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Chapter 12

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« on: April 05, 2023, 10:22:26 am »

THERE is no solitude like that which one can find in a London suburb. It is desolate, appalling. The weeks that passed now found the Marbles lost in this solitude, and over them, like a constant menace, hung the unvoiced menace of a secret shared. The days they spent together in the tawdry rooms downstairs; the nights they spent together in the vast gilt bed in the front bedroom, but for all that they were each of them lonely and frightened. The weight of their secret prevented all conversation save that about the necessary commonplaces of housekeeping, and even this they restricted self-consciously to the uttermost minimum. They did not exchange a dozen words a day; they said nothing, did nothing; they thought about nothing save the one dreadful thing about which they dared not speak. The solitude of the suburbs which they experienced was theirs from choice; they had cut themselves off voluntarily from their neighbours, and the neighbours in turn withdrew from them, sneering to each other about Mrs. Marble’s unhappy new clothes and the gorgeous furniture that they could see through the lower windows at Number 53. But this isolation was hardly new and was easily borne; it was far otherwise with the spiritual separation that encompassed them each individually.

They were living together alone in the tiny house; they were in each other’s society from choice—they each soon found that they could not bear to have the other for long out of their sight—but not once in weeks did their eyes meet. And never, never did they make any comment on their isolation.

Back into this nightmare world came Winnie, flushed with triumphs at school. She was undoubtedly beautiful now, and she was dressed to perfection, as soon as she had thrown off the shackles imposed by school rules. Her beauty had won over to her one party at school, and her almost unlimited pocket-money had won over another. Eleven months only younger than her dead brother, she was now just sixteen; a thoroughly good preliminary education at the secondary school—to which she looked back with horror, and about which she had always been discreetly silent—had saved her much trouble as regards actual school work and had placed her in the highest form after one term there. Miss Winifred Marble had the very highest opinion of herself.

She came home in typical fashion. She had given her parents no exact information of the time of her return, and she was more or less unexpected when her taxicab drew up outside Number 53 Malcolm Road. She descended leisurely to the pavement. Malcolm Road might indeed be to her mind a horrible hole, but for all that she was not going to miss one tenth of the sensation she was aware she was making therein. She could see hurried heads appearing behind the curtains at all the houses around, and she allowed the neighbours ample time to view her mountainous luggage piled on the roof of the cab, and to admire enviously her smart blue costume. With a brief order to the driver to bring in her luggage she marched up the front path and knocked at the door with a resounding rat-tat-tat.

Indoors her father and mother were sitting together in the back room, he with a book on his knee as usual, she gazing into vacancy, following in her vague fashion all the unpleasant lines of thought that her husband had followed long ago. At the sound of Winnie’s knocks Marble rolled a frightened eye upon her. She rose in heart-fluttering panic.

‘Will,’ she said, ‘it’s not—it’s not—?’

Only police would knock like that at 53 Malcolm Road. Marble could make no answer for the moment. The knocking came again. Marble tried with shaking hands to light himself a cigarette. Come what may, he must try to look nonchalant, to bear himself calmly, as did all those men he had read about in his books when the fatal moment of arrest arrived. But his hands shook too much. His very lips were trembling, so that the cigarette quivered like a reed between them. The knocking was repeated. Then at last Mrs. Marble rallied.

‘I’ll go,’ she said, in a weak whisper.

Down the passage she went, soft-footed, ghostlike. Marble, still fumbling with his cigarette, heard the door open, after what seemed like ages of waiting. Then he heard Mrs. Marble say: ‘Oh, my dear, it’s you. Oh, dearie——’ and Winnie’s ladylike voice answering her. With the relief from tension the matches dropped from his fingers. The cigarette sagged from his mouth. He leant sideways against the arm of his chair, his eyes staring, too weak to move, while his heart thudded and fluttered back to its usual rhythm. That was how they found him, Winnie and her mother, when they came into the sitting-room to his expected welcome.

