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Title: The First Time He Died Author: Ethel Lina White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700161h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2017 Most recent update: Mar 2017 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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NEARLY every one in the small town of Starminster was sorry to hear of Charlie Baxter's death. He was popular with women, while men invariably called him a "decent little chap"—a curious inaccuracy, since he was well over medium height.
A gentle unassuming nature, he stole out of life as unobtrusively as he left a party—when he nodded farewell to his host and slipped away, without any one knowing that he had gone. At the time flu was epidemic. One day, some one mentioned casually that he was ill. The next bit of news was a thunderclap in the billiard-room at the Grapes.
"Poor Baxter's passed out."
There was a chorus of "Poor chap," for Charlie's slate was clean. He paid his bills, subscribed modestly to local charities, and listened to golf stories. Did the usual things, while his game was always a trifle below the standard of his opponent; the drinks were inevitably on him, but he was a cheerful loser.
No one was really surprised, therefore, to hear that Death had found him a bit below his form, and had taken advantage of the fact.
"When did he die?" asked some one.
"Late last night," replied the herald.
"Flu, I suppose?"
"Yes. Sudden collapse. Heart was weak, I'm told."
"No, it wasn't," announced Acorn, the Insurance agent.
He chalked his cue and looked around him, with no real hope, for some one whom he could beat at snooker. He was the first person to miss Charlie Baxter.
"Damn mistake if they had that old fool Dubarry to attend him," he said savagely. "Another doctor might have pulled him through."
"Mrs. Baxter swears by him," remarked a masculine gossip.
The company grunted assent. It was an established fact that Dr. Dubarry had the brains of a stewed mushroom, and allowed nothing to interfere with his personal pleasure; but it had to be admitted in his favour that he had almost entirely ceased to practise, and only took on a case after personal persuasion.
When the matrons of the town heard of Charlie Baxter's death they added a rider to the verdict of medical inefficiency. They hinted that Vera Baxter might have been too casual in her treatment of the patient. Heads were shaken and tongues wagged.
"He always waited on her. It would be a change for her to wait on him. A pity they did not have a trained nurse."
"But Dr. Dubarry said she was wonderful," observed a more charitable tongue.
"He would. She's a pretty woman."
Unlike her husband, Vera Baxter was not very popular in the town. She was a cheery, capable little person, with an anti-litter mind; but she could not play hockey, and they could never be certain that she had gone to the right school.
In appearance, she was a slim, pretty blonde—smart and decorative—who looked too young to be married, until it was noticed that her shrewd blue eyes had grown up before the rest of her.
What the town chiefly resented was the third occupant of Jasmine Cottage—Puggie Williams. He had been a fixture there for several months and was a man of mystery. He wore old well-cut clothes with distinction and his voice betrayed breeding; but he had the red-veined mashed face of a hard drinker, and when he remembered to forget his origin, his manners were appalling.
It was evident, however, that he had begun life in a different social sphere from that of his friends, and had probably met them, when he was sliding down the ladder and they were climbing up, so had clung round their necks, as ballast.
He appeared to be on excellent terms with Charlie and a real friendship seemed to exist between the three. Vera ordered him about as much as she dominated her gentle husband, for she was the type who expected men to be doormats. All the same, the town could not accept Puggie, in connection with Vera, because of his sex.
The news of the tragedy swept through Starminster like a prairie fire. It was a day of wretched weather. There had been a heavy snowfall in the night, so that, in the morning, every roof was white-capped and the church steeple looked like a sugar-loaf.
Now, however, it had begun to melt. Slush covered the pavements and lay in the gutter, while the country roads were churned by traffic to the consistency of brown fudge. The hills were iced silhouettes against the grey sky, and the streets appeared dark and miserable. People's faces—pinched with cold—seemed actually dirty, so that any one with an artificial complexion was a public benefactor. It was chill and gloomy, and no time to think of death.
Yet it was constantly in the thoughts of many a woman. Charlie's last public appearance had been at a Primrose Dance, when there had been a man-famine. Too retiring to invite the attractive girls and women, he had danced exclusively with wallflowers.
He was an excellent dancer—light as a feather—with a springy step and tireless rhythm. Stout matrons, whose husbands were dancing with buds, seemed to swing years off their age as they swayed in Charlie's arms. Spinsters, who were too mature for public competition, and schoolgirls, who were too callow, found in him not only a partner, but sympathy and deference.
One of these was a Miss Belson, an unmarried woman of some social standing, who had been forced to attend the function because of its political nature. Sitting glued to a hard cane-chair, it did not console her to remember that twenty years previously she had been so much in demand that she was forced to subdivide her programme.
She, too, was an excellent dancer, and Charlie confided to her that she was his best partner. He talked to her about herself, while his soft brown eyes paid her those compliments which his tongue was too circumspect to utter. With customary modesty, he let her usurp their conversation; his sole personal item was the confession that his beard was not artistic swank, but a safeguard for a delicate throat.
"I don't mind admitting I look better with it than without," he added, with a little laugh. "You know. Chin."
"I hate Strong Men, like Mussolini and Cromwell," declared Miss Belson.
For Charlie had watered the patch of dried romance in her heart, so that she began to wonder whether his married life was happy, and to notice that Vera danced almost exclusively with Puggie Williams.
She was at the library when she heard of his death. It was a terrible shock for her, when the man who had reminded her that she was a woman as well as a ratepayer flicked out of her life, in one casual sentence from the librarian.
"Isn't it sad about poor Mr. Baxter?"
She asked for details with correct composure, but, instead of choosing her usual recommended book, she carried away with her a thriller. She felt she wanted something to take her thoughts off the tragedy.
On her way home she was gripped with an uncontrollable urge to go to Jasmine Cottage and look at the building which held the shell of the man she had met too late. In soaked shoes, she shuffled along over slushy pavements and past snow-powdered laurels, until she reached the little cream-washed house.
It was built on the extreme outskirts of the town, for only two lamp-posts divided it from the utter darkness of the York Road. No light was visible, although the blue-green curtains at the small casement windows were partially undrawn, so that she could see the flicker of a fire in the lounge. As she paused, a car passed, and its lamps bathed the room in a momentary glow.
She saw two people—Vera Baxter and Puggie Williams—who were sitting close together, as though they were talking in whispers. There was something so furtive in their attitude that it compelled her attention. She caught the flash of teeth and eyes, and wondered incredulously whether they were laughing.
Although she could not be positive about what she had seen, she walked home, throbbing with anger. Instinct insisted that Vera Baxter was not mourning for her husband.
Miss Belson lived with her widowed sister, Lady Fry, who was stout and bronchial. Once she was inside the well-warmed house, she could shut out the cold and misery of the streets; but she could not forget the incident. It remained—a burr on her mind—throughout an excellent dinner, when she ate mechanically, and agreed with her sister that poor Charles Baxter looked like a man who needed "mothering."
That night she read in bed with a hope to induce sleep; but the thriller did not provide the usual escape from life. Instead, its chief function was to sidetrack her thoughts into a new and terrible direction.
She told herself that if two persons wanted to put a third out of the way, it would be easy to pull the wool over the eyes of the doctor, if he was an incompetent fool. They had the opportunity to administer a poison or drug, which would cause a collapse in the ordinary course of illness, especially if the patient had a weak heart.
Even to herself Miss Belson was careful not to mention names.
Suddenly she remembered Charlie Baxter's tireless dancing. He had never panted or shown the least sign of distress. There was a beating inside her temples and her palms grew clammy as she sprang up in the bed.
"Suppose he was murdered," she murmured. "What could I do?"
At that moment she realised the moral courage of those who appeal to the Police. In her own case, however, her course was obvious. Even in the face of a discrepancy she rejected the monstrous notion.
"What an awful thing to think, without a shred of evidence. It's this wretched book."
She slammed down the novel on the table and switched off her light.
All the same this fact is definite. Had Dr. Dubarry—speeding through France in the Blue Train—not taken too much for granted, he would never have written a Certificate of Death for Charles Baxter.
SOON after the news became known the first flowers arrived at Jasmine Cottage. They were brought by a matron who was so sorry to hear of Charlie's death that she wanted to know more about it.
To her surprise the door was opened by Puggie Williams, wearing a mulberry-silk dressing-gown, which threw up all the smouldering tints of his complexion. He appeared to have been keeping up his spirits in time-honoured fashion, for he stared stupidly at the caller's bunch of white violets.
"What are these for?" he asked.
"Just a few blooms from my frame, for—for the room," explained the inquisitive lady.
"Oh, Charlie." Puggie's face lit up. "By gum, the poor little chap will be pleased." He sighed as he corrected himself. "I mean, he would be pleased if he could see them."
"How is Mrs. Baxter?" inquired the matron.
"Crashed. Definitely crashed." Puggie lowered his voice. "She's just sent the maid away. Positively can't stick any one around. Nerves, you know."
"Can't I do something to help?"
"Nothing, thanks frightfully. There's always P.W. on tap. She's used to me, so I don't count." He plunged his short bulbous nose into the white violets. "The stink of these always bring back a memory," he said sentimentally. "A wet country road and a red-haired girl in riding-kit. We'd been coming back from hunting, and she—"
He broke off and added, "Well, Charlie's just another memory now. Thanks for the violets, Mrs. Er-Ah-Um. Charlie'll love them."
A little later, Puggie Williams was popular for the first time, for he became Official News. He appeared in High Street, wearing a dark suit, and combined pink eyelids with a set expression.
He informed people that Mrs. Baxter was deeply grateful for every one's sympathy, but was too upset to see callers until after the funeral.
"I'm rushing it on, on purpose," he explained. "Day after to-morrow if I can make the grade. Fact is, Vera—Mrs. Baxter—is morbid about death. Can't keep her out of the room. She'll be normal once the—body's out of the house. Besides, directly it's over I can clear out."
The fact that Puggie was convention-conscious caused him to soar in the popular estimation.
"Is it a public funeral?" asked some one.
"No, strictly private. Only, if friends showed up, she'd naturally appreciate it."
Puggie looked doubtful as he scratched a pimple with a long patrician hand.
"Flowers?" he repeated. "Well, it's like this. The widow wanted none. But he felt it would help the florists. You know what a chap he was for thinking of others."
"So—he knew?" asked a woman huskily.
"Yes." Puggie gulped in sympathy. "We couldn't fool him. He knew he was passing on. Conscious to the last."
To change a painful subject, the matron of the white violets asked about future plans.
"Will Mrs. Baxter be staying on here?"
"No," replied Puggie, "definitely not. The mere thought of what she bumped into here would make her shudder. She may stay out her quarter...Well, I must be moving."
He saluted gravely and passed on his way to the undertaker's, where he stated his requirements.
"I've brought Mr. Baxter's measurements, because Mrs. Baxter can't bear to hear the men coming, until—until they've got to. How soon can you knock up a rough shell?"
"I've one in stock which might do at a pinch," replied the undertaker. "There's so much illness that we have to be prepared."
"Good," nodded Puggie. "Send it up to-morrow morning at twelve. And send the coffin one-thirty, sharp, the next day. I want the funeral to be two o'clock."
As he left the arrangements entirely to the taste and discretion of the undertaker, the remainder of the short interview was satisfactory to both.
"You understand," he said, as he left the shop, "plain, but good. And no one's to come mucking round. If you want to know anything, ring me. I'll be in all day to-morrow...And now, I've got to flag the vicar."
After he had left the Vicarage, there were still visits to be paid, so that some time elapsed before he returned to Jasmine Cottage, where Vera met him in the passage.
There was no hint of the distracted widow in her appearance. She looked smart as paint in a very becoming black frock, which was not mourning, since she had been wearing it all the winter. It suited her fair colouring remarkably well. Her lips were tinted coral, and exactly matched her cigarette-holder.
Her small face, however, grew sharp with worry as she listened to Puggie's recital, and when she spoke, her voice grated like a saw.
"You fool. Why didn't you say 'no flowers'? We shall have people messing round here."
"I was thinking of poor Charlie," remarked Puggie quietly. "It's a compliment to him. After all, Vera, it's his due."
"Perhaps so." Vera shrugged. "But, Puggie, what possessed the idiot to promise the girl a fiver? Where am I to find one? Growing on a lamppost?"
Puggie patted her thin shoulders.
"Don't worry, old girl," he advised. "Take one fence at a time."
Later on, additional details of the death at Jasmine Cottage were circulated, when the maid—Minnie Reed—was seen walking about the town, dressed in her best clothes.
"I've got a week's holiday," she explained. "The mistress was wonderful right up to the time of the master's death, and then she went to bits and screamed to leave her alone with him. After all I done, she swept me out of the house like so much rubbish."
It was plain that the maid considered that she had been cheated out of a sensational experience, although she admitted that she was allowed to wish her master "Good-bye."
She made the most of that.
"They called me into the room just before the end. He was sinking fast. His face looked like wax and his hands were cold as ice. He shook hands with me, but he couldn't speak, only whisper. He said, 'Good-bye, Minnie, and thank you for all your kindness to me. I didn't know you when I made my Will, but your mistress will give you five pounds to remember me.'"
Among others who heard of Charlie Baxter's death was a schoolgirl who was home for the Christmas holidays. She was a wholesome, athletic youngster of sixteen, in the pudding-face stage, but with promise of attraction. She had only two ambitions—to pass the Senior Cambridge and to enter for the Junior Golf Championship.
When she was going to the Library one wet afternoon for her mother, she dropped the book in the road. Charlie Baxter, who was passing at the time, picked it up and wiped off the flecks of mud with his clean handkerchief.
The courtly gesture left the girl gaping with astonishment. She was inarticulate when he carried the book for her to the Library. On the way he complimented her on the goal she had shot at a recent Ladies' Hockey Match, and discussed the game in general, and her form in particular.
The girl went home feeling that every cell in her body had been subjected to a chemical change. For the first time she experienced the chaotic upheaval of Nature. Hitherto she had been a boy, and would have been murderous to a Constant Nymph on the hockey field.
For about a week she hugged her secret as she rubbed Pond's cold cream into her face at night, and went to soppy, sentimental pictures. She idealised Charlie to a knight of King Arthur's Court. And then, in the midst of her dawning rapture, she heard of his death.
She was having afternoon-tea in the drawing-room, and she went on munching quantities of hot crumpet, without comment or show of emotion. The strength of her self-consciousness compelled her to hide her feelings. No one must know of her still-born romance.
But as the truth gradually hit home she felt she could not endure the ache in her heart and the bitter sense of loss. Gulping down her last cup of tea she rushed up to her small room at the top of the house.
Regardless of cold, she stood for a long time at her open window, staring down at the huddle of roofs, piebald with patches of semi-melted snow. The blanched hills, the leaden sky, and the fading light all suggested the hopeless twilight of a life without love.
At a sudden memory of a dark bearded face, with liquid brown eyes, and the gleam of strong white teeth displayed in a smile, a lump rose in her throat which nearly choked her. She reminded herself that she was only sixteen and had to endure a life-sentence of loneliness and grief.
The burden of her sorrow was too great for her to bear. Since she had gone away to boarding-school she had given up her childish custom of saying prayers in public, although she often murmured petitions under the sheets.
But now she dropped on her knees, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, put out her soul in a frantic prayer for the unattainable.
"God, give him back to me. Let him be alive now. Don't let him be dead."
It is said that faith will remove mountains. Yet this schoolgirl—without a scrap of faith—apparently achieved the impossible, and worked a major miracle.
Even as she sobbed out her petition, Charlie Baxter was sitting in the kitchen at Jasmine Cottage, smoking his pipe.
THE first time he died, Charlie Baxter was genuinely touched by the signs of his popularity. He had an inferiority complex—the result of being avoided by the nice girls in his home town in his youth. He was also generally in disgrace with his family, because of the regularity with which he changed his plans for the future.
In turn, it was arranged that he should be a doctor, a lawyer, an auctioneer. In fact, his only objection to any reputable profession was the system of examination before qualification.
He had discovered, however, other ways of making money—and losing it—besides earning a salary. He went to horse-races and the dogs. Besides this, he was not too proud to turn his hand to anything, and when he lacked a shilling to buy fags, would enter the Children's Competition in the newspapers.
In spite of snubs and neglect he retained a real affection for his home, and always came back when his funds ran out. He never received a welcome, but he remained cheerful, amiable, and quite a charming fellow.
The Baxters had one rich relative—a widowed aunt—whom Charlie cultivated. At her death, the family was astonished to learn that their black sheep was the sole member to receive a legacy. He promptly married Vera—a pretty blonde, who made what might truthfully be described as "a personal appearance"—at some Vanities.
She was a sensible moral little person, and much too good for Charlie; but the Baxters, who were snobs, could not accept her as a member of a family which wore rather more than the average quantity of clothing. Once again the front door was closed upon Charlie. He left the town, and this time he did not return.
While their money lasted, the young Baxters had a riotous time. They went to the Riviera and cut a modest dash. Vera was a genuine actress, and had the power of dramatising herself until she lost her sense of reality. The world was her Stage and she played a Star part. In their theatrical surroundings of blue sea, palms and gilt-cane chairs, she became an Oppenheim adventuress, and she wore big furs and draped herself with ropes of cheap pearls.
But, deep down below her trimmings, she remained the thrifty, honest little soul who took off more and more, as she earned less and less, in order to pay her landlady. She often wished that she had insisted on being keeper of the purse, when she would have combined economy with security.
They got to know some curious people—Puggie Williams among the rest. It was he who suggested the insurance fraud, when they were within sight of their legacy's end. He was living on them at the time, so he sold his brains on the understanding that they should pool interests.
