The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
September 27, 2023, 05:35:24 am
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: Here you may discover hundreds of little-known composers, hear thousands of long-forgotten compositions, contribute your own rare recordings, and discuss the Arts, Literature and Linguistics in an erudite and decorous atmosphere full of freedom and delight.
  Home Help Search Gallery Staff List Login Register  

Chapter 1b

Pages: [1]   Go Down
Author Topic: Chapter 1b  (Read 14 times)
Level 8

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 3047

View Profile
« on: April 04, 2023, 08:57:47 am »

MEDLAND’S shyness was turning to boyish talkativeness. He looked round to the two children.

‘Well,’ he said, and smiled, ‘you two don’t seem to have much to say for yourselves.’

Winnie and John still remained silent. They had been keeping as quiet as mice so as not to draw attention to themselves and raise again the postponed question of bed. But beside this John was lost in admiration of this weather-tanned man who had come all the way from Australia, and who treated such an amazing trip through pirate-haunted seas with so little concern that he had said no word about it. And he spoke so casually about hotels too. John had noticed last year at Worthing that his father spoke of people who lived in hotels as opposed to those who live in rooms, and even in boarding-houses, with awe in his voice. And this man lived in a hotel and thought nothing of it!

As for Winnie, she was thinking that he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. His warm brown face and his brown tweeds with their intoxicating scent were wonderful. Then when he looked straight at you and smiled, as he had just done, he was handsomer than anyone she could imagine, far handsomer than the fairy prince in the pantomime at Christmas.

‘Speak up, children,’ said their father. To Medland’s fastidious ear it sounded as if he might have added, ‘Tell the pretty gentleman his fortune.’

The children grinned shyly. Winnie could say nothing. But John made an effort, unused as he was to conversation owing to severe repression by his father during his queer moods of late.

‘You have kangaroos in Australia, haven’t you?’ he said, with a fourteen-year-old wriggle.

‘You’re right,’ said Medland. ‘I’ve hunted them too.’

‘Ooh,’ gasped John ecstatically. ‘On horseback?’

‘Yes, for miles and miles across the country, as fast as your horse could gallop. I’ll tell you about it some day.’

Both children writhed in delight.

‘And bushrangers?’ said John. ‘Did—did you ever see Ned Kelly?’

To Medland’s credit he did not laugh.

‘No such luck,’ he said. ‘There weren’t many round where I lived. But I know a topping book about them.’

Robbery under Arms,’ said both children at once.

‘Oh, you’ve read it?’

‘Read it? I should think they had.’ This was Mr. Marble’s contribution to the conversation. ‘They’re terrors for reading, those two kids are. Never see ’em without a book.’

‘That’s fine,’ said Medland.

But the conversation wilted beyond recovery at this intrusion. And Marble, intent on getting Medland to himself, flashed a look at the children and jerked his head skywards. They understood, and climbed down dolefully from their chairs.

‘Bedtime, children?’ said Mr. Marble in a tone of surprise that was unsuccessful in its purpose of deceiving Medland, since he had caught the tail end of Marble’s signal. ‘Good night, then. Why, aren’t you going to kiss me?’

They had not been intending to do so. The custom had died out months before, when Marble had begun turning to the decanter in the sideboard for distraction from his troubles, and with children a custom three months unused might as well never have existed. Besides, John was nearly too old for kissing now. Both John and Winnie kissed their father awkwardly, and their mother casually. Then John shook hands with his new cousin. It was the first time he had ever shaken hands as man to man, with eye meeting eye in man’s fashion, and he was very proud of it. Winnie, too, tried to shake hands in imitation of her brother, but there was something in Medland’s smile and in the gentle traction he exerted on her hand that made her lean forward and kiss the boyish mouth tendered to her. It felt funny, different from other kisses she had known. It was a very silent pair that went up to bed.

Marble turned away with evident relief as they closed the door.

‘Now we can be comfortable,’ he said. ‘Draw your chair up closer to the fire, er—Jim. What a night,’ he added, as the wind howled outside.

