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Chapter 13

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« on: April 05, 2023, 10:58:34 am »

THE peace that had been so rudely disturbed was only with difficulty regained. The Marbles found it hard to settle down once more into the old groove. And no sooner had they begun to do so than another interruption to their peace—if their panic-stricken existence can be so called—occurred, this time at the hands of a more dangerous person, Madame Collins.

She had come to the limit of her patience. Nearly six months had elapsed since she had paid into her account a little roll of bank-notes which might have been traced, had anyone taken the trouble, to Mr. Marble. After that last terrible occurrence, when that silly boy John had met with the motor-cycling accident, she had indeed been content to wait a while, until matters should be quieter again, but this wait was too long altogether. Dressmaking in a back street in Dulwich with an automaton of a husband began to annoy her exceedingly. Anything was better than that, she decided. Even at Christmas time she had meditated action, but Winnie had been there when she called, and Winnie had looked her up and down with cool insolence and even Marguerite Collins had been abashed—or, rather, had decided that it would be better if Winnie were not her enemy. She bided her time awaiting a more favourable moment.

One morning Mr. Marble was alone at home, for Annie had gone out on one of her all too infrequent shopping expeditions. She had been gone five minutes only, when to Marble’s ear came the familiar sound of her hurried, quiet knock. With an enormous effort—everything was a great deal of trouble nowadays—he heaved himself out of his chair and went to the door.

Marguerite Collins was determined to have no nonsense. As the door opened she stepped inside, and she was through into the drawing-room and sitting down before Marble had shut it again. Marble came and stood before her wearily and dull-wittedly. There was clearly going to be trouble, and Mr. Marble did not feel in the mood for trouble.

‘Well, what is it?’ asked Marble.

Marguerite did not answer at once. She threw back the fur from round her neck and drew off her gloves with slow, deliberate movements. With a gesture she made much of her round, white throat and her plump hands. Six months ago this alone would have stirred Marble into action, but now it left him unmoved. Those six months had been spent in sluggish over-drinking and in frothy anxiety. Besides, he had had his will of her, and Marguerite was not of the type to revive dead passion. All this Marguerite realized as she watched, keenly but covertly, his unshaved face and the expressionless blue eyes. It was as she feared. Well, it would have to be pure business, then, without the frail disguise of anything else.

‘You are not pleased that I come to see you?’ she asked, with the lisp and trace of accent that Marble had once thought so wonderful.

‘No,’ said Marble, in no mood for tact. As a matter of fact, he was rapidly growing incapable of thinking about anything save what lay outside under the soil of the dreary backyard.

But the monosyllable roused Madame Collins to fury. It hurt, the more so as she had realized it previously.

‘You are not polite,’ she said, a faint flush appearing on her soft—over-soft—cheeks.

‘No,’ said Marble.

‘You admit it! Are you not ashamed? And do you not remember when you would not have said a thing like that to me—no, not for worlds?’

‘No,’ said Marble.

‘No, no, no! Have you nothing else to say to me except “no”?’

‘No,’ said Marble. He could hardly be said to be intentionally rude; but a man whose mind chooses that particular moment to run off on its favourite track towards arrest and execution is in no fit state to argue any point whatever with a hot-tempered woman—especially when he is in the wrong.

Marguerite Collins bit her lips, and then restrained herself by a violent effort of will. After all, money—so said her peasant soul to herself—was sweeter than revenge at any time, sweet though they both were; if she could obtain no money, then perhaps she could have the other, but she would spare no effort to screw more money out of this weak-minded rentier first.

She spoke calmly, and she allowed just as much of the old sweetness to creep into her tone as she thought might soften Marble towards her.

‘Listen, Will. I am in trouble. I am in great trouble. My husband—you know what he is, I have told you, oh, so often—he is unsupportable. I hate him. And now I think—he hates me also. I must leave him. I must go away. I shall go back to Normandy, to Rouen. But I must have money. He has none. No more have I. Will, dear——’

Marble made one of the greatest mistakes of his life when he said ‘no’ for the fifth time that morning. The flush on Marguerite’s cheeks became deeper; she was scarlet with indignation. It is doubtful why Marble should have said it; a single one of those unspent hundreds from his annual income would have ended the matter for the time. But the refusal slipped out of his mouth before he was aware of it; he was only trying to temporize. City caution told him that this was blackmail, and that it is fatal to yield to a blackmailer; he also realized at the back of his mind that he most certainly had not in the house at that moment enough ready money to satisfy her, and he was not going to give her a cheque—not he. So he said ‘no’ really meaning ‘yes’, and had he not been so dull-witted that morning he would have bitten his tongue out rather than have said it.

Marguerite condescended to use a threat or two.