Such was the household to which Winnie returned, three days before Christmas. The girls at school, who envied Winnie her trunkfuls of clothes and her ample pocket-money, had been talking for weeks about what they intended to do this holiday. There had been talk of hunting, of dances, of theatres. There had been comparisons between the food they had at school and the food they would have at home during this period of delectable food. And in all this conversation Winnie had borne a part by no means equal to the part she usually bore in school conversations. Yet she had called up all the help of her imagination, and with its aid she had been able to produce some sort of picture of similar enjoyment in prospect for herself. That made the disappointment all the more bitter. The Marble family lunched that day, the first day of her arrival, on cold ham and stale bread and butter, and not enough of either. Her father’s clothes were baggy and spotted, and on his feet were wrecks of carpet slippers. He drank heavily of whisky during the meal, and he had obviously been drinking too much all the time she had been away. Her mother wore a shabby blouse and skirt, gaping wherever they could gape, and her stockings were in wrinkles up her thin calves. Winnie’s eyebrows puckered, and her lips curled a little as she observed these things.

Then Mrs. Marble noticed that Winnie was dissatisfied, and inevitably she bridled. She knew her housekeeping was at fault, but she was not going to have her sixteen-year-old daughter running down her house.

‘Isn’t there anything else to eat?’ asked Winnie, when the last of the cold ham had disappeared, leaving her hungrier than when she started, accustomed as she was to the well-cooked and ample meals of the Berkshire school.

‘No, there’s not,’ snapped Mrs. Marble.

‘But hang it all——’ protested Winnie.

It was hardly the best of starts for a Christmas holiday. Winnie bore it for two days, and then, on Christmas eve, she began active operations. Her mother, whom she approached first, gave her no satisfaction.

‘Oh, don’t worry me,’ she said, with a heat unusual for her, ‘we’ve got enough to worry us as it is.’

‘But what have you got to worry you?’ said Winnie, genuinely bewildered. ‘Worry or no worry, we’ve got enough money and all that sort of thing, haven’t we?’

Mrs. Marble clutched at this straw for a moment, but she was not adept at deception, and her faint-hearted statement that all was not well with them financially died away when she met Winnie’s incredulous gaze.

‘Don’t be silly, mother,’ said Winnie, and Mrs. Marble meekly bowed her head to the storm.

‘No, it’s not money, dear. I’m sure your father gives me all I want in that way.’

‘How much a week?’ demanded Winnie, relentlessly.

Mrs. Marble made a last desperate stand against this implacable woman who had developed so surprisingly out of the little daughter she had once been.

‘Never you mind,’ she said. ‘It’s my business, and this is my house, and you’ve no right to interfere.’

Winnie sniffed.

‘No right,’ she said, ‘when you’ve given me cold ham three times and pressed beef once in two days? Do you know to-morrow’s Christmas, and I don’t believe you’ve done anything yet towards it? And look at your clothes! It’s worse than the last time I came home. I’m sure that before I went back to school I left you all nicely rigged out. You had such a nice costumes, and—and——’ This was a false step, for neither Winnie nor her mother was yet able to bear a reference to poor dead John, for whom Mrs. Marble had bought mourning with Winnie’s help last holiday.

‘Be quiet, do,’ said Mrs. Marble, with tears in her eyes.

They were not entirely tears of mourning, but they quelled Winnie effectively. Even she felt a little shy and embarrassed at sight of her mother crying. So she relaxed her inquiry, just when a little more pressing would have forced from her mother the astonishing facts that Mr. Marble was prepared for her to spend ten pounds a week on her housekeeping while she actually only spent two—hardly as much as she had spent before they attained to riches.

But Winnie was at least persistent. After her mother she approached her father, daring even to break in upon his whisky-sodden reverie in the drawing-room.

‘Father,’ said Winnie, ‘are we dreadfully poor since you left off going to the City?’

Mr. Marble rolled a maudlin eye upon her. Then pride reasserted itself—pride in his achievement all those months ago, which was still mentioned with bated breath by City clerks, but which had never received its meed of recognition in his own home.

‘No,’ he said. ‘We’ve got plenty.’

‘That’s good. It’s Christmas to-morrow. I want some money. Lots of it. Mother hasn’t done anything about it yet.’

Far back in Mr. Marble’s dulled memory ghosts began to stir. He remembered those times—they seemed ages ago now—when he wanted his wife to spend money, and had had all the difficulty in the world to induce her to do so.

He rolled obediently out of his chair and walked almost steadily across to the ridiculous gilt bureau in the corner of the room. He fumbled it open; fumbled out his cheque-book; fumblingly signed a cheque.

‘Banks shut at half-past three,’ he said. ‘Better be quick.’

