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Chapter 3

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« on: April 04, 2023, 11:15:59 am »

YET for some weeks Mr. Marble hesitated about changing those five-pound notes. He was of mixed character. When he had been a rat in a corner he had fought like one, desperately, to the last risk, but now he had escaped he thought of nothing except flight and covering his tracks.

And he was paying heavily enough for those few Treasury notes. That heart of his which had thumped so heavily on that stormy evening thumped just as heavily at other times now. He could not keep his mind from working out possible occurrences in the future, and some new morbid thought of the arrival of the police, instigated by the officials of Medland’s hotel, or of some unexpected inquiry by the Bank as to whence had come the money which had so suddenly come into his possession, would set his heart pounding away until he could only lean back in his chair and gasp. He would wake sweating in the night too, with the fevered blood running hot under his skin, as some fantastic possibility developed in his sleeping mind. Then he would writhe and toss in his bed, muttering faintly to himself, tortured with fears of the known and of the unknown. And sometimes, when he had been sleeping very badly, one or two horrible memories returned to him: memories of a pair of staring eyes, and of a boyish face, the mouth smeared with foam. That was the worst of all.

He was not even happy sitting alone in the dining-room at Malcolm Road, with a full bottle of his only friend beside him, and calm in the knowledge that no one was poking about in the garden. The whisky only made him think the more at first. It took a long time before he could stop his mind from thinking about what might happen, and he soon found the worst moments of all were those at the beginning of the evening, when the whisky only bit and did not deaden. At times the prospect so frightened him that he flinched from his preliminary torture, and would go through the evening without drinking at all, although every fibre of his body seemed to be shrieking for it. These were the times when he craved for the company of his wife and children; when he would encourage Annie to long monologues about how she had spent her day. To Marble, sitting back in his chair, with Annie droning away beside him about her encounter with the baker’s boy, who now worked for the butcher instead, and how she went down Rye Lane to buy remnants at the sale, and what Mr. Brown, the insurance agent, had to say, it seemed incredible that anything unusual had happened. It must have all been a wild dream. If it were reality, how then could he be sitting at his fireside so peacefully? Brief monosyllables were sufficient to keep Annie talking and Mr. Marble had ample time to think of all this. It was too like a fantastic nightmare for anything really to have happened in this very room, this poky, stuffy, suburban dining-room, and for a terrible secret to be hidden away in the garden just outside. Drugged by Annie’s talk, or by John’s or Winnie’s chatter about school, Mr. Marble not infrequently succeeded in persuading himself that it was indeed a dream. And Annie was so pleasantly fluttered and flattered by his attention in listening to her like this! But when night came, Mr. Marble paid for his relaxation. Then, on the verge of sleep, he would realize that it was not a dream—and he would spend the night turning and tossing in fevered anxiety.

Security came back gradually. It was not a feeling of complete security; rather was it a feeling that anything would be welcome if only it would happen. No policeman came prying round 53 Malcolm Road; no official from the hotel came to ask as to the present whereabouts of one James Medland. Marble had paid his debts, every one of them, like a sensible man, and that had taken all the slender store of one-pound notes. But his personal expenses were much higher nowadays—they were bound to be while he spent half a sovereign a day on whisky—and nothing he could say to Annie had any effect in reducing household expenditure. The old rule became well established of spending a little more than his income. Under such circumstances it was inevitable that the five-pound notes should begin to melt away. He was very careful about it, as his bank clerk experience taught him to be. Not one of those rustling pieces of paper ever passed through the hands of one of the local tradesmen, and most certainly never did one go through Mr. Marble’s account at the Bank.

Occasionally at the big, gilded, popular Corner Houses was to be seen a little round-faced man sitting alone. He ordered an expensive dinner, as expensive as the limited menu allowed, and he would eat it hurriedly and furtively, with never a glance from his pale-blue eyes at the people at the other tables, and having eaten he would call for his bill and hurry out. He paid the bill by means of a five-pound note, and, thrusting the change into his pocket, he would rush away as though pursued. So he was pursued, too. One pursuer was an impossible fear of one of the frock-coated floorwalkers stopping him and asking him whence came the note—with a meaning glance to an attendant to fetch the waiting detective—and the other was the haunting fear lest there might be someone casually finding out something in a desolate back garden in a dreary street in a southern suburb. Mr. Marble learned what it meant to walk down that street with that foolish heart of his pounding away in his breast, hot with impatience to reach home to ensure that all would be well, and yet standing hesitating at his front gate unable to go in to face what might be there—police, or, what would be nearly as bad, a look in the eyes of his wife and children and words unspoken that meant that they knew. And still nothing happened.

The thing that came in the end was not in the least what he expected. It was nine o’clock in the evening, and Mr. Marble was sitting in the same frowsty dining-room, from minute to minute gauging with his eye the two most important things of the moment—the height of the whisky in the bottle and the distance the hands of the clock had moved round. His wife was in the room too, but she made no sign of her presence save for her whispered conversation with herself. A smart rebuff from her husband earlier in the evening had shown her that it was not one of his ‘nice’ evenings. But when the postman knocked she rose and went to fetch what he had brought. It was only a single letter, and she gave it to Will. He fumbled it open with whisky-tangled fingers, and read the enclosed typewritten note with whisky-dazzled eyes. He read it three times before he understood the words, and for five minutes following he sat quite still as their significance came slowly home to him. It was formal notice to quit the house known as 53 Malcolm Road.