Medland nodded moodily. He was feeling awkward. He was not at all at home with these strange people. He didn’t like the way Marble behaved towards his children. The kids were all right of course, and the mother was a nonentity. But there was an atmosphere about the place that he hated. He pulled himself together and tried to shake off the brooding premonitory mood that was oppressing him. It was absurd, of course. Old Marble was only a very ordinary sort of chap. Seedy and down at heel, but quite all right. He was smiling oilily at present, but that didn’t mean anything necessarily. Hang it all, if he didn’t like the place he could clear out in a few minutes’ time and never come back to it. For the matter of that Medland’s thoughts swerved suddenly to the utterly absurd—he could change his hotel next morning and then they could never find him again. The bare idea was sufficient to bring his mind back to reality. There was no reason why he should think about things like that at all. The kids were fine, and he’d see a lot of them while he was in England. He could take them to a lot of the places he felt he had to go to, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s, for instance. That would be topping.

Mr. Marble was speaking to his wife.

‘What about some supper, Annie?’ he was saying. ‘I expect our young friend here is hungry.’

‘But—’ began Mrs Marble hopelessly, and then checked herself hastily and clumsily as she caught sight of her husband frowning at her.

‘Don’t worry about me, please,’ put in Medland. ‘I dined just before I came out.’

‘That’s all right, then,’ replied Marble. ‘I dined just after I came in.’

And he laughed. The laughter was just the least bit strained.

Conversation began again, resuming its hopeless, desultory way while Medland wondered in a bored, young man’s fashion why on earth he did not get up and go at once. There were really several reasons. One was that the wind and the rain were continually making themselves heard outside; another was that the fire was most attractive—it was the most attractive thing in the whole house—but deep down there was a feeling of relief that he was not in a hotel with nothing special to do. Medland had laid plans for a very exciting time on his arrival in England, but at the moment he was feeling a little homesick and not in the mood for excitement of any kind. It might have been as well if he had felt otherwise.

Mrs. Marble came into the picture at times. She asked him homely questions as to whether he was sea-sick on the voyage, and whether he had enough to eat, and whether he was warmly enough clad to face an English winter. Medland answered politely enough, but Marble was positively rude to her on more than one occasion. Medland found himself regarding the little man curiously. His face was a little moist, and his eyes were brighter than they had been before, as though he was growing excited about something of which the others knew nothing. He cut his wife short repeatedly, and his questions grew more and more personal. Medland realized that to a person of Marble’s character the idea of conversation would consist of a series of questions, but even that was no excuse for this searching cross-examination as to his resources, his friends and his knowledge of affairs.

Poor Marble! And poor Medland! Marble was being affected more and more by the realization of his position, rendered more acute by envious contrast with Medland’s, while Medland’s every answer seemed calculated to urge Marble on to—something. Marble was not quite sure what it was. It could not just be borrowing money; he had decided to attempt that hours ago. The thumping heart within him seemed to indicate something more unusual than that. Marble was nerving himself to definite action—for the first time in his life, be it added.

With the cunning of the weak, he did his best to disguise the state he was in, while all the time, without conscious volition on his part, his furtive mind was twisting and turning, devising the course of action he was likely to take. No wonder Medland looked at him oddly at times.

Time seemed to be passing with extraordinary rapidity. It seemed to Marble that every time he looked at the clock on the mantelpiece another half-hour had fled. Twice had he detected in Medland’s manner an intention of leaving as soon as the conversation broke, and each time he had flung himself into the breach, talking nonsense, as he was painfully aware, in order to stave off the crisis that would arise when that time came.

His fevered mind roused itself to additional activity. He nerved himself to make the sacrifice which he realized was inevitable, and gathered himself together in his chair as casually as he could manage.

‘What about a drink?’ he asked. In such a matter-of-fact way did he bring the question out that Medland did not guess the wrench it cost him.

Medland hesitated before he replied; he was not yet a man of the world enough to regard an offer of a drink as an ordinary event; and during that little hesitation Marble had risen and walked across to the sideboard, beyond the table. For a moment he was lost to view as he dived down below the level of the table; when he rose again he had a siphon of soda-water—half full—under his arm, two tumblers in one hand, and in the other, held very carefully, a decanter of whisky, a quarter full. He set these things out on the table near his chair; he was standing very close to his wife as he did so. He took the opportunity of mumbling something to her. He spoke swiftly and obscurely, so obscurely that Medland, though he noticed the act, could not hear the words, and took them to be some hint as to domestic arrangements—probably a comment on the shortage of whisky. What Marble had really said was: ‘Want talk business. Go to bed. Say headache.’