Following his advice, they moved to a small country town, where living was cheap—rented a furnished cottage from a certain Major Blake—budgetted within the limits of a modest income—and posed as people of leisure, refined tastes and means, who wished to live a quiet life.
Puggie Williams had instructed Charlie not to approach an insurance agent, but let the agent come to him.
"Be a good mixer," was his advice.
True to his forecast, a Mr. Acorn, who was local agent for an important insurance company, rose to the occasion, when Charlie, during a round of golf, admitted that he was not insured. Before long he contracted for annual payments of eighty pounds, so that his widow might receive the sum of five thousand pounds at his death.
He paid two instalments—and then he died.
They had beginner's luck in the matter, for in Dubarry they found an ideal doctor to gull. He had inherited a small fortune, and now only visited an old lady or two, who clung to him like limpets, because of his charming bedside manner.
Vera did her utmost to captivate him. She sent for him in an alleged case of nervous prostration—or something equally picturesque in stage production—when he was called upon to do a little more than feel her pulse and be discreetly appreciative of her charming creamy ostrich-feather negligée.
It was natural, therefore, after her own recovery from illness, that Vera should swear that he was the only doctor in whom she could have confidence.
They waited impatiently for the sensational epidemic of flu, when doctors were run off their legs and nurses not to be had for love or money. Their chief danger was that Dr. Dubarry would not remain in England, for it was the time of the year when he always went to the Riviera.
Just as he was on the point of departure, Vera made her tearful appeal. She was distracted; Charlie had flu, and he was the one man who could pull her husband through.
Dr. Dubarry stayed, against his will, compelled by Vera's concealed strength of character. He came daily to Jasmine Cottage, where he saw a little of the patient and quite a lot of Vera. He had not opened a medical journal for years, but he could judge the case by the symptoms, as described by Charlie, and the evidence of the thermometer.
He did not notice that when Charlie was "smoking" it was always the minute when Vera drew away his attention from the bedside. Charlie's scraps of knowledge, gleaned as a medical student, had taught him that somewhat difficult feat for a lay eye—how to read the mercury at a glance. He had also experimented as to the exact length of time he should keep the thermometer buried in the hot baked potato under his pillow, to get desired results.
He knew how to tell the tale, and presently he ran a high temperature, which soared to a peak when Dr. Dubarry looked grave. He hinted at a second opinion and a hospital nurse. But Vera sobbed that she trusted him implicitly and that she could not bear to leave her husband to the mercies of any stranger.
Dr. Dubarry yielded, partly because it was difficult to get a second doctor and nurse. After all, it was a straight case, without complications, and Charlie was receiving the orthodox treatment.
Meanwhile, the plotters were anxiously awaiting for the snow which had been predicted by the weather experts. The instant the first flakes fell, Charlie's temperature shot up like a rocket and then took a sensational nose-dive, while his heart was weak and fluttering after stiff doses of tobacco-ash mixed with tea.
Dr. Dubarry felt it was his painful duty to warn the poor little woman of the danger. He broke the news to her that unless Charlie's strength could be maintained, he might flicker out of life.
"He's not putting up a fight," he complained. "You'd think he was just letting himself go."
Vera broke down and sobbed on Dr. Dubarry's shoulder.
"Oh, doctor," she cried, "that is Charlie. I know the best of him. And the worst of him. And I love him for all...But he never could make an effort."
That night the snow fell thickly. In the morning Dr. Dubarry, who lived in the heart of the country, looked out on a white muffled landscape. While he was dressing he was called to the telephone, when Puggie Williams, speaking in a voice choked with emotion, told him that poor Baxter had passed away during the night. In view of the terrible weather they had not sent for the doctor, since nothing could be done.
Dr. Dubarry thanked them for their thoughtfulness in not dragging him from his warm bed, just to tell them what they already knew. He also offered heroically to come over immediately.
But Williams would not accept the sacrifice. The roads were too awful, and Mrs. Baxter would not hear of it.
"She says you'll be the next to go down with flu, and she would never forgive herself if anything happened to you. If you don't mind sending round the Certificate—that should meet the case."
Dr. Dubarry hesitated...At the other end of the line the three plotters held their breath. If he decided to come, or to deputise another doctor, they would have to stage a sensational revival of the corpse and face the collapse of their carefully laid plans.
Fortunately for them, Dubarry was both soft and nervous. Common sense assured him that it was a straight case which had run true to type and that the collapse was practically inevitable.
Instead of taking a long cross-country drive into Starminster and running the risk of being blocked by a snowdrift, he could motor by the main road to the nearest large town and take the first express to London. It was true that he could also reach Starminster by the same method—but the Blue Coast was calling him.
He looked again at the Arctic scenery and the slowly falling flakes, like black pompons against the sky, and he decided that it was his duty to his wife and family not to risk his own valuable life.
So he followed the sun, and the death certificate was sent to Jasmine Cottage by special messenger. With its arrival Charlie Baxter became officially dead.
Vera and Puggie shook hands after the front door was closed.
"We've won," declared Vera jubilantly.
But Puggie looked grave.
"We're only beginning," he told her. "So far, we've had the usual beginner's luck. Now—for the snags."
EVEN while Charlie smoked his pipe and stretched his feet blissfully to the open front of the Ideal stove, the first snag was on its way. He heard the bell, and then a prolonged murmur of voices. Presently the front door was shut again, and Puggie Williams came into the kitchen carrying a wreath.
He pitched it on to the table and then sank into a chair and mopped his brow.
"Hullo," he said. "You? Has Vera let you off the chain?"
"I came down a few minutes ago," explained Charlie. "As I pay the rent, I did not ask for permission."
"Don't blame you, old chap. But I shall go bughouse before we're through. D'you know who that was? The Vicar. And he wanted to see—you."
"M—me?" stammered Charlie. "Doesn't he know I'm dead?"
"That's just it. He wanted to kneel by your corpse and say a prayer for your soul."
Charlie's brown eyes grew suspiciously moist.
"That was really kind. I—I appreciate it. Did you thank him properly?"
"No, I took a strong line. I said you were chockful of poison. You can guess the rest." Puggie took out his notebook and scrawled 'Disinfectant.' "Sorry to be indelicate, old chap, but we've got to keep people from nosing round. Besides, it will help to explain the snap funeral."
Charlie was not listening; he appeared to be unconscious of the indignity of Puggie's proposal as well as the peril of their position. His eyes were those of a dog who sees a packet of his biscuits in the shopping-basket, as he picked up the wreath.
"For me?" he asked.
"Yes. From the Mayor."
"Oh, I say. Roses, this time of year. Those cost something. People must think a lot of me."
"Yes, you seem to have been a success."
"Tell me what they were saying about me."
He listened eagerly as Puggie obligingly racked his memory. When the recital ran dry, he nodded and then frowned.
"You can't judge a man till he's dead," he said. "I'd like my family to have heard some of that. But why did the Colonel say I was a little sportsman and gentleman? Where did he get the 'little'? I'm taller than—"
He broke off as the door was flung open and Vera came into the kitchen. Her eyes grew hard at the sight of her husband.
"You fool," she cried. "What possessed you to come down here?"
"I was so cold in the attic," explained Charlie.
"Corpses are cold," Puggie reminded him. "'Oh, ain't it grand to be blooming well dead'?"
Vera's nerves were on edge, so she continued to scold.
"You must be mad. Suppose some one had come in."
"I only wanted to get warm," pleaded Charlie.
"You've got a hot-water bottle and a rug."
"But I can see my breath in the attic. Why can't I have the stove?"
"The oil might smell. People might wonder why we were using the lumber room. Don't you understand? Nothing must be out of the ordinary. We don't want to start people thinking."
"Yes, I understand. I'll go back the instant I'm thawed. But—when I was sitting, all alone, in the dark and cold, I kept thinking of hot toast and tea."
His eyes were those of an appealing dog, but they had no effect on Vera. She ran her fingers through the waves of her fair hair and turned upon her husband.
"And who's going to make toast for you? You know the girl has gone?"
"Yes. But I've often made it for you. At a pinch, I might make some for myself."
"No." Vera's voice was shrill. "You'll go back to the attic. I'm about fed up with you. We have all the worry and planning and suspense. All you have to do is stay put. Listen. You've jolly well got to be uncomfortable. It's not for long. And it's worth it."
Puggie listened with a cynical smile. Because he admired Vera, he had sufficient natural jealousy to enjoy her husband's discomfiture. At the same time his masculine instinct made him resent female domination of the male. His sympathies were with Charlie, as he rose dejectedly from the easy-chair.
"All right. I'll go upstairs now," he said.
At that moment the bell rang loudly, making them all jump nervously.
"Stay where you are, you fool," whispered Vera fiercely, gripping her husband's arm. "You'll be seen going upstairs."
The bell rang again. Evidently the caller was not used to be kept waiting.
"Answer it at once, Puggie," commanded Vera.
"Very good, m'lady," saluted Puggie.
Straining their ears, Charlie and Vera heard a high-pitched, clear voice, which informed them that the great lady of the neighbourhood had done them the honour to stop her impressive car outside Jasmine Cottage.
"I don't know Mrs. Baxter," explained her ladyship, "but please convey my deepest sympathy. Such a charming little man. What was it?...Really?...Oh, dear, dear. I always thought he looked delicate. These artistic temperaments need a great deal of care. They just flicker out."
"Yes," chimed in a girl's voice. "You could tell he was sensitive and sympathetic just by dancing with him. He knew, by instinct, what you were going to do, before you did it."
They left cards and the car rolled away.
"Probably the poor little man was neglected by that horrid little blonde," remarked her ladyship to her daughter as Puggie returned to the kitchen.
"Lady Warren and her fat daughter, in their glad rags," he announced with a grin. "On their way to dine out or something. Both very distressed, especially the girl."
"I gave her a dance at the Hospital Ball," explained Charlie. "It was like trying to control a runaway traction engine. But I was so sorry for her. Didn't they bring any flowers for me?"
"Of course not. They have only acres of grass. Coast's clear now, Charlie. Cut."
"No," decided Vera suddenly. "Now he's here, he'd better have his tea to warm him up."
A slight smile flickered round Charlie's lips as he watched his blonde beauty whisking round the kitchen. With quick capable movements, she cut bread and filled the kettle.
"You won't forget to feed the birds to-morrow morning?" he reminded her. "I'm like Mussolini—fond of birds."
Vera paid no attention to him. Her small face was a map of lines when, presently, she brought him his toast.
"Here you are, sweetheart," she said.
"Thank you. I'd like to smoke too."
She brought him a cigarette and lit it for him. As he blew rings of smoke, in a little cold bedroom, a frantic schoolgirl was still on her knees.
"Let him be alive," she murmured at intervals, for she was growing exhausted by her grief.
Charlie's eyes were tranquil as he watched the fire.
"When I come into my money, I shall give away more to the poor," he said. "You need to be cold and hungry oneself, to understand the sufferings of others."
"You didn't give away a cent last time," Vera reminded him.
Charlie changed the subject quickly.
"Aren't you having tea?" he asked her.
She shook her head as she lit a cigarette from the stump of her old one.
"I'm too worried," she said.
"Because it's all been so easy. In fact it's been too easy. What have we forgotten?"
She turned to Puggie.
"What exactly did the man tell you?" she demanded. "Think."
Puggie wrinkled his brow in an effort at concentration, while Charlie, with implicit confidence in his companions, sipped his tea and warmed his knees.
"I got the dope," said Puggie, "from a chap—awfully decent fellow—I met him on a Cape liner. For once in my life I wasn't in the steerage. He was in Insurance. When I asked him exactly how easy it would be to cheat a big company he told me quite a lot."
"Well—he said the company would expect reasonable proof of death. That meant you had to produce the death certificate, the burial certificate—that would depend—and birth certificate, to prove the age, if it hadn't been already seen by the company when the man insured his life..."
"That's all right with us," remarked Vera. "What were the snags?"
"According to this chap it would be the doctor, the undertaker, servants, relatives, friends, and creditors."
Vera began to check the list.
"Doctor. We've settled him. Undertaker. We'll take care of him too. We sent the girl away, and he hasn't any friends or creditors here. That only leaves his family."
"I have no family," Charlie told her. "I had to choose between them and you. And I choose my wife."
"Shut up, sweetheart. Puggie, his family's got to be told of his death, but they mustn't get the letter until it's too late for them to come to the funeral."
"They wouldn't raise the fare for me," said Charlie bitterly. "They always booted me out when I came home."
"If they come down here before he's buried," went on Vera, "we'd be sunk. But we must write at once or it might look queer. We can't get them suspicious and asking for exhumation. Think, both of you. What are we to do?"
In the end she found her own solution.
"I know. They've moved since your father's death, haven't they?"
"Twice," replied Charlie. "Once to a small house, and then to a flat."
"That's luck again. We'll send it to the old address. I'm not supposed to know anything about their movements as they've never written to me."
"But doesn't the Post Office send on letters?" objected Puggie.
"Only for a certain time. And if you move again too soon, they expect the letters to be forwarded on from the second address, or something like that. There's bound to be some delay, if it's only a day. You must write this instant, Puggie."
"Righto," grunted Puggie. "I'll say you're prostituted. Here, steady on."
He pushed Charlie back into his chair, just as he was rising—his face flushed and his fists clenched.
"You've insulted my wife," he shouted. "My wife's a good woman. She's married."
"Oh, dry up," said Vera, although her eyes glittered as she looked at Puggie. "He was only trying to say 'prostrated.' It only proves he went to Eton after all."
"Did you?" asked Charlie, staring curiously at the man of mystery.
"No, night-school...Very sorry and all that."
"Well, don't be funny again." His anger forgotten, Charlie rubbed his chin and suddenly smiled.
"I'll be getting rid of this bush to-morrow," he gloated. "Won't I be glad to see my old face again?"
"More than I am to see mine," said Puggie. "When I was the young lord of the manor, I had one of those bucolic complexions, all pink and white, like streaky bacon."
"Puggie, who are you?" asked Vera.
"Haven't I told you? Well, since we're all emotional, to-night, over this death, I'll tell you—in strict confidence—"
"That you're one of the Smiths of London," finished Vera derisively.
Even as she laughed her grin was frozen to a grimace.
"What's the matter?" asked Puggie.
"We've made the most ghastly blunder," she told him. "Charlie's beard has just reminded me of what we've forgotten."
AS the men stared at her, Vera struck her head impatiently.
"Idiot," she cried. "And it's too late now to do anything about it. Two years too late." She pointed to Charlie as she added, "He should never have come here with a beard. He should have grown it afterwards, up in London, as a disguise."
Charlie set his lips stubbornly. He had been firm on the point that he was not going through his second life as a bearded daddy.
"I don't mind growing the horrible thing for Starminster," he had compromised. "That means that for two years I shall shudder whenever I look at myself in the glass. But the instant I'm 'dead' off it comes."
At the time they had seen no flaw in his objection. Even Vera had not realised its exact significance until they had reached the critical stages of their fraud.
"Don't you see?" she asked, infuriated by their blank faces. "When he shaves off that beard he will probably fool any one here, if they knocked against him by chance in London. He may look quite a different person to them. But he will also be his old self again. His family will be sure to put his death in the local paper. Well, suppose he meets any one who knew him at home? What about it then?"
"They'll only think it a striking likeness," remarked Puggie. "You may stare at a man who sits opposite to you on the Underground, but you wouldn't tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Aren't you John Jones who died last year?' Besides, Charlie's older now. He'll have changed."
"No, I haven't," put in Charlie eagerly. "When I was having my medical examination for the insurance, the doctor said he'd never seen a younger man for my age."
"Yes, you'd remember that," remarked Vera bitterly. "It's the only examination you ever passed. But you needn't be so perky. Get this, sweetheart. This isn't a beauty contest. If anything crops up to stop us now, you'll starve."
"I could work," he reminded her.
"So you've actually heard of that funny thing? Don't believe all they tell you, honey. And as you've never tried it, we'll wash it out...The question is—how are we to alter you now?"
She lit another cigarette and paced the kitchen's uneven stone flags on perilously high Spanish heels. As usual, the men left her to deal with the problem as they watched her expectantly.
They were not disappointed in their faith, for, presently she pitched away the stump of her cigarette with a laugh. Crossing to the dresser, she opened a drawer and found a spectacle-case.
"Try these on," she commanded her husband. "They're the glasses I wore on my cruise. They're only slightly tinted. Anyway I got off with every man on the ship, in spite of them."
Charlie was boyishly delighted with his appearance when he looked at himself in the small glass on the wall.
"I look intellectual," he said. "Rather like a writer." He turned to Vera. "How do you like your literary husband?"
"I haven't one," she replied. "Thank heaven I'm a widow. I'm sick of men."
"W—What do you mean?"
"She means," explained Puggie with a grin, "that she married a bloke called Charlie Baxter. And the poor chap passed out, last night."
He was dead. It was not a pleasant thought for Charlie to take with him to bed. For the matter of that, their present lodging was more picturesque than cheerful. It was a smallish, inconvenient building, composed of two cottages knocked into one, and had tiny rooms, narrow twisting stairs, and flagged stone passages. Its only concessions to modern luxury were the Ideal stove in the kitchen and a bathroom.
Vera's precautions were not unnecessary, for most sounds could be heard all over the house, including some noises which had no apparent origin. Lying awake that night, Charlie listened to people—who were not there—creeping up the stairs and whispering in corners.
He had no company, for he still occupied the cold death-chamber, while Vera preferred to stay in the dressing-room, which she had made comfortable with her belongings. Strung up to a pitch of nervous excitement, he could not sleep because of the thought of to-morrow's ordeal.
