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Chapter 11

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« on: April 05, 2023, 09:09:36 am »

THERE was misery, misery undisguised and rampant, at 53 Malcolm Road. There were only two people living there now. Winnie had gone back to school, glad to escape from her mother’s helpless unhappiness and her father’s brooding gloom. But Mr. Marble and Mrs. Marble were there all the time. The blow of Mr. Marble’s dismissal from the new firm had fallen almost at once. He did not mind. He did not need the money, and it was such a terrible trouble to have to go up to the office every day. Unhappiness or no unhappiness, he preferred being at home, with his eye on the backyard and his pet books on crime and medical jurisprudence round him, to hanging about at the office all day, worrying about what was happening at home. And the sombre life of sitting solitary at home began to have a hideous fascination for him. There was no effort about it, no call for original thought or talent, and absence of effort was grateful to a man who habitually drank more than he should do, and whose mind was continually wandering down dark avenues, often traversed but always new. His wife was a nobody now, a phantom less real than the squint-eyed hangman that so often came tapping him on the shoulder; she was a soft-footed ghost that wandered about the house, coping ineffectually with the work that awaited her, and usually weeping, but so quietly that it did not disturb him. Sometimes Mrs Marble wept at the memory of her dead son; sometimes she wept because her back hurt her. But she wept at other times, too, and she did not know why she did; actually she was weeping because her husband had ceased to love her. Very grey, very frail and very, very unhappy was Mrs. Marble at this time.

It was a strange, mad life that the two of them led nowadays. There was money in plenty, and very little use for it. The walls of the sitting-room were by now completely lined with Mr. Marble’s collection of books on crime; all the other rooms were crowded with massive and incredibly costly furniture, whose elaborate carvings were a source of woe to Mrs. Marble when she came to dust them. The tradespeople had left off calling, nearly all of them, and all the shopping was done by Mrs. Marble in hurried little excursions to the poverty-stricken shops near. There was money for servants, money for expensive and delightful foods, money for comfortable and manageable furniture. But no servant ever entered 53 Malcolm Road; the elaborate furniture was Mrs. Marble’s most weary burden, and for food they began to depend more and more upon ready cooked food bought as each meal came round in turn to augment the neglected store of the empty larder. Mrs. Marble had begun to neglect her duty of housekeeping long ago. But she had only begun to show incapacity of this order since John’s death.

In point of fact, Mrs. Marble had an idea, and was worrying over it. And when Mrs. Marble wanted to work anything out by sheer force of brain-power she was compelled to abandon all her other labours in order to devote all her time to the task. She was working something out slowly, but, as is always the case when mentalities of that sort are once bent upon completing a task, very, very surely. Yet even now she could not have expressed her suspicions in words, so obscure were they. But they were not connected with Madame Collins, strange to relate.

Stranger still, it was this latter, dexterous though she was, who was the cause of the breakdown of the unstable state of affairs then prevailing. Those sums of money which she had received from Mr. Marble had only whetted her appetite for more. They had made a wonderful difference to the bank balance over which she gloated in private. Yet that bank balance was not nearly large enough yet for her purpose, increased though it was by sums wrung from the allowance made by her husband for housekeeping. Madame Collins took it very ill that Mrs. Marble should continue to stand in the way of her obtaining more.

For Mrs. Marble did. No more would Mr. Marble leave his house unguarded; no more could he be induced to relax his straining attention over that barren ten square yards of soil at the back of 53 Malcolm Road. For his obsession had grown upon him naturally as he gave it more play. In the days when it had been natural for him to go up to town every day it had been natural for his garden to take care of itself, but as soon as he had got into the comforting habit of watching over it continually he was unable to break himself of it. So he could not see her outside of his house, and in the house there was always his wife.

Madame Collins fretted and fumed. That bank balance of hers was mounting only by shillings a week when it ought to be mounting by pounds. She played desperately hard for fortune. She was as sweet as honey always to Mrs. Marble. Yet it was not easy to gain Mrs. Marble’s good graces. Anxiety about her husband occupied such of her attention as was not busy working out the problem she had set herself. And she resented bitterly any display of sympathy, for that might indicate that the sympathizer understood her trouble better than she did herself. Besides, Mrs. Marble had been ‘respectably brought up’, in a world where it was a serious social slur to have a drunken husband, and any reference to her husband’s failing had her up in arms at once.

And Madame Collins had indiscreetly—though she herself had thought at the time that it was a good stroke of tactics—let it be known that she understood what was the matter with Mr. Marble, to find to her surprise that Mrs. Marble hotly resented her knowledge. To this cause for dissension must be added the fact that now that Mrs. Marble had admitted to herself her failure to live the life of a rich woman, and her inability to wear good clothes as if she had always been accustomed to them, she had a bitter envy of those who were more successful. She disliked Madame Collins for her opulence of figure and good looks, for the way in which she wore her clothes, for the very clothes she wore. But Mrs. Marble’s dislikes were as unremarkable as everything else about her, and she was unable to show them except by a faint and rather bewildered hostility, which Madame Collins was able to sweep aside. It was more than Mrs. Marble was capable of to be actively rude to anyone. So Madame Collins continued to call at rather frequent intervals, to talk in honey-sweet fashion to Mrs. Marble, and sometimes to penetrate into that well-remembered sitting-room, if Mr. Marble was not too fuddled, and to leave there a haunting scent of hyacinths and a clinging memory of rich flesh which sometimes penetrated into Mr. Marble’s drink-sodden mind. Generally, however, it roused little fresh longing in him; he was at the moment amply content with his books and his drink and the knowledge that he was guarding that garden.

