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Chapter 5

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« on: April 04, 2023, 11:16:03 pm »

MR. Marble was paying. He was paying by the feeling of weary misery from which he suffered as he walked that day across London Bridge, as he stood exhausted in the train, and in the bus which brought him from the station, and as he sat in the back room at 53 Malcolm Road.

It was a new habit this of sitting in the tiny ‘drawing-room’ instead of the dining-room. In the drawing-room the light was bad and the furnishing even more dreary than in the dining-room, while the fact that it was in the dining-room that during the winter they had their fire had habituated the family to passing all their time there. But Mr. Marble now sat in the drawing-room. He did little enough there. He read, it is true, in the books that he now chose regularly from the Free Library—crime books, even the interminable Lombroso—but he only read at intervals. Quite half the time he spent in looking out of the window across the barren flower-bed. That way he felt more comfortable. He did not have to worry then in case some stray dog from one of the neighbouring houses were there. Mr. Marble had read how dogs are employed to find truffles in Perigord and he was afraid.

There were in addition various children from neighbouring houses who had been known to climb into the garden after balls which they had knocked over. They had left off doing that now. Once upon a time Mr. Marble had not shown any active objection, but two or three times lately he had caught them at it, and had rushed out in blind, wordless fury. The children had seen his face as he mouthed at them, and that experience was enough for them. Children know these things more clearly than do their elders, and they never came into Mr. Marble’s garden again. The neighbours were at a loss to understand Mr. Marble’s jealous guardianship of his garden. As they said, he never grew anything there. Gardening was hardly likely to be a hobby of a man with Mr. Marble’s temperament, and the garden of Number 53 had always been in its barren weediness an unpleasing contrast to those near it.

It gave at least some cause for a feeling of superiority to the neighbours. They all thought Mr. Marble unbearably snobbish. He sent his children to secondary schools—on scholarships, it is true, and after some years at public elementary schools—while their children began to work for their livings at the age of fourteen, and he wore a bowler hat, while the neighbouring menfolk wore caps. They none of them liked Mr. Marble, although they all had a soft corner in their hearts for Mrs. Marble. ‘Poor thing, he treats her like the dirt beneath his feet, he does.’

It was a comforting feeling that this monster suffered from the same troubles as they did, and was at times unable to pay his rent, even as they, for so the collecting clerk told them.

Mr. Marble spent the evening sitting in the drawing-room of 53 Malcolm Road; on his knee was the last of the Free Library books on crime. It was very interesting—a Handbook to Medical Jurisprudence. Until he had begun it, Mr. Marble did not know what Medical Jurisprudence was, but he found it more and more absorbing. The periods spent in gazing out of the window grew shorter and shorter as he read all about inquests, and the methods for discovering whether a dead body found in the water had been put there after death or not, and the legal forms necessary for certifying a person insane. Then he passed on to the section of Toxicology. He read all about the common domestic poisons, spirits of salt, lead acetate, carbolic acid; from these the book proceeded to the rarer poisons. The first ones mentioned, perhaps given pride of place because of infinitely superior deadliness, were hydrocyanic acid and the cyanides. The comments on the cyanides were particularly interesting:

‘Death is practically instantaneous. The patient utters a loud cry and falls heavily. There may be some foam at the lips, and after death the body often retains the appearance of life, the cheeks being red and the expression unaltered.


But Mr. Marble did not want to know anything about the treatment. Anyway, it was easy to see that there would rarely be an opportunity of treating a sufferer from cyanide poisoning. Besides, he did not want to read the book at all after that. It made his stupid heart beat too fast again, so that he had difficulty in breathing while his hand shook like the balance-wheel of a watch. And the book had started an unpleasant train of thought, that set him once again gazing out into the garden, only twilight now, at the end of the day, while he thought about blank horrors.

He knew much more about crime than when he had first become a criminal. He knew that nine murderers out of ten were only discovered through some silly mistake. Even if they were very careful about planning the deed, and carried it out successfully, they still made some ridiculous blunder that betrayed them. But in some cases they were found out by some unfortunate mischance. It was generally through the gossip of neighbours, but sometimes it was through the insatiable curiosity of some really uninterested person. Now Mr. Marble could rely upon there being no gossip. No one knew that young Medland had come to his house that night. And he had made no blunder. It was only some event beyond his control that could betray him. Such as? The answer came pat to mental lips—someone else moving into the house after he had been turned out, someone with a taste for gardening. Come what may, he must not be turned out of 53 Malcolm Road. But he might be at any minute now. His tortured mind raced like a steamship propeller in a rough sea. Supposing the franc should fall! He would lose his money, but that would be only part of his loss, and the least part, too. For Saunders would complain about his loss, perhaps even to the management of the Bank, certainly in a way that would come to the ears of the authorities. Then Marble would lose his job—not possibly, but certainly. Then—a few weeks of grace perhaps, and then, rent unpaid, out of the house he would go. After that it was inevitable. Mr. Marble shuddered uncontrollably. It all depended on the franc. One part of Mr. Marble’s feverishly active mind began to toil once more through all the data accumulated that had made him decide that the franc would rise; another part began to regret bitterly that he had ever entered into such an absurd venture, rashly leaving his temporary safety—which already he began to long for again—in a wild search for permanency. Perhaps this was his blunder, like Crippen’s flight to the Continent. Perhaps it was because of this that he was going to be hanged by the neck till he was dead. That other book, the one about Famous Criminals, had been disgustingly fond of that expression. Mr. Marble shuddered again.