He had to pose as a corpse. Vera had assured him that it should be only a matter of moments, but that it was essential to fool the undertaker. What he dreaded was some treachery on the part of Nature—an uncontrollable shiver or sneeze.
Vera had rubbed into him the consequences of any slip. It was prison.
"That's a place," explained Puggie, "where they make you take a bath, but there aren't any bath-salts. And if you don't fancy the French cooking it's no good complaining to the waitress. Not a bit your style, Charlie."
Charlie thought about prison, the following morning, as he lay on the bed in rigid state. He was cold, hungry, and uncomfortable after lengthy and complicated preparations. Vera had made him up with utmost skill, and had arranged the lighting with real stage artistry.
"You look wonderful," she said after she had finished. "Puggie, come here and see him. It's a mercy, after all, he has a beard to cover up his lips. They'd be first to betray him."
Puggie regarded him with critical eyes.
"He's smoking," he said.
Vera bit off a curse. The cold was still intense, and she had not attempted to warm the room by lighting a fire. She told her husband he had to lump it. Her chief concern was to keep his corpse-complexion in a state of cold-storage.
She looked in dismay at the faint wisps of vapour that issued from Charlie's nostrils and lips.
"While the undertaker's in the room you must just hold your breath," she told him.
"But I shall choke."
"You dare. Don't be a fool. Conquer your nerves."
All the same she opened a drawer and drew out a large linen handkerchief, which she placed on the bed.
"Cover his face with this, the instant the undertaker has had his professional peek," she ordered Puggie. "Whatever you do, don't forget. And don't slip up on anything. That goes for both of you. I only wish I could do it all. I can trust no one but myself."
From bitter personal experience Vera had no use for men.
"Won't you be here?" asked Charlie, his eyes appealing to the little wisp of a woman for the protection of her presence.
"No, honey. I'll be heard, not seen."
The actress in Vera was already exulting in an effective part. Her one regret was that she could not double it with that of the corpse. Then she looked at her wrist-watch.
"It's close on twelve. The shell ought to be here any minute now...Come outside, Puggie."
They went out of the room, closing the door after them. There was something stealthy in their exit which stirred up all the latent distrust in Charlie. During the last few days, he could not rid his mind of a suspicion that he was being duped.
He was positive that there was some understanding between them. Although he was friendly to him, Puggie resented Charlie because he was Vera's husband. He would not have married her while she was in the Vanities. Charlie still felt furious as he remembered the libellous word "prostituted." He had done Puggie's preliminary work for him; and now that he had made a respectable wife into a respectable widow, all objections to her would be removed.
He seemed to be getting the worst of the bargain. The nonsense verses by Lewis Carroll, which his eldest sister Emily used to read to him when he was a small boy, floated into his head:
"I passed by his garden and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie.
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat."
The words applied to himself only too well. He was the Owl. Vera and Puggie had treated him like a lay-figure; they had laughed and whispered in corners, while he had to endure ignominious treatment and suffer real discomforts.
And now he was completely in their power—officially dead.
He did not like being dead; he had too much imagination where his own feelings were concerned. The cold, the rigidity, the smell of disinfectant fighting the perfume of forced lilies-of-the-valley, utterly revolted him.
To increase his physical and mental discomfiture, he was powerless. They had bound his limbs tightly to his body, in order to give his shape the necessary stiff outline under the sheet. Under the influence of fright, his heart had begun to flutter badly, for he had taken some stiff doses of tobacco-ash in tea, when he was faking his collapse.
Suddenly he remembered Lady Warren's words—that his kind "flickered out of life." Since his medical examination he might have developed some disease. If he caught a chill in this Arctic temperature and died, the other two would be on velvet. All they needed for perfect immunity was to produce a real corpse.
He began to wonder whether the undertaker was coming that morning, in reality. It was now some time past twelve. This masquerade might be some deep scheme to reduce his powers of resistance.
His large eyes grew wider with panic. He was about to try and roll off the bed when he heard voices outside the window, followed by a ring at the front door. At the sounds his heart began to hammer; his suspicion of Vera had been slain, only to leave him facing the real peril.
He listened to scuffling footsteps on the stairs, and a horribly suggestive bumping against the balustrade and wall, at every corner, as if something was being carried up to the first floor.
"Quiet, you chaps." Puggie spoke to the men in a hoarse whisper. "Don't let Mrs. Baxter hear you."
Apparently, however, the widow knew all about it, for from the next room came the sound of strangled heart-broken sobs. Then Charlie heard Puggie's voice—suddenly loud and distinct—close to him.
"Put the trestles here. Foot of the bed. That's right."
Charlie held his breath for what was to seem an eternity, as he realised that the undertaker and his assistants were now inside the room. Their eyes would, naturally, be focused upon him.
As he crossed the threshold, Mr. Brown, the undertaker, looked around him. Heavy curtains were drawn over the windows, so that the only light came from four candles—one at each corner of the bed. In this dim illumination, he could just see the waxen forehead and nose of the late Charles Baxter. His beard hid the rest of his face.
He noticed, too, with professional disapproval, that although the bed was strewn with flowers, there were none covering the heart of the corpse, while his hands were hidden.
"He looks very well," he said.
"Well?" echoed Puggie in a horrified voice. "What d'you mean?"
"He makes a fine corpse," explained the undertaker. "He looks bigger altogether. More dignity. I was astonished when you gave me his measurements. I always thought of him as a—slight gentleman."
He beckoned to his men. Just as they were advancing towards the bed, Puggie saw, to his horror, a faint wisp of vapour curling from Charlie's lips.
In that moment he lost his head completely. He looked around desperately for the handkerchief, failed to find it, and grabbed the nearest object—a sheet of tissue-paper which had covered a wreath.
"Fly," he explained, as he laid it upon the waxen face, before he waved back the men.
"No, don't touch the poor chap. This is my job. The widow doesn't want any hands to touch him but ours."
"But can you manage?" objected the undertaker.
"On my head. He's badly wasted, poor fellow. And the widow will help me with the feet."
Almost as though an actress were awaiting her cue, the pitiful, muffled weeping broke out again on the other side of the wall.
The undertaker looked his sympathy.
"I understand," he said.
He beckoned to his men, who tiptoed from the room. Feeling elated now that the danger was over, Puggie turned confidentially to the undertaker.
"He won't be the first chap I've put to bed," he said, "especially after a Regimental reunion dinner."
"Do you still go to them?" asked the undertaker.
"Wouldn't miss them. They're the only decent chaps left."
"Um, um. What regiment were you in?"
To Charlie's horror, the men began to chat. In a corner of his brain, Puggie had the fuddled impression that he was doing a clever thing, calculated to remove any shadow of suspicion that he had anything to hide. He told himself that they were safe as houses, now that he had covered Charlie's face.
What he did not realise was that he had done the thing best calculated to precipitate disaster. The flimsy sheet of paper was sucked in with every gasp that Charlie was forced to give. As he broke out into a violent sweat, he could feel it growing limp and moulding his features like a wet veil.
Every second his agony of mind increased. He remembered an experience at the dentist's, when an impression of his mouth was taken for a denture. The composition had seemed to swell until he believed that his air-passages were completely sealed, and he had fought and choked himself black in the face.
Now the same symptoms of suffocation were rushing upon him. A preliminary tickling in his throat told him that he could not hold out much longer. Already his lungs were nearly cracking under the strain of holding his breath.
As he waited for the end, his mind painted a picture of prison in the darkest hues. Hideous, coarse garments. A cement bath, filled with tepid, greyish water, which had been sampled by others. Water-gruel and stale bread.
Imagination threw in additional horrors—rats which ran over him, and insects—not the festive species, which frisked and flitted—but horrible adhesive plasters on the wall.
At the thought, he reached breaking-point. The irritation in his throat curdled to a hard lump. He swallowed violently to try to remove the obstruction—in vain.
Suddenly, to his horror, his strangled breath rebelled and burst out in a choking wheeze.
FEELING that the game was up, Charlie was on the point of opening his eyes when Puggie's paralysed brain was jolted into action. He clapped his hands and made vigorous passes in the shadow.
"Skit, skit," he cried.
Then he turned to the undertaker.
"That cat got in again," he explained. "It was a great pet of the poor chap. He was passionately fond of animals, you know. If you don't mind coming out, we'll close the door."
"But are you sure it's not still in the room?" asked the undertaker. "We'd better make certain."
"No, I saw it streak down the stairs."
The door had barely closed on the two men when Charlie realised that the danger was not over. Once again he felt as though the back of his throat were being tickled with a feather. He panted and gulped alternately, while tears were forced into his eyes and trickled down his cheeks.
It has been mentioned that sounds were audible all over the cottage. While he could still hear footsteps, he suddenly burst out into an explosion of coughing.
It was impossible to smother the noise with the bedclothes, for he could not free his arms. With an effort he managed to roll on to his face, only to discover that in that position he could not breathe.
When he tried to turn on his back again, in his trussed-up condition, he only fell into his original place, with his mouth buried in the pillow. Terrified of his helplessness, he did not mind now what noise he made, so long as he could attract attention to himself.
The undertaker, who was walking down the stone-flagged path of the little garden, heard the distressing sounds. He stopped, turned round, and looked up in surprise at the death-chamber, where the whooping seemed to be located.
He realised his mistake when he saw Mrs. Vera Baxter standing in the window of the next room. Her fair head was bent over her lace handkerchief, and her slight frame was shaken with violent gusts of coughing.
"She's got a shocking cold," he reflected. "She'll be next to be put down, if she doesn't take care."
It never occurred to him to wonder why she had pulled up the blind of the house of mourning.
Vera continued to bark like a walrus, until the undertaker had closed the gate and disappeared round the bend of the road. Then she rushed into the next room, her eyes blazing with temper.
Puggie had just finished unbinding Charlie's arms and was patting him on the back.
"Poor chap had the devil of a fright. He'd turned turtle, 't other way round, and—"
He broke off at the sight of Vera's furious face.
"You fool," she stormed. "You utter fool. Why didn't you sweep that man out of the room quickly as I told you? Had you to jaw about the War?"
"Well," replied Puggie feebly, "we both fought on the same side, you know. I thought it rather a good line. Besides, I'd covered up Charlie's face so you couldn't see him smoke."
"He did," chimed in Charlie bitterly. "With a bit of tissue-paper right over my mouth."
"Couldn't you find a feather?" asked Vera. "That would have given away the show even better."
"I nearly choked," said Charlie. "The agony was terrible."
He considered himself the injured party with a healthy claim for compensation, so was astonished when Vera turned upon him.
"Can't you stand the least little thing? Are you a man, or a cry-baby? It was nothing but nerves—and I'm fed up with both of you."
Puggie hurriedly offered her a cigarette and Charlie ran to find a lighter. Both men watched her anxiously as she puffed away fiercely. When the pinched look left her small face, they knew that her temper was over.
"Sorry to fly off the handle," she said, with her old ringing laugh. "Oh, boys, what a life. After this, I'll never try to cheat even the railway company."
"Well, we've crossed another bridge safely," gloated Puggie, patting her on the shoulder.
"There's to-morrow," Charlie reminded them. "I'll catch cold in that icy attic and cough again. I'd better stay in the kitchen."
"I should," agreed Vera. "Any one who comes to the back door can see you through the window. Won't they have fun?...No, you complete idiot, you stay upstairs until it's dark and the blinds are down."
As Charlie was obediently climbing up the ladder which led to the attic, she pulled him back.
"Remember, you've got to settle on your new name to-day. If you can't make up your mind, I'll find you a name you won't like."
As he sat in the attic, wrapped in a travelling-rug and with his feet on a stone hot-water bottle, Charlie reflected that it was really extraordinarily difficult to re-make a person. Little things that got settled easily and naturally in the ordinary course of birth, threatened to become complications, or even dangers, in a second incarnation.
On one point, however, he was clear. He intended to have a brave new name with which to score over Puggie Williams. The trouble was that he had to reject his favourites, because Vera had explained to him that he must keep his initials.
"If you don't, we shall have to scrap too many of your belongings," she told him.
"Besides," added Puggie, "you might forget and sign your old initials. I often have, myself."
Charlie racked his brains until the light gradually faded and he could scarcely see through the small ivy-choked window, set in the sloping roof. All day long the door-bell had been ringing intermittently, presumably bringing flowers for him. These signs of his popularity were tonic and made him forget the cold tip to his nose.
Presently, he received his inspiration.
He could see it written in hotel-registers and printed in newspapers. Jumping up, he spied from his loop-hole and saw that all the lamps in the road were lit. As he judged it was safe to go down to the kitchen, he crept down the narrow stairs and along the passage. He could see a crack of light under the door which told him that the blinds were drawn, and he heard a murmur of voices.
With a sudden suspicion that they might be talking about him, he stopped to listen.
"I know this," declared Vera. "If I had my life over again, I wouldn't make the same mistake twice."
"You would," Puggie told her. "But with a different partner."
As it was too draughty to linger, Charlie pushed open the door. He received no welcome, and there were no signs of tea. The kitchen looked cheerless, for the floor was littered with straw and scraps of calico, torn from an old sheet.
Both Vera and Puggie were reduced to a state of nervous prostration. They had believed that they could manufacture a dummy quite easily—taking it in their stride, as an eleventh-hour job. But the reality had nearly broken their hearts. The difficulty of disposing of all the leaden weights—which were to duplicate Charlie's weight—was almost overwhelming.
Charlie burst into tactless laughter when he saw the swollen misshapen bundle, which was rendered doubly grotesque by a mask glued to one side of its alleged head.
"If that looks like a body wire me at my own expense," he told them. "Is this supposed to be me?"
"He's right," agreed Puggie, as he kicked the dummy and stubbed his toe against its metallic lining. "This chap has too many guts as it is. He doesn't want any more. Let's park the rest of the weights in the shell."
"They'll rattle, you fool," snapped Vera.
"Not if we tie them up in rags."
"But they might move and shift the weight when the coffin is lifted."
"Chance it, and call it a day."
"No, it's got to be a job."
"Well, I'm through. Sewing isn't a man's work."
Puggie straightened his back and lit his pipe, in token of mutiny. Charlie settled himself before the fire and warmed his knees, while Vera was left to finish the dummy.
"Don't you boys strain yourselves," she advised with sugary venom.
"Shall I help you?" offered Charlie.
"Can you sew?"
"I don't know. But I'll try."
"Stay where you are, then."
Vera's thoughts were bitter as she stitched away furiously at the coarse sacking. Her back ached, her head was splitting, and her fingers were sore from pricks. Now that she was single-handed, she began to experience the nerve-racking sensations of a race against the clock. Something that would fool the undertaker, had to be buried with ceremony, to-morrow afternoon.
She promised herself that once she was out of her present jam, she would play straight and cling to security. No more hitting the high spots, but a quiet life in the country. After a girlhood of shifts and indignities, with the hectic interlude of the Riviera, she wanted peace and quiet.
Men were no good and Charlie was only a handicap. As she made the admission, the Devil slipped in through a crack in her brain. He reminded her that she was free in the eyes of the world. Once she received the insurance, there was nothing to stop her disappearing into the blue, where she could wear breeches, grow cabbages, and start a feud with the rector's wife.
The next second she was furious with herself, for having even thought of the supreme dishonesty of deserting her partners in fraud. She sent the Devil packing with a flea in his ear.
But he was not disheartened by the result of his experiment. At least, he had proved that the door of her mind was not sealed against his entrance, and he knew that next time she saw him, he would not appear so ugly.
"What are you thinking of?" asked Charlie.
"You'd never guess," she told him.
"Well, I was thinking of you. It's going to be lonely in lodgings. I shall be counting the days to seeing you again."
"Sure of me, aren't you? How do you know I shan't take the opportunity of losing you?"
Charlie began to laugh at the mere suggestion of treachery.
"I feel inspired about this business now," he said. "I've been reading 'The Statue and the Bust' when I was in the attic. The Major must have been potty over poetry. I found a Browning chucked away with the rubbish. Fine stuff. It says indecision is the only sin, and you must stake your counter boldly, whether you're winning or losing."
"Not me," grunted Puggie. "I'll stick to my shilling with the two heads."
Charlie took no notice of the interruption.
"It has reconciled me," he said, "to being a thief."
"We're not that," objected Vera. "We're not stealing from a person. I've always paid my way and been honest. It's quite a different thing to do a company."
"It's a penal offence. But I'd do anything once after reading that poem. So long as it was not cruel. It's inconceivable to me how a man can murder his wife."
He looked around at the cracked yellow plaster walls, which had enclosed so many generations, as though asking them to bear witness of his words, as he added, "I simply could not be cruel to any woman."
"I could be cruel to a man," declared Vera as she jabbed the needle into her thumb. "Get off your perch, Charlie, and tell me if you've chosen your name."
"I have." Charlie rose and made a low bow. "Chester Beaulieu, at your service."
"Pronounced 'Bewley'," put in Puggie.
Charlie's jaw dropped.
"Why will they corrupt these fine old English names?" he asked. "It doesn't sound French that way. I'll have to make another choice."
He looked so downcast that, to her own surprise, Vera felt an impulse to protect him from Puggie's derision.
"Even 'Bewley's' a better name than yours," she said.
"Which name?" asked Puggie. "Oh, you mean 'Williams', of course."
Charlie threw him an envious glance, as he wondered again over the secret of Puggie's identity. He might even be a throw-out from the peerage. At the thought he changed the subject quickly.
"Any more flowers for me?"