‘That is a pity,’ she said, ‘for I must have my freedom. If I were to tell my husband one or two little things—ah, he would set me free, do you not think so? But it would cost you much money, more than what I have stooped to ask you. And your wife, she would not like that to happen, would she? She does not know at present, eh? If you would like her to——?’

Marble’s face had turned from pale to flushed and back again to pallor.

The stab had gone home. Anything rather than let Annie know. Annie held the key of his life in her hand; she had guessed his secret, he was sure of it. The knowledge had troubled him little up to the moment. She had been a cipher in his life for so long that he had hardly cared, save that it had made it uncomfortable to meet her eyes. But if Annie were to know of this! His drink-dazed mind realized for the first time how desperately necessary it was that Annie should be kept in a good humour. The terror in his breast made him lose control over himself.

‘All right, I’ll pay you,’ he said. ‘How much is it?’

He had cut the ground from under his feet. He had shown her which was the best course of action; he had shown her how much he feared Annie’s knowing; by his earlier refusal and later hurried agreement he had delivered himself over bound and naked to his enemy. Marguerite laughed a little, a malicious, throaty laugh. Then she spoke, mentioning the sum quite as if it were a matter of course.

‘Three hundred pounds.’

‘I—I can’t afford all that!’

The surprise in Mr. Marble’s voice was obvious and genuine; but Marguerite was quick-witted enough to see that he really could afford the huge sum.

‘Three hundred pounds,’ she said again.

‘But I haven’t got all that in the house, and a cheque——’

‘It is a cheque that I want,’ said Madame Collins grimly, and seeing him still hesitate for a moment she added, ‘And your wife will be back soon, will she not?’

Marble went over to the gilt bureau and wrote out the cheque.

She was just re-clasping her handbag when they heard Annie Marble’s key in the door. When she entered the room Marble was the one that was obviously discomposed. She herself was honey-sweet as usual, calm and self-possessed.

‘I have come to say good-bye,’ she said. ‘To-morrow I go to France.’

‘To France?’

‘Yes, I am going to have a holiday. I am sorry that you were out when I came for I have so much to do that I fear I cannot stay. No, no, really I cannot. Good-bye, dear Mrs. Marble. I will send you a postcard from Rouen.’

With that she was gone. It was rather a pity that Mr. Marble should have been so obviously anxious to get rid of her. Why, she herself was most anxious to be out of the house too, so that she could hurry and cash that cheque before Marble could stop it, if by chance he recovered his spirits enough to do anything like that, but she showed no signs of it at all. It was perfectly true that at the time Mrs. Marble did not notice her husband’s nervousness, but little things like that, as time had already shown, had a way of staying in Mrs. Marble’s memory and re-emerging at inconvenient moments.

After Madame Collins’ departure Mr. Marble eyed his wife anxiously. He had realized now that she was a person of immense importance to his affairs, and, what was more, that she was, after all, someone who might, should it so happen, act independently. He had grown so used all his life to regarding her as the very reverse of a free agent, as obedient to himself almost as one of his own limbs, that the reflection that she might not be so startled him. There was only one thing, Marble knew, that would make her break out contrary to his wishes, but that was the least accountable of all factors. If Annie got to know that he had been unfaithful to her; if she had it forced home upon her that his love for her—if ever it had existed; and it had in her imagination, which was all that mattered—was dead, then she would be capable of doing the most unexpected things. She would not deliberately betray him—not even terror-maddened Marble thought that—but she might in her consternation allow something to escape her that would set in action that swarm of rumours and the resultant investigation that Mr. Marble so dreaded. It was of the first importance that she should continue to think he loved her. And the fact that he endowed this circumstance with its full importance was directly due to Madame Collins. At the moment he felt almost grateful to the latter for showing him this. But he eyed his wife anxiously, for all that. It was an added complication, and the burden of his troubles was already almost more than he could bear.

And yet perhaps, although Mr. Marble did not appreciate it, this new complication was for the time at least a blessing in disguise. It took Mr. Marble’s mind off the main point of his troubles, and that was more than anything else had done during the last year. The situation reacted upon him in such a way that for twenty-four hours Mr. Marble hardly drank any whisky at all.

But it was one thing to decide to make oneself agreeable to one’s wife, and quite another to carry it out. Mr. Marble felt positively embarrassed as he eyed his wife and tried to brace himself for action. He had lived with her in the closest proximity and yet in the harshest isolation for a year now; it would be a difficult matter to break the ice and start afresh. Besides, there lay between them the shadow of a terrible secret. That might serve to bind them closer together later on, but at present it was an obstacle almost insurmountable. Not all that day, not that night, not the next day did Mr. Marble make much progress.

