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Chapter 8

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« on: April 05, 2023, 05:39:30 am »

NEXT week kept all Malcolm Road on tiptoe. Various rumours had been flying round about Mr. Marble’s suddenly acquired wealth, stating its amount and its manner of coming in twenty different ways. Yet there were still some sceptics, who refused to believe the evidence presented to them, and who scornfully declared that they would give credit to the rumours only when they were proved beyond all doubt. Why, only a few months back there had been similar rumours, when the Marbles started to pay off their bills and Mrs. Marble had bought some new clothes. But in a short time they had been back to their old tricks again, owing money on all sides, while Mrs. Marble had been going about as dowdy as any of them.

But this time the sceptics were confounded. At first the news had flown from lip to lip—‘Number 53’s moving out’. It looked like it, indeed. An empty furniture van stood outside, and men were moving furniture into it from Number 53. Everywhere, from upper windows behind curtains, housewives were watching the process. Some, overwhelmed with curiosity, put on their hats and went thither on hurriedly-composed errands of borrowing or restoring in order to have a word with Mrs. Marble to find out what was really going on. But they retired baffled. Mrs. Marble was in too great a state of hurry and bewilderment to give them any satisfaction at all. And, having retired, they were doomed to further mystification. For more vans drew up outside Number 53, and from these men began to bring other furniture and take it inside.

Truly the neighbours were baffled. They had heard of people moving out before, and they had heard of people moving in. They knew of many cases where these two operations had been carried out as nearly simultaneously as might be. They had also heard, but more rarely, of people buying new furniture although they were not newly married. But the present process utterly confounded them. And the furniture that was arriving! Nothing half as splendid had ever been seen before in Malcolm Road. They saw the great Empire bed being carried in in sections, the gilding flaming in the daylight, and the Cupids, vapidly chubby, clustered upon it. The neighbours shook their heads sadly, and told each other that they thought that that bed could tell a tale or two if it wished. Then came chairs, and dressing-tables, and chests of drawers, all resplendent in gold, and covered thick with carving. There was little housework done in Malcolm Road that day. The housewives were too busy watching the new furniture being brought in to Number 53.

The work was still uncompleted late in the afternoon when Mr. Marble returned from the office. It was nearly done, but the task that remained was the hardest of all. The men were busy arranging to get the vast mosaic table into the house. Mr. Marble, with quite a pleasant bubble of excitement within him, flung down his hat and hastened out to superintend the handling of this, his chiefest treasure. He stood by the gate, hatless in the sunshine, giving useless and unheeded advice while the workmen toiled and sweated, handling the monstrosity. Mrs. Marble had sunk down on one of the uncomfortable gilt chairs, quite tired out.

As Mr. Marble stood on the pavement by his gate he felt a touch on his arm, and he looked round. She was a woman nearly of middle-age—no, hardly that, thought Mr. Marble, but at any rate she gave an impression of ripe and luscious maturity. And she was dressed—oh, simply to perfection. She was dressed as Mr. Marble sometimes vaguely wished his wife would dress. Despite her closely-fitting hat anyone could tell that she was auburn-haired, and her eyes were a rich brown and her complexion was splendid. She wore her clothes in a fashion only achieved by her countrywomen—she was French. The whole atmosphere her appearance conveyed was one of ripeness and perfection—over-ripeness, perhaps, but that was, if anything, an added attraction in Mr. Marble’s eyes.

‘What lovely things you have got,’ said this apparition. ‘I have been looking at them for ever so long. Those beautiful chairs and that lovely bed! They remind me of what I have seen in the Louvre.’

Mr. Marble was a little taken aback. He was unused to being addressed in the broad light of day by over-ripe and entirely delectable goddesses. But he was secretly pleased. It was a pleasant thing to have this long-coveted Empire furniture admired, especially by people of obvious good taste like this one. Mr. Marble realized that the difficulty that the newcomer displayed in tackling the aspirate was not the one usually met with in Malcolm Road. He noted her as French, with a pleased appreciation of his own perspicacity, and his head positively swam as he looked at her and strove to make some reply. The unknown noted his embarrassment, was pleased, and went swiftly on as though she had not.

‘You do not mind my looking at your nice things? No? I am very rude, I know, and I should not, but I could not help it. And now I have confessed, and I ought to have pardon. You do pardon me, eh?’

Mr. Marble had not even yet recovered himself, and this charming little speech did nothing to assist in the process. He stammered out some banal phrase or other—the only intelligible word was ‘charmed’—but somehow the newcomer soon put him at his ease and they were chatting away as though they had been friends for years. She greeted the appearance of the mosaic table with little shrieks of delight.

