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Chapter 6

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« on: April 05, 2023, 01:20:23 am »

MR. Marble arrived home one evening lighter of step and of heart than he had been for some time previously. Even when the shadow of the gallows lies across one’s path one cannot help feeling a little elated when one has just received, and paid into a new account at a new bank, receiving the homage of a bank manager, the sum of twenty-seven thousand pounds odd.

Mr. Marble was done with speculation. The money, as he had decided in a serious conference with the bank manager, was all going into gilt-edged investments—save for a thousand pounds which was destined for the purchase of 53 Malcolm Road. Even with this deduction Mr. Marble would be in the possession of the comfortable income of twelve hundred pounds a year, although—as the bank manager said deprecatingly—the income-tax collector would have a fat slice out of it.

So Mr. Marble hung up his hat in the hall with a freedom of gesture unusual to him, and marched briskly into the dining-room to find his family assembled still over the tail end of their tea.

‘You’re early, Will,’ said Mrs. Marble, rising uncomplaining to hurry the preparation of her husband’s evening meal.

‘So I am, so I am,’ said Mr. Marble, and threw himself down in the armchair beside the empty grate.

It is a strange fact, but true, that Annie Marble’s habit of saying the obvious did not get on his nerves. In that lukewarm wooing, seventeen years ago, one of the things that appealed most strongly to Mr. Marble was the fact that Annie did not say unexpected things, and that he never had to bother about entertaining her. Yet at the moment he had a little scene in his mind’s eye that would startle her and interest her enormously, and he had been looking forward to it for days.

‘What about school, John?’ he said.

John leisurely drank tea before replying. It was his way.

‘All right,’ said John. He did not use three words where two would do.

Mr. Marble had guessed already that John would have little to say, and the idea pleased him, for he knew that his next words would force him into saying something more than usual.

‘You’ll be leaving at the end of this term, John,’ he said.

John put down his cup with a slight clatter and stared at his father.

‘Really?’ he said.

Only one word this time. Somehow it irritated Mr. Marble.

‘Yes. I shall be entering you for the College next term.’

Mr. Marble was doomed to disappointment. John said nothing for a while. He was too stunned to speak. Nearly four years at his secondary school had endeared the place to him, and he had begun to look forward to the alluring prospect of prefectship and ‘colours’. This cup had been rudely snatched from his lips. And he was to be sent to the College. Sydenham College was a public school, one of the second rank only, though this subtle distinction did not matter to John at that age, and there was no love lost between the secondary foundation and this lordly place, whose boys rode on motor-bicycles, and turned up their noses at the rest of humanity.

It was this that made the sharpest appeal to John’s dumb but sensitive little soul. At Sydenham College he would be torn apart from the friends he had made during four long summers. He, too, would have to turn up his nose at Manton and Price and good old Jones, whose glasses were always bent the wrong way. He wouldn’t, of course, but—he realized this with a flash of prophetic insight—they would expect him to and that would be just as bad. For the moment John saw things very clearly. At the College he would be received and treated like a secondary boy, and at the School there would be instinctive hostility towards him. He would not be fish, nor fowl, nor good red herring.

‘Oh, say something, for goodness’ sake,’ said Mr. Marble, pettishly. ‘Don’t sit there staring like a stuffed dummy.’

John addressed his eyes to his plate. ‘Thank you, father,’ he said.

‘Confound it, boy,’ said Mr Marble, ‘anyone would think you didn’t want to go there. The finest public school in England, and you’re going there. And’—here Mr Marble threw his finest bait—‘if you get on well there and distinguish yourself, there might be that motor-bike I’ve heard you talking about, some day.’

But the effort was vain. Even a motor-bicycle meant nothing to John if it was conditional upon his going to the College. If Mr. Marble had only mentioned it before he had mentioned the other, John’s reception of the suggestions might have been different. As it was, John could only mumble ‘thank you’ again and fidget with the crumbs on his plate. Mr. Marble turned from him exasperated, and addressed his real favourite, Winnie, instead.

‘And you, miss,’ he said, with a jocosity which, unwonted as it was, had precisely the opposite effect to the one he desired, ‘what do you want most?’

It was an unsatisfactory question to put suddenly to an unprepared fourteen-year-old even if she was nearly fifteen. Winnie thought and fumbled with her dress, and looked away as she became conscious of the concentrated gaze of everyone in the room. To her aid came the recollection of what she most envied the biggest girl in her form.

