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Chapter 9

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« on: April 05, 2023, 07:31:12 am »

AFTER this episode matters went for some time exactly as Mr. Marble would have wished. John’s application to enter Sydenham College was favourably received, and he went there without further demur. He was not quite sixteen. There was more trouble about Winnie. Mr. Marble obtained from scholastic agents a list of all the more expensive girls’ schools, but his endeavours to enter Winnie in one of them were baulked for some time. They displayed a not unnatural reluctance to receive in their midst a girl of nearly fifteen who hailed from an address in a dubious street in a south London suburb, and who had been educated so far at a Council school and at a secondary school. But at last a Berkshire school accepted her—it was incidentally the most expensive of all—and then there was a flurrying and a scurrying to get ready the vast outfit that the rules of the school demanded. There was a special type of gymnasium frock to be obtained, and day clothes and evening clothes and, crowning glory of all, a riding-habit and boots. Mr. Marble was delighted. He certainly seemed prouder of Winnie’s outfit than she was herself.

And so, after Easter, the same day that Mr. and Mrs. Marble, he dressed in his very best to impress the other girls’ parents and the other girls, she rather tearful, with her appearance not justifying the amount spent on it, saw Winnie off from Paddington, John put on the blue and black cap of Sydenham College and set off on his two-mile walk thither, not feeling at all happy, with all the mysteries of Rugby football and the prevailing etiquette of the new school before him.

True, his father had been jolly decent to him lately. He had given him nearly all the pocket-money he wanted, while in a tiny lock-up garage at the end of Malcolm Road there reposed the giant two-cylinder motor-bicycle that his heart had yearned for. John had averaged a hundred miles a day on it for the last week, delighting in learning its mechanical whims, making gallant and occasionally successful attempts to climb hills in ‘top’, and finding all the wonderful bits of country that lie near London just out of reach of the ordinary bicycle. It was a good way of forgetting saying good-bye to the old school, where he had been happy for nearly five years—and saying good-bye to his old friends, too.

John was violently unhappy. It was not altogether the new school that made him so, not by any means. It was affairs at home. His father was drunk five nights out of seven, and that was the least of his troubles. Most times Mr Marble’s drunkenness did not disturb the rest of the family as much as might be expected, for on those occasions he kept himself very strictly to himself—shut up in the drawing-room gazing out over the backyard. Only twice had John to interfere actively between his mother and his father, fearing that he would do her an injury, but John knew in his soul that there was a far worse trouble than drunkenness in his house. His mother was looking pinched and thin, and he guessed repeatedly that she had been crying during the day. His father’s unaccountable moroseness probably caused that, combined with the fatigue resulting from his unreasonable refusal to allow her to have any help about the house. Yet John could not find any definite beginning to this moroseness and cross-grainedness, for Mr. Marble had drunk more than was good for him and had neglected his wife long before James Medland had made his solitary visit to 53 Malcolm Road. John looked upon the unpleasing traits in his father’s character as plants of slow growth and poisonous flowering.

All John knew was that there was trouble in the family, terrible trouble, too, and he guessed, childlike, at his father’s hatred for him and resented it with a hatred equally bitter. The gifts that his father had showered on him so profusely lately he had accepted because there was hardly any other course open to him; and he had offered no thanks, because he had seen that what Mr. Marble desired more than anything was to dazzle him with his profusion, and—somewhere—there was a lurking suspicion that these gifts were a sort of bribe, offered to keep him in a good temper.

But at fifteen—nearly sixteen—John had not thought out all these things in the clear-cut fashion of print. He still thought child fashion, all instinct and intuition, but that did not make him any the less unhappy. In fact, it tended rather in the contrary direction.

It was hardly surprising that during that term John found himself very much to himself, and that his already well-developed taste for being solitary increased under stress of circumstances. At school he was that most uncomfortable of beings, the old new boy. The thirteen-year-old at a new school enters a low form, where he finds others of his kind with whom to congregate; he is not expected to know the little points of etiquette that are so vastly important; friends come to him automatically. But John found himself in the Remove, only one form below the Sixth. The others in his form had long ago formed their own particular sets and cliques, and not one of them had room for John. They had been at no pains to conceal their amusement at the one or two blunders into which he unwittingly fell, and, if the truth must be told, their opinion of him was not increased by the knowledge that he had come from the secondary school a mile away for which they had an unreasoning contempt. John resented their attitude towards him, resented it bitterly, and was unwise enough to show it. That raised the baiting of ‘young Marble’ in the eyes of his schoolfellows from the level of a pastime to that of a duty. His very name, of course, gave them endless opportunities for being witty. It ended, as was inevitable, in John’s flinging away from them in disgust, thanking God he was a day boy, and only coming into contact with his fellows when the elastic rules of compulsory games compelled him to.

