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5: Ominous Meeting

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Author Topic: 5: Ominous Meeting  (Read 42 times)
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« on: April 17, 2023, 11:08:00 am »

CAUGHT up in the useless existence prescribed for her by her aunt, Dilys was bored. Her encounter the previous day with the young man at the exhibition had suddenly forced her to see with devastating clarity the emptiness of her life. For a few hours she’d been buoyed up by the thought of the meeting they’d arranged on the Casino terrace. Then, just before dinner, she’d received a ’phone call to say that the meeting was off. The young man was terribly sorry but it rather looked as if they wouldn’t be able to get together at all for the next few days. It wasn’t his fault but circumstances made it impossible.

Just that. No real explanation for the let down. Nothing but a vague suggestion that he would ring again in the near future. Dilys’ high mood collapsed. She began to view the encounter at the galleries with a more calculating eye. Wasn’t there, after all, something rather fishy about this Mr. John Smith? Anyway she refused to believe that Smith was his real name. He’d obviously blurted out the first thing that came into his head. But why? Because he wanted to conceal his real identity. And why had he wanted to conceal his identity? Well, most people adopted an alias because they had something to hide---more often than not, something criminal.

Dilys shivered. Could she believe anything he’d told her? Was he really a clerk in a London office? And this friend he spoke of---was it really a man friend?

By the time Dilys arrived at the breakfast-table, after a broken, restless night, she was prepared to erase Mr. John Smith from her memory. If he did have the audacity to ring up again, then she’d inform him, politely but firmly, that she no longer wished to meet him.

With all these unhappy reflections in her mind, it wasn’t until she ran against Paul Latour on his belated way downstairs that Dilys remembered the picture.

“Oh hullo, Paul. You slipped out early yesterday. I wanted you to take me along to the exhibition and give me the benefits of your professional knowledge. As it was I had to go alone.”

“Not a very good show, I hear. Too recherché. You agree?”

“Well, I’m not really qualified to say. But I found it . . . interesting. There was one picture in particular called . . . now what on earth was it? Oh, I know---Le Filou.” Dilys watched closely for his reactions but Paul’s features remained more than usually impassive. “It had a very distinctive style, Paul.”

“Really? Who was the artist?”

“Well, quite frankly, I thought it was you.”

Paul looked at her in astonishment.

“Me? Me? Mon Dieu! I’d sooner cut my throat than exhibit my work in the company of such mediocre nitwits!”

“But it was so exactly like your painting, Paul. Uncannily like it.”

“But, ma petite, didn’t you buy a catalogue?”

“Yes, of course---but I thought perhaps you were showing the picture under an assumed name.”

“An assumed name? How do you mean? What name?”

“Oh Jacques somebody or other.”

“Jacques?”

“Yes---I remember now. Jacques Dufil.”

---

Bill Dillon stood before the wardrobe mirror in his hotel bedroom and took a final critical look at his appearance. Umph, not so bad. Lucky he’d had the good sense to pack his dinner-jacket even if it was a bit tight across the shoulders. No doubt that during these last two years he’d put on weight. No doubt either that all the violent and unaccustomed exercises of the last two days had developed his muscles.

Only that afternoon in an old bush shirt and khaki shorts, with a rucksack on his back, he’d been for his daily constitutional in the mountains. He’d driven up through Castillon and Sospey, parked the car near Col de Braus and struck out on foot to explore its rugged and precipitous environs. This was the third time he’d followed this particular route up from Menton for a scramble among the lower peaks of the nine thousand foot range. Up there the air had been clear as crystal, the sun scorching down from a cloudless sky, the heat reflected upward from the bare and shimmering rock. Certainly his complexion had suffered from the day’s expedition. No getting away from it---at the moment his wasn’t the sort of face that would look well at the dinner table. But Bill wasn’t troubled. That afternoon up in the mountains he’d found the answer to a vital problem, a tantalizing uncertainty that for two years or more had nattered at his peace-of-mind.