‘Oh, how lovely!’ she said. ‘It is magnificent. You are a very lucky man, Mr——?’

‘Marble,’ said Mr Marble.

Upstairs, three doors off, one woman said to another:

‘The French dressmaker woman, you know, Madame Collins, she calls herself, has just got off with Mr. Marble. Nice goings on, I call it, right in the street outside his front door, with beds and I-don’t-know-what being carried past them. I wonder what Mrs. Marble will have to say about that.’

‘Nothing, I don’t expect. She doesn’t never have a word to say for herself. He treats her cruel, so I’ve heard.’

But Mr. Marble for the moment cared nothing for tittle-tattling neighbours. He was too busy thinking of something nice to say to this wonderful woman. He was still talking to her when the table had at last been manœuvred through the narrow hall door and the workmen were gathering in the background with a furtive lust for tips in their eyes. He paid them testily, and signed the forms they held out to him without even glancing over them. He did not want her to go away just yet, but for the life of him he did not see how he could possibly detain her. Then came his wife, and this, instead of spoiling everything, as he had feared, was the saving of the situation. He was not to know that Madame Collins’ dearest wish at the moment was to scrape acquaintance with such obviously well-to-do people. She had noted the furniture, and she had noted Mr. Marble’s well-cut clothes, just obtained from the best tailor in the City, and his platinum wrist-watch bracelet and his gold cigarette case. They would be acquaintances worth having, she had decided. When Mrs. Marble appeared she went effusively towards her.

‘Oh, Mrs. Marble,’ she said, ‘I ’ave just been talking to your ’usband about all your nice furniture. It is too lovely. You are a lucky woman to ’ave such nice things.’

Mrs. Marble was as startled as her husband had been ten minutes ago. She glanced quaveringly at him, and took from him her cue of agreeableness.

‘I’m glad you like them,’ she said.

Mr. Marble took his chance.

‘Won’t you come in?’ he said. ‘Then you could see them in the rooms. My wife could give you a cup of tea, too.’

‘Thank you so much,’ said Madame Collins, and she passed the threshold, in more senses than one. They passed into the dining-room. It was crammed unbearably with gilt chairs and the abominable mosaic table, whose tawdriness was accentuated by the faded flowered wallpaper and what was left of the dingy old furniture. With its glitter and glare the room looked like a cheap-jack jeweller’s stall. Madame Collins looked grimly round, but she was very charming about it, and praised the effect so delicately that even pale little Mrs. Marble flushed with pleasure. And she introduced herself in such a ladylike fashion that everybody felt happy instead of uncomfortable as they expected to feel.

They had tea with the silver tea-set on the gilt and mosaic table—a combination that annoyed Madame Collins’ really sensitive eye extremely—and when she rose to take her leave Mrs. Marble was almost sorry, tired though she was, and she eagerly accepted Madame Collins’ invitation to call whenever she felt like it.

Madame Collins had been very tactful and had let them know all about her past and present circumstances, without being too obvious about it. They had gathered that she was French, of a very old and distinguished family ruined by the war—her father was actually a Normandy peasant—and she had married an English officer of vast talent but no money. Now they were struggling to make both ends meet, she with her dressmaking and he with his music. She admitted with a shy laugh that he really tuned pianos, but that was not at all the work he was fitted for. He had great ideas about what he could do, and—so she said—she believed in them, too. To Mrs. Marble she conveyed the impression of a devoted couple with a great future before them; to Mr. Marble it did not seem as if the devotion were so pronounced. That goes to show what a clever woman Madame Collins was, even allowing for the fact that Mrs. Marble was very tired, and so preoccupied with being ladylike and pouring out the tea that she missed the one or two flashing glances with which Madame Collins favoured Mr. Marble from her warm, brown eyes.

And when she had gone, Mr. Marble, with his money scorching a hole in his pocket, was so excited and pleased with his inner thoughts that for the time he had no care about anything else. His riotous imagination had, for the nonce, something to riot over other than the possibilities of detection, and he made the most of it. He dreamed away the evening very pleasantly. He was not even disturbed by the fact that John and Winnie found it difficult to do homework on the mosaic table in consequence of the raised gilt border; he had no care for Mrs. Marble, who was patiently clearing up the confusion left by the men when they had brought the furniture, and who was toiling putting mattresses and sheets on the cupid-encumbered Empire bed in the front bedroom.

But he paid for this slight relaxation. He had to pay for it sooner or later of course, and as it happened this came about the next evening.