But unhappily it was just as bad with the fellows with whom he had been friendly at the other school. He went to some pains to look them up and to keep in touch with them, but he was soon conscious of how far they had fallen apart. There was just a trace of suspicion in their attitude towards him—they were always ready to note, and resent, any hint of condescension on his part. Their holidays were different now, for the secondary school had all day on Saturday free, while John was at school in the morning, receiving Wednesday afternoon instead, and the long excursions they were in the habit of making could not be cut down by half to allow him to join them. Besides, did he not have a motor-bicycle, so that he would see no point in sweating with them on a push-bike? And in honest truth John soon found that the savour had gone out of pedal-cycling now that he knew the joys of forty miles an hour on the Giant Twin. Once or twice, at John’s urgent invitation, they had come to 53 Malcolm Road, but John had found himself regretting the invitation as soon as it had been accepted. Those rooms full of gaudy furniture did not make them feel at home. Mr. Marble had been barely civil to them, and had made obvious the fact that he was not entirely sober; John, desperately sensitive, had suspected them of finding much to joke about among themselves at the Marble ménage, and had hated himself for his disloyalty at thinking them capable of such a thing and yet had still gone on thinking it.

All things considered, it was as well that John had the consolation offered him by the Giant Twin. That bulky machine became as good as a brother to him, sharing his troubles and giving him, in the very few mechanical defects it developed, other things to think about than the drunkenness of his father and the disorder of his home.

It is only doing Mr. Marble bare justice to admit that he was happily unconscious of the turmoil in his son’s life. He had other things to think about, too, matters of life and death. The old obsessions were gripping him hard, despite all the distractions offered him in the fact of his having a son at the College, and a daughter at the most expensive school in Berkshire, and a new interest in his life centring in a house in the next road whose gate was adorned with a brass plate bearing the legend ‘Madame Collins, Modes and Robes’. The evenings were many when the lure of that house was not sufficient to drag him away from his steady watching over the backyard from his coign of vantage in the drawing-room.

Marble had more to lose now: security of income, a house full of Empire furniture, a rapidly-expanding and catholic library of books on criminal matters, as much whisky as he was able to drink, a woman who took a more than friendly interest in him. And the irony of it lay in the fact that the more he had to lose the more anxious he was not to lose it, and the more difficult it became in consequence to enjoy all these priceless possessions. Those summer months fled past him like a maelstrom; he was hardly conscious of what was happening around him. The sweets of life were bitter to his palate, in that they were poisoned by the girding worry that was ever present and ever increasing.

The summer term flashed by. It hardly seemed a week since he had seen Winnie off from Paddington before his wife began to make arrangements for her return. Then she spoke to Mr. Marble about holidays.

‘Holidays,’ said Mr. Marble, vaguely.

‘Yes, dear. We’re going away this summer, aren’t we?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Mr. Marble. ‘Are we?’

‘We didn’t go away at all last summer,’ said Mrs. Marble, ‘and the one before that we only had those few days at Worthing. We can afford it, can’t we?’

‘M’yes. I suppose so. But I don’t know what arrangements the office are making.’

‘Oh, dear,’ said Mrs. Marble. She had looked forward to a holiday this year, if only to get away from having to look after that house and to give her a chance of wearing all the wonderful clothes she had bought.

‘I suppose you had better go anyway,’ said Mr. Marble, who was absolutely determined that he, for one, was not going to leave that house unguarded. ‘I’ll look up some nice hotel for you and the kids to go to. I might come down for a bit if I can get away from the office.’

Annie Marble drew her breath in sharply. A hotel! No washing-up, no bother about food, servants to do her bidding; it seemed like a prospect of heaven. There was just a slight momentary fear in her bosom as she thought of possible motives in Mr. Marble’s handsome offer, but her suspicions were too unformed for her to be very worried, and further, there were two possible motives for Mr. Marble wishing to be left in the house, and Mrs. Marble was a little too muddleheaded to disentangle them. Instead, she accepted gratefully.