He wound a silk muffler round his neck, locked the door of his room and went down to his car. Now that his visit to the Villa Paloma was imminent Bill’s apprehension increased. All day, caught up in strenuous activity, he’d been able to forget this fateful meeting with Kitty. Now, as he drove through the cooling streets, with the strong sweet perfume of the mimosa in his nostrils, he wondered what the devil the outcome would be. Somehow he must edge Kitty aside and speak to her alone. It wouldn’t be easy for, in her present mood, Kitty would probably do her damnedest to deny him this opportunity. He knew only too well how stubborn and wilful she could be. But the knowledge did nothing to ease the passionate longing that moved him when he thought of Kitty. No matter what had happened in the past, Bill knew that without her the future would be pretty well unbearable.

Yes, somehow during the course of the evening he must make a last desperate effort to win her back. An unreasonable hope, perhaps.

---

“My dear, dear boy!” boomed Nesta, grasping Bill’s hands and shaking them frantically. “As if I wouldn’t have known you!” She stepped back and viewed him with unblushing curiosity. “You’ve certainly broadened out since those gay days at Larkhill. Don’t get enough exercise, of course. And where’s your moustache? You used to have a moustache. One of those bristly little army affairs. So virile.” Again the searching, slightly roguish contemplation. “You know, I always liked you, Bill. Not very subtle but no damn nonsense about you. Now come and meet the others. We’re a rag-and-bobtail collection but I think we’ll amuse you.”

She led him through into the lounge and announced breezily:

“Hi! Everybody. This is Bill!”

He saw Kitty at once, and his heart missed a beat. She was sitting on the arm of a settee, lovely and desirable as ever, with a cocktail glass in her hand and a small nervous smile playing about her lips. With the imperious gesture of a headmistress about to present a fourth-former to a visiting governor, Nesta beckoned her forward.

“And this is Kitty---Kitty Linden. She’s down here on a visit.” Adding with a baleful glance: “Just a short visit, eh, darling?”

Kitty, never quite sure how to take these devastating digs, smiled bleakly at Nesta and granted Bill a distant nod; then turned with sudden animation to Tony Shenton, who’d drifted up behind her. Bill was swift to notice how she slipped her arm through his---a familiar, possessive gesture that left no doubt in his mind as to the relationship between them. So there had been another man in the set-up---just as he’d always suspected. He wondered who the devil the fellow was and where Kitty had first met him. An outsized rotter by the look of him. Bill’s jaw grew taut. He realized with a sudden stab of despair that this man’s presence was just another knot in an already tangled situation.

Barely conscious of what he was saying, he was introduced to Dilys, Miss Pilligrew and Latour. Then Nesta grabbed Tony by the necktie and jerked him forward like a recalcitrant horse. For the first time the two men found themselves face to face. And at that moment Bill suffered a shock. There was absolutely no question about it---somewhere, sometime, he’d met this smooth-faced bounder before!

---

It was not until they’d moved out on to the moonlit terrace after dinner that Bill succeeded in detaching Kitty from the rest of the party. Tony had been called away to answer the telephone and the others were still seated at the coffee table. Seizing his chance Bill grabbed Kitty by the arm and more or less manhandled her behind a wisteria-covered pillar. He said urgently:

“I’ve got to see you alone sometime. We’ve got to have a proper talk about everything. We just can’t go on like this.”

Snatching away her arm she demanded furiously:

“Why did you have to come here? How did you find out that I was in Menton? Why can’t you leave me alone?”

“You know well enough why I can’t. Because I’m still in love with you, Kit. I’ve been nearly crazy with loneliness ever since you walked out on me. Don’t you see----”

“For heaven’s sake, keep your voice down!”

“When can we have a talk? It’s no good drifting like this. We’ve got to have things out, once and for all. You see that, Kit?”

She said desperately:

“Oh, all right. If we must. When you leave, park the car at the foot of the hill. I’ll try and sneak out to you for a few minutes.”

“Good enough, darling. I’ll be there.” He tried to slip an arm about her waist but, with a fierce little shake of her head, she dodged aside. Bill shrugged miserably. “Oh, all right---if that’s how you feel about it . . .”

“Now you two!” cried Nesta with coy innuendo. “What are you whispering about? Kitty, how dare you buttonhole poor Captain Dillon. You’re a brazen hussy!”

“Sorry, Mrs. Hedderwick. I was just showing him the view over the town. It looks heavenly in the moonlight.”

As the couple rejoined the circle at the table, Nesta went on cooingly:

“Bill darling, do you play bridge?”