‘Green garters,’ she said.

Mr. Marble roared with laughter, only the tiniest bit forced.

‘You’ll have a lot more than that,’ he laughed. ‘We’ll be buying you a new outfit altogether this week, lock, stock, and barrel. What do you say to going away to a nice school, a real young ladies’ school, where as likely as not you’ll ride a horse in the mornings, and have all the things you fancy, and be friends with lords’ daughters?’

‘Ooh, I should like that,’ said Winnie, but it was only modified rapture. Mr. Marble had sprung his little surprise too surprisingly to have the effect he desired. But he was satisfied for the moment.

‘But is this all true?’ asked Winnie. ‘Are we really all going to have just what we like?’

‘As true as true. We can have just whatever we like,’ said Mr. Marble, overjoyed to find Winnie, at least, impressed.

‘Well, what’s mummie going to have?’ continued Winnie.

Mr. Marble turned to his wife, who had sat behind his shoulder, suddenly, when she heard this surprising conversation begin. Mr. Marble looked at his wife, and she began to think, confusedly, as always.

‘Anything I want at all?’ she asked, more to gain time than from any other motive.

‘Anything you want at all,’ repeated Mr. Marble.

Mrs. Marble let her mind travel free, without hindrance from the strait limits of expense which had hedged it in all her life. And her thoughts flew straight, as they often did, to green fields and the sunlight in the hedgerows. With the clearness of mental vision so often granted to those of stumbling intellect a picture rose before her mind’s eye of a sunny, hyacinth-scented lawn, full of the murmuring of bees, sleepy little hills, half-wooded, in the distance, and Mr. Marble beside her, kind and a little attentive and loverlike.

‘Oh, do be quick, mummie,’ said Winnie.

Mrs. Marble translated her thoughts to the best of her ability.

‘I want a new house and a nice garden,’ said Mrs. Marble.

Mr. Marble made no comment. He was so silent that in time they all turned and looked at him. He had shrunk back in his chair, literally shrunk, so that he only seemed to be half the bulk he had been when he came in. His face was blank, and his lips moved without uttering a sound. He rallied in the end.

‘You won’t have that,’ he said. ‘You’ll never have that.’

Then he guessed at the strangeness of his manner from their surprised expressions, and tried to mask it.

‘Houses are hard to get these days,’ he said. ‘And I’m sure I’m fond enough of the old house not to want to leave it. Can’t you think of something else, Mother?’

Of course Mother could, if Will wanted her to. Discussion began in a more animated form, as they warmed to the subject.

Even John was in the end lured into joining in. Suggestions were bandied back and forth—furniture for the house, motor-cars, theatres, chicken for dinner on Sundays. But somehow they all avoided the crying need the house was in for redecoration, and none of them suggested obtaining the assistance of a jobbing gardener to put some beauty into the backyard. Three of those present didn’t know why. It was instinctive.

As Mr. Marble recovered his good spirits, he became more jovial and friendly than the children could remember his being for years. They chuckled when he produced a big notebook and made a show of noting down all the suggestions offered.

‘But your tea’s getting cold, Will,’ said Mrs. Marble. ‘Why don’t you have it now and go on with the game after?’

The children looked anxiously at their father. Was it after all just a game? It would be too bad if it were. But he reassured them at once.

‘It isn’t a game, mother,’ he said, ‘it isn’t, really.’

But still Mrs. Marble looked her unbelief. Half buried in her tangled memory there were one or two recollections of times when her husband had cruelly taken advantage of her dimness of thought. And she was sensitive about it, and shrank from having it exposed once more.

‘It isn’t a game, mother,’ said John and Winnie, encouraged.

‘I’ve just made a pot of money in the City,’ said Mr. Marble.

‘Father’s just made a pot of money in the City,’ repeated Winnie.

Gradually she came to believe them.

‘How much?’ she asked, astonishingly more practical than her children.

‘More than you could guess,’ said Mr. Marble, adhering firmly to his article of faith that under no conditions should one’s wife know anything about one’s income—although this had once before brought him to the verge of ruin. ‘Enough to keep us all our lives,’ added Mr. Marble, rubbing it in.

