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Our Library => Edgar Wallace - The Melody of Death (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on April 10, 2023, 11:30:14 am



Title: 3: Gilbert Leaves Hurriedly
Post by: Admin on April 10, 2023, 11:30:14 am
GILBERT was dressing for dinner when the storm came up over London. It had lost none of its intensity or strength. For an hour the street had glared fitfully in the blue lightning of the electrical discharges, and the house rocked with crash after crash of thunder.

He himself was in tune with the element, for there raged in his heart such a storm as shook the very foundations of his life. Outwardly there was no sign of distress. The face he saw in the shaving-glass was a mask, immobile and expressionless.

He sent his man to call a taxi-cab. The storm had passed over London, and only the low grumble of thunder could be heard when he came out on to the rain-washed streets. A few wind-torn wisps of cloud were hurrying at a great rate across the sky, stragglers endeavouring in frantic haste to catch up the main body.

He descended from his cab at the door of No. 274 Portland Square slowly and reluctantly. He had an unpleasant task to perform, as unpleasant to him, more unpleasant, indeed, than it could be to his future mother-in-law.

He did not doubt that the suspicion implanted in his mind by Leslie was unfair and unworthy.

He was ushered into the drawing-room, and found himself the solitary occupant. He looked at his watch.

“Am I very early, Cole?” he asked the butler.

“You are rather, sir,” said the man, “but I will tell Miss Cathcart you are here.”

Gilbert nodded. He strolled across to the window, and stood, his hands clasped behind him, looking out upon the wet street. He stood thus for five minutes, his head sunk forward on his breast, absorbed in thought. The opening of the door aroused him, and he turned to meet the girl who had entered.

Edith Cathcart was one of the most beautiful women in London, though “woman” might be too serious a word to apply to this slender girl who had barely emerged from her school-days.

In some grey eyes of a peculiar softness a furtive apprehension always seems to wait---a fear and an appeal at one and the same time. So it was with Edith Cathcart. Those eyes of hers were for ever on guard, and even as they attracted they held the over-eager seeker of friendship at arm’s length. The nose was just a little retroussè; the sensitive lips played supporter to the apprehensive eyes. She wore her hair low over her forehead; it was dark almost to a point of blackness. She was dressed in a plain gown of sea-green satin, with scarcely any jewel or ornamentation.

He walked to meet her with quick steps and took both her hands in his; his hungry eyes searched her face eagerly.

“You look lovely to-night, Edith,” he said, in a voice scarcely above a whisper.

She released her hands gently with the ghost of a smile that subtly atoned for her action.

“Did you enjoy your Derby Day?” she asked.

“It was enormously interesting,” he said; “it is extraordinary that I have never been before.”

“You could not have chosen a worse day. Did you get caught in the storm? We have had a terrible one here.”

She spoke quickly, with a little note of query at the end of each sentence. She gave you the impression that she desired to stand well with her lover, that she was in some awe of him. She was like a child, anxious to acquit herself well of a lesson; and now and then she conveyed a sense of relief, as one who had surmounted yet another obstacle.

Gilbert was always conscious of the strain which marked their relationship. A dozen times a day he told himself that it was incredible that such a strain should exist. But he found a ready excuse for her diffidence and the furtive fear which came and went in her eyes like shadows over the sea. She was young, much younger than her years. This beautiful bud had not opened yet, and his engagement had been cursed by over-much formality.

He had met her conventionally at a ball. He had been introduced by her mother, again conventionally, he had danced with her and sat out with her, punted her on the river, motored her and her mother to Ascot. It was all very ordinary and commonplace. It lacked something. Gilbert never had any doubt as to that.

He took the blame upon himself for all deficiencies, though he was something of a romancist, despite the chilly formalism of the engagement. She had kept him in his place with the rest of the world, on arm’s length, with those beseeching eyes of hers. He was at arm’s length when he proposed, in a speech the fluency of which was eloquent of the absence of anything which touched emotionalism. And she had accepted in a murmured word, and turned a cold cheek for his kiss, and then had fluttered out of his arms like an imprisoned bird seeking its liberty, and had escaped from that conventional conservatory with its horrible palms and its spurious Tanagra statuettes.