"A darned sight too many. I've been on my pins all day taking them in."
"I must see them...It seems rather a pity one has to die to find out how much the world thinks of you."
"But you know why you're so popular, don't you?" asked Puggie. "It's because you've put Vera back into circulation. The Wrights have rung up and asked her to stay with them in the country for a week, instead of going back to an empty cottage. And you may bet the suggestion did not come from Lady Wright."
Charlie's face was flaming as he turned to Vera.
"You didn't accept?"
"Of course I did," she snapped. "If it's known that the cottage is shut up directly after the funeral, no one will come nosing round while you're shaving and preparing for your getaway."
"But I won't have it. That fat old Wright will maul you when he's pretending to comfort you."
"Don't worry." Vera's laugh was thin. "I'm not going to weep on Daddy Wright's shoulder. I've had enough of men for a bit, thank you."
She continued to cobble the dummy with huge stitches, until she had satisfied her own standard. She looked a pitiful little shrimp when she rose from her stooping posture. Her face was pinched with weariness, as she pushed back a strand of fair hair which blinded her.
"Take it upstairs at once," she commanded, "and pray that no one comes to the front door while we're doing it."
The transit of the dummy was a perilous adventure. Weighing as much as a man, it sagged and bulged in the middle as they dragged it up the narrow stairs. They got in each other's way, and shouted contrary orders, which resulted in savage treatment of Vera's handiwork. Just as they tugged it on to the landing, the stitches burst in a weak spot, releasing a weight which rolled from step to step down, to the passage.
Charlie was running after it, when they were petrified by a loud ring at the front door.
Like the dread shadow of a shark, they could see a black outline through the frosted glass panels. At the sight they lost their nerve completely. Consciousness of guilt made them cowards. They were positive that the dark shape had witnessed their suspicious action.
Charlie bolted into the kitchen and Vera fled after him, leaving Puggie to face the music.
With his back to the wall, he became a different person. He kicked the dummy farther along the passage, pulled up his socks, and sauntered with a nonchalant air down the stairs, prepared to open the door to the Devil.
The caller was a lady. She was tall and gaunt, with the roughly blocked face and figure of a Rodin sculpture. Although she was well dressed, she appeared to have made a hurried toilet, for her white hair—coarse as linen threads—was a tangled bush above burning black eyes.
She gave the impression of a primitive female, violently rammed into her best clothes, with a finishing-school accent clamped on to her northern burr.
When she spoke, her voice was so strong and metallic that Puggie and Vera could hear every word.
"I'm Miss Baxter. I've come to see my dead brother."
PUGGIE stared at Miss Baxter, at a loss to account for her presence. He was positive that he had written to Charlie's old address. Eton Lodge had stuck in his memory, because of its association with his youth.
"Quick work," he said. "When did you get my letter?"
"This morning," replied Miss Baxter. "I only got it by chance. It was sent to an old address."
"An old maid of mine had just gone into service with the new people there. She noticed the postmark and, as she knew where my brother lived, she rang me up. I came over at once for the letter."
In spite of the cultivated refinement of her accent, her voice was lumpy with emotion. Again she gave the impression of some rough substance, hammered flat, or wrung between rollers.
"This morning," repeated Puggie, his brow still furrowed. "But how did you get here so soon?"
"I flew—most of the way."
"By gum." He looked at her with real admiration, for he recognised her as the type which hails an omnibus. "That was sporting. But the funeral's not until to-morrow."
"I haven't come for the funeral. I do not wish to meet any one. I only want to see my dead brother."
Involuntarily, Puggie made a horrible grimace, as he thought of the bloated calico dummy sprawling on the landing. There was only a short flight of stairs. He looked at Miss Baxter's long legs, and decided that she could take it in two strides if she were really bent upon action.
The situation was beyond him, so he basely left it to Vera.
"I'll tell Mrs. Baxter you're here," he mumbled.
"Please do nothing of the kind." Miss Baxter's tone was astringent. "I do not wish to speak of family matters to a stranger. But I must be frank. Nothing on earth would induce me to meet that woman."
Every word that she said was audible in the kitchen, where Charlie and Vera stared at each other with scared eyes. As she listened, Vera's face grew scarlet and she sprang to the door.
"She will see me," she said.
Charlie, whose knees were knocking together, dragged her back.
"Don't go, Vera. It's Emmy. You don't know her. She'll make mincemeat of you. We can't keep her out."
Vera bit her lip fiercely.
"Will she come in with us?" she asked.
"No. She's funny that way. She even gives back wrong change. She'll make me give the money back."
"You haven't got it yet...Hush."
Vera strained to catch what Puggie was saying, but could only hear a protesting murmur. Then Miss Baxter's voice rang out like a trumpet-blast.
"Let me pass, please. I'm going upstairs to see my brother."
"Please don't." Puggie spoke in his most charming and persuasive manner. "I really do understand, and you have my deepest sympathy. I only wish to save you a painful scene. If you go up now, you'll meet Mrs. Baxter in the bedroom. She won't leave poor Charlie. Please come into the drawing-room."
As they waited, Charlie and Vera held their breath. If Miss Baxter crashed the stairs, exposure was but a matter of seconds.
But their luck held and the immediate danger was staved off.
"In that case, I must wait until she has gone down," said Miss Baxter.
In spite of her grief, the snob within her recognised the submerged gentleman in Puggie, and she responded to his personality as much as to his argument. He was positively tender, as he armed her deferentially into the sitting-room, and switched on the light.
He noticed Miss Baxter's shudder, for the cold room was the picture of discomfort and neglect. Vera had been too busy to touch it, after she had sent the maid away, and the grate was still choked with ashes.
At its best it was an uneven apartment, for the major was not only a hoarder, but had travelled. Every step of his wanderings could be traced—as well as the stages of his decline to comparative poverty—in valuable family heirlooms, gadgets from Woolworth, and a cosmopolitan collection of curios.
"You must be frightfully cold after your flight, and the shock and all that," said Puggie. "Can I get you a spot—Will you have tea?"
"Nothing, thank you."
"Then if you'll sit here—this is the easiest chair—I'll go upstairs. Soon be back."
Puggie rushed up the stairs like a battering-ram going into action, but they did not hear him creep down again, in his socks. They started when he suddenly appeared in the kitchen, his shoes in his hand.
"I've dragged the dummy inside the bedroom and locked the door," he told them. "That'll keep her out for a bit. But it'll look darned fishy if we don't let her in."
"Leave her to me," said Vera.
It was obvious that her blood was up and she was spoiling for a fight. Before the men could stop her, she had gone into the drawing-room.
It was an economic blunder that the theatrical management—which took off her clothes and so reduced her to another standardised show-girl—had no chance to test her real quality. She made a well-timed and effective entrance, while the quiet dignity of her manner—vibrating with emotion—was excellent acting.
She bowed to the gaunt woman, who sprang to her feet—the fierce sorrow in her eyes fighting the composure of her prim bitten lips.
"If you've come to pay us a visit, Miss Baxter," she said, "you are exactly five years too late."
Miss Baxter returned her bow, although she nearly choked at the sight of the peroxide blonde. She would not have divided the noun from its qualifying adjective, even had she known the truth that Vera's fair hair was natural, and only received an occasional camomile rinse.
"I have already explained to your friend," she said, "that my visit is not to you, but to my brother. I will not take up any of your time."
She walked to the door, but Vera guarded it.
"I'm sorry," she told her. "I'm going to hurt you. You cannot see Charlie. It was his wish."
"I'm sorry—but I cannot believe that."
"Why not? Wasn't it natural? You know how sensitive he was. He felt the treatment he got from his family most deeply. It cut him to the heart to be always treated like an outcast."
In the kitchen, Charlie gulped as a tribute to her emotion, while Puggie grinned appreciatively.
"Hanged if I know which of the two to back," he whispered, as he opened the door, so as to lose nothing of the fight.
"I'm sorry," said Miss Baxter, "but I don't wish to discuss the matter. Please let me go upstairs."
"No." Vera's voice was fierce. "You've got to do him justice, even if it's too late. You cast him off, because he was loyal to me. Do you blame a man for sticking to his wife? Why, even a rat would be loyal to its mate."
"Keep off natural history," murmured Puggie, "or you'll be sunk."
But by this time Miss Baxter was blind and deaf to any academic blunder, as her smouldering eyes burst into flame. So far, the women had observed the conventions. That polite phrase, "I'm sorry," kept them from tearing each other's eyes. Yet there was savagery underneath the veneer. Vera was at bay, and Miss Baxter was a lioness bereft of her foster-cub.
Now that he was dead Charlie was no longer the black sheep of the family, but the baby she had reared. On her way she had been reviving old memories. She smiled again over the audacity of the small boy who wore her nightdress, when he stood on the balcony and preached to the people in the street. At the time she had been proud of the clever imp for his parody of their clergyman, although she hoped fervently that her nightgown had remained anonymous.
In turn, she took off her gloves.
"Listen you," she commanded. "I brought up Charlie. I was fond of him and he was fond of me. Then you came and took him out of my life."
"I didn't," screamed Vera. "It was your beastly pride. I wasn't good enough for your family. I was an actress."
"Oh, no, we didn't consider you that."
Vera's fingers began to curl.
"You mean, I wore no clothes?" she asked shrilly. "Well, at least he knew what he was getting, which was more than a man would with your kind."
Miss Baxter made an effort to preserve her dignity.
"I—I don't want a scene. If I hurt my brother, I want to tell him—now—I'm sorry, and ask him to—to forgive me."
As she began to wipe her eyes, Vera softened.
"But you wouldn't know him," she said hopefully. "He's grown a beard, and he looks years older."
For a moment Miss Baxter weakened. A strange man lying in Charlie's place. Then she forced a smile to her lips.
"I shall still see my boy," she said. "Let me go to him."
In the kitchen, Charlie dug his nails into his palms, and sweat furred his upper-lip. Puggie ran true to form, for his thoughts turned to blackmail.
"Has she any secret?" he asked.
"No," muttered Charlie.
"You saw her."
Puggie agreed, with a hopeless shake of his head.
In the pause they heard Miss Baxter's voice raised several tones. The natural woman had forced her way out and was proceeding to action.
"Get out of my way."
A scuffle, followed by a thud, told them that Miss Baxter's superior weight had won the day. Her rapid footsteps on the stairs were succeeded by the tapping of Vera's Spanish heels as she raced in pursuit.
On the landing there was another tussle.
"Unlock this door," shouted Miss Baxter.
"I won't," screamed Vera.
"Then I shall go and call in the first policeman, and tell him the circumstances. I am convinced you're hiding something."
It was a shot in the dark, but Vera crumpled up and remained speechless. In the kitchen Puggie began to shake Charlie.
"Think," he growled.
But the rough-handling only dislodged one trifling memory.
"Once I met her coming out of the dark china-pantry under the stairs, with the curate."
Almost before the words were out of his mouth, Puggie was scrawling them on a leaf torn from his notebook. As he hurried up the stairs, he pretended not to notice the emotional state of the ladies.
"I'm sorry." He used the current phrase mechanically, as he handed the scrap of paper to Vera. "But this urgent message has just come."
She glanced at it.
"Tell the man 'no answer,'" she commanded him.
She waited until Puggie had gone downstairs before she turned to Miss Baxter—a sparkle of fresh life in her blue eyes.
"I've been trying to save you pain," she said gently. "You say you were fond of Charlie. But he was not fond of you. He despised you because he believed you were a hypocrite. He told me you condemned loose conduct in others, while you carried on yourself on the sly, because you were a lady."
Miss Baxter's lips turned livid.
"Open that door," she said huskily, "and repeat that lie before my dead brother—if you dare."
"It's not a lie," persisted Vera. "He did give you away. I'll tell you exactly what he said. He told me he knew what went on in the dark closet under the stairs, with you and the curate."
She was almost shocked by the results of her thrust. Miss Baxter's face contracted, as though in acute pain, and she gripped the balustrade.
"He—said—that?" she whispered.
"Yes, he did. I couldn't make it up, could I?"
"No. He told you."
Walking like an old woman, Miss Baxter groped her way down the stairs.
"Where are you going?" asked Vera.
"Back," replied Miss Baxter stonily. "After that, I never wish to see him again—dead or alive."
The door slammed and she disappeared into the darkness.
Vera stood motionless, unable to believe in her victory. The surrender had been too sudden and too complete. Miss Baxter had spoken of her brother as though she did not accept his death.
"Dead or alive." The phrase stuck like a burr, although she could not remember everything that had been said. Her head was in a whirl, and she was only certain of one fact.
Miss Baxter was their enemy. She had retreated—only to come back. And when she came, she would not come alone.
UNLIKE the men, Vera could keep her worries to herself. She was used to depend on her own resource; and she saw no sense in weakening the morale of her allies, merely for her own support. Yet, as she crouched on the top stair and tried to gauge the situation, her little rouged face grew peaked with anxiety.
It seemed evident that they were up against a real peril. Although it was difficult to credit the gaunt wooden-faced woman with youthful intrigue, there was no doubt as to the cause of her discomfiture. Her mantle of respectability had suddenly been twitched off her by a strange hand, so that she had fled metaphorically—naked—out into the night.
But Vera knew that she had not acquired that tight lip for nothing. Once she ceased to quiver from shame of exposure, her wits would begin to work again. She was bound to hark back to her original grievance—the fact that she had been denied a sight of her brother.
The supposititious deference to his wishes could not explain away the locked door. She had been driven off by shock-tactics; but nothing had been done to kill her suspicion.
"She'll find that policeman," thought Vera.
So far as she knew, he would have no authority to enter without her permission; but the incident would start what she most dreaded—publicity. There would be a crop of rumours, exaggerations, and the first hint of scandal.
As she stared at the frosted glass panels of the front door, expecting every moment to see the dreaded silhouette of a helmet, a shout arose from below.
"Vera, where are you?"
"Coming," she called.
She reminded herself that, in the sloppy state of the roads, she need not expect immediate reprisal. Although her nerves were quivering from the strain of waiting, she marched jauntily into the kitchen, whistling between her teeth.
As she expected, the men were exchanging congratulations.
"Definitely an inspiration, old chap," declared Puggie, patting Charlie affectionately on the back.
"No, you acted on it," said Charlie. He shook his head, as he added, "Who would have thought it of Emmie? It's degrading. I owe nothing to my family; but, at least, I believed my sisters were straight."
"Not a bit of it, old boy. She's a real fine old sport."
Vera was furious to remark that he plainly admired Miss Baxter for this revelation of torrid history. Like many another woman of strict respectability, her censure of those who were minus her own scruples was tinctured with envy.
Besides, it was a depressing reminder of the end of youth and love.
A loud peal of the front-door bell made her jump.
"Who's that?" she cried sharply.
"More flowers for me," said Charlie hopefully.
"Blast your flowers," growled Puggie as he reluctantly laid down his pipe and went to answer the door.
As she waited Vera pressed her scarlet-tipped fingers to her teeth. Unable to bear the suspense she dashed out of the kitchen, nearly knocking down Puggie at the end of the passage.
"What was it?" she gasped.
"Only the post," he replied. "Letter for you."
He noticed that her fingers shook when she ripped open the envelope, and he grasped the opportunity.
"You look whacked, old child. What about a toothful?"
To his surprise she jumped at the suggestion.
"Bon idea. It'll buck us up. We've got to settle everything to-night. To-morrow morning will be too hectic. And remember we shan't meet again after the funeral."
She felt better after a small brandy and began to read her letter. It was from Lady Wright, confirming her telephone conversation—a business-like touch which suggested her husband's influence.
Sir Horace was a gross man, who found "little Mrs. Charlie," as he called her, very attractive. He always invited the guests, for his wife had no initiative; she was a dull, kind woman, who always returned his suit at bridge, whatever the consequences.
"I'm to go back with them in their car directly after the funeral," announced Vera. "She says they won't hear of me returning immediately to an empty house. They want me to stay a week."
"And I shall buzz off to the Grapes until it's time for me to lift Charlie," supplemented Puggie. Then he glanced at Charlie and added, "Can we trust the blighter in the cottage, all on his lonesome?"
Vera at once began to lay down the law to her husband.
"Before you do anything else, you must shave. Directly we start, get busy. You must have daylight for that. You can see perfectly well through the transparency if you use the bathroom."
He was not listening to her, however, as he turned to Puggie.
"You must give up calling me 'Charlie.' I've chosen my name. In future I shall be 'Chester Beaverbrook'."
"You pinched that from a newspaper," Puggie told him.
"It'll do," decided Vera. "But I warn you, no more chop-and-change. Did you hear what I said about shaving first?"
She had forgotten her fears...And it was well for her peace of mind that she did not know that even then, big feet in regulation boots were making puddles in the slush, on their way to Jasmine Cottage.
Happily unconscious of this, Vera issued her orders.
"Allow yourself plenty of time for shaving. Getting off that beard won't be exactly like peeling a banana. Then change. After you're quite ready pack your suitcase. Remember, only socks and shirts and little things like that. You're not to take any of your suits."
"But I'd prefer to wear my old clothes in London," protested Charlie. "They do fit me. Those tweeds that Puggie bought me will make me look a bounder."
"A compliment to you, Beaverbrook," said Puggie with a cynical grin. "We've got to make you look a totally different person."
"Well, I consider it a senseless precaution."
"It's not," declared Vera. "Listen to mummy baby-boy. We don't know every one in this town by sight. Suppose some tailor's assistant has some distinctive way of sewing on a button—or something. He may come up to London and sit opposite to you at a Corner House. If he noticed your coat—and tailors always do—he'd say, 'Hallo, that's one of our suits.' The next thing is he'd be looking at you."
