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19: The Snarl

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Author Topic: 19: The Snarl  (Read 41 times)
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« on: June 03, 2023, 11:23:45 am »

THE large room immediately on the left of the front door at Portminster Lodge had been designed in those days when thought, time, and, above all, space were devoted to fine eating. Much of the south wall was taken up by a bay window, narrow and tall as the end of a tram, while directly opposite were a pair of folding doors opening into a slightly smaller apartment which also possessed a window of the same kind in the back wall of the house.

Lawrence Palinode’s father, whose somewhat hand-painted portrait hung over the fireplace, had entertained the wit and scholarship of Victorian Europe in this small banqueting hall, but now his son worked at one end of it and slept at the other, only a little incommoded by the fact that most of the original furniture remained exactly where it always had been.

His camp-bedstead was wedged between two rather fine Georgian mahogany pedestals complete with brass-mounted urns, and it was evident that he kept his clothes neatly folded in and about a sideboard now too large for any private household.

The general effect was, curiously, not at all uncomfortable. The tapestry-covered armchair on the hearth was bag-seated but very tidy and well brushed, and the solid table with rounded ends, which ran the whole length of the worn carpet, was neatly divided into three sections, the first a desk, the second a filing department, and the third a fairly well fitted sandwich-bar. The rest was books, not one of them dusty or dog-eared. They filled walls and side tables and the tops of cabinets, overflowing into heaps in corners and on chairs.

Yet it was the tidiest living-room in Charlie Luke’s wide experience. He remarked upon it as he stood looking round with Campion at his side.

They had entered without invitation and were giving it what Luke called ‘the old once-over’ while they waited for the owner. Campion had not been hopeful, but practically the first thing he looked at in the least closely took him by surprise.

On one side of the desk end of the table a butler’s tray on a stand had been arranged. It was packed solid with books in use, all neatly stacked, spines uppermost.

Campion bent over them. The first title he read was Forensic Medicine by Sidney Smith, and the second Toxicology by Buchanan. As his eye ran along the line his expression grew more and more blank. The inevitable Gross was there, and a Materia Medica, Lucas on Forensic Chemistry, and a very old Quaine. He began to look for other friends and was interested to see Glaister, Keith Simpson, and the engaging H. T. F. Rhodes, as well as a large section of supplementaries including Streker and Ebaugh, and Mental Abnormality and Crime in the ‘English Studies in Criminal Science’ series.

It was a small but comprehensive working library of criminology.

He took up the Materia Medica and glanced at the flyleaf, sighed with comprehension, and was continuing his investigations with the other books when Luke interrupted him.

‘Chase me!’

The old-fashioned Cockney expletive had the force of the unusual. Campion looked up to find his circumflex-accented eyes wide with astonishment. He was holding out a sheet of paper which he had just taken from the mantelshelf.

‘Foul-mouthed Freda again,’ he said. ‘Look. All by itself and handy under a matchbox. Envelope as well. I ask you!’

Campion went over and together they read the fellow to the note to the doctor. This time the anonymous writer had spread herself. The opening paragraph possessed obscenity and a depth of spite which was even more shocking. As he read, Campion felt the chill which always assailed him whenever he met the abnormal. This was madness, cold and festering. The message, when taken out of the mass of decay, was simple.

You . . . have robbed a . . . fool.

The envelope, which still lay on the shelf, was correctly addressed to Lawrence Palinode and the local postmark was clear.

‘Posted yesterday morning.’ Luke put the letter back where he had found it. ‘First thing I picked up. We interviewed the chap some days ago but we didn’t go over the room then. I don’t know if this is the first note he’s had. If it isn’t, why the hell hasn’t he reported it? Looks damn funny to me.’

He walked on down the room, his fingers playing noisily with the coins in his pockets. As he followed him, Campion could almost hear his mind working.

‘Well, we’ll have another talk with him,’ he went on as they reached the second half of the double room. ‘I may as well admit I didn’t understand a quarter of what he said last time. You have met him, haven’t you? He takes me to the fair every time he opens his mouth. Maybe it’s my lack of education.’ He spread out his hands to convey emptiness. ‘We’ll have another go.’

Campion touched his arm. ‘At this very moment.’

From the hall outside excited voices reached them clearly, Lawrence’s goose-tones sounding high above the others. The door handle rattled and there was a moment of hesitation as they heard him say, ‘Come in, come in. I insist.’

Luke and Campion, who were standing in the shelter of the folded dividing doors, remained where they were. In the darkness of the corner they were, if not invisible, at least not instantly obvious.

Lawrence came in with a rush. His hand brushed the light switch and in his extreme preoccupation he did not notice that the room was already lit. His tall, heavy-boned figure was clumsier than ever and he was trembling so violently that the door he held shook noticeably and a book from a pile on the chair behind it slid to the ground.

In stooping for this he knocked over the others, made a movement to recover them, changed his mind and stood up again with a gesture of resignation.

‘Come in,’ he repeated, the notes of his voice jarring like piano wires. ‘Come in at once.’

Clytie White stepped slowly into the room. She was colourless, her dark eyes looking enormous. The blue-black helmet of her hair was dishevelled and her ugly old-fashioned clothes stood away from her thin body as if she had shrunk within them.

‘The Captain has gone on upstairs,’ she said so softly that they could hardly hear her.

‘Never mind about that.’ He closed the door and leant his back against it, lying in a crucified attitude which was certainly unnatural but not consciously affected. His mouth, which in the normal way was pale and inclined to be prim, was now bright and imperfectly controlled. His eyes, which were naked and blind-looking without his thick pebble-glasses, seemed to be very near tears. The ugly honking voice, so much louder than was necessary or than its owner seemed to expect, came at last.

‘Miserable girl!’ he said distinctly.

It was pure barnstorming melodrama absurd in the extreme and yet disconcerting because of his appalling sincerity. His pain was a living thing in the room.

‘You look like my sister when I saw her first.’ He was accenting alternate syllables without realizing it, and the halting verse and the hideous voice in conjunction stepped up the reproach to the point of savagery. ‘She was pale like you, and pure. Pure like white paper. But she was lying. She was creeping out, slyly to make love in the streets like a drab.’

He was no actor and no Adonis, yet he was terrible rather than ridiculous. Campion sighed. Charlie Luke stirred uneasily.

Clytie stood stiffly in front of her accuser. Her dark eyes were watchful and intelligent, like an experienced child’s. She suggested wariness rather than alarm.

‘She married my father,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘Don’t you think you may all have made her deceitful, as you have me? I don’t like making love in the park.’

‘Or in the public corridor of a hospital?’ His contempt was agonized. ‘You do it because you can’t help it, I suppose? The itch is in you, is it? Hot hands over the pavement in the yeasty dark, and the shuffle of the curious rustling by. Do you know, you make me retch? God! you disgust me! You disgust me! Do you hear?’

The girl was shaken. She grew paler and smaller and her fastidious nose came down over her mouth. The resignation of long-misunderstood youth appeared in the droop of her body. She was silent for a long time.


She met his gaze suddenly and a faint irrepressible smile of sheer naughtiness ran across her lips.

‘It isn’t like that at all,’ she said. ‘D’you know, I don’t believe you know anything about it except what you’ve read.’

He winced as if she had struck him in the face, and Mr. Campion, who had recognized something in his outburst, felt his own eyes growing blank behind his spectacles.

Lawrence was now naturally more angry. He flung himself across the room towards the fireplace.

‘And I have read a great deal.’ He whipped the envelope off the mantelshelf and thrust it at her. ‘Do you deny you wrote this?’

The readiness with which she took it made her astonishment convincing. She glanced at the address in bewilderment.

‘Of course I didn’t. That’s not my handwriting, I hope.’

‘Isn’t it?’ He was leaning towards her in dreadful self-inflicted agony. ‘Isn’t it? Aren’t you responsible for all the unsigned letters which have brought your family this horrible notoriety? Isn’t it you who is flinging this stinking mud all over us? Isn’t it?’

‘No.’ As she comprehended the accusation the blood had poured into her face. She was openly frightened of him this time and her eyes were wide and black. ‘That’s a filthy thing to say.’

‘Filthy? My God! My girl, do you know what you write? My God! From what incredible subconscious do you drag such sludge? Read it and then for heaven’s sake admit it.’

She stood hesitating, the envelope still in her hand. She was frowning, the queries about his sanity as obvious as if she had spoken them aloud. At last she pulled out the dirty fold of paper and held it unopened.

‘Honestly and truly I never saw this before,’ she began cheerfully, but as if she knew she had no hope of convincing him. ‘I’m telling the literal truth, Uncle Lawrence. I’ve never seen this before, and really I’m not the sort of person to write anonymous letters. All that stuff about adolescence you’ve been looking up---can’t you see it really doesn’t apply to me?’

‘Read it, Clytie.’ His voice was breaking. ‘You’ve done this thing and you must be made to realize how terrible it is. That is your only chance. You’ve got to be made to realize.’

She opened the note, glanced at it, and flung it out at him at arm’s length.

‘I don’t think I want to.’ There was more than a touch of Miss Evadne in her dignified disgust. ‘Can’t you see that you’re making a rather beastly mistake? You’ve absolutely no business to treat me like this. I won’t have it. Take this disgusting thing at once or I’ll chuck it in the fire.’

‘Read it. Read it aloud to me.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Read it.’

Charlie Luke strode swiftly down the room and snapped up the letter from between them. He was thoroughly shocked.

‘That’ll be quite enough.’ He involved a thousand-volt charge into his primness and succeeded in looking like the Angel of the Lord from a modern morality play.

It was typical of Lawrence Palinode that he did not notice that he had not come through the door.

‘I did not hear you knock,’ he said with dignity. It was, probably, the one remark which could have disconcerted Luke at that particular moment. His mouth opened and closed again without words, but his stare remained piercing and packed with disapproval.

He stood looking at Lawrence for perhaps fifteen seconds before he transferred his attention to Clytie. She was far more startled than her uncle and was inclined to be defiant. Luke’s opening gambit took her completely by surprise.

‘You’ve got some walking-out clobber,’ he announced, ‘togs you’ve been wearing on the quiet.’

She nodded guiltily.

‘Go and put ’em on. It’s time you grew out of all this, don’t you think?’ The wave of his hand embraced family authority and all Lawrence Palinode’s literary researches into the mental states attendant on puberty in one comprehensive gesture. ‘In my district there are girls of seventeen who’ve been damned good wives and mothers for eighteen months or more,’ he added by way of explanation. There was a gentle reasonableness about him which was always noticeable when he was talking to Clytie. It was as though he understood her so well that their acquaintance was timeless.

She comprehended him perfectly. There was not even gratitude in her grin of relief.

‘Oh, you’re right, aren’t you?’ she said. ‘Yes, that’s what I’ll do.’

‘Where are you going? Where are you going?’ Lawrence started after her, his hand on her shoulder.

She released herself gently, almost kindly.

‘To be my age, my dear,’ she said. ‘I shan’t be long.’

He stood looking blankly at the closed door for a moment and then swung round to see Campion in the room for the first time.

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