“Well, I’m not a Culbertson, but—”

“Splendid! You must come along and make up a four. Next Friday, dear boy---that’s the day after tomorrow. Friday at eight-thirty. Make a note of it in your diary.”

“Well, I . . .” stammered Bill. “I’m not sure that . . .”

“Good! I knew you would. Colonel Malloy and his horrid little wife will be coming over from Beaulieu. We always make up a four on Fridays.” Nesta turned a bolt-eyed glare on her long-suffering companion. “Bill can take your place, Pilly. You’re dreadful. No finesse, dear, and far too talkative.”

“Yes, dear,” murmured Miss Pilligrew submissively.

“Now, Dilys, darling, come and sit next to Bill. I’m sure he’s dying to talk to you. Where’s Tony? And Paul? It’s damned rude the way they just eat and fade away. But that’s men all over. As long as they can satisfy their grosser appetites . . . no, not you, Bill. Your manners were always delightful. I’m so glad you took me at my word. We want to see an awful lot of you---don’t we, Dilys?”

“Yes, auntie,” mumbled Dilys uncomfortably.

“So from now on no standing on ceremony. Understand, dear boy? Just barge in whenever----” With a dramatic gesture Nesta clapped her hands to her head and uttered a wild little shriek. “Bill dear, what am I thinking about! I’m in my dotage. Why on earth didn’t it occur to me at once? You must come and stay here. Of course you must! The Bandol’s such a grubby little joint. And we’d simply----”

“But . . . but I can’t do that,” floundered Bill, glancing apprehensively at Kitty, thinking of the delicate and explosive situation that existed between them. “It’s extremely kind of you but----”

“Now don’t be so damned obstinate! You’ll pack up and move in tomorrow. Promise, Bill.”

Kitty muttered desperately:

“But perhaps Captain Dillon prefers staying at an hotel, Mrs. Hedderwick. Men often do.”

Nesta quelled her with a contemptuous snort.

“Don’t talk such poppycock, darling. Nobody in their senses would stay at the Bandol unless they had to. I hear the water’s always lukewarm and the food absolutely ghastly. Of course he’d rather stay here. You would, wouldn’t you, Bill?”

He glanced despairingly at Kitty and mumbled feebly:

“Well, I don’t . . . I don’t quite know what to . . .”

“Then that’s settled!” shrilled Nesta, beaming delightedly at the little group about the table. “You hear that, everybody---Bill’s coming! We’ll expect you by lunch tomorrow. So glad I had the sense to----”

But Bill was no longer listening. Tony Shenton had reappeared on the terrace and suddenly Bill recalled where he’d first met the fellow. It was in 1943 at some aerodrome in Lincolnshire. He’d knocked up against him in the bar after dinner in the mess and exchanged a few words with him. Not many, for Shenton had been half-seas-over and more or less incapable of sustained conversation. Later that evening he’d learnt something of Flying-Officer Shenton’s reputation, and what he’d learnt wasn’t exactly edifying. Some question of a missing wallet that Shenton had inadvertently dragged from his pocket when searching for a packet of cigarettes. There’d been nearly forty pounds in the wallet, but for the sake of the squadron the affair had been hushed up.

And this was the fellow Kitty was going around with---a common pickpocket, a wastrel, a scrounger, a playboy! Good God! It was tragic. No doubt about it---unless he could break up this rotten affair before he left Menton then Kitty, poor kid, was heading blindfold for disaster!

---

But when, some twenty minutes after he’d driven away from the villa, she joined him in the parked car, he soon realized that Kitty was in no mood to listen to reason. She was furious with him for turning up again in her life. Furious with the mutual friend in London who sneaked of her whereabouts. Furious because, by a strange coincidence, he’d met Nesta in the past and had thus been able to wangle an invitation to the Villa Paloma. Over Tony Shenton she was brazen.

“I met him long before I met you. We’ve kept in touch for years. That shakes you, doesn’t it? And if Tony asks me, I’m damn well going to marry him!”

“Marry him!” Bill was thunderstruck. “But, good lord, Kit, doesn’t he realize? Haven’t you had the decency to tell him?”

“Tell him what?”

That you’re already married to me!