Mr. Marble was sitting smoking in the glittering dining-room. He was still happy and peaceful; he ignored the discomfort of the Empire armchair in which he sat; in the hall stood a crate of books he had ordered that morning—crime books, mystery books, all the books he had seen advertised at the back of the limited selection available at the Public Library, and had coveted during his poverty—and when he felt like it he would leisurely unpack them and would arrange them in the drawing-room so that he could browse in them when he would. But he was rudely disturbed. Mrs. Marble had come into the room and had sat down, and was fidgeting with her sewing in a nervous fashion. If Mr. Marble had given the matter a thought he would have known that she was nerving herself to ask something of him, but he had been too preoccupied in thinking about Madame Collins and her brown eyes—the money in his pocket had something to do with it as well—and the natural result was that her request took him unawares.

‘Will,’ said Mrs. Marble, ‘don’t you think we could have Mrs. Summers back here again now that we can afford it? This house means a lot of work for me, and now that we’ve got all this new furniture——’

Mr. Marble sat very still. His mind had raced away to all the books about crimes that he had read. He had impressed it upon himself so very often that he could only be found out if he made some stupid mistake, like the people whose unhappy lives were told in Historic Days at the Assizes. He was not going to make any stupid mistake. Mrs. Summers was a harmless soul enough, but she had the usual besetting sin of charwomen—inquisitiveness. Goodness knows what she might not find out for herself. Or perhaps his wife would say something that would set her tongue wagging in the other houses in which she worked. It was only to be expected. Mr. Marble did not mind being gossiped about—he rather liked it, in the ordinary way, in fact. But he would have no gossip about himself nowadays. He simply could not afford it. He could foresee with vivid clearness what would happen. His wife would let fall a careless word or two, and Mrs. Summers would repeat them equally carelessly but with a lavish percentage of imaginative detail. The woman who heard her would tell someone else, and before anyone could say Jack Robinson there would be all sorts of tales flying round. There was plenty of gossip about him already, thanks to the new furniture; any addition might result in disaster—anonymous letters to the police, or a committee of neighbours coming secretly to investigate. No one would know, of course, anything about the real state of affairs, but Mr. Marble did not want there to be any suspicion, however baseless, attached to him. For his position was not absolutely secure. If the interest of the police were sufficiently roused even for them to make a casual inspection of all his financial arrangements they might easily find something to interest them regarding certain bank-notes that had passed into his possession one stormy night last winter. And it was not mere money that was at stake, nor comfort, nor even Empire furniture. What was in peril was his life! Much reading of books about crime had given him a good idea of the formalities of the condemned cell and of the scaffold. And he writhed in anguish at the thought. He could not possibly run any risks. Already in imagination he was being torn from his bed one bleak morning, and dragged fainting along a grey corridor to a tarred shed wherein awaited him a trapdoor and a noose. There was sweat on his face as he forced this picture on one side and turned to face his wife.

‘No,’ he said, ‘we don’t want any charwomen in here. You will have to manage on your own.’

Even Mrs. Marble expostulated at this arbitrary decision.

‘But, Will, dear,’ she said, ‘I don’t think you understand. I’m not asking for anything, I’m not really. You’re giving me nine pounds a week housekeeping money, and that’s a lot more than I can spend at all. We could have a maid to live in with all that money, two maids perhaps, with caps and aprons and all. But I don’t want that. They’d be too much trouble. I only want old Mrs. Summers to come in three or four days a week and help me with the rough work. It’s too much for me, really and truly it is.’

‘What, in this little house?’

‘Of course I could do it, if I had to, Will. But it does seem silly, doesn’t it, that I should have to sweep and dust and wash up, when there are lots of people who would be thankful to have the chance to do it for me? And my back still aches from lifting those mattresses yesterday.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Mr. Marble.

Mrs. Marble was incapable of sustaining an argument for long. She had already made two speeches, each of them thrice the length of any of her usual remarks, and she could do no more for the present. She relapsed into unhappy silence, while Mr. Marble battled with the train of thought that had been raised by his wife’s suggestion. His imagination tortured him with peculiar malignity for the next few minutes.