Annie Marble heard the words some time before she attached any meaning to them. That was usual with her. Even when she realized their significance, slight enough to her, she did not act at once upon them. It was always a long time before she could co-ordinate her faculties to change from one course of action to another.

Marble poured out a drink with great deliberation. It was not a very generous one, for he was confronted with the problem of offering his guest as much as possible while conserving for himself enough at least to keep up appearances; yet his whole soul was crying out for that whisky. His hand shook a little as he poured, so that the decanter chattered faintly on the rim of the tumbler, but he took a firm grasp of his nerves with a last despairing effort and completed the business, without having consulted his guest as to quantity even to the usual conventional extent. Then he sat back in his chair, half in anguish, half in satisfaction. He had managed the pouring out perfectly, he told himself. He had given Medland plenty while quite a respectable amount remained in the decanter. Easily enough for two more drinks, anyway, and the half-formed plot in Marble’s mind demanded that there should be enough for two drinks left in the decanter. But it was a frightful effort for him to sip casually from the cool tumbler in his hand. He wanted that drink so terribly badly, but all he could allow himself to do was to nod perfunctorily across to Medland, sip just a little, and then put the glass down indifferently beside him. But even that small amount was enough to calm his shrieking nerves, so that his shaking body became as calm and detached as his scheming, uncontrolled mind.

As he replaced the glass Annie Marble rose. She knew the role it was necessary for her to assume, and by some strange freak of mental poise she did it perfectly. Her dim mind had never fully realized the grim peril in which lay the fortunes of her husband and herself; nothing that Marble could say—and he said little—would force it home to her as long as she could go on obtaining credit at the shops; but she knew they were in some trouble, and that Marble was intending that this young nephew of his should help them out. It behoved her therefore to do her best, quite apart from the fact that her negative personality responded in small actions to every whim of her husband, just as he wished.

‘I think I shall go to bed, Will,’ she said rising a little wearily from the uncomfortable bentwood chair. ‘I’ve got a bit of a headache.’

Mr. Marble was greatly concerned.

‘Really, dear?’ he said, rising. ‘That’s bad luck. Have a nightcap before you go up?’ And he nodded towards the decanter.

But even as he nodded, with his face away from Medland, there was a little scowl between his eyebrows that gave Mrs. Marble her cue.

‘No, dear, thank you,’ she said, ‘I’ll just go straight up and it will be better in the morning.’

‘Just as you like,’ said Mr. Marble.

Mrs. Marble moved across to Medland.

‘Good night, er—Jim,’ she said, shaking hands.

‘Good night. I hope it will really be better to-morrow.’

‘Good night, dear,’ said Mr. Marble, ‘I won’t disturb you when I come up if I can help it. I expect I shall be a bit late.’

He pecked her on her cold cheek—a typical marital kiss. But Mr. Marble was not in the habit of kissing his wife good night at all, and he never worried in the least about disturbing her when he came to bed. However, it gave the scene that calm domestic atmosphere that Mr. Marble’s subconscious mind, which had him in full control, had decided was necessary to the occasion.

Mrs. Marble had gone, and they heard the dragging steps on the floor of the room above.

‘No need for hurry, I suppose, seeing that you’re a gay young bachelor,’ said Mr. Marble.

‘None at all,’ replied Medland, and regretted saying it the instant it was said. He had really no desire to go on being bored for a further interminable period. But his answer had committed him to another half-hour at the very least, and he endeavoured to reconcile himself to it.

Just for a brief space Mr. Marble regained full control over himself, and he made a brief and unavailing struggle against the inevitable which a stronger power within him was forcing upon him. He began to talk again on the subject of Medland’s money—the subject on which his lack of decent reticence had already annoyed his guest.

‘So you’re quite a well-off young man now, it seems?’ he said, with exasperating joviality.

‘I suppose so,’ was the curt reply.