"Too far-fetched. And he wouldn't recognise me.
"Perhaps. But I'm not going to run one single risk."
"Besides," put in Puggie, "Vera will sell all your old clothes in the neighbourhood."
"Yes, the widow always does," nodded Vera.
"And something else," went on Puggie, whose brain was oiled by brandy. "In future you mustn't wear your watch, or your tie-pin, or your ox, or your ass, or anything that is yours."
"W—what d'you mean?"
"I mean, old pal, that your widow is going to give them to me as a personal relic of a dear old friend. Whenever I wear your watch, I shall remember you."
"I think you are doing quite well as it is," remarked Charlie quietly.
He resented the thousand pounds which was to be paid to Puggie as his share of the fraud. It seemed to him that ghouls were already at their foul work of churchyard desecration—digging up his grave and stripping his corpse.
"Instead of counting your chickens, you'd better practise calling me 'Chester'," he reminded them.
"I shall call you 'Sweetheart'," declared Vera. "That's wholesale, and I needn't get out of practice when we've parted."
Although she still started every time the front door bell rang, she was beginning to recover confidence. There had been a succession of alarms, and they had all proved false. While they had been careful to be intimate with no one in Starminster, so as to avoid the expense of entertainment, they had been unable to escape popularity. The aftermath of this was a shoal of sympathetic messages for Vera.
She went on to coach up Charlie in his postmortem duties.
"You must use the gas-stove if you want to make yourself a cup of tea. But I shall let the Ideal stove go out in the morning. Remember, the cottage is supposed to be empty If any nosey parker saw smoke coming from the chimney, he might try to get in, to see if there was a fire or something. Anyway, they could use it as an excuse to pry round."
"All right," agreed Charlie.
"And you mustn't light up. You might show a chink of light through somewhere."
"But am I to sit for hours in the dark and cold?"
Puggie took the part of the persecuted male even though he enjoyed his discomfiture.
"No, hang it all, Vera, it's quite safe. All the blinds will be down for the funeral."
"Well, perhaps he might knock over a kettle in the dark and make a row," said Vera. "But I must say it's a mystery to me why he's kicking. He doesn't seem able to realise that it is prison against picking up four thousand pounds."
"Darling, I do," protested Charlie. "What time am I to leave the Cottage?"
"Six-thirty, sharp," said Puggie. "It will be dark before then. But the later we leave it, the fewer people are likely to be about. Tradesmen and cars and so on...Keep your eyes peeled when you open the gate. If any one sees you, we're sunk."
"Oh, yes. Whereabouts will you pick me up?"
"I'll leave the Grapes a quarter of an hour after you. You won't have gone far by then. Listen out for the rattle of the old stink-pot. Only hope she'll last out till we make York...Hang. There's that bally bell again."
"Double ring," said Vera. "That's the parcel post. I'll go."
Confident that she would not meet a caller, she hurried down the dimly-lit passage and flung open the door.
Her shock was the greater when she saw—blocking the entry—the dark figure of a policeman.
"IS the lady of the house at home?" asked the policeman, looking down with some doubt at the flaxen-haired slip of a girl in the doorway.
"I am Mrs. Baxter," replied Vera tremulously.
Her breath came in a sob. The next instant she recovered herself, and with the spirit of self-preservation uppermost, was ready to spit and snarl. But luckily, however, she had made her effect on the policeman, who spoke with respectful sympathy.
"Sorry to intrude, mum, but I've been chatting with your girl—Miss Reed—and she tells me that this house will be empty for about a week. If you'll take my advice you'll cut the water off, in case of frost, and leave all the blinds up and the top windows open a crack. When a place looks all shut up it's the best way to advertise that the family's from home."
"Oh, thank you, Inspector," gasped Vera, in her relief giving him the most imposing title she could remember.
But thanks and compliments apparently did not meet the case.
"Of course I'll do my best to keep an eye on it for you," offered the policeman.
Half a crown changed hands, and Vera returned jubilantly to the kitchen to report the latest development.
"Now you'll have to wait in the dark," she told her husband ruthlessly. "Puggie, you'll have to stay behind, and directly the coffin's out of the house, draw all the blinds up. If we don't, we may have that policeman nosing round."
She was in excellent spirits, for she was beginning to feel really safe. From the length of time which had elapsed, she assured herself that Miss Baxter had no real intention of carrying out her threat.
"Get your pass-book, Charlie," she ordered. "We've got to settle the business end to-night."
Charlie looked rather guilty.
"It's at the Bank," he said. "But I always jot down my balance whenever I draw a cheque. I'll get my cheque-book."
Their examination of the last counterfoil was rather a blow, for it proved that their resources had shrunken lower than they anticipated.
"Never mind," said Vera. "We've got my squirrel-store. Charlie's the only one who will want spot-cash. What's the least you can manage on, little man?"
The financial discussion that followed was after the nature of a Dutch auction. Charlie was terrified of being stranded in London without money, and his demands were prohibitive. They pulled down his figure until they compromised on an allowance of four pounds a week.
Vera, with her usual talent for clearing the ground as she went along, prepared to pay him the money immediately. For the past year they had been drawing cheques over and above their requirements, so as not to arouse suspicion at the Bank by a last-minute withdrawal.
Both the men's eyes glittered as she produced a pile of clean notes and began to count them out.
"How long will he have to hold out?" she asked.
"Better take a squint at the Policy," advised Puggie.
Vera followed his advice with a slight stab of fear lest she should find some obstacle which they had overlooked. In spite of all her resolution, she could not shake her belief in the existence of that fatal snag. Her common sense kept reminding her that five thousand pounds were not to be picked up so casually as in Puggie's convincing arguments.
"Listen to this condition," she said. "'Before the claimant shall be entitled to any payment under or by virtue of this Assurance this Policy must be delivered up to the Company and proof satisfactory to the Company be produced by the claimant at the chief offices of the Company in London of the following matters: (a) The happening of the event upon which the Policy monies are alleged to have become payable; (b) the nature of the disease or other cause of death where the event alleged is the death of the assured; (c) the age of the assured, unless such age shall previously have been admitted by the Company; and (d) the title of the Claimant'."
Her face was pinched as she looked at the men. It was obvious that Charlie was day-dreaming and had no inkling of its drift, but Puggie nodded his head reassuringly.
"Seems all in order," he said. "All you've got to do is to get busy. As you're sole legatee and executor, you'll have to take out Probate. If any one here tries to advise you, tell them I'm on the job."
"How soon will the Company pay up?" asked Vera.
"Depends. You'll get a document called 'Probate of the Will,' which you'll have to send up to the Company. And you'll have to give proof of title. All this will take a little time. But if they don't smell a rat and hold up payment so that they can make investigations, well—it should not be too long."
"How long?" persisted Vera.
"Say—two months, if we prod Acorn. Tell him to hurry it through as you want to get the business settled before you go away."
"Acorn. Oh, I shall take care of him."
Charlie's lids fluttered at the scorn in her voice.
"It doesn't always pay to play quiet men too low," he said.
Without noticing his warning Vera gave him a bulky envelope.
"I've allowed for three months, so as to give you a margin," she explained. "There's fifty pounds here. Remember, the less you spend the longer you can hang out. If you manage to save anything, you can take me out to celebrate afterwards."
"But, Charlie, it's your own safety...I may be late getting to you."
His soft brown eyes flickered apprehensively from face to face. Although he could not be certain, he thought that a glance flashed between them.
"I've picked an address from the paper where you can stay," went on Vera briskly. "It's a boarding-house, Acre Lane, Brixton. A family would work out a little cheaper. But you may talk."
Charlie made no protest. In silence he took the printed slip and put it away carefully inside his note-case. Inwardly, however, he mutinied against being used as a pawn in the game. He had financed the scheme and borne the personal discomforts; yet, at this stage, there was little to distinguish him from the dummy that was going to deputise at his funeral.
"If you get in a jam," said Vera, "let Puggie know."
"Mightn't I prefer to write directly to my wife?"
"Don't be an utter fool. Suppose the letter went astray and got into the wrong hands. We dare risk nothing. Suppose we are suspected." Vera's fears flew wildly round her, like sea-gulls beating against a lighthouse beacon. "The Company may give orders to the Post Office to open our correspondence. Listen. Until we meet again, the wires are cut."
"But can't you write to me?"
"To my dead husband? What address? H. or C.?"
"You could write to Chester Beaverbrook."
"And put them on his trail? They may want to find out the name of the gentleman in the case. Haven't you any sense? If we slip up now, on a single thing, it's—prison."
At that moment, any moralist who saw their tense faces and hunted eyes could have drawn a valuable conclusion as to the penalty of dishonesty. Then Vera laughed, to raise their spirits, and sprang to her feet.
"I'll get supper now," she said.
"But how are you off for chink, Vera?" asked Puggie.
"Oh, I'll be all right. I've some of the hoard left. And I needn't bother to pay cash, now."
"Well, don't ask the Bank for an overdraft. They'll want security."
"We're all right with the Bank," put in Charlie. "I, personally, drew the manager's attention to the fact that my account was getting low and said I would transfer money from one of my other banks. Now I'm dead and Vera is going away, he will expect the account to be closed and not fed."
Puggie asked no more questions. They were so used to leaving Vera to face the music that they never questioned the strain on her nervous system. Charlie watched her appealingly as she danced round the kitchen, flourishing a frying-pan.
"You won't forget to feed my birds?" he asked.
"No," replied Vera impatiently.
As he smiled at her promise he looked the kind and courteous gentleman whom a schoolgirl had idealised to King Arthur's knight. Inside the kitchen walls was sealed his own declaration that he could not be cruel to a woman.
Yet he had just committed a deed of utmost mental cruelty. He had callously torn its sole precious memory from a life which held no promise.
When Vera had told Miss Baxter that Charlie had betrayed her secret, the elderly spinster felt as though she had been spattered with filth. She had led a life of fierce respectability and self-denial, as housekeeper to her father, who was a widower. A regular old Turk, he had refused to admit young men at his front door; but his daughters were resourceful, and all of them—with the exception of Emily—had reached marriage through back-door courtships.
Yet she, too, had her memory, when, one afternoon, the curate had surprised her washing-up and had insisted on wiping the tea-things. The episode thrilled her more than a kiss, for it hinted at a prelude to domestic partnership. When Charlie met them coming out, she had exchanged smiles with him, confident of his sympathy, since he, too, was forced to make love in corners.
The curate never repeated the experience, and she did not blame him. He was a tall man and had to stoop, since the china-pantry had been designed by a Victorian architect with the right ideas on female menial labour.
But she believed her secret to be a link between herself and Charlie...Now, he had not only betrayed her to the peroxide blonde but had cheapened a pure idyll with the taint of intrigue.
Charlie had hit her with his fists when he was a spoiled brat. He had ended by kicking her from his grave.
As she splashed through the grey slush, the first protective skin formed over her wound. She stopped at the nearest florist, to order a wreath to be sent to Jasmine Cottage, choosing a chaplet of bay-leaves, a cluster of mauve orchids, and a purple bow.
She wrote a message on her own card. "To dear Charlie, in affectionate memory, from his sister." The action restored her self-respect and helped to sustain her through the cold and misery of a night-journey, third-class, and a slow train.
As she sat bolt upright, biting her lips, Charlie spoke of her with utmost kindness while he ate sausages and mashed potatoes.
"I'm really touched to hear that Emily flew here. That meant a real sacrifice...There must be something in me after all."
Vera and Puggie both hooted with contempt.
"It's her nobility, not yours," said Vera.
"No." Charlie was quietly insistent. "You've seen the sort she is. She isn't a fool to be taken in, is she? Besides, look at all the flowers. Those cost money this time of year, and nobody's going to get another drink out of me. I must have given something to the world or people wouldn't be so sorry I was dead."
Glancing at Vera, Puggie noticed that she was staring at him with a puzzled frown, as though she was caught by his argument. To remove all doubts as to his true character, he began to show him up.
"You always were a dirty little cheat, Charlie. What about those wretched kids you swindled out of half-crowns?"
To his surprise, Vera glared at him. When Charlie had told them of the Competitions, she had not been amused; but, since it was a voluntary confession, it followed that it was not playing the game to bring it up against him afterwards.
Charlie, however, was not abashed.
"I've nothing to reproach myself with," he said, speaking with conviction. "As a matter of fact I was the only one who played fair."
"And how?" demanded Puggie.
"When I signed a declaration saying that it was my unaided work, I told the truth. But the children committed perjury, because they were helped by their parents."
"How d'you know that?"
"They must have been or they couldn't have done the Competitions. Some of those buried names were very tricky and nearly stumped me...And now I'll make some tea."
As Charlie went into the scullery to fill his kettle Puggie suddenly gripped Vera's wrist.
"Vera," he whispered, "never let him get on top of you."
"Why?" she asked, surprised at his genuine concern.
"Because the fellow's not to be trusted. We've started—something. And we may not be able to stop it."
He stopped speaking as Charlie came into the kitchen, a cloth tied round his waist to protect his trousers. Both burst into derisive laughter, and he good-naturedly joined in their amusement.
Yet for all that, Puggie had just caught a first glimpse of Chester Beaverbrook.
THE first time Charles Baxter died, he was not buried.
The day of his funeral was unusually dark; the temperature had risen slightly in the night, and the resultant fog veiled any suggestion of sunrise. The anonymous schoolgirl—who had prayed for his resurrection—had breakfast by artificial light, for she had to make an early start to catch a train.
Her holidays were over, so that she had a double cause for depression when she stood on the damp station platform and waited for the signal to drop. Starminster had looked grey as ashes when she drove through it. Roofs dripped moisture and the whole world wept.
Although she made her farewells with the requisite stoicism, a lump kept rising in her throat as the train steamed through desolate country where dark furrows of earth were ridging the snow. Whenever she thought of Charlie Baxter lying in his coffin, she swallowed so vehemently that her throat felt sore.
When she reached York there was the usual reunion of girls, who wore their school uniform of navy blue, with claret hat-band and tie. As she mingled with them, to her surprise, her spirits rose perceptibly, and by the time they invaded the impressive restaurant for a final feast, she was accompanied by no shadowy companion.
Charlie Baxter had withdrawn into the misted land of fantasy. She ate cream buns and discussed hockey prospects, while her bill mounted and her voice rose highest. For this special schoolgirl was not of the stuff of which Constant Nymphs are made.
As Vera had anticipated there was a last-minute rush of preparations at Jasmine Cottage. When it came to the point, she could not trust Charlie to pack his suitcase. There were constant knocks at the door, and both she and Puggie had to be on the alert, to shoo the deceased into hiding. He was keenly disappointed to be absent from his own funeral, and in his wish not to miss any of the excitement, he lost all sense of caution.
He slunk about the passage, ready to dart forward and read the card on each fresh wreath as it arrived. Presently, after an unusually narrow escape, Vera turned on him and gave him the roughest edge of her tongue.
To her surprise he snapped back, against all precedent.
"Fact is, I've been too decent to you, Vera," he told her. "Kindness and consideration is lost on you. You prefer a brute who would give you a hell. If I had my time over again—"
"You are going to have your time over again," Puggie reminded him.
Charlie looked dazed at the interruption.
"So I am," he said softly. "I hadn't realised that."
"Well, what will you do?" asked Vera derisively.
"I—I—" He broke off to finish lamely. "I'll be different."
Vera merely turned on a perilous Spanish heel and flounced into the kitchen, to cut sandwiches for his refreshment. She was careful to pick out the tenderest bits of cold beef, and to spread the butter thickly, for she wanted to tempt his appetite even while she cursed his idiocy.
"No sense of responsibility," she complained to Puggie, who stood watching her with rather a sad expression in his watery eyes.
"First call, miss," he said, glancing at his watch. "Curtain's going up."
"Help. We're for it now."
"Wonky, old girl?"
"Yes." She shivered. "If I could put back the clock—"
She broke off and forced a smile.
"Time to say 'Good-bye,' Puggie. I'll send the cheque. Can you make out all right?"
"Definitely. Don't worry, old child."
"I've still a dress-suit."
She flung her arms around him and kissed him.
"Catch my lord and master for me," she told him.
While Vera was quaking at the realisation that, for the first time in her life, she stood without the Law, Charlie had recovered his spirits. He had a mercurial temperament, which responded to every fluctuation of fortune; he was just as proud and optimistic when little Charlie Baxter—ten years old, or well within the age-limit—won five shillings for his correct cross-word, as when his outsider romped home.
He welcomed Vera and her grease-paints when she came to make him up for his last public appearance in Starminster. His confidence in her robbed him of fear of consequences. He would not have to share any of the suspense of the ceremony, but would be left behind in the cottage—fifty pounds in his pocket-book, and London ahead of him.
He talked and laughed, while Vera snarled at him to keep his head still. She was strung up to a pitch of nerves which was comparable with the first-night agony of a star actress.
Everything went wrong. Her fingers shook and fumbled her effects. She knew the curtain would go up before she was ready. Her cue would find her tongue-tied and dried-up. The gate creaked open and she heard footsteps and voices in the garden, just as she was settling Charlie inside the shell.
On his way up the narrow staircase, the undertaker heard the widow coughing, and decided that her cold was worse. When he entered the dimly-lit room, she was leaning over the shell and holding back a fold of cotton-wool, while she kissed her husband's waxen brow.
The next moment, she covered up his face again and turned appealingly to the men.
"Have you come already? Oh, please, give me just five minutes more, alone, with him." She turned to Puggie. "You promised me."