Winnie only had to give a fleeting glance at the cheque. It was for one hundred pounds.

‘Thank you,’ she said, and before she had left the room she was calling to her mother to put her hat on.

Mrs. Marble had never been so hurried and flurried in her life before as she was that Christmas eve.

There was the rush to get the bus to Rye Lane. Then there was the rush to the bank to cash the cheque. Winnie put the money in her handbag as if she was accustomed to having a hundred pounds there every day of her life. Then there was a series of rushes up and down Rye Lane, crowded with Christmas shoppers, buying everything which Mrs. Marble had omitted to buy, which comprised a good many necessities as well as the inevitable luxuries of Christmas. She was almost dropping with unaccustomed fatigue when Winnie hailed a heaven-sent taxicab that appeared and piled her and the myriad parcels they had accumulated into it.

Yet even this did not satisfy Winnie. She was not even satisfied with bullying her mother next day into cooking turkey and reheating the ready-made Christmas puddings they had bought. She was not satisfied with insisting on having a clean cloth on the table and all the silver displayed thereon. She was not satisfied with giving presents—bought with the money obtained yesterday—to her father and mother, and with showing them what they had bought for her from the same source. She was not satisfied with hanging holly and mistletoe all over the house. Even when Christmas Day was over and her parents thought they had suffered all they could, she began to go systematically through the house ‘putting things straight’. That Berkshire school prided itself on the domestic training it gave its girls—domestic training on a scale calculated for women who would not be likely ever to have dealings with the economics of a house of thirty pounds a year rateable value into which no servant or even charwoman was allowed ever to set foot. Winnie’s ideas were on the grand scale.

She succeeded in upsetting Mrs. Marble, and by natural reaction she upset her father as well. Mr. Marble had been unhappy before, but it was a negative and inactive unhappiness. He had settled down into a groove, and a groove, with all its suggestion of permanency, was grateful to a man in the shadow of the gallows. Any disturbance of that groove was annoying. He had grown used to being badly fed, and he never noticed the other details of household management. He had even ceased long since from having any pride in his Empire furniture. But Winnie with her bustle and hustle disturbed him. Without realizing it, he had taken comfort from his wife’s inaction, knowing that that meant there was less chance of her giving away the secret he knew she held in her bosom. And now Winnie had descended upon them to alter all this. He did not like it. He liked it still less when he found that Winnie had her eye upon his drinking habits and was meditating interfering with them as well.

But happily Winnie was not of the stuff that carries things through to the bitter end in face of all opposition. She was like her father in that she was able to make one big effort which achieved much but left her incapable of more for a considerable time. Her activity died down, and in a brief time she found herself actually acquiescing in some of Mrs. Marble’s shiftless methods of housekeeping. And in a flash she found that she was incredibly bored.

She had once more got her mother’s wardrobe into some sort of order, and she had bullied and cajoled her into wearing the good clothes that were heaped untidily about her bedroom. By the time she had made her mother smart again, and had rearranged everything in accordance with the system that even only two terms at the school had ingrained into her, Winnie found that her interest in housekeeping was waning, and that life at 53 Malcolm Road was decidedly dull.

So she wrote off one or two letters, to friends of hers at school. It hardly matters what she put into them, whether it was fact or fiction, whether she wrote about illness—of course not infectious—at home, or about domestic unhappiness. Whatever it was she wrote, it achieved its object. She received very shortly afterwards two invitations to spend the rest of her holidays with these friends of hers.

By that time neither Mr. nor Mrs. Marble was sorry to see her go. She had caused too much disturbance altogether. So they said good-bye to her in a philosophic manner. Mr. Marble, partly as a sheer thanksgiving offering, partly because Winnie took it as a matter of course, and partly even with a flicker of his old pride that a daughter of his should be going to stay as a guest at a house whose sole address was a name and a county, handed over another cheque. Life had grown so strange and unreal to them that they saw nothing out of the ordinary in letting a sixteen-year-old girl go away to stay with people they did not know, with something nearly approaching a hundred pounds in her handbag.

After all, Mr Marble’s income was nearly twelve hundred a year; of that Winnie’s fees amounted to nearly three hundred, but of the remaining nine he hardly spent a quarter. A man who has five hundred a year for which he can find no use does not worry about odd hundreds, especially when he spends every waking minute in terror of being hanged.
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