‘But are you sure you’ll be all right, dear?’ she said, perforce.

‘Of course I will.’ And that settled the matter.

Soon after Winnie came back from school, strangely mature, and rapidly fulfilling her early promise of beauty. She seemed a different girl, somehow. There was an alteration in her speech. Not that she had ever talked broad cockney—her other school friends had always considered her ‘refined’, but the slight trace of a twang when she used the higher registers had now disappeared, in fact, she did not employ those higher registers at all now. She talked more throatily—‘pound-notey’ was the terse descriptive phrase popular in that district—and she was much more self-possessed and placid than she had been when she went away. Mr. Marble was pleased, as pleased as he could be at that period—he was going through rather a bad time just then—and Mrs. Marble, as was inevitable, was heartily sorry. Winnie had grown away from her.

But neither of her parents, much as they fussed about her when she arrived, noticed her tiny lift of the eyebrows as she entered their wonderful dining-room, with its wonderful mosaic table. Winnie had now had experience of what good rooms look like, and to her, the half-forgotten gaudiness of the gilt furniture in terrible contrast to the faded wallpaper was indescribably vulgar.

Later she hinted as much to her mother, but her comments were not received very gratefully. Mrs. Marble at once began to fidget with her sewing—a sure sign that she was embarrassed.

‘Your father has one or two odd fancies, dear,’ she said, fumbling, blushing and stammering. ‘I shouldn’t mention it to him if I were you. He doesn’t like the idea of having a lot of people about the house, as we should have to have if we had any decorations done. Besides,’—she bridled a little, for she was as proud as was her husband of the gilt furniture.—‘I’m sure this room looks very well indeed. I’m sure nobody in this road has anything half as good in their house. I don’t expect there are many rooms like this in London, even. And, of course, every room in the house is done in the same way. Madame Collins says it’s as good as the Louvre, and she ought to know, seeing she’s been there.’

And that at once placed the matter beyond argument, for Madame Collins was by now a great friend of the family’s. But Winnie would not have argued about it, anyway. She merely made a mental note of the fact and said no more about it. That was typical of Winnie.

But Mrs. Marble had by now become well started on the subject that absorbed so many of her few thoughts.

‘You mustn’t think any the less of your father, dear, because—because—he is a little odd at times. He has a great deal to worry him, you know, and I’m sure you ought to be grateful to him for all he’s done.’

‘Of course I am,’ said Winnie, sweetly. It had never occurred to her not to be grateful.

‘I’m so glad. I—I was a little afraid that when you came back from your fine school you might find that—that—everything was not quite as you would like it.’

‘Do you mean because father drinks?’

‘Winnie!’ Mrs. Marble showed in her expression how shocked she was at this calling of a spade a spade.

‘But he does, mother, now doesn’t he?’

‘Y—es, I suppose he does. But not very much, dear. Not more than you could expect, seeing how much his business worries him. And you didn’t ought to speak about it like that, Winnie. It doesn’t sound nice.’

Poor Mrs. Marble had by now nearly as much to worry her as her husband had. It might almost be worse in her case, for she did not know really what it was she had to worry about, and her not over-exuberant imagination could not allow her even to guess. And the worry of defending her husband to her children on unnamed and unguessed-at charges was nearly as great as everything else put together.

For her children were small comfort to her now. John was gawky and shy, and she could not know of the love he bore her, especially as the memory of the times when he had come to defend her from her husband stood as a barrier between them which neither of them had the moral courage to surmount at a rush. And Winnie—even Mrs. Marble felt this—was just a little bit superior nowadays.

Yet even Winnie was for the moment mollified by the announcement that they were going to stay for a month at the Grand Pavilion Hotel at a very fashionable south coast resort. That would be much nicer than staying all the holidays at Malcolm Road, and it would be something to tell the girls about when she went back to school. Some of these might go to France, some to Italy, but there would be few who would spend their holidays at such a place as the Grand Pavilion Hotel. Their parents would have more sense.