‘A good bit to spare for investments, I suppose?’

It was a blundering way of putting it, and it failed. Even on the voyage over more than one man had come to Medland with get-rich-quick schemes, and he had contrived to see through them. And so many people had borrowed money from him that the process was both familiar and annoying to him. Medland determined to stop this attempt once and for all. It might be awkward for a bit, but it would save endless trouble in the future. He looked straight into Marble’s eyes.

‘No,’ he said, ‘I haven’t any to invest. I’m quite satisfied with the arrangement that my father made before he died. I’ve got just enough, and no more. And I put up with it.’

That settled the matter definitely enough for anyone, but, to Medland’s surprise, Marble showed no sign of discomfiture. Medland did not know it, but at a bound the lurking power within his uncle had regained possession of him, and had at once begun to smooth the way for the inevitable.

‘A good thing too,’ said Marble, and his manner of saying it left Medland seriously in doubt as to whether his former question had really been a feeler for a loan. ‘The market’s in a rotten state at present. I shouldn’t like to buy at all just now, not gilt-edged. Sit tight and hang on to what you’ve got, that’s my motto all the time nowadays.’

He said it in all sincerity, and Medland actually felt himself warming towards him. At that time Medland was in serious danger of falling into the delusion that so often attacks men of wealth who have had their wealth from boyhood and have been ‘stung’ too often by the unscrupulous—he was in danger of imagining that everyone with whom he came into contact was seeking profit at his expense. The surest way to his heart was to convince him of the contrary, and that Mr. Marble, in those few instants, had nearly succeeded in doing.

The conversation swung easily into discussion of the investment market, and that without the personal note that Medland so much resented. Somewhere within him Marble possessed a clever turn for finance, which hitherto he had been unable, as well as too lazy, to exert. Medland, with a hard head for business inherited from his shipbroking father, recognized a surprisingly kindred spirit. For the first time that evening he really began to enjoy himself. He drained his glass almost without thinking of it—enthusiasm succeeded in overcoming his juvenile distaste for whisky even though he had never been able to make himself like it.

Marble was watching him with fierce intentness through narrowed eyes. Medland hardly noticed it, and attached no importance to it if he did. Then Marble pulled himself out of his chair, glass in hand, and addressed himself to the decanter. That foolish heart of his was thumping again, thumping heavily, but it did not affect his actions. They were quite under control—the control of that inward force which had taken charge of him and which recognized the inevitable.

Marble reached across and drew Medland’s glass from his hand. ‘There’s only one more drink apiece,’ said Marble. ‘I’m sorry, but we weren’t expecting visitors tonight, you know.’

He said it in such a matter-of-fact way that Medland had no chance even of trying to refuse the second drink. Idly Medland watched Marble pour out the whisky from the decanter with the painful care that had characterized his action before. The liquid stood level in the two tumblers. Marble was apparently about to splash in the rest of the soda-water from the siphon when he paused as though listening.

‘Just a minute,’ he said, ‘I think one of the kids is calling out.’

Medland had heard nothing, but he was unused to the noises of the house and made no question. Mr Marble had heard nothing, either. He had said what he did as an excuse to withdraw from the room and go upstairs. It was the most natural action in the world for him to creep out of the room to listen to hear if either of his children was frightened, and it was most natural too, that he should be carrying in his hand the tumbler that he had held at the moment his attention was distracted. Medland watched him go; everything was so natural that he did not give a second thought to it.

Hardly more than a minute later Marble came tiptoeing back down the stairs and into the room, the glass still in his hand.

‘False alarm,’ he said. ‘One gets used to these things when one is the father of a family.’

He turned again to the siphon, and it hissed into the tumblers. Then he passed Medland’s across to him. As he took it the wind outside howled again louder than ever; the windows rattled and they heard the rain pelting against the glass.

‘What a night,’ said Medland.

‘Drink up,’ replied Marble, very, very calmly.
Report Spam   Logged

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Pages: [1]   Go Up
Jump to:  

Powered by EzPortal
Bookmark this site! | Upgrade This Forum
SMF For Free - Create your own Forum

Powered by SMF | SMF © 2016, Simple Machines
Privacy Policy