus Country—that's the title, and—look at the date at the bottom of the title-page—it was published seven years ago."

He turned the title-page and came to the fly-leaf.

"And Anthony Quintash bought it seven years ago. There's his name and the date written, and, as you see, half of the pages uncut. Doesn't it seem a little odd to you that he didn't read it when he bought it?"

Inspector Grant pushed out a lower lip and thought the question over.

"No," he said at length. "I think a lot of people buy books which they think they'll read one day and set 'em up on their shelves and never look at 'em again."

Buckland caught him up at once.

"But Quintash did look at this book again, and last night. I'm not sure that that isn't more curious still. You see, when this book was written very little was known about the Sus Country. Long after Lyautey had Morocco well in hand, this strip in the South beyond the Atlas was dangerous and unexplored. But it's better known now. There are more recent, more knowledgeable books about the Sus Country than this. Isn't it odd that Quintash should have taken up to bed to read for the first time a book already quite out of date?"

But William Grant dug his toes in. He distrusted finely drawn speculations in police work. They led you astray for one thing. Juries made short work of them for another.

"No," he said stubbornly. "Perhaps that book's literature."

The surgeon laughed.

"You've got an answer for everything, Grant," he said.

"But you've got a hunch, Mr. Buckland," Grant returned uncomfortably. "And I don't like it. For I've known your hunches to be better than my answers."

"Let's hope it isn't so in this case!" said the surgeon. "But here's Mr. Cleveland Hill, I take it, and he may have something to tell us."

A powerful two-seater sports car swung round the corner from Knightsbridge and stopped with a smooth precipitation in front of the door. A young man, tanned on the golf-links and trained to the prize-fighter's ounce, burst from it like a bullet and hammered with the knocker until the house shook. Inspector Grant opened the door, and at the sight of his uniform the young man staggered back against the rail.

"Good God, what has happened?" he cried.

"If you want the street to hear, I can tell you now, Mr. Cleveland Hill," said the inspector. "But I should prefer you to come in."

Mr. Hill pushed into the hall with an apology:

"I beg your pardon. I'm a fool."

The inspector shut the door and ushered the young man into the dining-room.

"Our surgeon, Mr. Graham Buckland."

"Surgeon?"

"Yes, Mr. Hill. Will you sit down, please!" The inspector turned to his note-book. "At eight o'clock this morning, as per usual, Martha Green, house-parlourmaid, took a cup of tea into Mr. Quintash's bedroom," and he continued to read until the simple facts of the explorer's death were complete. At the end of the story Cleveland Hill sprang to his feet.

"Where's Doria?" he cried. "I mean, Mrs. Quintash."

"She is upstairs, sir."

"Alone?"

"For the moment."

"I'll go up to her," and he turned towards the door, but Inspector Grant was in the way.

"One moment, sir."

Mr. Cleveland Hill stared at the big officer as if he were the obtusest thing in the world.

"But you can't let her stay up there alone. It's inhuman." He turned to the surgeon. "You've seen Mrs. Quintash? I had a picture upon the wall of my nursery with just her sensitive face and just her hint of a smile."

"An oleograph of the Mona Lisa, I expect," said Mr. Buckland with a nod.

"That's it. Well, you can see. I've known her all my life. She's got to have sympathy..."

"We only want to ask you a question or two," the surgeon interrupted. "For instance, you drank out of that glass last night?"

The young man controlled himself with an effort.

"Yes, I did. I drove Quintash and Doria home here and came in with them, and I had a glass of champagne."

"But you didn't stay for supper."

"No." Mr. Cleveland Hill's face fell. He was a very open young man. "They didn't ask me," he explained, and then corrected himself. "At least, Doria did, but Quintash was against it. You know Quintash was a very queer fellow. Running away to Brazil and places like that when you have a wife like Mrs. Quintash, eh? But last night he made quite a little speech, kind, you know, and warm-hearted. It was to be the greatest night of his life—that sort of thing. He had been presented with his Society's gold medal and he wanted to complete the evening with a private little presentation to his wife."