And the packing, and the preparation! Winnie helped her mother sort out her astonishing wardrobe. In the tiny cupboards of the bedroom upstairs, where the gilt cupids climbed eternally about the big bed, there were heaps of the most assorted clothes it was possible to conceive. Mingled with the frightfully expensive costumes, there were old rags dating back from the dark ages before the rise of the franc. Mrs. Marble, apparently, wore indifferently the pastel shade silk underclothes bought in Bond Street and the wool and cotton mixture garments, neither decorative nor useful, which she had had before the arrival of these others. The explanation was really simple. Never in her life before had Mrs. Marble had any clothes to give away; they were all worn to rags long before she could spare them. She could not get into the habit of disposing of her older wardrobe. In fact, it is much to be doubted whether she had ever contemplated giving away garments in which there still remained six months’ wear, according to earlier standards of economy. And all the clothes, worn and unworn, were badly looked after, unbrushed and hung on hooks without hangers.

Even one term at a boarding-school had taught Winnie to do better than this, and for two hectic days she took her mother’s clothes in hand, sorting and folding, ruthlessly relegating some to the rag-basket, wondering over others. It was beyond her powers to imagine her mother in underclothing of orange silk or eau de nil; it was almost beyond it to imagine her well dressed at all, but Winnie contrived to arrange that her mother looked more like the mothers whom she had seen at the school occasionally. Mrs. Marble was almost tearfully grateful.

‘I don’t seem to have time to do all this,’ she said. ‘And—and—it doesn’t seem worth it, sometimes. Your father is a very busy man, you know, dear.’

The cupids that climbed about the big Empire bed had climbed in vain for months now, that was what Mrs. Marble implied, although she would never have dreamed of hinting as much to her daughter.

And in all this rush to put Mrs. Marble’s wardrobe in order Winnie herself was not forgotten. She had to have new frocks as well, for her stay at the Grand Pavilion Hotel, and Winnie’s taste, which was allowed almost complete freedom, was at its best a little juvenile. Mrs. Marble was a shade frightened when she saw some of the things Winnie had chosen, but it was beyond her to protest. She had only the haziest idea as to what was the correct wear for a girl of fifteen at the Grand Pavilion Hotel.

‘There’s a lot in being bobbed,’ said Winnie to herself in the glass, attentively studying her features while her mother was safely out of the way. ‘No one can ever really tell how old you are. If I weren’t bobbed, I wouldn’t have my hair up, and then anyone could tell. But as it is, with my new frocks and everything, I think I’ll have rather a nice time this holiday. And there’ll be something to tell them about when I get back to school.’

Winnie and her mother were pleasantly excited when the cab came to take them to Victoria. John was not with them. He had decided to go on alone on the Giant Twin, despite Winnie’s faint protest that a motor-bicycle was highly vulgar.

Mr. Marble, too, was pleasantly excited when he waved good-bye to them. For reasons of his own he was glad to know that his daughter was out of the way. He had felt uncomfortable in her presence. That three months, three months of good food and of close intimacy with people who never had the slightest difficulty with their aitches, had caused her to grow away from her family at a surprising rate. Mr. Marble was not even comfortable with his daughter when he was drunk. And every moment he feared lest she should demand that they should move to a bigger and better house, or failing that, that they should have the present house redecorated and arranged as nearly as possible like the houses of the girls she had known at school. It was not the expense that Mr. Marble feared. Instead, he was thrown into agonies of terror at the thought of workmen nosing around his house, and of piles of ladders and boards heaped up in his backyard. The foot of a ladder might easily dig some inches deep into the soft soil of the barren flower-bed.

When he was sober, Mr. Marble had his suspicions, too, that his children were neither grateful for nor impressed by the benefit he had heaped upon them. He even suspected them of not admiring the mosaic table as much as they should have done. In a ferment of self-pity he realized that he was not getting full return for all his outlay. When he could blame it on to circumstances he did not mind so much; but there were a few aching moments, when the whisky had failed to bite as it should, when it was forced home on him that it was his fault. There were times when he could not visualize himself, as he usually could, as the triumphant criminal, surmounting all difficulties, over-riding all obstacles, tearing success out of the very teeth of failure. Instead, there came moments when he saw himself in his true colours, as the cornered rat he was, struggling with the courage of desperation against the fate that would inevitably close upon him sooner or later. When these black periods came he would clutch hurriedly at his glass and drain it thirstily. Thank God, there was always whisky in exchange for his money—and Marguerite Collins.
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