Puggie caught the undertaker's arm and literally tugged him out of the room, including the men in his drive.
"It's his love-letters," he explained. "She wants to put them in the coffin. Definitely touching, what? Come into the dining-room, all of you, and have a spot to keep out the cold."
The prospect of the bleak atmosphere of the cemetery made the invitation welcome, and they all clumped down the stairs again.
As their steps were growing fainter, Vera was pulling Charlie out of the shell, in fierce excitement.
"Be careful," she urged. "You fool, you'll have it over."
She caught the shell as it tilted perilously, and then dropped to her knees, to help pull the dummy from under the bed. It was apparently heavier, and it sagged in the middle, as though it was on the point of bursting, like a cracker. They made several attempts to raise it before they succeeded in hoisting it inside the shell, where it bulged crookedly—its raspberry-pink cardboard face grinning lewdly up at them, as though in mockery.
But once it was straightened and covered up with the layers of cotton-wool, it acquired miraculous dignity, and came into line with the desired effect. The moulding of the mask—brow, nose, and chin—appeared as rigid mounds, while violets and snowdrops were strewn over a calico heart with no betraying flutter.
When the drinking-party came upstairs again Puggie spoke confidently to the undertaker.
"Tell your men to hustle with the job. She's got a shocking cold and she can't stand for much more. I'll have her breaking down at the grave."
"Couldn't you persuade her to stay at home?" asked the undertaker.
"What a hope," grimaced Puggie.
Vera greeted them with a fresh burst of sobbing, which she sustained with a strong effort of will, as she anxiously watched the shell being placed inside the coffin. She had a respite while the lid was being screwed down, although she coughed intermittently in her fear that Charlie would explode.
Fortunately, his nerves were under his control. He was reassured by Vera's hacking solo; in addition, he was too conscious of the indignity of his position to feel any irritation in his throat.
Vera, however, suffered agonies of suspense while the coffin was lifted and borne down the narrow stairs. She drove her nails into her palms as she stood and pictured every patch and slant of the awkward descent. Now that it was too late, she bitterly regretted her scamped stitches. She had nightmare visions of the weights being dislodged and rolling downwards, or banging against the lid.
After an eternity, Puggie appeared in the doorway. He grinned and turned up his thumbs.
"O.K. They're waiting for you."
In a flash, Vera powdered her nose and tilted her Cossack cap, to reveal honey-gold waves of hair. Without a word to Charlie—still prostrate under the bed, like a lover in a French farce—she went out of the room with Puggie.
When they reached the passage she slipped an envelope into his hand. It contained the balance of her hoard—four five-pound notes. He felt the crackle of the notes and his eyes grew moist.
"Can you spare it?" he asked.
"Bless you, old child."
He escorted her to the car and hurried back to the cottage, where he dashed from room to room, pulling curtains aside and snapping up blinds. When he reached Charlie's lair, he had no time to linger. With a hasty "Come out," he thundered down the stairs and galloped out of the house, slamming to the spring-lock of the door.
Jasmine Cottage was officially empty for a week.
Charlie's funeral service was held at St. John's Church. It was a new building, well-warmed, and dark with stained glass. Most of the pews were occupied, as more evidence of his popularity.
Vera made an appealing picture when she entered, leaning on Puggie's arm. She wore a long coat which looked like black Persian lamb, and a cap of the same material. Women's eyes followed her with sympathy before they—in their turn—gazed sadly at the coffin, which was unexpectedly long for a little man. It bore two wreaths—one from the widow and the other from Miss Baxter.
In addition to the service, the Vicar spoke a few words about the character of the deceased, during which he quoted from Browning, beginning:
"But all the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb..."
and ending with:
"All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped."
"He's over-assessed," whispered Puggie to Vera, whose lips were quivering as she listened.
The submerged actor in the clergyman burst loose when he recited the lines. He had chosen the quotation because he considered Charlie to be a charming fellow, of modest and unobtrusive merit, which was bound to be overlooked. Although the unusually large attendance at the church rather robbed his choice of its aptness, he would not omit it, because he was a lover of poetry.
The strains of Chopin's Dead March wailed from the organ, and the dummy rolled on again on its way to the cemetery.
Only a few men attended the ceremony at the grave. Puggie's spirits rose as each minute brought them nearer to the consummation of a successful fraud; but the last stages gave no relief to Vera.
As she listened to the solemn words, she was horrified by a sense of her own sacrilege. While Puggie grinned cynically at the idea of the dummy being consigned to the earth, "in sure and certain hope of glorious resurrection," she had a terrible vision of a grinning paste-board face shooting up, at the Last Trump, to testify against her.
In order to shake off her obsession, she tightened her lips and began to think resolutely of the Insurance. Staring stonily before her, she was unconscious that one person had surprised her expression, that moment when she had been off guard.
He was disgusted by this glimpse of a ruthless character, as revealed by hard blue eyes, which held no tinge of sorrow for a dead husband. Since his own marriage was ideal, his standard for a successful life-partnership was high. When love, or companionship was lacking, he believed that a man was reduced to a meal-ticket, and was better and more economically served by a working-housekeeper.
He had always vaguely put Vera in the parasite class, partly because he was unfairly biased by Anita Loos' attitude to blondes, and partly because he had a warm liking for Charlie, based on kindred humanitarian views.
Vera was unaware that she had aroused his hostility until the coffin was lowered into the grave. Rising to the occasion, she stifled a sob and turned away—her lace handkerchief pressed to her lips.
As she did so, she met the penetrative gaze of the one man whom she had most reason to dread.
It was William Acorn—the Insurance agent.
MISS BELSON had been picked out from the number of anonymous women who mourned Charlie Baxter, because she was first to suspect any irregular conduct at Jasmine Cottage. Although she far overshot the mark with her guess of murder, when she awoke next morning, she was conscious of two emotions—deep distrust of Vera, and an intense pity for Charlie.
As she thought of him continually through the short winter day, her memory proved a treacherous medium. She forgot that he was merely a sympathetic partner, around whom she had woven her last dream. In his place she put a stranger, of sweet and gentle nature—stunted by a sense of his own frustration, and vaguely groping for the happiness he had missed.
She grew positive that his marriage was yet another secret domestic tragedy. Vera was a spiritual man-eater; she had not only robbed him of any title to individuality, but he was kept in the background, until no one expected anything of him but failure.
Presently she worked herself up to a pitch of unreal sentimental misery, which was increased by a feverish cold. Although it was creeping towards its peak, she insisted on attending the funeral service at St. John's Church. When her sister, Lady Fry, questioned the wisdom of her going, she blew her nose.
"I'll take a taxi. And the church will be warm. I—I would like to show our personal sympathy."
Her sister creased up her soft puckered face, but finally nodded assent.
"As long as you run no risk," she said.
"I promise to wear my fur coat—and spats."
The sisters did everything in comfort. They were typical of a class and generation which excites the rage of the younger playwrights, but which makes England such a pleasant residential country. They had all the faults and virtues of their qualities; blind beggars themselves at Judgment, they gave to every blind beggar in the street.
Miss Belson reached the church on wheels. She was warmly wrapped up, and pungently scented, to safeguard the congregation from infection. But she had no protection against the invasion of her own imagination.
The sad music, the beauty and solemnity of the service, and the general atmosphere of mourning, all conspired to a sense of unreality. Her world of First Thursdays and afternoon-tea had passed away, and nothing remained but a shell, filled with shadows and echoes.
The life had gone from it—for Charlie—her love—was dead. She nearly broke down when the dummy was carried up the aisle, at the sight of the flower-decked coffin. After the service was over and she mingled with the rest of the congregation, for the first time in her life she was grateful for a cold, since it explained red-dimmed eyes and a husky voice.
When she reached home, afternoon-tea was served immediately. In her arm-chair by the fire, Lady Fry waited for a description of the ceremony, which she could appreciate in comfort.
The sisters lived in one of those pleasant houses with sunny morning-rooms, where well-trained housemaids bring in silver breakfast-dishes and are lavish with coals. To-day, the French windows showed no picture of thrushes picking away at the grass, but a sloppy, snow-covered lawn; so the housemaid wisely drew the curtains, switched on the lights, and put the day prematurely to bed.
But neither hot tea nor crumpets could raise Miss Belson's spirits, as she conscientiously fed her sister with details of Charlie Baxter's funeral service.
"The Vicar spoke so nicely of him. He quoted from 'Rabbi Ben Ezra'."
"Did he?" Lady Fry pursed her lips. "Browning, isn't it?"
"Yes. Shall I find the bit for you?"
"Thank you. You'll find him by Tennyson."
While Miss Belson was flicking over the pages, she dipped into another poem. "Too Late" had caught her eye by its title, and a couple of lines gripped her attention.
"The woman is dead that is none of his;
And the man that was none of hers may go."
It was so painfully apposite to her own case that she felt unable to trust her voice.
"You'd better have the book," she said to her sister. "I'd only murder it with my croak."
Lady Fry, who firmly believed that all poetry had to be read aloud, wheezed pluckily through the quotation.
"Beautiful," she declared. "I can hear the Vicar. Poor Mr. Baxter...Isn't it sad how soon one forgets faces. I've been trying to remember his, all the afternoon. What was he like?"
Miss Belson began to catalogue his features, only to realise, to her dismay, that Charlie's face was not quite clear to her.
"It's no good," declared Lady Fry, shaking her head. "I never had a memory for faces. It's our family failing. I must ask Mrs. Baxter if she has a photograph of him that she can spare."
Miss Belson mumbled an agreement. Her temperature was still rising, while an adapted line from "Too Late" kept ringing through her head like the tolling of a funeral-bell.
"The man is dead that was none of hers."
Suddenly she felt she could endure the warmth and comfort of the room no longer. It was a padded trap where she had no space to turn and lick her wounds. She had an elemental craving for darkness. In the bitter twilight outside, she could walk off her fever.
Lady Fry gave her an opportunity by complaining that she had finished her novel.
"I'll get you another from the Library," offered Miss Belson.
"Thank you. But I'll only let you go on condition that you take a taxi."
Miss Belson did not keep her promise. Directly she was through the front door, she forgot the book. Instead of going in the direction of the town, where the pavements had been cleared of snow, she tramped over icy, semi-liquid slush, towards the country.
She could not visit the cemetery; but she felt an overpowering wish to gaze at the empty house where Charlie had so lately lived. When she reached it, there was still enough light lingering in the sky for her to see that the windows were dead, while no smoke curled up from its chimneys.
As she stood, as though rooted to the road, and stared at it, she told herself that some vital part of Charlie might yet be lingering within those walls. If she were inside, she might make a farewell contact with his spirit.
Even as the thought flashed through her head, she felt herself drawn forward by the force of her hysteria. Through the gate, up the flagged path, on to the doorstep. Her fingers pressed the glass panels of the little green-painted door.
An electric thrill shot through her when it yielded to her touch. For a moment she wondered whether she, too, were invisible, and passing through a locked barrier, like smoke.
Then she came down to earth and realised that she was on the point of making an unpardonable intrusion on the widow's privacy. She had understood from a remark she had overheard in the church porch, that Vera Baxter was going away; but it was evident that some one was misinformed.
"I'll ask her for a photograph now, before she goes away," she decided. "I'll say it's for my sister. She was so composed in the church that I'm sure she will understand. Besides, I ought to see if anything's wrong."
Even while she framed excuses Miss Belson knew that she was feeding herself with lies. Someone was inside—but it was not Vera...Some power, too, was drawing her within, whispering in her ear, telling her not to break the silence by ringing the bell.
Holding her breath, she pushed open the door wider and slipped into the darkness of the passage. To her right was a gleam of comparative brightness, which marked the drawing-room window. Fearfully expectant, she entered, creeping on her toes over the worn Brussels carpet.
In the snow-reflected light, the place looked neglected and dreary. Its atmosphere was sour and cold. White chrysanthemums, with browning petals, and slimed stalks, stood in a clouded glass vase. The ashes of a dead fire choked the grate.
Yet, in spite of its desolation, Miss Belson had a feeling that the room had recently been tenanted. It's air vibrated slightly, as though disturbed but a few moments ago. On the table was an ash-tray which held a half-smoked cigarette.
When she picked it up, she imagined that the stump was still warm. Then her common sense assured her that the glow was only her fancy, and she gazed at it with tear-filmed eyes. She wondered if it was the last cigarette he had smoked. Since she had never seen his odious friend—Puggie Williams—without a pipe locked between his teeth, she was on the point of taking it, as a souvenir, until she remembered that Vera had probably left it there.
There was no photograph of Charlie in the room, and yet she felt his presence. Upstairs, where he had died, the influence would be stronger. She might get in touch with him—join hands with him across the gulf of the grave.
She remembered that there was a snap of him stuck in the looking-glass in one of the bedrooms. On the sole occasion when she had been at a bridge-party at Jasmine Cottage, she had noticed it as she was removing her wraps. It was of no value and would never be missed; but it would be her most precious souvenir. As long as it was hers, his features would never fade in her memory.
Suddenly she decided to get it. It was a daring resolution, for, while she remained near the front door, her presence admitted some explanation. But if she went up the stairs, she was definitely a trespasser.
She stood in the hall for several minutes, listening intently for some sound or movement. As the silence was unbroken, she plucked up her courage and began to creep up the narrow stairs. Half-way up, a hyacinth-bell lay on one of the trends, and when she reached the landing, more bruised petals, scattered on the carpet of the nearest bedroom, marked the death-chamber.
She tiptoed inside, her heart knocking in irregular beats. The first thing which caught her eye was the denuded bed, covered only with a linen sheet.
At the sight of it, she nearly broke down. Blinded with tears, she looked for the snapshot, which was no longer stuck in the frame of the mirror. She could not find it, however, although she opened the drawers of the toilet-table, as she gradually grew bolder.
She dared not linger. At any moment some one might come and surprise her in her search. Hurry—hurry. Her cheeks scorched and her hands trembled, as her temperature flared up into fever.
Here, too, as in the drawing-room, was that odd sensation of suspended habitation. A massive mahogany press, hung with clothing, swung open, in proof that some one had recently selected or put away some garment. The empty house was still occupied.
"I feel he is near," she whispered.
Suddenly she heard faint sounds from somewhere in the well of the house; a scrape was followed by a dull thud, as though some one had cautiously opened the front door and shut it again.
In a panic, she pressed her hand to her heart, to still its gallop.
"Imagination," she told herself.
She knew that all noises were magnified in an empty house. A mouse had scampered across the hall. That was all. But it was time for her to get away, while the road to escape was still open.
She was crossing to the door, when she distinctly recognised muffled footsteps down in the passage below. They grew nearer as they began to mount the stairs.
Her eyes flickered around her, seeking somewhere to hide; but her muscles seemed locked, so that she could not stir. The blood drained away from her head and she stood and stared at the open doorway—not knowing what she feared.
A dead man in his shroud, with blank eye-sockets—or Vera in the ultra-sophistication of the living, challenging her intrusion.
Before she was aware of its coming, the terror rushed upon her. Out of the shadows in the landing, rose a white face, with gleaming eyes and a dark pointed beard.
As she stared at it, she pressed her fingers to her lips to keep back her screams. In a dim corner of her brain, she realised that things happened and ended, before she knew they had begun.
There was a rush of darkness which pressed her backwards and downwards into complete oblivion. But, before the final black-out, her blunted mind jolted back to the first shock of recognition.
She had seen Charles Baxter.
IN a panic, Charlie Baxter turned the key of the press and dashed through the bedroom door. Not until he was outside did he feel safe in any degree. As he stood on the landing, listening, he drew his hands across his glistening brow. His knees were shaking and his heart thumping from shock.
He had been strolling about the empty house, feeling secure in his privacy, when, suddenly, he realised that his stronghold had been invaded. An intruder had crept in, unawares, and penetrated to the very core of his retreat—his own bedroom.
In that moment, he saw their fine venture fired and shooting up like a rocket, in a tearing scream across the night-sky. Nothing would remain but exposure and ruin. Although he was too flurried to recognise the woman, her face was vaguely familiar, and it was clear that she had no doubt of his identity.
To make the catastrophe worse, he was conscious that he was doubly to blame. In the first place, he had opened the front door, against orders; but even that lapse might not have proved fatal, if he had followed Vera's instructions to remove his beard immediately. Had the lady, now in the wardrobe, glimpsed an unfamiliar clean-shaven face, there might be some hope of evading the consequences.
But he had been betrayed by his own sense of dignity. He paid the rent and was master of the house; yet he had been forced to the ignominy of hiding under a bed. Puggie Williams, in his gallop round the premises, had spoken to him as though he were a dog.
It was enough to make any man of spirit stay where he was, until the unbroken silence assured him there would be no one to ridicule him when he crawled out, on his stomach.
Once he had straightened himself, he felt a novel sense of liberty and peace. There was no Vera to prod him about like a dummy—no Puggie to grin and swill his whisky. There was not even a maid clattering about in the kitchen. Although he knew he had to shave, ultimately, he put off the evil day.
Henceforth, he would obey no more orders. In this case, the decision involved the trouble of hanging up a rug before the bathroom window, so that he was not dependent on the daylight, but could switch on the current in safety. Afterwards, he strolled over the house, keeping well away from the windows. It was a treat to see the drawing-room again, and he lingered there to smoke a cigarette. When he was tired, he went into the kitchen and spent a couple of hours of blissful sloth before the warmth of the open gas-stove.
He was on his way upstairs to prepare for the final stages of departure, when he saw, through the window, a robin hopping about under a bush. In this corner of the garden, the snow had melted, so that there was a sheltered circle of bare earth.