‘But you’re not—you’re not going to give up the Bank?’ said Mrs. Marble, aghast. You could feel that capital letter as she spoke. Awe for the vast institution which gave them their daily bread, and terror of the Damocles’ sword of dismissal which dangled always over their heads were ingrained into her being from the early days of marriage.

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Mr. Marble easily. ‘I may and I may not.’

‘Oh, Will, you mustn’t, you mustn’t really. Supposing anything went wrong.’

‘Wrong? What’s going to go wrong?’ Marble could not keep a suspicion of a sneer out of his voice. He was nettled at the suggestion that anything should ‘go wrong’ with financial affairs under his control, after his astonishing feat of manipulation of the franc. He did not make full allowance for the fact that Mrs. Marble knew nothing of this. That was perhaps characteristic, and equally so was his annoyance that she should interfere in the slightest with his control of their joint lives.

‘I don’t know, but—oh, Will, you can’t have made as much money as all that?’

‘Can’t I! I have.’

To children it seems perfectly natural that their father should come home one day and say that he has made all their fortunes; but to a woman nothing seems more unlikely than that the husband should say the same thing. It took a long time to convince Mrs. Marble. Indeed, by the time that this was done, Mr. Marble had lost all enjoyment. Nobody had been very enthusiastic; nobody had told Mr. Marble what a very wonderful man he was; John, indeed, had seemed positively sorry that it had happened. And Mrs. Marble had said the deplorably wrong thing—as of course was only to be expected. Poor Marble’s long-stretched nerves gave way, and he ended by losing his temper rather badly.

‘You’re a lot of fools,’ he snapped. ‘As for you, Annie——’

Annie wept, and as always when that happened Mr. Marble could bear things no longer. He uttered an inarticulate noise which only inadequately conveyed his disgust, and rose indignantly from his chair. Then he went through a series of actions which Annie and the children had come to know all too well. He roamed round the room and picked up a couple of the eternal books on crime that lay about; then he felt in his pocket for the sideboard key; he brought from the sideboard the decanter, the siphon, and the glass; and then with his arms full he passed out of the room. The children and their mother heard him go into the drawing-room at the back, and they heard the door shut with unnecessary violence.

‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,’ wailed Mrs. Marble, handkerchief to her eyes. Then she rallied. It was still an article of faith with the Marble family that the head of the house did not drink, never had drunk, and a thousand times never had been the worse for drink. And at the same time another article of faith had grown up lately. That was that Mr. Marble did not sit all those hours in the drawing-room for any particular purpose. It was just a little whim of his, unaccountable, but not to be commented upon.

‘Now, children,’ said Mrs. Marble, determined at all costs—although she did not know why—to enforce these beliefs, and at the same time to hold up the prestige of her husband, ‘get on quietly with your homework and don’t make a noise to disturb father. Perhaps he’ll tell us more about it when he’s not so tired.’

She rose from the table and gathered up the tray on which still lay her husband’s untasted tea. She went out quietly, tiptoeing past the drawing-room door. A good part of the evening she spent in washing up. The rest she spent in ironing.

When at last she had done her work, and had seen the children off to bed she came and sat down quietly in the deserted dining-room. She was very tired, and she was very worried. Of course, she believed dear Will when he said he had made all that money, but still—he might have made a mistake somewhere, and it might not be as he thought. She felt very frightened about his obvious determination to leave the Bank. Not for all the wealth Will said he had made would she admit to herself that the main cause of her worry was the haunting suspicion that perhaps Will had made this money illegally. He might be taken away and put in prison. That would be terrible, but, of course, she would always love him and be true to him. Indeed, Mrs. Marble, thinking in muddled fashion but doggedly as was her wont, decided that something like this must have happened. He had not really done anything wicked of course, but there would be suspicions against him, and all the evidence would point that way, and so on. His recent anxiety, which even Mrs. Marble had guessed at, and his mutterings at night as he lay at her side all seemed to prove the same thing. Poor boy, he must be very worried. And the thought of him sitting there all alone in the half-dark drawing-room moved her to vast pity. All her queer love for him rose in her breast and she felt her eyes growing moist. She loved him very, very dearly. It was because of this anxiety of his that he had not been as tender towards her as he had once been. But that would end now, now that he knew that she was on his side and shared his trouble. There was nothing in the world so dear to Mrs. Marble as the kisses of that little, shabby man with the reddish moustache, who bore the fires of hell eternally in his bosom. With her love welling up in her breast until it began even to oppress her, so that she had to rest her hand over her heart, Mrs. Marble came to the cross-roads of her life—and did not even know that she had reached them. Without further thought she went out of the room, and quietly across into the other, bearing love and hope to her darling husband.