He made no progress in his own estimation, that is to say. Thirty-six hours after deciding upon this course of action Mr. Marble still felt almost shy and almost embarrassed in his wife’s presence. But Mrs. Marble had noticed something. First and foremost, of course, she noticed that he was not drunk. That was obvious. This temperance was partly deliberate and partly reflex, dependent on Mr. Marble’s knowledge that it would be as well to keep his head clear, and to appear as attractive in his wife’s eyes as possible. But partly it was due to the fact that, with this new problem to think about, Mr. Marble had no thought to spare for his other troubles, and, consequently, no need to dull his mind to them.

But Mrs. Marble noticed more than his soberness. She caught him repeatedly looking at her with an anxious air—the same manner as a courting lover might display. And he made one or two tentative attempts at conversation with her too. Seeing that he had said nothing to her for months save the one or two words that had to be said this was an enormous difference. He looked at her, he spoke to her, with a shyness that set her fluttering, and more than once he opened his mouth as though to say something to her and then held back at the last minute, obviously embarrassed. Mrs. Marble felt strangely pleased. After all, dear Will was her whole life, especially now that John was no longer with her, and, secret or no secret, this new wooing in this strange shy fashion was grateful to her and gave her a warm, comforted, feeling.

It was the evening after Madame Collins’ visit that it really began over again. They were sitting together in the back room, trying to talk, when Collins himself called. Mrs. Marble brought him in. He was a frail, pale, fair man, and he looked white and fagged. He sat down on the chair offered him with a sigh.

‘I’ve come to see if you know anything about my wife,’ he said wearily.

‘What, Marguerite? Why, yes, she was here yesterday. She said she was just off for a holiday. Where was it she said she was going to, Will?’

‘Normandy, of course,’ said Marble. He wanted to appear to know as little as possible about the business.

‘I thought as much,’ sighed Collins.

Neither of the Marbles spoke, and after a moment Collins went on:

‘She’s gone. I suppose she’s gone for good. I—I don’t know whether she’s gone alone though.’

‘But didn’t she say where she was going?’ Mrs. Marble was quite irrepressible this evening, as a result of her husband’s flattering attentions.

‘No. I didn’t know that she was going. She took good care of that. She has taken everything with her.’

‘Everything?’ Mrs. Marble did not understand.

‘Everything. All our savings she’s taken. All her own things, too. There’s even a bill of sale on the furniture, I found this morning.’ Collins was resting his forehead on his hands. ‘She went yesterday,’ he added inconsequently.

The Marbles felt the uselessness of trying to console him. No word was said for a space. Then Collins stood up and reached for his hat. He hesitated for a second.

‘I’m sorry to have troubled you,’ he said, weakly. ‘But I—I just wanted to know.’ Then, in a little spurt of feeling, he added, ‘It’s hateful to have to ask other people about my own wife. But—I didn’t want her to go. I didn’t want her to go.’

He almost broke down, but turned away and began to stumble to the door. Marble followed him. Halfheartedly, but in a man-of-the-world tone, he offered his help.

‘If there’s anything I can do, Collins——’

‘I don’t think there is,’ said Collins, feebly.

‘Money?’

‘No, I won’t want money. It was she who wanted money.’

Collins was feeling his way blindly, weakly, down the passage. His shoulders drooped. Clearly he was quite broken down by the desertion of his wife—much more than Marble had expected. It became obvious that Marguerite’s tales of their unhappiness together had been one-sided.

‘Well, if there is anything I can do——’ said Marble again.

It was the inevitable feeble proffer of help, and Collins declined it once more. Then he went out into the night, with dragging feet, hardly able to walk. There were tears in Mrs. Marble’s eyes when Marble came back to her in the sitting-room.

‘Poor man,’ said she.

Marble nodded.

‘And what a hateful woman she must be!’ she went on. ‘I thought the first time I saw her that she was—well, you know, like that.’

Mrs. Marble had not thought anything of the kind; but she thought she did, after the event.

‘Poor old Collins seems broken up about it,’ was Marble’s comment.

‘He must have loved her a lot. Poor chap! And she’s gone now, and left him alone. Hateful woman!’

The tears were even more imminent in her eyes now, as she stood by him, and there was a strange surge of emotion in her breast. Marble looked at her queerly. Both their hearts were throbbing tumultuously.

‘You wouldn’t do a thing like that, would you?’ said Marble, his hands playing with her sleeves.

Annie looked up at his face for a second—only a second.

‘Oh, how could I? Oh, Will, Will, dear.’

There was no more need for words. But as Marble kissed her—her cheeks were wet, too, by now—he felt a queer, guilty sensation internally. And yet he meant that kiss, he really did. Perhaps Judas felt the same once.
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