"What!"

And suddenly the surgeon was on his feet with the strangest expression upon his face.

"Yes. Queer, wasn't it? Doria couldn't make head or tail of it. I don't think she half liked it, you know. It wasn't after all very civil to me, was it? He had only got to say good evening and I should have gone away without any of that play-acting."

"I see. You think he was just staging an excuse to get rid of you."

"Well, it looked a bit like it, didn't it?" said Mr. Cleveland Hill. "Is that all?"

"As far as I am concerned," said Buckland.

"The same here," the inspector added pleasantly. "We had to make sure with an accident of this kind that everything was normal, of course."

He held open the door and Mr. Cleveland Hill was half-way up the stairs in a flash. The police-surgeon shot a queer glance at the inspector. "So you think that everything's quite normal. We'll just wait a second until the gentleman upstairs is deep in his oleographic Italy—floating between high black houses on a canal of Venice, or gazing at the moon in a dark garden of Florence. Mona Lisa! She is uncommon like the Gioconda, but I don't think the Gioconda could have put up with the drawing-room furniture."

All the while he was talking, Graham Buckland was wrapping up the travel book in its gauze.

"I am going to borrow this from you for a day. You can trust it to me."

He went to the door and listened. "It's all right, I think. Let me have the key of the bedroom door again. Right! Swiss guides used to have an idea that if you made a noise on a dangerous snow slope, you might bring an avalanche down. Just see what a good climber I was."

The surgeon slipped up the stairs like a shadow. He heard a murmur of voices in the drawing-room and went up to the next floor. He was more careful than ever, and the voices were still murmuring in the drawing-room when he got down again to the ground floor.

"All right," he said, and he handed the key of Anthony Quintash's bedroom back to Inspector Grant. "You can leave all the doors open now, for all that I have to say. Quintash, of course—the usual proper dignities. He needn't be moved from his room. I shall see the coroner this morning, but I'll tell you something." He drew the inspector into the dining-room and closed the door.

"The coroner will not give a certificate. You can take that from me."

The inspector was disappointed.

"There will have to be a public inquest?" he asked.

"There will, and it won't end with the inquest," Buckland said grimly. He picked up the book which Anthony Quintash had been reading and tucked it under his arm. "Can I find you late tonight if I want you? At your house, eh? I've got the address. You're unhappy? Yes. You hoped it was just an accident? Normal was your word. Well, you may be right. But I think we are up against as grim and strange a crime as you and I have ever known;" and with that the surgeon let himself out into the respectable area of Queen's Gate.

At half-past eleven that night Inspector Grant was smoking a final pipe in the parlour of his little house in the Brixton Road. He was uneasy, for he had never seen Graham Buckland, in all the years of their common experience, thrown so markedly out of his stride. The inspector looked at the clock upon his mantelshelf. "He won't come now," he said at one moment. "He'd have sent me a message if he wasn't coming," at the next, and as the hands pointed to a quarter to twelve, a stick was stretched out from the steps at the front door and tapped upon the bow-window. Grant opened the door to a very tired and exhausted surgeon of police.

"Give me a drink first," said Graham Buckland, and he toppled into an arm-chair. "It's a case for a warrant on a charge of murder."

Grant mixed a stiff whisky-and-soda for his guest and watched him drink it. Then he sat down opposite him and said quietly:

"Let me hear!"

"I was puzzled over that book from the beginning," Buckland explained. "Partly for the reasons I gave you, partly too because that bloodstained page looked to me a little used. I put that together with the disheartened tone Quintash had employed last night in his lecture, and I was honestly inclined to suspect that he had deliberately committed suicide and had written that message to deceive everybody into the belief that he had died by accident. Personally, I should have been prepared to help him out, but I had got to be sure about it. A small bunch of keys was lying with his watch on the table by his bed, and I took that bunch away with me, thinking that some paper or another in a locked drawer might put me wise. There was one rather elaborate small key of Italian workmanship which particularly caught my eye. With that bunch in my pocket I came down to the drawing-room, and I had no sooner put my suspicion of suicide into words, than it was badly shaken. Do you remember what Mrs. Quintash did? She gave a gasp and said: 'Oh, I never thought of that.' Well, that might just mean, 'I never dreamed he would do a thing like that.' But it might also mean, and I had an unpleasant hunch that it did mean, 'That would have been a better explanation, if I had thought of it.'