Gilbert in love was something of a boy; an idealist, a dreamer. Other grown men have shared his weakness, there are unsuspected wells of romance in the most practical of men. So he was content with his dreams, weaving this and that story of sweet surrender in his inmost heart. He loved her, completely, absorbingly. To him she was a divine and a fragrant thing.

He had taken her hand again in his, and realised with pain, which was tinctured with amusement that made it bearable, that she was seeking to disengage herself, when Mrs. Cathcart came into the room.

She was a tall woman, still beautiful, though age had given her a certain angularity. The ravages of time had made it necessary for her to seek artificial aid for the strengthening of her attractions. Her mouth was thin and straight and uncompromising, her chin too bony to be beautiful. She smiled as she rustled across the room and offered her gloved hand to the young man.

“You’re early, Gilbert,” she said.

“Yes,” he replied awkwardly. Here was the opportunity which he sought, yet he experienced some reluctance in availing himself of the chance.

He had released the girl as the door opened, and she had instinctively taken a step backward, and stood with her hands behind her, regarding him gravely and intently.

“Really,” he said, “I wanted to see you.”

“To see me?” asked Mrs. Cathcart archly. “No, surely not me!”

Her smile comprehended the girl and the young man. For some reason which he could not appreciate at the moment Gilbert felt uncomfortable.

“Yes, it was to see you,” he said, “but it isn’t remarkable at this particular period of time.”

He smiled again.

She held up a warning finger.

“You must not bother about any of the arrangements. I want you to leave that entirely to me. You will find you have no cause to complain.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that,” he said hastily, “it was something more---more----”

He hesitated. He wanted to convey to her the gravity of the business he had in hand. And even as he approached the question of an interview, a dim realisation came to him of the difficulty of his position. How could he suggest to this woman, who had been all kindness and all sweetness to him, that he suspected her of motives which did credit neither to her head nor her heart? How could he broach the subject of his poverty to one who had not once but a hundred times confided to him that his expectations and the question of his future wealth were the only drawbacks to what she had described as an ideal love marriage?

“I almost wish you were poor, Gilbert,” she had said. “I think riches are an awful handicap to young people circumstanced as you and Edith will be.”

She had conveyed this suspicion of his wealth more than once. And yet, at a chance word from Leslie, he had doubted the purity of her motives! He remembered with a growing irritation that it had been Mrs. Cathcart who had made the marriage possible; the vulgar-minded might even have gone further, and suggested that she had thrown Edith at his head. There was plenty of groundwork for Leslie’s suspicion, he thought, as he looked at the tall, stylish woman before him. Only he felt ashamed that he had listened to the insidious suggestion.

“Could you give me a quarter of an hour----” He stopped. He was going to say “before dinner,” but thought that possibly an interview after the meal would be less liable to interruption.

“---after dinner?”

“With pleasure,” she smiled. “What are you going to do? Confess some of the irregularities of your youth?”

He shook his head with a little grimace.

“You may be sure I shall never tell you those,” he said.

“Then I will see you after dinner,” she assented. “There are a lot of people coming to-night, and I am simply up to my eyes in work. You bridegrooms,” she patted his shoulder with her fan reproachfully, “have no idea what chaos you bring into the domestic life of your unfortunate relatives of the future.”

Edith stood aloof, in the attitude she had adopted when he had released her, watchful, curious, in the scene, but not of it. It was an effect which the presence of Mrs. Cathcart invariably produced upon her daughter. It was not an obliteration, not exactly an eclipse, as the puzzled Gilbert had often observed. It was as though the entrance of one character of a drama were followed by the immediate exit of her who had previously occupied the scene. He pictured Edith waiting at the wings for a cue which would bring her into active existence again, and that cue was invariably the retirement of her mother.

“There are quite a number of nice people coming to-night, Gilbert,” said Mrs. Cathcart, glancing at a slip of paper in her hand. “There are some you don’t know, and some I want you very much to meet. I am sure you will like dear Dr. Cassylis----”

A smothered exclamation caught her ear, and she looked up sharply. Gilbert’s face was set: it was void of all expression. The girl saw the mask and wondered.