He was sitting in the position that had become habitual, in the uncomfortable late Victorian armchair, facing the window and about two yards from it. His position indicated an awkward compromise between tension and relaxation. On the chair beside him stood his whisky and his glass, and on his lap lay his book, as if he had interrupted his reading for a moment to follow some train of thought which had just occurred to him. But for the last hour nearly, it had been too dark to read. Mr. Marble was half drunk, and his mind was working out possibilities of unimaginable horror, as he gazed out into the nearly dark garden which held his secret.

‘Dear,’ began Mrs. Marble, and then, as he did not answer: ‘Are you awake, dear?’

She came nearer to him, walking like a grey ghost in the semi-darkness, and touched him lightly on the shoulder. Mr. Marble sprang into instant activity. He writhed in his chair, and the whisky decanter went over with a crash, sending its scant contents gurgling out on to the carpet.

‘What—what——’ he spluttered. After all, a man can be ready for all emergencies only for a limited time, and Mr. Marble had relaxed for once. Then he saw that it was only his wife. ‘Oh, it’s you, you fool,’ he snarled, ashamed of his absurd fear—he would not admit to himself what he had been afraid of—and angry with her, with himself, and with everything else.

‘Oh Will, I’m so sorry,’ said Mrs. Marble, stooping to pick up the decanter, her slippers sopping with whisky.

A bare half-inch remained in the decanter—mere mockery. Mr. Marble peered at it, and swore. It was an ugly word he used, and Mrs. Marble drew her breath in sharply. But she still tried to make the peace.

‘Never mind, Willie boy,’ she said, ‘I couldn’t help it. You can get some more in the morning. Never mind, dear.’

They were the little pathetic words she used to use when John was a little boy, very near to her heart, and something had upset him. To Mrs. Marble’s mind the loss of his whisky must affect Mr. Marble in the same way as did a broken toy affect Baby John.

‘Never mind, dear,’ said Mrs. Marble, and she put out her hand to his forehead, just as she used to do.

But Mr. Marble only pushed her away pettishly, and growled out the ugly word he had used before. It was that that upset Mrs. Marble. She was used to his fits of temper—she would not have loved him so dearly had he not had them, baby like—but he had never sworn at her, never before. Still she made another effort, trying to get past his outstretched arm to touch his forehead and ruffle back the sparse hair in the way she loved doing.

‘That wasn’t what I wanted to speak about, dear,’ she said. ‘I wanted——’

‘I hope to God it wasn’t,’ sneered Marble. ‘You would be a bigger fool than even I thought you were if you came in here just to upset my whisky.’

‘Oh, Willie, Willie,’ sobbed Mrs. Marble. She was crying now.

‘Oh, Willie, Willie,’ mocked Mr. Marble, his nerves fretted red raw.

‘No, Willie, do listen. I wanted to tell you that I know about it, after all, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter a bit, dear. It won’t alter me at all.’

She was able to say this long speech—long for her, that is—only through the inability of her husband to say or do anything. He had gripped the arms of the chair and was staring at her in terror. Then at last he spoke, or rather croaked. His throat was dry and his heart was pounding away in his breast like a steam engine.

‘How—how do you know?’

‘I don’t know really, dear, I just guessed. But you don’t understand, dear. It doesn’t matter, that’s what I wanted to say.’

Marble laughed; it sounded horrible in the darkness.

‘So you think it doesn’t matter? A lot you know.’

‘No, dear, I don’t mean that. I mean it doesn’t matter my knowing. Oh, Willie dear——’

But Marble was laughing again. It was a wild beast sound.

‘If you could guess, half the world will guess to-morrow. Ah——’

‘To-morrow? Don’t they know now?’

‘Would I be here if they did, you fool?’

‘No, dear. But I thought perhaps they suspected.’

‘There’s nothing for them to suspect. They can only know.’

‘But how can they know?’

‘If young Medland——’

‘Medland? Oh, you mean that young nephew who came here. Did he help you? I’ve often wanted to ask you about him.’