His eyes grew soft as he watched it. He told himself that it was probably one of the pensioners and that it would miss the daily dole. The least he could do, in the cause of humanity, was to place the remains of the loaf under the bush, as a larder for the birds.
The difficulty was how to reach the spot unseen, for the back door faced that of the neighbouring house and was exposed to prying eyes. If, however, he could slip out of the front door and creep round by the side passage, he would be sheltered by the wall. There was only the hundredth chance of being seen, for Jasmine Cottage was the last house in the town—or the first, as the case might be. In addition, it was growing dark, and in the state of the roads no one was likely to take a country stroll.
He carried through his mission in safety. No one saw him come or go. Just as he vanished round the corner of the house, Miss Belson reached the cottage and stared up at its windows. She entered and was dreaming in the sitting-room, while he returned and silently darted down the passage back to the kitchen.
Their movements dovetailed with the precision of a carefully rehearsed French farce. In her turn, the lady mounted the stairs up to the bedroom.
And now—Charlie Baxter was waiting outside, listening for the inevitable scream and wondering how he should meet the situation.
As the silence remained unbroken, his confidence began to sprout again. Once again, things had been so easy. The woman had stood with her back to the press, when he made his instinctive rush forward. Instead of putting up any fight, she had crumpled back before his push, like a puff-ball.
He waited a little longer, and then he went into the bathroom, carefully shutting the door before he switched on the light.
"Thank heavens," he thought, "I didn't have to hurt her. I couldn't be cruel to a woman."
With a feeling of gratitude, he reminded himself that he had used practically no force, while the wardrobe was roomy and well-lined with hanging garments. She must have fallen soft. There would be neither bruise nor scratch. Undoubtedly she had a fright, but that in itself was merciful, since it would act as an antidote to any discomfort.
Gripping the scissors resolutely, he began to clip away his beard. As he did so, the smudged reflection of a younger face became visible, as though mirrored in wavering water. His eyes lit up at the sight, and again he smiled.
"I'm glad I fed the birds," he thought.
When he was a child, an old nurse had told him that kind people always prospered. He remembered her remark, and felt that this little action was a lucky prelude to the adventure.
Covering his face with a lather, he began to scrape away his stubble. It proved not only a difficult job but a painful one, especially around the lips, where the skin had been pulled by the weight of his moustache and was particularly tender.
He was so engrossed that he scarcely noticed a muffled knocking not far away. When, at last, he realised its source, he had become accustomed to it.
"She's all right," he muttered impatiently.
Little by little, his youth was returning to him. He tingled with excitement as he wiped away the soap and looked at his face in the glass. He had almost forgotten the curves of his lips and the cleft in his chin.
Yet, in spite of his own approval, he knew that it was the old Charlie Baxter who always slunk past the nice girls at home. Putting on his glasses, he received his first glimpse of Chester Beaverbrook.
As he stared at himself in the glass, his self-satisfaction grew, for he felt vaguely the stimulus of borrowed brain. He told himself that he looked positively brainy—a chap who could pass examinations as easily as picking up sixpence.
With fresh confidence he thought of the future. A new adventure stretched before him. He had fifty pounds to burn. A succession of dreams shifted through his mind; but, when the other women began to slip in, he turned them out resolutely.
He was married to Vera; at least, he recognised the validity of the bond—whatever his legal position might be.
"I'll never let a woman down," he resolved. "No, not even my wife."
By now he had grown deaf to the intermittent knocking from the big bedroom. The sounds were muted by the locked doors. So long as the woman did not scream, he had nothing to fear. But if he were compelled to gag her, there might be a struggle; and he shrank in every fibre from the mere suggestion of rough treatment.
Women were meant for tenderness. Besides, he had a vague recollection of her face when she stared at him. It was white and creased, like soft scented paper. He was sure that her body would be boneless, to correspond.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, the knocking ceased. Miss Belson was growing exhausted, while her fingers were sore and bruised.
She had recovered consciousness to find herself doubled up, at the bottom of the wardrobe—gasping for air and half-stifled by hanging garments. In the first shock of realising that she was imprisoned, she had gone mad. She tore at the door with her nails, battered it with her fists, and even butted it with her forehead.
After the fit had spent itself, she tried to remember what had happened. Presently she had a clouded memory of some terrible shock which had overwhelmed her with supernatural awe.
She believed she had seen Charlie Baxter...But he was dead—while, in life, he was gentle and courteous—the last person to play this hideous trick upon her. Besides, it was now unimportant how she got inside the press. What really mattered was how to get out again.
It was terribly clear that her own efforts were wasted. She licked her dry lips and tried to predict the future. She would not be missed, probably, until dinner-time. The parlourmaid put out her mistresses' dinner gowns on the bed before she laid the table, but her duties ended there.
It would be assumed that she had returned from the Library and was resting in her room. Later, when her absence was discovered, there would be guarded inquiries of their friends over the telephone. As her sister's fright increased, she would send a frantic S.O.S. to the police. They would think she had been knocked down by a car, and the streets and byways would be searched from end to end.
But the one place they would never dream of looking for her was inside a locked wardrobe in Jasmine Cottage.
At the thought, Miss Belson began to beat again on the door. She kicked until her toes were stubbed. It was useless to try to scream for the cold had affected her vocal chords, so that she could only croak.
This time, Charlie did not hear her, for he had gone into the dressing-room to change. For one ghastly moment he was afraid that he would have to open the wardrobe, and he decided—whatever the risk—to retain his old suit. Then he remembered that Vera had packed his suitcase in readiness, and laid out his new outfit.
He did not dislike the sporting clothes so much, now that he had got rid of his beard. He felt they lent him swagger and poise. With a confident smile he buttoned his full-belted coat and then glanced at his watch.
Time to start. He had eaten Vera's sandwiches, and nothing remained to be done. All the same, at the back of his mind was some teasing reminder. He knew that he could not walk out of Jasmine Cottage and lock it up behind him without first taking some precautionary steps.
But whatever safeguard he had subconsciously planned—for the moment, it had slipped from his memory. He told himself that he had switched off the bathroom light—turned out the gas in the oven, and the water at the main. There was no pets to be considered. The Ideal stove was out.
Shrugging his shoulders, he crept carefully down the dark passage and cautiously opened the front door. Upstairs, Miss Belson heard the closing squeak and the scrape of the garden gate.
The blood rushed up to her head, as the dull gossip of the churchyard suddenly developed acute interest. Some one had said that Mrs. Baxter was going to stay with Sir Horace and Lady Wright, for a week. She had also heard that Mr. Williams had already gone away. The maid, too, was on holiday.
Jasmine Cottage would be empty for seven days.
At the thought she went mad again, vainly trying to scream and break down the door. She was trapped in a modern version of the Legend of the Mistletoe Bough—doomed to the same fate as the bride who had hidden in the oak chest. On her return Mrs. Baxter would open the wardrobe casually and get the fright of her life.
Miss Belson began to feel the first symptoms of suffocation. She seemed to be eating the air in sour mouthfuls. Her forehead and hands were slimed with moisture—her heart was leaping feebly—her head was being constricted within iron bands. She heard a curious husky croup and an intermittent beating like the tapping of a woodpecker, but she did not know that she was their source.
Suddenly there was a different noise—the unmistakable scrape of the garden gate. It was followed by the stealthy opening and closing of the front door. Some one was entering Jasmine Cottage.
Miss Belson felt the thrill of new hope. They had missed her at home and traced her here. The house would be searched, room by room. She must wait until the rescue-party grew nearer, and reserve her strength for a last furious assault on the wardrobe panels.
Even as the thought entered her brain, her head fell forward on her breast and she fainted.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, Charlie took down the household tablet and began to scribble a message to Vera.
"Thank goodness I remembered in time," he murmured.
He had splashed for several yards down the York Road and passed the last lamp-post, when he stopped short, at a sudden recollection.
At the risk of throwing their time-table out of gear, he turned back immediately. Years ago, when he was a small boy, his eldest sister, Emily, had read him a lecture on lack of thought, which, she declared, was the cause of most cruelty. Now it bore fruit—making him determined that the innocent should not suffer through his neglect.
He laid down the scrawl on the table.
"Don't forget to feed the birds."
A little later Miss Belson struggled out of her faint and strained to listen for the sound of footsteps and voices.
But the cottage was silent. There was no light, no hope, no star in the blackness of the abyss.
What she suffered afterwards was never known.
THE glow of his kindly action remained with Charlie Baxter as he plunged into the darkness of the York Road. It was not until the slush penetrated his boots that he began to lose his exaltation and to wonder what had become of Puggie Williams' car.
Striking a match to look at his watch, he saw that it was past seven. According to schedule, Puggie was to leave the Grapes at six forty-five. As Charlie was on foot, and had made one false start, he counted on being picked up almost immediately.
So far, there was practically no traffic on the York Road. A motor-lorry and a fast saloon-car had both, in turn, splashed him, as a delicate compliment to the endurance of a pedestrian. Otherwise, there was no sign of life, and no sound, save the dripping of the hedges.
Standing still to wait for the car made his feet so numb that he was forced to plod on again. There was no indication of the footpath, so that sometimes he stepped off it into the deeper slush which had collected in the camber of the road. As he slipped and sweated, he discovered that he was in bad condition, which was not surprising, considering his recent experiences.
He told himself bleakly that—once again—he had to bear the whole brunt of the venture. Puggie had cast himself for the cushy parts. He was warm, well-fed, and travelling dry-shod, while Charlie was not only tired and hungry, but was growing acutely worried.
When he reached the first milestone, he paused to look round, but he could see no headlights shining through the darkness. Puggie was now considerably overdue. When he speculated on the causes of the delay, he had a choice of contingencies which did not tend to reassure him.
At the best, the old crock might have developed engine-trouble. But it was more likely that Puggie was drunk. Either he had not started at all, or he might have crashed on his way to keep his appointment.
There was another possibility which made his upper-lip break out into a sweat. Puggie and Vera might have conspired to give him the slip. When they whispered together in corners, they might have been planning to send him trudging along the York Road, on a fool's errand.
He was entirely at their mercy—unable to retreat or advance. If he went back to Starminster Station, he ran the risk of being recognised. On the other hand, it was impossible to reach York on foot; and he dared not flag a passing car, lest the motorist should be a local man.
Charlie Baxter was dead. He had been buried that same afternoon. And he had to remain in the ground—or chance the consequence of prison.
Even as Charlie cursed the treachery of his accomplices, he heard a familiar rattle in the distance. Presently there was a glow of headlights, and then the battered grey Buick gave him a welcome baptism of slush.
"Hop in," shouted Puggie.
Charlie climbed in stiffly, too relieved to protest.
"Thought you were never going to show up," he said, as he sank back in his seat and gratefully watched the roughish grey-white slide of road before them, which they never seemed to reach.
"Bit late?" asked Puggie. "I wanted to let you get well away. Thought some one might see me fish you up if I stopped just outside the town. But, on my Sam, you look so definitely doggy that I had a job to recognise you myself."
Charlie thawed at the note of admiration in Puggie's voice.
"Did my funeral go off all right?" he asked.
"Top-hole. We managed to do without you quite well."
"Many people there?"
"Full house. The parson quoted poetry about you."
"Forgotten. Something about your being thumbed about. But the general drift was complimentary...What are you shivering for?"
"I'm cold," quavered Charlie. "I walked on, and on, wondering if you meant to turn up."
"What? You thought me that sort of dirty dog? Well—I'm—Is that how you'd treat a pal yourself?"
Puggie's indignation seemed so genuine that Charlie felt ashamed.
"I was a bit late," went on Puggie, "because it took a dickens of a time saying 'Good-bye' at the Grapes. You've got to hand it to me, I've kept up your local pubs. They didn't like to see me go. It was like seeing money walking out of the till. And they all wanted to stand me one, because they knew just how badly I was feeling about poor little Charlie Baxter...My pal. I liked that little chap. Only hope I'll like Mr. Chester Beaverbrook, Esquire, one-half as well."
"You may not have a chance to like him," said Charlie. "We part at York, don't we?"
"Cheer up, you'll be seeing me all right. I promised Vera I wouldn't go out of her young life."
Charlie set his lips, and smiled slightly as he stared at the elusive strip of illuminated road.
"When shall we reach York?" he asked.
"Too late now for you to make your connection. Fact is, Charlie, I thought Vera was handing you a raw deal when she arranged for you to go up to London on the night train. This way, you can stop the night in York and travel up in comfort, to-morrow morning."
Puggie's benevolent-uncle voice infuriated Charlie.
"That has been my intention all along," he said quietly.
Puggie turned round to stare at the clean-shaven face, which had grown unfamiliar.
"It must be the glasses," he muttered.
He had the uneasy feeling that he was driving a complete stranger. Charlie's persistent silence was so uncharacteristic that presently he grew anxious to hear his voice again.
"How did things go off your end?" he asked.
"Perfectly all right, thanks."
Charlie naturally repressed the incident of the woman who had crashed Jasmine Cottage. As a matter of fact, she grew more unreal with each receding milestone. Starminster was fast slipping away behind him. He would never see it again, or any of its residents.
His mind could only deal with one fact at a time.
At the moment, he was determined to assert himself in the matter of Vera's relations with Puggie.
"I'll send you the Herald with the account of your funeral," offered Puggie to break a pause.
"Don't trouble, thanks. I can buy a copy for myself."
"Don't be a blooming fool. You don't want to do a blessed thing which connects you with Starminster. You've never heard of the blasted place. See?"
"I don't want to remember it." Charlie's voice vibrated with passion. "Two long years of masquerade. Making myself cheap to inferior minds. People who read the Mail instead of the Post. Looking like a French artist with that comic beard. But what sticks in my throat is the ghastly humiliation of the end."
Puggie was taken aback by the outburst.
"I don't know what you're kicking about," he said.
"No? Well, you'll hear now. I've been saving up this for a long time, only—only I didn't want a scene before Vera...I don't like you, Williams. I don't like the way you carry on with my wife. In future, we're through. Understand?"
With a loud laugh, Puggie braked with dangerous suddenness.
"Through, are we? All right, hop out and walk to York. Little man, you're going to have a busy night."
To his relief, Charlie echoed his laugh.
"I was only kidding," he explained.
"Course you were, old chap. I knew that all along. We'll hit the high spots up in London together. Hey?"
"Rather. Do you mind if I take a nap? I've been too uncomfortable to sleep properly, of late."
It was the old good-natured Charlie who spoke—ready to forgive insults and humble in his appreciation of benefits. He sank his chin inside the collar of his coat and closed his eyes, lulled by the throb of the engine. Whenever he opened his lids the same patch of pitted snow lay in front of them, its edges flowing over invisible rollers. Presently he dropped into a deep sleep, untroubled by any memory of something he had overlooked in Jasmine Cottage.
He woke up when the car was passing through the mean outskirts of a large town. He saw chimneys, shop-windows, and the glittering front of a cinema, where a gigantic poster of Mae West invited and rejected him, in the same baffling smile.
"Better drop off, now, Charlie," said Puggie. "You'll find plenty of cheap hotels near the station. Better make an early start."
He did not notice that his passenger made no comment on his advice. When he stopped the car, he gripped Charlie's shoulder with emotional friendship.
"Well, we've put it over, old man. We've a right to feel proud of ourselves, eh? I'll be seeing you. Here's my address. I'll be in touch with Vera, and can write her if you get in a jam."
Charlie got out of the car and placed his suitcase upon the pavement, to leave his hands free. Standing underneath a lamp-post, he tore the card in fragments. Although he did not turn his head, he hoped his action had been seen and understood.
It was not until the Buick had disappeared, that he realised that he had destroyed one link which bound him with safety.
CHARLIE enjoyed his first night of liberty in a first-class railway hotel. For two years he had been unused to luxury. After the chill and inconvenience of Jasmine Cottage, he was keenly appreciative of the thick carpets, deep chairs, central-heating, and concealed lighting of the lounge.
He experienced a slight quiver of apprehension when he signed his new name—"Chester Beaverbrook"—in the register. The signature was so unfamiliar to him that he felt the clerk at the bureau must detect the imposture. But it was accepted as a matter of course.
No one took the least notice of him. He was merely one of a crowd of floating patrons. Looking around, he realised that he was not in the slightest degree distinctive. There were many other clean-shaven young men wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and the same standardised clothes.
The knowledge gave him a sense of security. He entered the marble magnificence of the restaurant, prepared to enjoy the excellent food in obscurity. By the time he had finished his meal, Starminster—and everybody in it—had faded like a dream.
Because he could not actually see it, he believed no longer in the place. It was merely a meaningless name on the map of England. To him, Time was a sort of train, packed with episodes, which ran for ever, on and on, into the Past. Directly an event was over, it was borne away—finished—forgotten.
He had no memories or regrets. But as he sat afterwards in the lounge, smoking a cigar and watching the traffic through the revolving-door, he let his mind flutter for a moment over a far-away town with sloppy streets. After all, a few hours ago, he had been the central figure—by deputy—of an impressive ceremony.
"I bet they are talking of me at the Grapes, this minute," he told himself.
In ordinary circumstances, it was a safe bet; but he would have lost his money. He was no longer of news-value, because the town was convulsed by the strange disappearance of Miss Belson.
She was missed sooner than she anticipated, since Lady Fry wanted her novel from the Library, and sent a maid upstairs to fetch it. When the girl returned with the news that the bedroom was empty, her mistress puckered up her face in surprise.
"Odd," she remarked. "Didn't you whistle a taxi for her?"