Mr. Marble sat till late that night—indeed, he sat until early the next morning, disregarding, hardly hearing the appeals of his wife, working out with one part of his mind the chances of the rise of the franc, with the other the chances of escaping detection. Mr. Marble found some ghoulish details at the end of the Handbook to Medical Jurisprudence which interested him as well as appalled him. They dealt with the possibilities of identifying bodies after prolonged burial.

At half-past seven the next morning, Mr. Marble, who was already awake—he hardly seemed to sleep nowadays—heard the newspaper pushed through the letterbox of the front door downstairs. He climbed out of bed and padded down barefooted and in his pyjamas. The house was very still, and it seemed as if the beating of his heart shook it. It was unfortunate that it should start again now when it had taken him all the time he was in bed to quiet it down. But there was no help for it. Mr. Marble wondered whether the paper had anything to say about the franc, and of course that was enough to start it.

With the fibre doormat scratching his bare feet Mr. Marble stood and read the financial columns of the newspaper. It was unenlightening. It mentioned the closing price of the franc—118—one point better than he had bought at. Mr. Marble knew that already. Nowhere was there any mention of drastic action by the French Government. Everything seemed as it was yesterday. Mr. Marble realized that he might perhaps be able to get out of the transaction even now with safety and a small profit. That would perhaps keep Saunders’ mouth shut. But Mr. Marble only dallied with the idea for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed, and his weak, nubbly chin came forward an eighth of an inch. No. He would stick it out now. He would carry the business through, cost what it might. He was sick of being afraid. There was some quite good stuff in the make-up of Mr. William Marble. It was a pity that it took danger of life and death to stir him up to action.

Yet Mr. Marble was so anxious that he called up to his wife, ‘Aren’t you ever coming down, Annie?’ and he bustled hastily through his dressing and breakfast and rushed off to the City a good half-hour before his usual time. No one in the crowded railway carriage guessed that the little man in the blue suit perched in the corner, his feet hardly touching the floor, who read his paper with such avidity, was hastening to either fortune or ruin, although perhaps a closer glance than ever Mr. Marble received might have raised some strange speculations, considering his white face and his tortured light-blue eyes. He did not walk across the bridge from the station. Instead he scampered, breathlessly.

At the Bank he hung up his hat and coat carelessly, and dashed upstairs to the department of Foreign Exchange. The few clerks already there stared in wonder at his unwontedly early arrival. Straight to Mr. Henderson’s room went Mr. Marble, to that private sanctum which only he and Henderson had the right to enter. He looked at the tape machine. Fool that he was! Of course, there would be no quotations through yet. He might as well have stayed at home.

He came back to his desk, and sat down, making a pretence of being busy, though this was difficult to maintain, as the letters had not yet arrived. He waited for twenty minutes while the room filled with late arrivals of the one time-table and the early arrivals of the other. The customary din of the office began to develop. The telephones began to ring, and the clerks began to call to each other from desk to desk. Mr. Marble became conscious that young Netley was speaking into the telephone opposite. He knew from Netley’s greeting to the unknown at the other end that he was talking to the exchange brokers in London Wall.

‘Yes,’ said Netley, ‘yes, no, what, really? No, I hadn’t heard, yes, yes, all right.’

Marble knew instinctively what he was talking about.

‘What’s Paris now, Netley?’ he asked.

Netley was so full of his surprising news that he did not notice the coincidence, and also actually added the hated ‘sir’.

‘Ninety-nine, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s gone up twenty points in the night. They don’t know why, yet.’

Marble knew. He was right, of course. He had a good head for finance when he chose to use it.

Henderson came in and passed through to his own room. Marble did not notice him. He was busy thinking. He was nerving himself to go on with the venture. If he sold now he could give Saunders some three hundred pounds profit—enough to satisfy him most probably. Anyway, he was safe for a bit. Keeping in close touch with the market as he naturally did, he could sell at the instant a decline seemed likely. But if he did what he had suggested to Saunders yesterday—sold out and then reinvested, he would be much less safe. A ten per cent drop would wipe out profit and capital as well, and Saunders would think he had been swindled. But all Marble’s judgement told him that the rise was bound to continue. There was a huge gain to be made if only he was bold enough—or desperate enough—to risk it. Henderson appeared at the door of his room.

‘Mr. Marble,’ he said, ‘someone wants you.’

Marble went in and picked up the receiver.

‘Hullo,’ he said.

‘That Mr. Marble?’ said the receiver.

‘Hallo, old bean, how’s things?’ said the receiver.

It was Saunders. He had begun to regret his transaction of the previous day long ago, but he was determined on playing the game to the last. Marble might have got four hundred pounds out of him by some nefarious means, but he was not going to get a rise out of him as well. He would see the thing through to the bitter end.

‘Going well,’ said Mr. Marble.

He had to pick his words, for Henderson was within earshot, and it would never do for him to know that he was acting in collusion with one of the Bank’s customers.

‘They’ve begun to rise,’ said Mr. Marble. ‘Look at your tape machine.’

Mr. Saunders was unable to retain an exclamation of surprised unbelief.

‘You can get out now with a bit of profit,’ said Mr. Marble. His tone was cold and sincere, as he was striving to make it, and carried conviction.

‘Sorry, I can’t hear what you’re saying,’ said Mr. Marble.

‘Doodle—oodle—oodle,’ said the receiver, as Mr. Saunders realized that this was his cue, and all his old gambling spirit came back to him.

‘Right. I think you’re wise,’ said Mr. Marble, replacing the receiver.

‘That Mr. Saunders,’ said Marble to Henderson. ‘Bought some francs yesterday—lucky devil—wants to sell and reinvest.’

In the outer office the usual nerve-racking bustle was at its usual height. Mr. Marble sat at his desk, where the letters had now been put, and rallied himself. For nearly five minutes he fought with himself before he could turn to the telephone at his elbow and give the necessary orders to increase Saunders’ holding—and the risk as well.

There was apparently no need to worry. Mr. Marble sold at 95; he bought again at 93. Half an hour later the franc stood at 87, and the risk was past. It is an old story now, how the French Government had quietly appropriated other people’s credits the night before, how the franc rose all day long, while puzzled exchange brokers racked their brains to explain the mystery, and cursed their gods that they had not foreseen this action and bought all the francs that their credit would stand. And all day the franc rose, as men who had been caught hurried in to cover their losses, as the German speculators who had been hammering away so joyfully gave up the struggle in despair, as the small investors who follow the movements of the market far to the rear came panting in to steal a slice of profit as well. The men in the office who only a few days before had been confidently predicting that the franc would go the way of the mark had already changed their minds completely and were now saying that it would climb to its pre-war value of twenty-five and a quarter. But Mr. Marble kept his head, just as he had kept it that fatal night when he knew that a single mistake meant ruin and violent death. The cold fear that had succeeded to the initial feeling of elated success vanished completely, and he was left calm, deadly calm. He watched the market with a fierce intensity. Once or twice it wavered, as the faint hearts took their profits, but each time it recovered, as it was bound to do with a genuine demand behind it. At 75 he resold and reinvested again, sitting lunchless in the office all day, so as to keep the business under his own hand, and when the franc touched 65 he sold out for good. It might well go a little higher, as indeed it did, reaching 60 for a brief space, but he had done all that was necessary and a good deal more.

There was no need to work out the profit. He knew that already, counting with painful eagerness every penny that every point meant to him. He called to the department stenographer, and began the official Bank letter to Saunders reporting the progress made:

Dear Sir,

In accordance with your instructions received to-day by telephone at 9.45 a.m. and 4.51 p.m. we have——

and all the rest of the business. It was cold and dry and formal enough, heaven knew. Bank letters are usually cold and dry and formal, even when they embody a pæan of praise. This one told, with an air of supreme detachment, how Mr. Saunders had originally bought rather more than forty-five thousand francs with the four thousand pounds represented by his margin of four hundred; how they had been sold at 95, and then represented nearly five thousand pounds (a thousand pounds profit); how this thousand pounds, and the original four hundred, had purchased francs at 93, and thus, thanks to the fact that each pound did the work of ten, controlled nearly a million and a quarter of francs; this million odd had been sold at 75, bringing in sixteen thousand pounds and more. Mr. Saunders’ profit now stood at over four thousand pounds, and it and the good old original four hundred had gone back once more into francs, purchased at 75 still, thanks to Mr. Marble having taken advantage of an eddy in the market. Forty-five thousand pounds’ worth of francs did that sum control—three millions of francs and a few thousand odd ones.

When they were finally sold at 65 Mr. Saunders’ credit balance stood at a paltry fifty-one thousand pounds. He probably was unable to do the simplest sum in foreign exchange; at the moment he did not have the least idea of what profit he had made; Marble’s forethought had earned it for him; most of the money would come eventually out of the pockets of less fortunate speculators, which only served them right, but some would come from the myriad firms which had to have francs at any price. Above all, if the Bank had had anything to say in the matter they would probably have cut short the speculation at the earliest opportunity, but they had never been consulted after the first interview. Mr. Marble had a specious plea of justification for having done all this on his own responsibility, in that Henderson had acquiesced in the first expansion of the deal, but he did not think he would have to use it. No bank really objects to having its clients enriched by the enthusiasm of its staff.

When the letter was finished Mr. Marble slipped out of the office. He had done no work that day, and he would not have been able to even if he had tried. He was too exhausted by the emotional strain under which he had been labouring all these hours. Instead, he walked quietly round to Saunders’ office. The hurrying crowds round him, hastening to catch the 5.10 at Fenchurch Street, or the 5.25 at London Bridge, did not pay him the tribute of a glance. They did not realize that this shabby man in blue was a capitalist—a man possessed of over ten thousand pounds, if he could be sure of making Saunders pay up. They paid no heed to him, save to shoulder their homeward progress. He was rich almost to the full extent of his wildest dreams, and yet they pushed him into the gutter. Mr. Marble did not resent it. They had likewise paid no heed to him when he was only a murderer.

Saunders in his office, the last race of the day over, was glancing through some trial totals of the day’s figures when one of his two clerks showed in Mr. Marble.

‘Hallo?’ he said, glancing up, ‘so you’ve made a bit?’

Mr. Marble sank wearily into the chair indicated and took the cigarette that Saunders offered.

‘What did you get? Six to one?’ asked Saunders. He was half joking, half serious. He had determined that Mr. Marble’s final bait of yesterday of three thousand per cent was a mere piece of bluff. Obviously Marble had taken a chance and it had come off, and he, glad to see his money back, let alone with profit attached, would not press him too hard for the fulfilment of all his promises.

‘Don’t know,’ said Marble. ‘Haven’t worked it out like that. But the total comes to something like fifty thousand.’

‘What?’ gasped Saunders. ‘Fifty thousand? Or it’s francs, I suppose you mean?’

‘No,’ said Marble expressionlessly, ‘pounds.’

‘D’you mean it?’

‘Oh, of course I do. You’ll get the official notification from the Bank to-morrow.’

Saunders said nothing. Nothing in his limited vocabulary was equal to the situation.

‘Fifty thousand pounds,’ said Mr. Marble, still expressionless, but bracing himself unobtrusively for the final effort. ‘Let’s work out what my share of it is.’

It was astonishing to him to find that Saunders agreed without any difficulty at all. He would not have been surprised to find him refusing to render any account whatever; he could have retained the whole and nothing could have been proved against him. But Marble, when he feared this, allowed his fear to overbalance his estimation of several important items in Saunders’ make-up. In the first place, Saunders was an honest man. In the second place, he was so dazzled by the magnitude of the profit that he did not grudge the fair share of the man who had earned it for him. In the third place, he was a bookmaker, and he was accustomed to handing over large sums on account of transactions of which no law in the United Kingdom took the slightest notice.

‘Rightio,’ said Saunders. ‘How much is it exactly?’

‘Fifty thousand, three twenty-nine, and a few shillings.’ Saunders hastily figured it out. Marble had done it in his head long ago.

‘I make your little packet come to £27,681. Oh, and the sixty you gave me. I get twenty-two thousand odd for myself. Not bad going for three phone calls.’

Saunders was trying to be offhand in the presence of this magician who could make thousands sprout in the course of a night. Actually, he was bursting with astonishment and curiosity.

‘When’s settling day?’ he demanded.

‘The money’ll come in soon. You’ll have it in less than a week. Might be to-morrow, but I doubt it. The Bank will let you know.’

‘Right. I’ll send you a cheque then. Your working agree with mine?’ Saunders was trying his best to be the complete business man, although the largest cheque he had written in his life was for no more than five hundred pounds, and that occasion still haunted him in his worst nightmares.

‘Very well, then.’ Mr. Marble rose from his chair.

Mr Saunders could retain himself no longer.

‘Oh, sit down, man, and tell me how it was done. No, we must go and have a drink to celebrate this. Let’s make a night of it, up West somewhere. Let’s——’

But none of these things appealed to Mr. Marble, although the very mention of a drink set him yearning.

‘No,’ said Mr. Marble. ‘I have to push off home.’

And he went home, too. Although Mr. Marble was possessed of twenty-seven thousand pounds he spent his evening, as long as he was sober, sitting in a dreary little suburban drawing-room gazing out over a desolate suburban backyard, for fear lest some trespasser or some stray dog should find something out.
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