Kitty laughed maliciously.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll have to tell him sometime. Even I can see that. But I’m going to tell him in my own time---not yours.”

“But, good heavens, Kit!”

“Well, what does it matter anyway? I’m not in love with you. I doubt if I ever was. Our marriage was about the grimmest mistake I ever made. Left high and dry in that pokey little Kensington flat all day while you were at the office . . . a thrilling sort of existence, wasn’t it?” Kitty’s laughter grew more shrill. “And I was supposed to be the good little wifey who sat twiddling her thumbs until her dear hubby came home tired and touchy from his work. Don’t be so dim, Bill. If it hadn’t been for Tony I’d have gone crackers.”

“But, good lord, Kit---you don’t mean that you and Tony----?”

“Oh, be your age! Don’t tell me you didn’t guess. That night after our final row, when I walked out on you for good . . . well, Tony had already fixed for me to join him down here. You’re wasting your time, Bill. It’s no good. I’m not coming back!”

“But, confound it all, you’re my wife!” cried Bill vehemently. “Do you think I’m going to stand back and see you chuck yourself away on a rank outsider like Shenton?”

“I’d like to see you stop me. If Tony asks me to marry him you’re going to give me my divorce.”

“I’m damned if I am! I came across Shenton during the War and his reputation in the mess stank to high heaven.”

“Oh well, if you must throw mud at him when he’s not here to defend himself . . .”

Kitty opened the car-door and slid one silk-clad leg to the ground. With a muttered oath Bill dragged her back and, reaching across, slammed the door.

“Now look here, Kit---let’s get this straight. I knew just what you were thinking about when Mrs. Hedderwick pushed out that invitation. That, in the circumstances, I was bound to turn it down. Well, I thought the same thing at first, even if I couldn’t make up an excuse to put the old dear off. But since then I’ve changed my mind, and, whether you like it or not, I’m turning up at the villa tomorrow. And if Mrs. Hedderwick’s agreeable, I’m damn well going to stay there for the remaining three weeks of my holiday. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. If you think I’m going to sneak out of your life with my tail between my legs just because you think you’ve fallen for Shenton in a big way then you’re crazy! I’m giving you three weeks to find out your mistake and come to your senses. So now you know just where you stand.”

“All right,” retorted Kitty hotly. “Turn up at the villa. It won’t worry me. It certainly won’t break my heart to keep out of your way. But get this into your head. I’m not open to persuasion. You can say and do what you like but you won’t make me change my mind. I’m going to marry Tony and you’re going to make it possible. That’s flat and final.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Well, if you must know I’m going to have a baby and it won’t be yours, Bill. Now laugh that one off.”

“Kit! It isn’t true.”

“Isn’t it? Well, wait another couple of months and even you’ll have to believe me.”

For a moment Bill sat there, immobile, unspeaking; then, suddenly, desperately, he turned on Kitty and grasped her by the wrists. Even at that moment of disillusionment he felt no real enmity towards Kitty. She’d made a mess of her life---that was all. She’d been bored and lonely and he hadn’t realized. And Shenton? How the devil was he to be blamed for this shabby set-up if he hadn’t realized that Kitty was a married woman?

He said pleadingly:

“Kit darling---even now, I don’t care . . . if only you’ll come back to me. We’ll forget all this rotten business. What do I care if this child isn’t----”

“Let me go---do you hear? Let me get out of here!” With a sudden vicious gesture she snatched free her wrists and caught him a stinging slap on the cheek. “If you don’t open that door and let me go I’ll scream for help!”

“O.K.” said Bill dully. “O.K.”

He reached over and opened the door. She scrambled out and stood for an instant setting straight her hair, smoothing out her frock. Then, ignoring his “Good-night”, she turned on her absurdly high-heels and clicked off up the hill. He watched her flicker through the dappled moonlight, and the fronded shadows of the palm trees, until she was out of sight. It was curious that even at that melancholy moment his heart was full of pity for her.

As he drove back slowly through the deserted streets to his hotel, he made up his mind just what his next move should be in this unhappy situation. He must tackle Shenton face to face and find out, once for all, what his intentions were towards Kitty. And if he were prepared to do the decent thing . . . Bill shrugged. Well, he knew when he was beaten. But, by God, Shenton must play fair, or else . . .

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