Marble stared at her grey form in the twilight. He could not see her face, and he felt a horrid fear that either she was tempting him or else he had lost his unassailable position for a silly nothing. For a moment the first idea triumphed.

‘You devil,’ he said. ‘What are you doing? What are you asking me this for?’

His voice cracked with fear and passion. Mrs. Marble said nothing. She was too startled to utter a word. Mr. Marble stared at her unmoving figure, and for a moment a wild, ridiculous fear of the unknown overwhelmed him. Was it really his wife, or was it—was it—? Blind panic began to overmaster him. He struck out wildly at the brooding form. He felt a savage pleasure as his fist struck firm flesh, and he heard his wife give a startled cry. He struck again and again, heaving himself up out of his chair to do so. The little chair fell over, and the glass and the siphon broke into a thousand clattering fragments. His wife screamed faintly as he followed her across the room, hitting with puny savagery.

‘Oh, Willie, Willie, don’t!’

Then chance directed a blow more accurately and Mrs. Marble fell dumbly to the ground.

Marble staggered, and clutched the back of a chair to steady himself. As his panic passed, he was only conscious of a dreadful weakness; and he could hardly stand, and he was dizzy with strain and with the pounding of his heart. There came a clattering outside the room, and then the door was flung open. The light from the hall lamp outside streamed in, revealing John standing by the door in his ragged nightclothes. His mother lay where she had fallen, close at his feet.

For a second father and son stared at each other. It was only for a second, but that was enough. At the end of it John knew that he hated his father; and his father knew that he hated his son. John opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Then his mother at his feet sighed and stirred. Mr. Marble recovered himself with an effort—oh, those efforts!

‘Glad you came down, John,’ he said. ‘Your mother’s had a—bit of an accident. Help me upstairs with her.’

John said nothing, but he bent and put his arm under her shoulders, while Marble held her at her knees. Between them they dragged her upstairs. She was conscious and well enough to walk up herself by that time, but a frozen silence lay on all three of them, and none of them would break it. They laid her on the bed, and Mrs. Marble wailed and dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief which she still held clutched in her hand. John looked once more at his father, with a flash of hatred still in his eyes, and then he swung round and walked out of the room.

Perhaps even then all might have been well if Mr. Marble had bent over his wife and had asked her pardon, in the little soft voice that he had sometimes used, which Annie loved so well. Annie might have softened; with her arms about his neck she might have pulled him down to her, and her broken-hearted tears might have changed to tears of joy even at that late moment. But Mr. Marble did not do this. He was badly flustered and shaken; he stepped back from the bed and fidgeted round the room. When at last he came back to her Annie had her face buried in the pillow, and she shook off the hand he tentatively rested on her shoulder. Mr. Marble dallied for a moment, but before his mind’s eye rose a vision of a little drain of whisky left in the decanter downstairs. There was still a little left; he had seen it with his own eyes after Annie had picked up the decanter from where she had knocked it. And whisky at that moment was what Marble needed more than anything else in the world. He turned and tiptoed out of the room, downstairs to where the decanter was.

Late that night Mr. Marble still sat in the drawing-room; he had lighted the gas, because he did not like the darkness he had found down there. His hand gripped an empty glass, and his eyes stared across the room as he sat in the armchair, faintly visualizing the sequence of events his over-active mind was tracing out. Too little whisky and too much excitement had stimulated Mr. Marble’s brain to such an extent that he could not check his wild imagination at all. The consequences of the evening’s work were presented to him in every possible variation. At one second he seemed to feel the hands of the police on his shoulders; the next, and he could feel the hangman’s slimy fingers upon him as they writhed over him making all ready. More than once he started from his chair mouthing a stream of inarticulate entreaties. Each time he sank back with a sigh, only to be plunged immediately afterwards into some other horrible fantasy. He had cut the ground from under his feet; he had made the blunder that every murderer had to make. His secret was shared, and a secret shared was a secret divulged. That fool Annie would never bear the strain he felt so hard. She would let fall something and then—the ghastly fancies recommenced. What Mr. Marble needed was whisky, quantities of it, so that he could drown all these maddening thoughts. But whisky was just what Mr. Marble could not have. Not all his twenty-seven thousand pounds, no, not all the wealth imaginable could buy whisky for Mr. Marble at that time. In London it might have done, but not in that quiet suburb, at one o’clock in the morning. Mr. Marble could only sit yammering in his chair, tormented to madness.
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