"Then perhaps she had to walk."
By dinner-time Lady Fry was definitely worried, although she refused to admit it.
"If she had met with an accident, we should have heard," she remarked. "Bad news soon travels. So many things could account for her absence...I'll have dinner, Coles."
She made a plucky effort to eat, and managed to work through the courses to a spoonful of ginger-pudding. Then she spoke to the parlourmaid, who was an old and confidential servant.
"My voice is too bad to phone, Coles, but I think you'd better ring up some of our friends. Make light of it, of course. We don't want her to feel a fool afterwards."
Coles grasped the situation and called up several numbers with polite detachment. Gradually, however, her calm slipped; but Lady Fry, who sat by, rolling her handkerchief into a ball, appeared not to notice. When Lady Wright was interviewed, her voice had risen several tones.
"We're getting very anxious. She was not well when she left the house. We've rung up the Library, but they say she didn't go there. We can't imagine what has become of her."
"I'll speak to Sir Horace," volunteered Lady Wright.
Sir Horace, who was gazing at the slim ankles of the new widow, responded at once to the call for service. At a ball, Miss Belson might be merely a middle-aged spinster, fit partner for a Charlie Baxter; but on the voting register, she was an influential citizen.
He took a grave view of the situation.
"May I advise the police station for you?" he asked.
Soon afterwards, the town seethed with the news. The cab-ranks, the hospital, the railway stations, were canvassed in vain. Presently, small parties went out to search lonely spots, in case she had been attacked and robbed.
The excitement did not touch Vera, as she lay, a small pensive figure, on a settee. She had "put her feet up" at Lady Wright's invitation, because she felt she could thus keep Sir Horace at a distance, and, at the same time, give the desired effect of being prostrate.
As a matter-of-fact, Sir Horace was behaving with tact and sympathy. He and his wife seemed anxious only to smooth her first few days of widowhood.
"Cry whenever you want to," urged Lady Wright. "We shan't notice."
Vera, however, felt no cause for grief, for she, too, enjoyed the novel luxury of her surroundings. But as the hours wore away, she became conscious of a wrinkle in her mind.
She began to wonder if Charlie had left behind him, at the cottage, any incriminating evidence of his survival.
His dominant quality was an entire lack of imagination. He did things without any thought of consequences, or of their effect on others.
"If he can ball things up, just at the end, trust him to do it," she thought bitterly.
She racked her brain in vain for some excuse to return home. She did not want to forfeit this valuable hospitality, which she hoped to extend beyond the week, if she could preserve the balance between Sir Horace and his wife. It was especially useful at this crisis, because she would have to budget very carefully, since she had made over her nest-egg to Puggie Williams.
Presently Sir Horace gave her the chance she wanted.
"How are we going to amuse this little lady?" He appealed to his wife. "She mustn't mope."
"Would you like something exciting to read?" asked Lady Wright.
Vera shook her head and touched her eyes, in explanation.
"My eyes ache. Crying—"
"Yes, yes. Of course. And you're hardly in the mood for billiards. Or bridge?"
Since she could not be sure of winning, Vera was not.
"What I really need is exercise," she said. "Would you mind if I went for a walk?"
Sir Horace's eyes lit up as he made his counter-suggestion.
"If you want to tire yourself out for a good night's sleep, there's nothing like a swim. Our bath is one of the seven wonders of Starminster—and we don't use it to keep the coals in. Ha, ha. It's warmed, of course. It's our hobby—swimming. Nothing to touch it for the figure. And the fatter you are the better you swim."
"Yes," agreed Lady Wright, "only I'm afraid my costumes won't fit Mrs. Baxter. My husband wants me to keep a selection for our guests. But it's too much like bad books, where the host always keeps ladies' pyjamas in stock."
"I'd love to swim," said Vera eagerly. "Will you let me run over to the cottage, to get my suit?"
"Rogers will drive you over," decided Sir Horace. "We'll have an early dinner, so as to allow plenty of time before going into the water...And now, if my guest will excuse me, I must ring up my London office."
His excellent spirits made Vera feel sure that he was looking forward to a close-up of her in a swimming-suit.
"The fat fool doesn't know that he could have seen me, wearing a string only, for a bob," she reflected cynically. "What a waste for him."
The pampered chauffeur did not relish his orders to drive Mrs. Baxter to Jasmine Cottage, since he had made another date. He scorched down the slippery drive, and on the bend, contrived a sensational skid. Although he pulled the car round immediately, Vera whistled down the tube.
"Please don't be funny again," she said. "This is not exactly a joy-ride. You may have heard a rumour I buried my husband this afternoon."
Her protest was made chiefly on Charlie's behalf. That swerve had made her realise his dependent position.
"If anything happened to me now," she reflected, "he'd be in a ghastly hole when his money was gone. He can't work. And he can't ask his family for help, because he's not alive."
It was a relief to remember that Puggie had promised to keep in touch with him. She dared not write to him directly. It was so novel an experience to be outside the law, that she had an exaggerated terror of its power. They were three impudent sparrows who had pecked the giant of insurance. She could not rid herself of the suspicion that they had not really got away with it. Some force held them at the end of an elastic string. Probably all her correspondence and movements would be watched for the next few weeks at least.
She started at the sight of a group of men who were flashing electric-torches as they walked along a dark suburban road. A fear shot through her that the exhumation-party was already on its way to investigate the corpse.
Again she whistled down the tube.
"What are those men doing?"
"Very likely they're looking for Miss Belson," was the reply. "It's all over the town that she's been kidnapped or murdered."
He stopped before Jasmine Cottage and Vera got out of the car. This time, there was plenty of noise—the running of the engine, the clatter of high heels on the path, the opening of the front door; but Miss Belson did not hear them.
When it was inhabited by four adults, the cottage had seemed a cheerful bandbox to Vera. She had never realised how lonely and sinister it could appear in the dark. But a job had to be done, and she was too plucky to shirk her responsibility. Switching on the lights, she went from room to room, hunting for traces of Charlie.
When she reached the kitchen, she found his note about the birds.
"The utter fool," she cried. "His own writing, too."
After she had burned it, she continued her search. Loose boards creaked under her tread as she mounted the narrow stairs, and she could not help thinking of unpleasant subjects, such as murdered spinsters.
The glasses rattled on the shelf when she entered the bathroom. Here was even more damaging evidence of her late husband. He had wrapped the clippings of his beard in tissue paper, and left the parcel on the rim of the lavatory-basin.
Although she knew the chauffeur must be growing impatient, she could not feel safe until she had destroyed the relics on the top of the Ideal stove. When she had poked the oily remains well into the dead ashes, she went upstairs again to find her swimming-suit.
She rejected her latest costume, which was cut away so ruthlessly as to give the impression that its wearer was covered only by a few chancey strips of court-plaster, and selected a brief black slip, which could be accepted by her hostess, and would be acceptable to her host.
As she lingered, the chauffeur impertinently sounded his horn as a hint for her to hurry. He had taken her measure when she reproved him for his swerve, and had given her the status of a gentleman's widow.
To punish his impatience, Vera deliberately crossed over to the wardrobe, to see if she had an unfaded bathing-wrap. To her surprise, she found that it was locked. Turning the key, she pulled open the door, and then staggered back before the weight of a heavy stuffed object.
Something which looked like a black bolster fell forward, slowly undoubled, and then lay prone upon the carpet.
It was the figure of a woman with a discoloured face.
WHEN Charlie Baxter awoke next morning, Starminster was only twelve hours behind him; yet he felt the division of a gulf of centuries. Instead of shrinking from the dawn, in an icy room, he greeted it in a luxurious cubicle—centrally-heated, and lit with amber-shaded electric-lamps.
As his suite overlooked the station, its thick glass windows were heavily veiled and curtained. When he tubbed in a gleaming primrose bath, he could hear the shrieking of engines down below, and smell the smoke rising from the railway.
Instead of feeling confined, the change was so welcome after snowy landscape, that it formed part of the enchantment. He breakfasted also by artificial light, eating a heavy meal of bacon-and-kidneys, followed by marmalade and toast. Afterwards he smoked a cigar in the lounge, until it was time for him to start.
He paid his bill, tipped well, and was escorted to the London train by an hotel porter, who touched his cap to him; yet he was vaguely conscious of some slight discontent. Later, when the town was left behind, and he was rushing through bleached fields, he traced his annoyance back to its source.
During the preceding evening, when he watched the eddies of visitors through the revolving-door, he noticed that people looked after certain guests, while others attracted no attention. It was not a question of appearance, or clothes—but a test of personality.
He had to admit that he was numbered among the nonentities. No one noticed his arrival or his departure. At first, he gloried in his obscurity, but already he was growing to resent it. Like a small boy who defied punishment when he borrowed his sister's nightdress, to preach to the passers-by, he wanted to attract attention to himself.
Vera would have recognised the danger of the symptom and mentally sandbagged him to submission. Freed from her guardianship, he stretched out his feet on the opposite seat and watched the telegraph wires run together—to snap apart at each pole—while he dreamed futilely of rising to the top of the ladder.
At the first stop, he jumped out and tried to buy a copy of yesterday's Starminster Herald; but the best the clerk at the book-stall could do was to offer to procure one. Feeling cheated out of his fame, he returned to his carriage to find, to his disgust, that it had been invaded by other passengers.
He glanced, in turn, at another bespectacled young man in a belted coat, a meagre apple-faced country woman, a heavily veiled and powdered town lady. Lastly, the girl.
At the first sight of her, he felt drawn by a double bond of admiration and attraction. She was very tall, and wore a tweed suit and top-coat to match, with the distinction of a mannequin showing country styles. Her dark hair was dressed in a small knot, and a pill-box cap was tilted over almond-shaped blue eyes. Her face, which was rather a full oval, had the bloom of health, and was only slightly touched with peach-powder and dark-carnation lipstick. She looked what she was—a smart rustic with a strong dress-sense.
The shrivelled countrywoman caught her eye, grimaced at the cushion which bore the traces of Charlie's dusty soles, and then spoke to her.
"Disgusting. It evidently never occurred to the person who wiped his boots on that seat, that it was intended for the use of other passengers. Curious mentality, isn't it, never to think of others?"
"It certainly is," said the girl, crinkling up her eyes in a manner which was adorable to Charlie. "Disheartening, too. I don't see how there can be real progress with utter lack of thought."
She spoke without a trace of self-consciousness, or a thought of her audience. The other passenger had merely struck a responsive chord, although she preferred debate to agreement. When the woman lapsed into platitudes, her replies grew briefer, and she opened her bag and drew out a notebook and pencil.
Interested, first in ideas, and then in humanity—as types, she began to write.
"People...A little astringent spinster. Pedantic accent, fabric gloves. Evidently a country schoolmistress. Too typical to be interesting...A peach of a middle-aged woman, with smouldering eyes under a thick veil and a perfect mask of pearl-powder. She should have done some equestrian act in a continental circus. (I think 'equestrian' is the most romantically-stilted word in the dictionary. It suggests a high-stepping horse, and a passionate woman, whose name begins with 'Z,' in a wasp-waisted habit, with a tall silk hat)...There's a definitely interesting man, who might be a writer. I must get him to talk to me."
The girl, whose name was Jennifer Burns, stopped writing and smiled, while Charlie wondered the cause of her amusement. The other young man watched her pencil with a certain interest, but Charlie could not remove his eyes from her. While he was too diffident to inquire her views about the window, lest he should be snubbed, his brain was a riot of romantic possibilities.
He was certain that he and the girl would not be strangers when the terminus was reached. This journey was a prelude to future meetings in London, in a permanent atmosphere of central-heating and artificial light.
Fortunately, he did not know that he, alone among the passengers, had been overlooked by Jennifer. She merely glanced at his mouth, and decided that it was too small and curly. She preferred a face with chin—plenty of chin, like the other young man.
Engrossed with her own affairs, she opened her handbag and began to sort its contents with as much composure as though she were alone in the carriage. When she read letters, she showed their addresses with no thought of the prying eyes of strangers.
Presently she drew out her cigarette-case, but although Charlie hastened to produce a match, the other young man was quicker on the draw with a lighter. The smile with which she thanked them both set Charlie's brain on fire, for its frank friendship implied equality.
This seemed a miracle to him, because it was evident that she was a superlative specimen of "Nice Girl" and, therefore, a member of a tribe which cut him on principle. This knowledge revived his inferiority complex, as he contrasted her fine build with Vera's meagre figure.
He resolved that this was the kind of woman whom he adored. As he sat and watched her, unable to make any advance because of the other passengers, he cursed the speed of the train. Determined to meet her in London, he washed out the Brixton address and resolved to stay at a certain West-Central hotel, where his family always lodged whenever they went up to London.
The light was fading when an official stopped at the door of the compartment to inform them that tea was being served in the restaurant-car. People were already beginning to dribble past their windows. As the ladies in the carriage seemed preparing to join the procession, Charlie hurried on ahead, pushing past people in the crowded corridor, in his eagerness to be first.
He intended to reserve a seat at his table and offer it to Jennifer. But although he turned away several indignant applicants, his lady did not appear. The two other woman-passengers were served with tea before he realised that she had remained behind.
Waving aside the waiter, he rushed again along the swaying corridors. When he reached his compartment, the other young man and Jennifer were chatting like old friends. They did not stop talking when he entered, but he felt so sure they must resent his return that he was compelled to apologise.
"Too much of a dog-fight for me down there," he said humbly to Jennifer. "But if you'd like some tea, I'll bring you some in here."
She smiled as she shook her head.
"Sporting of you, but I never have tea at this time. I'm from the north, and I'm used to high-tea. I suppose I'll have to give it up when I'm settled in London."
"Are you going to London, too?" asked Charlie eagerly. "So am I."
"Isn't this the London express?" asked the young man with the chin.
The check reminded Charlie of the need for caution, as though he could actually hear Vera's ironic voice, "That's right, sweetheart, tell them all about it. Be sure you don't forget to mention our funny little game with the insurance."
Driven to silence, he listened enviously to the conversation.
"I couldn't help noticing the name of the literary agent on one of your envelopes," remarked the young man. "He's my agent, too."
"Oh, are you a writer?" asked Jennifer eagerly.
"Yes. Perhaps you know my name?"
He mentioned a pen-name, which made the girl grow quite excited.
"But, of course, I know you. I've read most of your books. I love them. Do tell me—"
Charlie was left definitely out in the cold as they talked exclusively of literary interests. The train had nearly reached the outskirts of London before the girl gave another personal detail.
"I write, too," she confessed, "but I'm not published—yet. I began my literary career, at the age of nine, with a poem for a children's competition."
Charlie took his chance to enter the limelight.
"I used to go in for competitions, too. I was quite a don at them. Won no end of prizes. It was quite a regular source of income."
"Horrible little miser." The girl laughed. "But weren't they fun? I felt as thrilled as an explorer when I dug up a buried town."
"I liked cross-words best," declared Charlie.
"Cross-words?" echoed the young man with the chin. "I bet you never won a prize for cross-words."
There was something about his sceptical grin which made Charlie realise that he was regarded as a liar. Because he was telling the truth, he naturally wanted to prove his words.
"If you want chapter and verse," he said distantly, "I can give you the name of the paper. It was Snowflakes."
The young man said nothing, but he continued to smile as he exchanged a glance with Jennifer, who also appeared amused. Feeling both suspicious and furious, Charlie muttered something about luggage, and lurched out into the corridor.
When he had gone, the young man shrugged his shoulders.
"A natural liar," he observed. "Snowflakes is quite a recent publication. From the looks of him, he must have been twenty, when it first came out."
"But perhaps he went in for their competitions, all the same," suggested Jennifer. "A little thing like an age-limit should not stop an enterprising young man."
While they talked, Charlie was thinking of his recent snub. Suddenly his ears began to burn, as he wondered when cross-words first became popular. Although he could not remember the year, he was sure they were not a feature of his childhood. He and the girl had entered the Past through different doors.
He had contrived to give himself away. He could hear Vera's voice as clearly as though she were beside him. "Beat it directly the train stops. Don't see them again. Give the poor girl a chance to forget you, Don Juan." But while he knew that retreat was the wise course, there was something about this girl that had got into his blood.
She was a "nice girl," yet she had not treated him as a pariah. In a way, she represented the ideal, which he had missed through the murk of his clotted mind. But although she called up the purest emotion he had ever experienced, he re-acted to it in characteristic manner.
He became instantly disloyal to Vera in thought. If, by some miracle, he could have run away with the girl and the insurance money, he would have deserted his wife without a twinge of remorse.
Provided, of course, that he had not to be cruel to her.
He bit his lips as the train steamed slowly past the backs of tenements, and thicker into the forest of chimneys. At last, unable to bear the thought of final rupture, he dashed back to the compartment, just as they reached the terminus.
The girl was saying "Good-bye" to the young man with the chin.
"I wonder if we shall knock up against each other again," she said frankly. "It would be fun. Look out for my name on the book-stalls, one day. 'Jennifer Burns.' I'm staying at the Minerva Club, just at first."
The young man responded with his card. The train had stopped and porters were entering the corridor. The girl surrendered her suitcase, and then looked back to smile vaguely to Charlie.
"Good-bye," she said.
Unconscious of hideous destiny, she mentioned no future meeting. But as her blue eyes crinkled up, Charlie lost his head completely.
"P-perhaps we shall see each other again," he said eagerly. "I haven't a card, but my name is 'Charlie Baxter.'"
AS the words broke impulsively from Charlie's lips, a look of horror flitted across his face. Leaping down on the platform, he pushed his way through the crowd, until he reached the station yard. