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Chapter 14

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« on: April 05, 2023, 11:23:46 am »

AND so, incredible as it might seem, sunshine had come again for a space to 53 Malcolm Road. The black pall of terror was lifted, and Annie Marble actually went singing in her high, cracked voice up and down the stairs as she did her housework. Not one word had passed between them concerning the shade of terrible danger that brooded over them, but now that each knew, and had shown that they could bear with the knowledge, the shade did not seem so black. It was a trouble shared, and a trouble shared voluntarily is a trouble robbed of half its weight.

Singing, Annie Marble went up and down the stairs. Marble, sitting downstairs, could hear her thin voice and her light step. For the present the voice did not call up a scowl to his brow; nor did the step seem too stealthy to be tolerated, as once it did. Whisky had lost its savour for the time being; there was no pressing need for it to dull his mind. Most of the time Marble’s mouth was twisted with a queer smile—and he had not smiled for months—as he thought of the difference his taking notice of his wife had made. He was glad of it, too, and now he could not think of his wife without that smile. He felt glad and comforted as he thought of her. Her present high spirits might be pathetic; they might even seem a trifle ridiculous, but they were, nevertheless, infectious. Within Mr. Marble’s bosom there was a fondness, almost a fatherly fondness, springing up for the woman who loved him so well.

And, estimating gains from the most sordid point of view it was a distinct advantage that he should have in the house a willing ally upon whom he could rely and who was possessed of sufficient knowledge of the facts of the case to help him should emergency arise.

Mr. Marble was even able occasionally to throw off his obsession completely and leave the house—and the garden—to his wife’s care, while he went forth through the dingy streets for exercise. The straggling rays of spring sunshine seemed to warm him, at a time when other people were hurrying along clasping their heavy coats to themselves in the bitter cold, and he blinked at the sunlight gratefully with house-blinded eyes.

As for Annie Marble, she was a changed woman. She could sing about the house; the housework seemed nothing to her nowadays, so comforting was the knowledge that darling Will was downstairs thinking about her; she routed out from some neglected kitchen shelf a stained copy of Mrs. Beeton—a wedding gift, unlooked at since she first had two children on her hands, sixteen years ago—and laboured joyously, though rarely successfully, compounding new delicacies for her beloved lord. For now there was no pinch for money, and Annie had found sixteen years ago that if one wanted to cook in the style of Mrs. Beeton there was a great need of money. And the will had to be there, too. So the evenings often found her sitting laboriously composing notes to the big stores ordering all sorts of strange things, things which she had never thought of ordering before, bottled oysters, asparagus, foie gras, queer lists for which Mr. Marble signed the cheques without a murmur. He felt that at last he was beginning to have some benefit from the money he had won at such risk during his slavery at the Bank. It was the first time.

And Mrs. Marble’s personal expenses, too, began to show a healthy increase. She did not venture up to Bond Street again, that was asking too much of her; she could not face the immense superiority of the young ladies in those shops; even High Street, Kensington, was a little above her head, but in Rye Lane she was exceedingly happy. The shops therein arrogantly called it ‘the Regent Street of South London’ in their advertisements, and they did their level best to live up to the boast. Mrs. Marble’s frail little figure and her witless face, made almost pretty by reason of her happiness, became well known there. She would flit around the big shops, ordering here, trying on there, with in her manner a little trace of apology for troubling the assistants, for all her money. For her it was one of the very keenest of enjoyments, so keen that it almost hurt, to buy things, anything she liked, without having to think about the cost. But always she would stop in the middle of her shopping and hurry anxiously to catch a bus to get home in case her darling Will was growing anxious about her.

Yet this happiness, this moment of peace, was only a lull in the storm. They were both conscious of this, although they never admitted it even to themselves. And because they would not admit it they were still handicapped in their relations with each other. Annie found this one morning when she came home from Rye Lane and found Marble sitting spiritlessly in his chair in the sitting-room, in almost the same way as he had sat in the dark days gone by. There was a cloud on his brow; she could tell that at once. But she tried to act naturally. She came fluttering up to him with all her parcels, dropped the latter carelessly on the table, and bent over and kissed him lightly, spontaneously—a trick she had never mastered before, not even in the honeymoon days.

‘I’ve got back, you see,’ said she. It was just the sort of thing one would expect her to say, and because of this it ought to have called up an instant smile; it would have done so yesterday.

But to-day there was no smile. Marble’s set, dull look frightened her, it was so like the look he had worn in the bad time. A little shudder ran through her, as she realized that it was calling up within her the same sensations, as though they were echoes, that she had known during the same period. A light had gone out in the world.

‘What’s the matter, dear?’ she said. ‘Aren’t you—aren’t you well?’ that was all she could say, because of the barrier still between them. She could not very well say: ‘Is your conscience troubling you?’ or ‘Are you still afraid of detection?’

And Marble could only answer dully, ‘Oh, I’m all right,’ and put her aside rather abashed and frightened. He could not tell her that what he had foreseen had happened; that by the second post, happily after she had gone out, there had arrived a letter from Rouen, a cruel, bitter letter, delicately phrased and worded, apparently telling him of the writer’s unbounded affection for him, but really only a sneering demand for money—more money. The actual cash did not matter so much; Marble had enough and to spare to keep even Marguerite Collins quiet. No, it was not the money. It was—although he did not allow himself to believe it—the fact that the letter had brought back into his life what had been for a moment absent—the sense of hideous insecurity, the knowledge that the future was laden with all sorts of ghastly possibilities, and had once more set his mind running on the things that might happen. Marble started drinking heavily again that day. He could hardly be blamed for so doing.

Yet for all that he roused himself the next morning sufficiently to go into town; he cashed a cheque, and with the money he went into an exchange bureau, and bought many dirty hundred franc notes, which he put into a registered envelope and despatched it to Rouen.

It was in this fashion that the old atmosphere redeveloped at 53 Malcolm Road. It grew slowly, and the young friendship died hard, but the one grew and the other died, inevitably, infallibly. And the passionate love that Annie bore to Marble, the love that he had roused, was beaten down and trampled underfoot. Passion she had known before, in a vague sort of way, when they had first been married, and love she had always borne him, but the new love, this splendid brilliant thing that had just come into her life, borne of trouble shared with him, and which for this space had illuminated her whole being, was changed to poison and bitterness. It was bad for both of them.

The effect was not yet well marked by the time Easter came, bringing back Winnie from school. She had changed, just as she had changed during the other two terms. She was taller—she nearly overtopped her father now—and she was more beautiful than ever. Her manner had changed, too. She had gained in assurance—it might be better put as insolence—and her voice had gained in its marked throaty quality. Her complexion was wonderful and her figure was marvellous. Her upper lip was short and her eyelids drooping, and she carried herself with an easy erectness that accentuated the arrogance of her manner.

She was head girl of the school now, thanks to a capacity for producing good results in examinations without doing much work beforehand, and thanks also to an unexpected flair for lacrosse and for tennis; she was not the sort of girl to stand any nonsense from old-fashioned parents, not by a long chalk.

At first things did not go too badly. Matters had not declined very much from the old standard of perfection that they had reached during the good time that had just ended. Winnie’s drooping lids lifted a trifle in surprise the first lunchtime, when she saw the spotless white cloth and the bright silver, and was given a lunch not very inferior either in quality or quantity to that she was given at school.

But the brief spell of intimacy her parents had enjoyed had left an unfortunate legacy behind it. They could quarrel now, which was more than they had been able to do before, and they rather took advantage of it. The disappointment of the decline of their happiness rasped their nerves, and they displayed a distressing tendency to snap at one another which Winnie deprecated. It was rank bad form for husband and wife to quarrel in public. Winnie considered that her presence was sufficient to make the quarrels take place ‘in public’.

Behind the wrinkle in Winnie’s brow many things were slowly developing. She liked to think of herself as cold-blooded and calculating. Calculating she may have been; cold-blooded she certainly was not. She could weigh up chances, and make a plan of campaign, but she never chose the cautious plan indicated by those chances. Winnie’s cold-bloodedness amounted to an ability to see the folly of recklessness combined with an inability to avoid being reckless.

First of all she was cautious. She refitted her wardrobe to the fullest extent she could possibly contrive; her father paid the bills without a murmur. He still could take delight in the fact that his daughter was at school with two Honourables—daughters of a profiteering war peer—and that during the last holidays she had met several other titled people to speak to. He did not object in the least to paying for her clothes under these circumstances.

Even while Winnie was studying spring fashions she found herself smiling wryly with relief that her parents had this queer fad for living in a poky house in a poky suburb. If they had launched out a bit when they had made their money, as once she had wanted them to, there would not be all this loose cash to throw about. Twelve hundred a year was not much; if they had a big house and a motor-car her father would certainly not be able to pay three hundred a year for her school expenses, nor these big sums for her clothes, and as for the cheque she had just wheedled out of him—well, he would have thought more than twice about giving her that!

Winnie was acutely aware of the atmosphere of insecurity that hung like a fog about 53 Malcolm Road; of its true cause she was, of course, ignorant, but she appreciated it sufficiently to do her best to make hay while the sun still shone. She had plenty of clothes, and she had a monstrous sum in her handbag—an amount undreamed of by her schoolfellows and most certainly unknown to her schoolmistresses. For all the fact that it was a school for profiteers’ daughters there would have been a huge commotion if it had got about that Winnie Marble habitually carried over a hundred pounds, a bulky roll of five and ten-pound notes with her. But Winnie was cautious so far; she took pains that it did not get about. Money was always useful; and at the back of Winnie’s mind there was a half-formed plan, in carrying out which she would find it more than useful, she expected.

Last holiday had been most successful. The girl she had stayed with had, of course, been only a girl, and the other guests who came at odd intervals had hardly noticed her. But they noticed Winnie all right. It would have been hard not to. Winnie, to the annoyance of her hostess and the chagrin of the daughter of the house, had climbed into the position of full guest; she attained brevet woman’s rank and clung to it like a leech. The other women had turned up their noses; the men had grinned and played up to her. And two of the men were likely to be useful to Winnie if ever she decided to act on that half-formed plan. They were powers in the world of musical comedy—maybe because they, too, were war profiteers. But for all that it was a little inconvenient that she was not to be asked to that house again. She would be glad to have somewhere to go this holiday.

If she had, the storm might perhaps have been averted; perhaps everything might have been different. As it was, the eventual catastrophe was impossible to avoid.

It began in quite a small way, the way these things do.

‘Oh, mother,’ said Winnie, ‘you’re never going out in that hat?’

‘Why not?’ asked Mrs Marble. She had never liked the way Winnie had dismissed, with a bare word, all the fine clothes she had been buying.

‘It’s too awful for words. That red and that blue——’

It was unfortunate that she should have said that. The hat was one whose trimming Mrs. Marble had altered herself, and she was proud of the result.

‘I think it’s very nice,’ said Mrs. Marble.

‘Oh, it’s not, mother. Those colours swear at each other most frightfully. Oh, dear, and your coat’s all wrinkled at the back. Why don’t you learn to put your clothes on properly?’

‘I do put them on properly. I put them on better than you do. I don’t look fast.’

The last words slipped out almost without Mrs. Marble being aware of them. She felt sore and irritable, and it had been a tradition in her family when she was a little girl that everyone who had the self-assured manner and polished appearance that Winnie affected was ‘fast’.

Winnie did not mind being called fast by her mother. She only deigned to reply with a rather unladylike snort. But the word attracted her father’s attention, and he looked up sharply. He was irritable, too.

‘Don’t talk to your mother like that, Winnie,’ he said.

‘Don’t interfere,’ snapped Winnie.

She gave a last wrench at the wrinkled coat; but she was cross, and the coat was a hopeless misfit, anyway. Mrs. Marble staggered at the wrench. Winnie had meant nothing by it, but it brought Mr. Marble to his feet.

‘Be careful, my girl,’ he said.

It was that ‘my girl’ which settled the matter. It was a horridly vulgar expression, and it took Winnie straight back to those dark days before she had ever gone to school in Berkshire. She turned and looked at her father, looked him up and down, and as she could find nothing to say she did something far more effective than any speech would have been. She turned away without a word spoken, her upper lip a little curled—not much, that was the annoying part; it implied that her father was not worth being too contemptuous about—and her best young ladyish expression on her face. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, especially flesh and blood that had been moistened by just not enough whisky for the last few days.

Marble caught her by the shoulder and swung her round again.

‘One word from you, my girl,’ he said, ‘and you’ll be sorry. You’re not grown up yet, you know.’

‘Aren’t I?’ said Winnie, ‘Aren’t I? I’ll show you that I am in a minute, if you’re not careful. Bah!’ she added, manners clean forgotten, ‘you and your silly old house, and your silly old furniture, and your silly old clothes. Just look at you both.’

She looked them up and down again, both of them, this time. It was here that Mrs. Marble should have played the peacemaker. It was her last opportunity, and she might have flung herself between her husband and her daughter. But she was too cross; partly because she knew that Winnie’s sneer at the furniture would have hit her husband in a tender spot.

‘Oh, you wicked girl,’ she said. ‘How dare you speak to us like that? You ought to be grateful to us for all we’ve done for you.’

Winnie could think of nothing better to say than ‘Ought I?’ but it was quite enough for her to say. It was the manner, and not the matter, that told. Winnie was too superior altogether, and that throaty accent of hers irritated her parents past all bearing. It reminded her father too painfully of the days when he had been a slave in a bank, and it forced home upon her mother the knowledge that her criticism of her clothes had been sincere, and it gave her an uncomfortable feeling that Winnie knew what she was talking about. It was Mrs Marble that found speech first.

‘Yes, you did ought,’ she said. ‘You owe us the clothes on your back, and all that fine schooling you’ve had, and—and everything else. So there!’

Winnie had lost her temper thoroughly by now.

‘I do, do I?’ she said. ‘Well, I shan’t owe you anything else, so there! I’ll go away now, this minute, if you’re not careful. I will, I tell you.’

She may have thought that this threat would be sure of silencing them, and making them sorry for what they had said; but she had left out of her reckoning the temper they were in, and the fact that they might not take her literally. Nor was she to know that there was one member in the house who might not be too sorry if she were to carry out her threat—someone who found it very worrying to have to guard his own backyard from his own daughter.

‘Poo!’ said Mr. Marble.

‘I will, I tell you. I will. Oh——’ And then Winnie stamped her foot at them as they stood there and turned and fled upstairs to her own room. Downstairs they heard the key turn in the lock.

‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ said Mrs. Marble, now that it was over. ‘I’ll go up to her, shall I?’

‘No,’ said Marble, ‘she’s only gone to have a good cry. Didn’t you hear her lock her door?’

But Winnie was not having a good cry. She had made her decision in red-hot mood, with a precipitation after her calm deliberation that was characteristic of her. She dragged out her trunks from under her bed and began to pile her clothes into them feverishly. It was all done before she had time to think.

Then she washed her face in cold water and re-powdered carefully. Now that her mind was made up there was nothing that could change it. She put on her hat, her very nicest hat, before the mirror, and walked downstairs again. Before her mother could come out into the hall to make her peace she had gone out, with the front door slamming behind her.

‘Gone for a walk,’ was Marble’s terse explanation when his wife tearfully reported this to him. ‘Gone for a walk to get over it. She’ll come back soon as right as rain.’

She was back sooner than they expected, however, and she came back in a cab. They heard her key in the door, and a moment afterwards they heard her directing the cab-driver upstairs to where her trunks lay. As the true import of this came home to her Mrs. Marble hurried into the hall, wringing her hands.

‘Winnie, Winnie,’ she wailed. ‘We didn’t mean it, really we didn’t. Winnie, dear, don’t go like this. Will, tell her she mustn’t.’

But Mr. Marble was silent. Winnie had come into the sitting-room to them, defiance in her eyes. They could hear the laboured steps of the cab-driver bringing down the first trunk.

‘Will, tell her she mustn’t,’ said Mrs. Marble again.

But Mr. Marble still said nothing. He was drumming with his fingers upon the arm of his chair. He was thinking, as hard as his confused mind and the tumult of his thoughts would allow. There was absolutely no denying the fact that it would be more convenient to have Winnie out of the house. One never knew, never. All the books said that it was the little things that gave one away, and the fewer people there were about to notice such things the better. Perhaps Mr. Marble would not have considered this in connexion with Winnie, but during that quarrel there was something that forced it upon him. Once more it was that dread family likeness. Winnie had looked rather like John, that time when he had come blundering into the sitting-room; and she had looked rather like young Medland, too. It had shaken him badly.

The heavy steps of the cab-driver were heard re-descending the stairs. They paused outside the door, and he coughed apologetically.

‘Two trunks and a ’atbox, mum. Is that right?’

‘Quite right,’ said Winnie, in her throatiest, most musical voice.

And still Mr. Marble said nothing.

‘Good-bye,’ said Winnie. The throatiness disappeared like magic; there was a little break in her voice. It would have taken very little to have diverted her from her purpose.

Mrs. Marble looked at her husband; waited for him to speak. All she could do was to wring her hands and choke in her breathing. Still Mr. Marble did not speak. Winnie could bear it no longer. She swung round on her heel and ran out of the room, down the hall and out to the waiting cab.

‘Charing Cross,’ she said to the driver, huskily.

Mrs. Marble only reached the gate when they were fifty yards away—beyond recall.

It was all very stupid and silly, and afterwards it seemed as if it might have been avoided—but it really might not.
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