“What is it?” asked Mrs. Cathcart.

“Nothing,” said Gilbert steadily, “you were talking about your guests.”

“I was saying that you must meet Dr. Barclay-Seymour---he is a most charming man. I don’t think you know him?”

Gilbert shook his head.

“Well, you ought to,” she said. “He’s a dear friend of mine, and why on earth he practises in Leeds instead of maintaining an establishment in Harley Street I haven’t the slightest idea. The ways of men are beyond finding out. Then there is . . . .”

She reeled off a list of names, some of which Gilbert knew.

“What is the time?” she asked suddenly. Gilbert looked at his watch.

“A quarter to eight? I must go,” she said. “I will see you immediately after dinner.”

She turned back as she reached the door irresolutely.

“I suppose you aren’t going to change that absurd plan of yours,” she asked hopefully.

Gilbert had recovered his equanimity.

“I do not know to which absurd plan you are referring,” he said.

“Spending your honeymoon in town,” she replied.

“I don’t think Gilbert should be bothered about that.”

It was the girl who spoke, her first intrusion into the conversation. Her mother glanced at her sharply.

“In this case, my dear,” she said freezingly, “it is a matter in which I am more concerned than yourself.”

Gilbert hastened to relieve the girl of the brunt of the storm. Mrs. Cathcart was not slow to anger, and although Gilbert himself had never felt the lash of her bitter tongue, he had a shrewd suspicion that his future wife had been a victim more than once.

“It is absolutely necessary that I should be in town on the days I referred to,” he said. “I have asked you----”

“To postpone the wedding?” said Mrs. Cathcart. “My dear boy, I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t a reasonable request, now was it?”

She smiled at him as sweetly as her inward annoyance allowed her.

“I suppose it wasn’t,” he said dubiously.

He said no more, but waited until the door had closed behind her, then he turned quickly to the girl.

“Edith,” he said, speaking rapidly, “I want you to do something for me.”

“You want me to do something?” she asked in surprise.

“Yes, dearest. I must go away now. I want you to find some excuse to make to your mother. I’ve remembered a most important matter which I have not seen to----”

He spoke hesitatingly, for he was no ready liar.

“Going away!”

It was surprise rather than disappointment, he noticed, and was pardonably irritated.

“You can’t go now,” she said, and that look of fear came into her eyes. “Mother would be so angry. The people are arriving.”

From where he stood he had seen three motor broughams draw up almost simultaneously in front of the house.

“I must go,” he said desperately. “Can’t you get me out in any way? I don’t want to meet these people, I’ve very good reasons.”

She hesitated a moment.

“Where are your hat and coat?” she asked.

“In the hall---you will just have time,” he said.

She was in the hall and, back again with his coat, led him to the farther end of the drawing-room, through a door which communicated with the small library beyond. There was a way here to the garage and to the mews at the back of the house.

She watched the tall, striding figure with a troubled gaze, then as he disappeared from view she fastened the library door and came back to the drawing-room in time to meet her mother.

“Where is Gilbert?” asked Mrs. Cathcart.

“Gone,” said the girl.

“Gone!”

Edith nodded slowly.

“He remembered something very important and had to go back to his house.”

“But of course he is returning?”

“I don’t think so, mother,” she said quietly. “I fancy that the ‘something’ is immensely pressing.”

“But this is nonsense!” Mrs. Cathcart stamped her foot. “Here are all the people whom I have specially invited to meet him. It’s disgraceful!”

“But, mother----”

“Don’t ‘but mother’ me, for God’s sake!” said Mrs. Cathcart.

They were alone, the guests were assembling in the larger drawing-room, and there was no need for the elder woman to disguise her feelings.

“You sent him away, I suppose?” she said. “I don’t blame him. How can you expect to keep a man at your side if you treat him as though he were a grocer calling for orders?”

The girl listened wearily, and did not raise her eyes from the carpet.

“I do my best,” she said in a low voice.