It was next morning before he could convince himself that the peril was not as real as his shrinking mind had believed last night. He was safe enough at present, of course. The Rent Act confirmed him in his tenancy for as long as it endured. This formal notice to quit was merely a necessary preliminary to raising his rent. But it gave him real cause for anxiety. It showed him a concrete thing to be afraid of, instead of the wild nightmares of prying neighbours or stray dogs, which might dig in that disused flower-bed. Some time or other he might be compelled to leave the house, and what would happen then? He did not know.

The next evening the librarian at the local Public Library had an interview with a little man in a seedy, blue suit, with a ragged, red moustache and weak blue eyes, who went through the formalities to obtain a ticket and then demanded a selection of books on crime.

‘I am afraid we have very few books on the subject,’ said the librarian, surprised.

‘Never mind, let’s see what you have got,’ replied Marble.

The librarian brought him an armful of books. There were two of Lombroso’s works, a volume of medical jurisprudence, two or three stray works on prison reform and kindred subjects, while from the bottom of the heap the librarian produced apologetically a rather lurid volume on Crimes and Criminals: Historic Days at the Assizes. Marble took the pile into his trembling hands, and peered at them anxiously.

‘I’ll have this one,’ he said, firmly, Crimes and Criminals in his hand.

The librarian dated it and handed it over unwillingly. For one class of book borrower he had a friendly feeling; for another he had toleration, seeing that it was the main support of the library. The one class was that of the humble clerk and mechanic, anxious for self-improvement, the other was that of the diligent reader of fiction. For the omnivorous browser who read all sorts of things, he had a virulent hatred, suspecting him of a prurient desire to lay hold of those books which even a Public Library has to a small extent, the gift of some careless donor, or (dangerously, in his opinion) termed ‘classical’. And this newcomer was evidently a bad example of this type. His perverted taste was obviously sated even with Public Library fiction, and the craving for sensation was worse, to his mind, even than the physiological researches of spotty-faced adolescents. He had taken the book of all the library of which the librarian was most ashamed. He shook his head sadly after the receding, bent-shouldered figure.

But that was the first night for months that Mr. Marble did not drink more than was good for him. Crimes and Criminals held him fascinated. It was not a subject of which he knew very much; he was even ignorant of the details of ordinary criminal procedure. In this book he found criminals labelled as ‘great’; he read ghastly stories of passion and revenge; he read of the final scenes on the scaffold with the dreadful concentration of a bird on a snake.

And the hair bristled on his head, and he experienced a horrible sensation of despair as he gradually realized that two out of every three of the criminals mentioned came to grief through inability to dispose of the body. There was a tale of a woman who had walked for miles through London streets with a body in a perambulator; there was an account of Crippen’s life in London with the body of his murdered wife buried in his cellar; but the police laid hold of them all in time. On this damning difficulty the book dwelt with self-righteous gusto. At midnight Mr. Marble put the book aside sick with fear. He was safe at present; indeed, he was safe altogether on many accounts. As long as he could see that that flower-bed was undisturbed no one would know that there was any cause for suspicion at all. That nephew of his had vanished into the nowhere that harbours so many of those whose disappearance is chronicled so casually in the papers. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to connect him, the respectable Mr. Marble, with young Medland’s annihilation. But once let some fool start investigations, even involuntary ones, in that flower-bed, and the fat would be in the fire. Mr. Marble did not know whether identification would be possible at this late date—he made a mental note that he must get another book from the library in which he could look that up—but even if that were impossible there would be unpleasant inquiries, and he would be in trouble for certain. Come what may, either he must maintain complete control over that flower-bed, or else he must make some other adequate arrangements. And from those ‘arrangements’, whatever they might be, his soul shrank in utter dread. They were certain to be his ruin. There would be some unforeseen mishap, just as there had been to the cart in which that man in the book tried to carry his victim’s remains along Borough High Street. Then he would be found out and then——? Prison and the gallows, said Mr. Marble to himself, with the sweat pouring in torrents down his face.

One thing would give him security, and that would be the purchase of his house. That would give him security against disturbance for the rest of his life. Mr. Marble did not mind what happened after his death, as long as that death was not accelerated by process of law.

But how could Mr. Marble possibly purchase his house? He was living beyond his income as it was, he told himself, with a grim recollection of five-pound notes changed in Popular Corner Houses. Yet he must, he must, he must. The blind panic of the earlier months had changed to a reasoned panic now; the one object of Mr. Marble’s life now was to raise enough money to buy that house. The covering letter to yesterday’s notice to quit had hinted that perhaps Mr. Marble would find it to his advantage to buy instead of continuing to rent; Mr. Marble went to bed, to toss and mutter at his wife’s side all night long as he framed impossible schemes for acquiring money, a great deal of money, enough to buy the freehold of 53 Malcolm Road.

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