Mr. Marble was rarely quite drunk. He never tried to be. All he ever attempted was to reach the happy stage—after the grim preliminary period when his imagination had been stimulated—when he was unable to think connectedly, so that he could not work out the long trains of thought that led inevitably to the picturing of detection and the scaffold. He could reach this stage comfortably quite early in the morning before the effects of the previous day’s drinking had worn off, and then he was able to keep like it for the rest of the day by the simple mechanical process of drinking every time he found his thoughts taking an unpleasant line. The system was not the result of careful planning; it was merely the natural consequence of the situation, and for a long time it worked well enough. Comfortably hazy in his thoughts, comfortably seated in his armchair by the sitting-room window, with a new book on his knee to glance at occasionally—publishers’ announcements were almost all the post delivered nowadays, and Mr. Marble bought two books on crime a week on the average—Mr. Marble almost enjoyed his life. His wife meant little to him, save that she was a convenient person to send out, green string bag in hand, to the grocer’s to buy more whisky when his reserve dropped below the amount he had fixed upon—two untouched bottles. Mr. Marble ate little; his wife ate even less; there was little enough work to keep Mrs. Marble employed although she toiled inordinately hard in helpless fashion to keep the house in order. Mrs. Marble spent her days wandering round the house soft-footed, slipshod, touching and fumbling and replacing. Her mind was busy trying to work something out.

It was through the agency of Madame Collins that she found the first clue to what she sought. Madame Collins had called in that evening as was her frequent habit and Mr. Marble had been just a little more sober than usual. In consequence the evening meal had been spent in the sitting-room, and supper—a scratch meal, typical of Mrs. Marble—had been served there. When the time came for Madame Collins to take her departure, Mr. Marble, surprisingly enough, had risen slowly to his feet with the intention of seeing her home. Mrs. Marble raised no objection; that was not what she was worrying about—yet. There had been a brief delay while Mr. Marble was cramming his feet into his boots, soft feet, that for a week had known no greater restraint than that imposed by carpet slippers, and then they were gone. Mrs. Marble remained in the sitting-room. Once alone, her old restlessness reasserted itself. She began to wander round the room, touching, fumbling, replacing. She was seeking something, nothing in particular, just something. Really it was the solution of her problem that she was seeking.

Round the room went Mrs. Marble. She gazed for a space out of the window through which her husband stared so hard all day long, but it was quite dark outside and she could see nothing besides her own reflection. She picked up one or two of the ornaments on the mantelpiece, and put them back again. She ran her finger along the backs of the books that stood on the shelves. They did not interest her. Then she came to the book that lay on the arm of her husband’s chair, the book he had been reading in desultory fashion during the day. Mrs. Marble picked it up and ran the pages through her fingers. It was not an interesting book. She did not even know what the title—somebody or other’s Handbook of Medical Jurisprudence—meant. But at one point the book fell open of its own accord, and the open pages were well thumbed, proving that this portion had received more attention than the rest of the book. It was in the section on Poisons, and the paragraph was headed ‘Cyanides—Potassium Cyanide, Sodium Cyanide’. A tiny wrinkle appeared between Mrs Marble’s brows as she read this. She cast her mind back to that morning many months ago now, the morning after Medland’s dramatic arrival. Yes, that was the name on the label of the bottle she had found displayed on Will’s shelves. Potassium Cyanide. She went on to read what the book had to say on the subject.

‘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.’

The wrinkle between Annie Marble’s brows was deeper now, and her breath was coming faster. She could remember what she had heard when she was half asleep the night of Medland’s coming. She had heard Will come up to the bathroom where his chemicals were kept, and she had heard him go down again. Then she had heard that loud cry.

In her next deduction her memory was at fault, but it was a fault that, curiously enough, confirmed her suspicions. Annie thought she remembered hearing a heavy fall at the same time as that loud cry. Of course she had not done so; young Medland had been sitting in a chair at the time when Marble said ‘Drink up’, but Annie was not to know that. Influenced by what she had read, Annie was quite certain that she had heard that heavy fall. Now she knew what it was she had heard dragged through the passage down the stairs to the kitchen. And she guessed whither it had been taken from the kitchen. She knew why Will spent all his time watching through the window to see that the garden was not interfered with. The problem with which she had been wrestling for weeks was solved. She felt suddenly weak, and she sank into the chair. All her other memories, crowding up now unsummoned, confirmed her solution. She could remember how there was suddenly more money at their disposal, and how Will had comported himself the next morning. She was sure of it all.

As she lay back in the chair, weak and wretched, she was startled to hear her husband’s key in the door. She made a spasmodic effort to hide what she was doing, but she was too weak to achieve anything. Her husband entered the sitting-room while she still held the book open in her hand. Her thumb was between the pages, at the point where there was that interesting description of the effects of potassium cyanide.

When Mr. Marble crossed the threshold, he uttered an angry exclamation as he saw what Mrs. Marble was doing. He would tolerate no interference with his precious library. He strode forward to snatch the book out of her hand. Mrs. Marble sat helpless, and made no resistance. She even held out the book a little to him, offering it to his grip. But as she did so the book fell open at the place where she held it, fell open at the passage on the cyanides.

Mr. Marble saw this. He saw the look on her face, too. He stopped aghast. There was no need for words. In that brief space of time he realized that his wife knew. That she knew.

Neither of them said anything; neither of them was capable of saying anything in that tense moment. They eyed each other in poses curiously alike, she with her hand to her bosom as she peered at him, fluttering, tearful, and he with his hand, too, over his heart. Just lately he had not noticed so much the inconvenient tendency of that organ to beat with such violence, but now it was impressed upon him again. It thundered in his breast, depriving him of his strength, so that he had to hold on to a chair-back to support himself.

Annie gave a little, inarticulate cry. The book fell to the ground from her hand, and then sobbing, she fled from the room without again meeting his eye.
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