Mrs. Marble’s mind was working, too. That day had seen the arrival of the first of the things she had bought last Saturday—large boxes delivered by carrier, and full of the most delectable things her imagination had ever pictured. She had lingered over them lovingly. There were hats, wonderful hats, which suited her marvellously, although, as she confessed to herself, she did not much care for the fashionable cloche shape with its severely-untrimmed lines. There were jumpers, matronly jumpers, which she realized with amazement looked very well on her although up till then she had only considered jumpers as suitable for young girls. There were boxes and boxes of underclothing, whose price had horrified her at first, until she had taken heart of grace from the knowledge of all the money there was to spend. Naturally, she had not yet received the tailored costume and the coatfrock for which she had been measured by a woman’s tailor who had appeared startlingly in the shop as she finished her other purchases—startlingly, that is to say, to Mrs. Marble, unacquainted with the commission-sharing system of ladies’ shops and with the conveniences of the telephone.

But that costume and the coatfrock would not have been any good to her even if she had had it. Mrs. Marble had indeed roused herself to put on some of the underclothing, priceless things, warm and weightless, costing as much as her husband had earned in a month before all this started happening, but she had not the heart to put on a pair of the thick silk stockings while she had so much housework still to be done, and she wore over the wonderful underclothing her usual draggled housefrock. With the other things arriving shortly she might as well have put on her best frock, but she had not the heart to do that with so much washing-up to be done that evening. Mrs. Marble felt aggrieved. Besides, she was tired, and her back really did hurt.

A day or two ago she had pictured herself sitting at her ease in the evenings, wearing a wonderful frock, with her skin deliciously thrilled by the contact of the silken underclothing. As it was, she wore a shabby frock and there was a bowlful of washing-up clamouring for her attention in the kitchen. It was this that roused her to surprising rebellion—very mild rebellion, but any sort of rebellion was surprising in Mrs. Marble.

‘I’ll have Mrs. Summers in during the daytime when you don’t know anything about it,’ she said.

The words brought Mr. Marble out of his chair in a panic. That would be worse than the other thing; it would start gossip of a more poisonous sort than ever, and gossip better directed towards the real food for suspicion, for Mrs. Marble would have to tell Mrs. Summers that he did not like having other people about the house. He glared at her with frightful intensity.

‘You mustn’t, you mustn’t ever do anything like that,’ he said, and his voice was cracked and shrill. His clenched fists shook in his agitation. Mrs. Marble could only stare at him, surprised and speechless.

‘You mustn’t do it. Do you hear me?’ he shrieked.

His agitation infected his wife, and she fumbled nervously with the sewing on her lap.

‘Yes, dear.’

‘Yes, dear! Yes, dear! I don’t want any of your “yes, dears”. You must promise me, promise me faithfully, that you won’t ever do that. If ever I find out, I’ll—I’ll——’

Mr. Marble’s high-pitched scream died away as the door swung open. John had come running down as soon as he heard his father’s voice at that hysterical pitch. It was not very long since the last time he had heard it like that, and then he had had to carry his mother up to bed, and she had a bruise on her face.

John stood by the door with the light on his face. Mr. Marble shrank back a little, and his lips wrinkled back from his teeth. He was the rat in the corner once more. Hatred flashed from the father to the son. It was not John’s fault, nor, by that time, was it Mr. Marble’s. For James Medland, he who had come in that memorable evening, nearly a year ago now, was John’s cousin when all was said and done, and there was a considerable family likeness. As John stood by the door he was in the same attitude and in the same light as Medland had been in, that evening, when he had entered the dining-room after Winnie had opened the door to him. No wonder that Mr. Marble hated John, and had hated him ever since he first noticed the likeness, that evening when he had struck his wife.

Father looked at son, son looked at father. The room was all aglare with gilded furniture. The diamond in Mr. Marble’s tiepin winked and glittered as he shrank slowly back before John’s slow and menacing advance. John had come to protect his mother, but the desperate challenge in his father’s attitude had roused him to the limit of his self-control. It was Mrs. Marble who saved the situation. She glanced terror-stricken at her husband’s snarling countenance, and at the wrinkled scowl of her son. In utter fear she flung herself into the breach.

‘John, go away,’ she said. ‘Go—quickly—it’s all right.’

John checked himself, and his hands unclenched. Mrs. Marble’s hand was on her heart; for in that same second she had seen what her husband had seen long before, and she had guessed that it was this that had called up that ferocity into his face. She was frightened, and she did not yet know why.

‘Go, go, go,’ wailed Mrs Marble, and then, with a supreme effort, ‘There’s nothing to worry about John. You had better go to bed. Good night, sonny.’

When he had gone, silent, wordless as when he had entered, Mrs. Marble sank into a chair and laid her face on her arms on the gilded table and sobbed and sobbed, heartbroken, while her husband stood morosely beside her, hands in pockets, the gaudy glare of the ornate furniture mocking him, mocking his hopes of the future, mocking his submerged, sensual dreamings of Madame Collins.
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