“Your worst must be pretty bad if that is your best. After I’ve strained my every effort to bring to you one of the richest young men in London, you might at least pretend that his presence is welcome; but if he were the devil himself you couldn’t show greater reluctance at meeting him or greater relief at his departure.”

“Mother!” said the girl, and her eyes were filled with tears.

“Don’t ‘mother’ me, please!” said Mrs. Cathcart deliberately. “I am sick to death of your faddiness and your prejudices. What on earth do you want? What am I to get you?”

She threw out her arms in exasperated despair.

“I don’t want to marry at all,” said the girl in a low voice. “My father would never have forced me to marry.”

It was a daring thing to say, an exhibition of greater boldness than she had ever shown before in her encounters with her mother. But lately there had come to her a new courage. That despair which had made her dumb glowed now to rage, the fires of rebellion smouldered in her heart; and, albeit the demonstrations of her growing resentment were few and far between, her courage grew upon her venturing.

“Your father!” breathed Mrs. Cathcart, white with rage, “am I to have your father thrown at my head? Your father was a fool! A fool!” She almost hissed the word. “He ruined me as he ruined you because he hadn’t sufficient sense to keep the money he had inherited. I thought he was a clever man. I looked up to him for twenty years as the embodiment of all that was wise and kind and genial, and all those twenty years he was frittering away his competence on every hair-brained scheme which the needy adventurers of finance brought to him. He would not have forced you! I swear he wouldn’t!” She laughed bitterly. “He would have married you to the chauffeur if your heart was that way inclined. He was all amiability and incompetence, all good-nature and inefficiency. I hate your father!”

Her blue eyes were opened to their widest extent and the cold glare of hate was indeed apparent to the shrinking girl. “I hate him every time I have to entertain a shady stockbroker for the advantage I may receive from his knowledge of the market; I hate him for every economy I have to practise; I hate him every time I see my meagre dividends come in and as I watch them swallowed up by the results of his folly. Don’t make me hate you,” she said, pointing a warning finger at the girl.

Edith had cowered before the torrent of words, but this slander of her dead father roused something within her, put aside all fear of consequence, even though that consequence might be a further demonstration of that anger which she so dreaded.

Now she stood erect, facing the woman she called mother, her face pale, but her chin tilted a little defiantly.

“You may say what you like about me, mother,” she said quietly, “but I will not have you defame my father. I have done all you requested: I am going to marry a man who, though I know he is a kindly and charming man, is no more to me than the first individual I might meet in the street to-night. I am making this sacrifice for your sake: do not ask me to forego my faith in the man who is the one lovable memory in my life.”

Her voice broke a little, her eyes were bright with tears.

Whatever Mrs. Cathcart might have said, and there were many things she could have said, was checked by the entry of a servant.

For a moment or two they stood facing one another, mother and daughter, in silence. Then without another word Mrs. Cathcart turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

The girl waited for a moment, then went back to the library through which Gilbert had passed. She closed the door behind her and turned on one of the lights, for it was growing dark. She was shaking from head to foot with the play of these pent emotions of hers. She could have wept, but with anger and shame. For the first time in her life her mother had shown her heart. The concentrated bitterness of years had poured forth, unchecked by pity or policy. She had revealed the hate which for all these years had been gnawing at her soul; revealed in a flash the relationship between her father and her mother which the girl had never suspected.

That they had not been on the most affectionate terms Edith knew, but her short association with the world in which they moved had reconciled her mind to the coolness which characterised the attitudes of husband and wife. She had seen a score of such houses where man and wife were on little more than friendly terms, and had accepted such conditions as normal. It aroused in her a wild irritation that such relationships should exist: child as she was, she had felt that something was missing. But it had also reconciled her to her marriage with Gilbert Standerton. Her life with him would be no worse, and probably might be a little better, than the married lives of those people with whom she was brought into daily contact.

But in her mother’s vehemence she caught a glimpse of the missing quality of marriage. She knew now why her gentle father had changed suddenly from a genial, kindly man, with his quick laugh and his too willing ear for the plausible, into a silent shadow of a man, the sad, broken figure she so vividly retained in her memory.