"Mere guess-work? Yes, but wait. We went downstairs and whilst you were telephoning to young Cleveland Hill, I went into the dining-room. Did you notice that the plate in front of Mrs. Quintash's chair had been pushed forward and the salt-cellar upset? You did, and thought no more about it than I did. But I moved the plate back to its original place, and I saw that it covered four little sets of marks in the tablecloth—not exactly rents, but threads in the linen had been torn, the nap fluffed up a little, and the cloth pricked. And these four sets were the corners of a small square and they were quite fresh. It seemed to me that at some time during supper a small square box mounted on metal claws had been placed on the table in front of Mrs. Quintash and that she had sprung up and pushed her plate violently away from her, upsetting the salt-cellar and whatever it was which had been placed in front of her.

"I looked round the room and could see nothing which offered any explanation. So I went along the passage to the study."

"And I followed you," said Inspector Grant.

"But you were called to the telephone by that ebullient young gentleman, Mr. Cleveland Hill," Graham Buckland continued. "By that time I had spotted something which might account for the marks, a square steel box of old make mounted on claw feet, standing on the top of a high bookshelf. I jumped on to a chair and took it down. The small Italian key upon Quintash's bunch slipped exactly into the lock. I opened the box. It was about the height of a spirit case and, like a spirit case, the front fell down with the raising of the lid. I was looking at a human face about the size of a small melon, a face with every feature intact and there was hair upon the scalp. The only real disfigurement was that the lips were bloated and there were holes in them as though they had been skewered together. After the first jar, I remembered Quintash had been in Brazil. To reduce the head of the enemy you have killed to the size of an orange without spoiling the features is a secret of the Indians on the Amazon. You put it up on the mantelpiece, as it were, as a memento, and if you feel down and out, why, you have something to cheer you up again. A good many people have brought one of these heads home as a curiosity. But something puzzled me about this one. It didn't look native," and Inspector Grant sat back in his chair with a gasp. He looked round his sitting-room, comforting himself with the knowledge that he was in the Brixton Road with taxis and late omnibuses roaring past his door.

"The face was dark, of course, dark as an Indian's, but then it had been kippered. It had been hung up by the lips and smoked, but it didn't look native. No! I took it up in my hands and I got the shock of my life. Upon my soul, I almost dropped it. I feel myself tingling now. For a great scar ran down from the corner of the eye to the jaw. I was looking at the head of Quintash's young friend, Julian Devenish. The loyal and devoted partner to whom Quintash had paid so pathetic a tribute in his lecture. You see, I had to revise my opinion of Quintash. What was he? A hypocrite? A man who hated Devenish and when he was dead treated him with the same horrible indignity which an Indian would use towards his enemy? I replaced the head in the box and the box again on the bookshelf. I went back to the dining-room with my brain in a whirl, and five minutes afterwards young Cleveland Hill gave the whole show away. Quintash wouldn't let him stay for supper—not he. He meant to complete his day. He had been presented with a gold medal and he meant to make a presentation to his wife. What he presented her with was Julian Devenish's head, exact in every feature but the lips—eyes, skull, nose, scar, everything, but reduced to the size of a small melon which you could hold in your hand. The end of a perfect day, what?"

"But that's devilish," Grant exclaimed, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief. "Even if there were provocation."

"Was there provocation?" Buckland resumed. "Was Julian Devenish Doria Quintash's lover? Was this Quintash's revenge? And if so—that was the question I was stubbing my toes against—what was Doria Quintash's reaction last night? Do you see, Grant? I fell back upon my first idea—modified. The book held the secret and I had got to tear it out of it."

"What did you do?" Grant asked, leaning forward eagerly in his chair, and Graham Buckland resumed his narrative.

"I looked up an old copy of Who's Who and I found that at the time this French book was published, Quintash was living near to Farnham. I drove down to Farnham and found the house, smothered in roses and surrounded by a garden—a haunt of peace on a country road. Then after a few inquiries I found the doctor who had attended them. He was a tall, lean man, who seemed to think that the world was a ridiculous joke and went off into great fits of laughter over catastrophes and disasters, a Dr. Sturgis.

"'And what do you want to see me about, Mr. Buckland?' he asked.

"'About this,' I answered, and I held the book out to him.

"'Where in the world did you get that?' he continued, in surprise. I saw in the evening paper that Quintash had died.'

"'So you know the book?' said I.

"'Know it? I should think I do. I attended Quintash after his accident.'

"'Accident?' I cried.

"'Yes. He took that book to bed with him and a sharp knife to cut the leaves, and he fell asleep and rolled over on his side and wounded himself.'

"'And when was that?'

"Dr. Sturgis searched in a little safe and fetched out a case-book.

"'That's the time. Seven years ago.' To Dr. Sturgis it was the funniest episode. 'He thought he was going to die—he wasn't near dying really—and he wrote that message on the margin. "It's all my fault, etc.'"

"'To save his wife any difficulties if he did die, I suppose,' I said, and Sturgis roared with amusement.

"'I'm sorry, but you'll have to do that bit over again, Mr. Buckland. It won't do,' said Sturgis. And then out the truth came. Quintash and his wife hated one another like cat and dog. There was a young fellow, called Julian Devenish, who had just made a little name for himself by a journey in Arabia. He was always about the place, adored her. I made a remark about her striking appearance and I was afraid Dr. Sturgis was going to roll out of his chair on to the floor, so diverting he found it.

"'Oh, yes, the Mona Lisa stunt. She had the sideways glance all right—if a young man was around—but that's all. She was a common little trollop.' And Sturgis added, and, my dear Grant, I beg you to notice the addition, 'The only Italian in that menage was Anthony Quintash. He was small, supple, vindictive, patient and proud. Remember him! Dress him up in a doublet and hose. He came straight out of the Cinquecento, didn't he? He wrote those lines on the margin of his book, because if he died he wasn't going to have his neighbours think that he'd killed himself out of jealousy or unhappiness. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. Anthony Quintash was waiting his turn. He could even find enjoyment in waiting. Sooner or later, in his own good time, at the artistically perfect moment, he meant to tread a measure with his Mona Lisa.'

"Thus spoke Dr. Sturgis, and last night Quintash trod his measure with his Mona Lisa. He had been received with acclamation, he had been presented with his gold medal. She, indifferent to him and confident in her own attractions, was stringing along a new lover. Imagine the moment if you can when Anthony Quintash placed in front of her, no doubt with a thousand ceremonious and courtly words, the head of her old lover, reduced to the compass of an eight-day clock. No wonder she pushed her plate away and upset the salt. How shall we explain her? Panic? Horror? Fear? Hatred? Wouldn't that be the order? But she rememberes that accident seven years ago, and when Quintash is asleep, she stages it more effectively in the dead of the night."

Graham Buckland rose to his feet.

"I am going home. The rest is for you."

Inspector Grant knocked his pipe out against the firebars.

"Yes," he said heavily. "The steel box is on the top of the bookshelf in the library? And I have the book of travels? And the name of the doctor at Farnham is Sturgis? Yes, I'll take action. You'll want a taxi?"

"Please!"

Inspector Grant came out on to the steps of his house with the surgeon, and hailed a passing taxi.

"Good night, Mr. Buckland." He looked up and down the street with its vista of little villas lit and ensured by the rows of street-lamps linked as far as the eye could see.

"I've at times, Mr. Buckland," he said, "felt an urge to see the world, but upon my word, there's something to be said for the Brixton Road."

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page