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Chapter 15

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« on: April 05, 2023, 11:52:04 am »

AND now began the darkest period in all Annie Marble’s unhappy life, the last few weeks before its unhappy end. The shadows had massed about 53 Malcolm Road, and as they clustered round ready for the last act of the tragedy poor Annie grew more and more conscious of their presence.

Winnie was gone; of that they could be sure now. They had waited a week in suspense; then they had begun to advertise for her. Discreet little advertisements in the personal columns of the papers—‘Winnie. Come back to 53. Everything forgiven. Father and Mother.’ That was the most they could do. For a brief half-second while they had been debating what to do there had arisen a hint that they might call in the police, but it vanished at once like a breath of cold air, leaving them looking dumbly at each other without meeting each other’s eyes.

Poor Annie spent anxious hours wondering what had happened to her daughter. There was only one thing that she thought possible, and that was that she was leading ‘a life of shame’ with one or other of the finely-dressed men she knew. At this late period Annie remembered the flocks of men who had hovered—and more than hovered—about them during those days at the Grand Pavilion Hotel. She was sure that it was this that had happened. Neither she nor her husband knew that Winnie had had all that money with her when she left; nor, thinking the worst as they inevitably did, did they give her credit for her coolness of head that she could summon to her aid if necessary. Annie Marble thought she had driven her daughter into prostitution. It was the bitterest drop she had to swallow.

And Annie Marble was depressed and worn with anxiety. She was fretting about Winnie, and this was the last straw added to the intolerable burden under which she laboured. Will had returned almost entirely to his old ways; once again he passed his time in the sitting-room, peering drearily through the windows into the backyard. The whisky bottle was continually at his side; the words he had for his wife grew fewer and fewer. Sometimes he could still rouse himself sufficiently to pay her a little attention, and bring a flash of sunshine into her life, but the occasions were rare. Poor Annie!

It ended in Mr Marble going forth to do the shopping, leaving her to rest. It was tacitly understood between them, before he left her, that she was to rest in the sitting-room, whence she could keep an eye through the windows.

But Will had hardly gone when the postman dropped a letter through the door with his double knock. It was the eleven o’clock postman—he who brought the continental mail. Annie walked weakly to the door and picked up the letter, and went back weakly to the drawing-room. Not until she had sat down did she look at the envelope—she was not sure enough of her legs to read it standing up. But she was very interested as to what it might be. For perhaps it might be news of Winnie.

The envelope was addressed most queerly. The writing was large and sprawling. The first letter of the address was a big ‘A’. The second was an ‘M’. The third was a ‘W’. The letter was obviously from foreign parts, for the address ended ‘Angleterre’ and Annie knew that meant ‘England’ in a foreign tongue. Thus——

A. M. W. Marble,

    53 Malcolm Road,

        Dulwich,

            Londres,

                Angleterre.

Annie looked at the envelope a long time. Clearly the ‘A’ and the ‘M’ referred to her—was she not Ann Mary Marble? The ‘W’ and the absence of any ‘Mrs’ bothered her. But it might be usual in letters from abroad to leave out the ‘Mrs’ and being from abroad it might contain news about Winnie just as much as if it had been posted in England. Annie opened it, and took out the letter. It took several seconds for the import of the first few words to pierce home to her, but as soon as she had grasped their meaning she sank back half fainting in her chair. The letter was in English, and it began ‘My dearest, darling Will’.

Dr. Atkinson was a thin rat of a man, with sandy hair and eyebrows, neither young nor old, with a keen glance behind his pince-nez. He felt her pulse, took her temperature.

‘Who’s looking after her?’ he asked.

‘I am,’ said Marble—a trifle sullenly, Atkinson thought, later.

‘Are you alone?’

‘Yes. My daughter’s—away at present.’

‘Well, you’d better get somebody in. Some neighbour or somebody. She’ll need careful attention if we’re to avoid pneumonia.’

Marble looked at him blankly. Get somebody in? Have someone else in the house, poking and prying about? And Annie, there, nearly delirious! Marble had caught a word or two of what she had muttered, of what Atkinson had not heard, and it set him trembling.

Atkinson was looking round the room, with its queer furnishing of gilt. He was trying to estimate the income of this man who apparently did not go to work.

‘What about a nurse?’ he said. ‘I’ll send one in, shall I?’

Marble found his tongue.

‘No,’ he said, with overmuch vehemence—he was sadly overtried. ‘I won’t have a nurse. I can do all the nursing myself. I won’t have a nurse.’

Atkinson shrugged his shoulders.

‘Well, if you won’t, you won’t. But she’ll need very careful nursing, I tell you that. You must——’ he went on to outline all that Marble must do. But all the time he was debating within himself over this strange man who lived alone with his wife in a poky house furnished like Buckingham Palace, whose daughter was—away, at present, who did no work, and who was violently opposed to having anyone nurse his wife.

And Marble guessed at his curiosity, and cursed at it within himself, with the sweat running cold under his clothes.

‘Right, I’ll look in again this afternoon,’ said Atkinson.

He did. He looked in again twice a day during all the next week.

And during that week Marble fretted and wore himself to pieces under the burden of his troubles. Everything was madly worrying. Atkinson alone, with his sharp eyes everywhere, was enough to madden him, yet to add to it all the great worry of his life returned to him and nagged at him more than ever he had known it before. Marble found his harassed mind returning continually to work out hateful possibilities; whether or no Atkinson might find something out; whether he had heard anything of what Annie was continually muttering; what the neighbours, as well as Atkinson, thought of his refusing to call in the assistance of anyone else. He knew that they were all interested in what went on in his house, he knew how they sneered enviously at all his fine possessions, and at Annie’s clothes and Winnie’s grand manner—and they were probably burningly interested in what had happened to Winnie, though by good luck they might think she was still at school.

The strain told on him. The worrying days and the broken nights—for he had to attend to Annie frequently during the nights—broke his already strained nerves to pieces. And he could not forget about the garden. That was continuously in his thoughts, too. If anything, it was worse now. Marble found himself, whenever the jangle of Annie’s bell roused him out of his sleep, and after he had done what she wanted, creeping downstairs to peer out into the dark garden to see that all was secure. He even began to wake on his own during the night and go down, and he had never done that before.

Strange to tell, Annie recovered. It was more really than Atkinson expected, and it seems stranger still when it is remembered that she did not want to recover.

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