Here was a quick turn in the road of life for her, an unexpected vista flashing into view suddenly before her eyes. It calmed her, steadied her. In those few minutes of reflection, standing there in the commonplace, gloomy little library, watching through the latticed panes the dismal mews which offered itself for inspection through a parallelogram of bricked courtyard, she experienced one of those great and subtle changes which come to humanity.

There was a new outlook, a new standard by which to measure her fellows, a new philosophy evolved in the space of a second. It was a tremendous upheaval of settled conviction which this tiny apartment witnessed.

She was surprised herself at the calmness with which she returned to the drawing-room and joined the party now beginning to assemble. It came as a shock to discover that she was examining her mother with the calm, impartial scrutiny of one who was not in any way associated with her. Mrs. Cathcart observed the girl’s self-possession and felt a twinge of uneasiness.

She addressed her unexpectedly, hoping to surprise her to embarrassment, and was a little staggered by the readiness with which the girl met her gaze and the coolness with which she disagreed to some proposition which the elder woman had made.

It was a new experience to the masterful Mrs. Cathcart. The girl might be sulking, but this was a new variety of sulks, foreign to Mrs. Cathcart’s experience.

She might be angry, yet there was no sign of anger; hurt---she should have been in tears. Mrs. Cathcart’s experienced eye could detect no sign of weeping. She was puzzled, a little alarmed. She had gone too far, she thought, and must conciliate, rather than carry on the feud until the other sued for forgiveness.

It irritated her to find herself in this position, but she was a tactician first and foremost, and it would be bad tactics on her part to pursue a disadvantage. Rather she sought the status quo ante bellum, and was annoyed to discover that it had gone for ever.

She hoped the talk that evening would confuse the girl to the point of seeking her protection; but to her astonishment Edith spoke of her marriage as she had never spoken of it before, without embarrassment, without hesitation, coolly, reasonably, intelligently.

The end of the evening found Edith commanding her field and her mother in the position of a suitor.

Mrs. Cathcart waited till the last guest had gone, then she came into the smaller drawing-room to find Edith standing in the fireplace, looking thoughtfully at a paper which lay upon the mantleshelf.

“What is it interests you so much, dear?”

The girl looked round, picked up the paper and folded it slowly.

“Nothing particularly,” she said. “Your Dr. Cassylis is an amusing man.”

“He is a very clever man,” said her mother tartly.

She had infinite faith in doctors, and offered them the tribute which is usually reserved for the supernatural.

“Is he?” said the girl coolly. “I suppose he is. Why does he live in Leeds?”

“Really, Edith, you are coming out of your shell,” said her mother with a forced smile of admiration. “I have never known you take so much interest in the people of the world before.”

“I am going to take a great deal of interest in people,” said the girl steadily. “I have been missing so much all my life.”

“I think you are being a little horrid,” said her mother, repressing her anger with an effort; “you’re certainly being very unkind. I suppose all this nonsense has arisen out of my mistaken confidence.”

The girl made no reply.

“I think I’ll go to bed, mother,” she said.

“And whilst you’re engaged in settling your estimate of people,” said Mrs. Cathcart with ominous calm, “perhaps you will interpret your fiancé’s behaviour to me. Dr. Cassylis particularly wanted to meet him.”

“I am not going to interpret anything,” said the girl.

“Don’t employ that tone with me,” replied her mother sharply.

The girl stopped, she was half-way to the door. She hardly turned, but spoke to her mother over her shoulder.

“Mother,” she said, quietly but decidedly, “I want you to understand this: if there is any more bother, or if I am again made the victim of your crossness, I shall write to Gilbert and break off my engagement.”

“Are you mad?” gasped the woman.

Edith shook her head.

“No, I am tired,” she said, “tired of many things.”

There was much that Mrs. Cathcart could have said, but with a belated wisdom she held her tongue till the door had closed behind her daughter. Then, late as the hour was, she sent for the cook and settled herself grimly for a pleasing half hour, for the vol-au-vent had been atrocious.