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2: Upset at Number Two

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Author Topic: 2: Upset at Number Two  (Read 48 times)
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« on: August 28, 2023, 08:33:24 am »

HILARY Fitzgerald glanced over the top of the ground-glass which filled in the lower sash of the bank windows. The Promenade was busy and crowded with afternoon shoppers, who ambled and chatted on the broad pavements beneath the thickening shadows of the chestnut trees. Expensive, glittering limousines were drawn up at the kerb watched over by zealous chauffeurs, who now and then opened doors and touched their hats to their fur-coated mistresses. Well-dressed middle-aged women pranced on high-heels, with a toy dog or a silent, moustached male in tow. Mahogany-faced gentlemen dawdled in the sunshine with small parcels dangling from their gloved fingers. Fitzgerald smiled a little wanly and accepted this mundane, animated scene with a nod of approval. Everything out there was going on just the same. Thank God for that! It was only in his head things were at sixes and sevens and his thoughts revolving round and round the same dark problems.

Suddenly his smile vanished and his slim, tall body stiffened. His eye had caught a glimpse of two people among that string of promenaders---two people whom he recognized instantly and with a hot surge of anger. The woman, pale, dark, distinguished with a set expression of disdain upon her almost Grecian profile, was Mrs. West. The floridly handsome man, with the bristly moustache, overwaisted suit and swaggering walk, was Captain Cotton.

“Disgusting!” he thought. “To stroll about together in this shameless fashion. It’s beyond me to say what she sees in that unmitigated swine!”

How he loathed those coarse, ruddy features, the insolent good-humour, the overweening self-confidence. The picture of that man was seldom absent from his inward vision. As he bent over his figures in the bank, as he sipped a whisky in his club, as he walked, talked, ate and dreamed---always that grinning, handsome face seemed to be leering at him. It was over a year now since Captain Cotton had come into the square and turned the bliss of his newly-married existence into a life of suspense and terrible anticipation. He could never shake the fellow off. Often when he walked home, tired, dispirited from the bank, there was a loud-voiced greeting at his elbow and the slap of that detested hand upon his shoulder. In the square they thought he was friendly with the “Captain.” But that was through no fault of his own. The fellow was a leech, a poisonous leech, that was slowly sucking the health out of his body and the balance from his mind. How long could he stand up to this fellow’s insidious attentions? How long would it be before he cracked up and threw in the sponge. And if it came to that?---he shuddered and drew away from the window. Whatever happened, for Joyce’s sake, he must hang on to the last shreds of his willpower and refuse to accept defeat.

Joyce came down the steps to meet him as he drew level with Number Four. He kissed her in a perfunctory manner, slipped a hand through her arm and went into the house. She looked at him with her large, round eyes and asked anxiously: “He hasn’t----?”

He shook his head.

“Otherwise occupied, thank heaven!”

“Isobel?”

“Yes. Together on the Promenade. Quite openly now. There’s going to be an almighty explosion soon.”

“Well, if he’s blown up that won’t worry us. I wonder Arthur has stood it so long.”

“We have,” he answered wryly. “Though God knows,” he added with sudden repressed fury, “I’d like to . . . to----”

She laid a hand to his sleeve.

“Hilary!”

“Oh, all right. Don’t you worry, I’ll keep control of myself. But I warn you, Joyce, if this sort of thing, this nightmare situation goes on much longer, I shall go off my head.”

Captain Cotton stood just round the corner from Regency Square and squeezed Isobel’s gloved hand.

“And look here, old girl, don’t you worry about him,” he was saying in his thick, caressing voice. “I’ve got your little Arthur taped to a T. He may yap and snarl a bit but he daren’t bite. Nuisance that you have to take the brunt of his bad temper, but just you keep your nose up and he’ll soon grow tired of yapping. After all there’s nothing wrong in our little bit of fun, is there?”

“You know there isn’t,” replied Isobel, adoringly. “He can’t expect me to sit at home all day twiddling my thumbs. And that’s what it amounts to. I’ve loved to-day, Mark. You seem to make everything worth while. If only all these nosey-parkers----”

“Forget ’em. They’re not worth a row of beans. Same time, same place to-morrow, my sweet?”

“Of course, Mark.”

He glanced furtively up and down the road and kissed her. She smiled reprovingly at him, squeezed his hand again, murmured, “Au revoir,” and turned the corner primly into Regency Square.

Three days later a group of workmen trundled a hand-cart into the square, laden with axes and hatchets and ropes. After a certain amount of preparation they began in an unhurried way to cut down the elm tree.

The Rev. Matthews, arrested by the sound of chopping, looked up sharply from his breakfast egg.

“Preposterous, Annie. He’s stolen a march on us. I think it is singularly unsportsmanlike that we shouldn’t have been consulted before the authorities decided to have the Tree down.”

His sister, a faded, anaemic creature in nondescript clothes, agreed in a toneless voice. She always agreed with Cyril. She had been agreeing with him for over forty years.

“Personally I think West should be asked to resign from the Archery Club as a protest,” went on her brother pompously. “That may be uncharitable of me but I feel very strongly over this matter. You realize that anybody looking out of the windows of Number Five or Six will be able to see directly into our front rooms. A disturbing thought, Annie.”

Again his sister agreed, though this time with less enthusiasm. After all so very little happened in the square that it would be quite exciting to follow the comings and goings of that queer Captain Cotton and to see Mr. Buller sitting out on his balcony.

The Rev. Matthews continued to scoop at his egg in silence. He was wondering if he hadn’t been too soft-hearted in keeping to himself the remarks which Miss Emmeline had gleaned from Buller’s delirium. He had not wanted to cause trouble between West and Buller. But now----? Well, West had not been particularly considerate over this business of the Tree. It might be a good idea to give some concrete manifestation of his disapproval and, after a strong protest, tell West what Buller had said. It would show the fellow that it was a mistake to look upon parsons as meek, long-suffering, without the courage to retaliate when they had been snubbed. Yes---Buller’s confession would give West something to think about. In the long run he might even apologize for his unchristian high-handedness. When he had mentioned the matter, in the strictest confidence of course, to Miss Boon, she had asserted that a thing of that sort should be brought out into the open. Out of fairness to Arthur, she said. He hadn’t seen it like that at the time, only the upset it would cause, but it was encouraging to feel that he could disturb this fellow’s complacency with Miss Boon’s approval. It was like eating your cake and having it at the same time.

But it was some few days before the opportunity occurred for him to speak and by that time new and startling events had taken place at Number Two. The final, devastating quarrel between Arthur and his wife was impressed gently upon the square. Nobody knew anything for certain, they could only use their eyes and ears, put two and two together and make four. Miss Boon dropped the first hint with the information that when “taking her ménage for an airing” the previous evening, she had heard the sounds of a violent altercation proceeding from the open window of Arthur’s bedroom. Unfortunately the curtains were drawn to so that she was unable to say exactly what had been happening. This was on 30th April, just a week after the elm had been felled and carted away. About noon on 1st May Miss Annie Matthews, weeding the diamond-shaped bed in her minute front garden, saw a taxi draw up at Number Two. After a short time Mrs. West, followed by the taximan carrying a cabin-trunk, got into the taxi and was driven off. There was no sign of Mr. West. On 2nd May Dr. Pratt called on West with the offer of a “lift” to the butts if he were intending to shoot that evening. He had found his friend slumping in an armchair with a glass of whisky at his elbow, disinclined to talk and refusing to turn out. Pratt had left him with the uneasy feeling that something had gone vitally wrong in the West household. He had seen no sign of Mrs. West. On the 3rd the cat was completely let out of the bag by Mrs. Haggard, the housekeeper at Number Two who, meeting the Fitzgerald’s maid in the High Street, informed her with a sort of breathless, well-I-never flow of words that Mrs. West had left her husband. No---she didn’t rightly know where she had gone, but probably to her mother in Stroud. Of course, it was all this Captain Cotton. She’d seen this coming for months past she had, and her only surprise was that it hadn’t come sooner. Lordy yes---poor Mr. West had took it bad. He was proper fond of her, and dirty dogs like that Captain Snake-in-the-grass ought to be hung, drawn and quartered.

By nightfall of that memorable day the whole of Regency Square knew of the crisis. It penetrated even the aristocratic walls of the White House, and was discreetly discussed at dinner before the servants and later more forcibly in the bedroom. All eyes were turned upon Number Five. Had Captain Cotton also disappeared? But much to the general, though unacknowledged, disappointment his high-powered motor-bike roared its customary, after-breakfast challenge through the confines of the square. Buller, who sometimes took a glass of sherry in the same pub, declared that the fellow seemed more jaunty and self-satisfied than ever. Everybody felt sorry for Arthur West, even those who had been opposed to him in the Tree controversy. Even Matthews felt dubious about handing on the information which he had received from Emmeline Watt, when he paid him a duty-call on the evening of the 5th.

He found the place in great disorder. Packing-cases were strewn about, the rooms were stripped of ornaments and pictures, the floors were littered with newspapers.

“I’m going away,” said West shortly in answer to the Vicar’s look of inquiry. “You know why, of course?”

The Rev. Matthews hummed and hawed.

“Ah, yes, to be sure. I had heard something. Nothing definite of course. A little domestic upset I take it?”

West glared at him.

“A little upset! My wife’s left me, Matthews. For good. I’m leaving the square. For one thing I can’t bear to live with the associations in this house and for another---you may as well know the truth---I’m so hard up that I’ve got to sell out.”

The Vicar was genuinely surprised. He knew that West was not a wealthy man, but he had never suspected that he was not in comfortable circumstances.

“My dear fellow, I’m very sorry to hear this. If only I could do something. But, unfortunately, Annie and I live, as you probably know, on a mere pittance----”

“Kind of you,” said West shortly, “but it’s too late now. This crash might have been avoided if I hadn’t come such a cropper over those cement shares of mine. Things were not easy before, but when we began to get short of money----”

“Quite.” Should he tell West now about Buller’s delirium? This was the opportunity. Only fair to Arthur, said Miss Boon. “Why did you sell out so hastily?”

“Buller.”

“I see. Er . . . you don’t think that your loss might have been his . . . er . . . gain?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, Mr. Buller knows all about the stock-market. He has inside information. Couldn’t he, perhaps, have manipulated, I think that’s the word, manipulated the market so that your shares depreciated.”

“Well?”

“Then when they had dropped to a very low figure, advised you to sell out and bought them in himself, knowing quite well that they were in for a sensational rise. They’ve almost trebled their price I believe.”

“What makes you think all this?” asked West suspiciously.

“It was something which came to my knowledge some little time back. I don’t know if I ought to----”

“Well?” demanded West inexorably.

With carefully chosen words the Rev. Matthews told, in the strictest confidence of course, everything that he had heard from Miss Watt.

The following afternoon a pantechnicon transferred part of Arthur West’s furniture to a couple of unpretentious, unfurnished rooms in George Street, the remainder being dumped in an auction-room ready to be sold. West himself closed and fastened the windows, bolted and locked the doors of Number Two, which in the parlance of the square was soon referred to, with commendable tact, as the Empty House. From that moment his life moved outside the circle of his old acquaintances. He even resigned from the Archery Club.

A week or so later, 1st June to be exact, Aldous Barnet’s sleek, blue Alvis drew up outside his sister’s house under the watchful gaze of the Misses Watt. His arrival had caused them quite a flutter of excitement. It seemed to widen for them the small world within which they dwelt, and they planned to send him an invitation to tea as soon as convention allowed. It would be pleasant to hear again about the dreadful doings of that elegant Dr. Crippen or that strange Mr. Charlie Peace who lived two lives in one.

But the Misses Watt would have been even more excited and fluttering if they had looked over Barnet’s shoulder that evening as he sat at his sister’s desk writing a letter.

Dear Meredith [he wrote],
Apropos of that conversation we had at the County Court a few weeks back---my offer still holds good. It would give me a lot of pleasure if you could spend part of your annual holiday with me here. I know you are keen on that book I’m planning out about the work of the County Police, but I really can’t get going without your help and advice. So if you’re still of the same mind as you were when we last met, what about the 10th? I think you said your holiday started from that date. Mind you, this is a proper collaboration and your name will have to go on the title page. (Officialdom permitting!) If you don’t know Cheltenham you’ll find it interesting.
Yours sincerely,
Aldous Barnet.


On the envelope he wrote:

    Superintendent Meredith,
    Sussex County Constabulary,
    Lewes, Sussex.


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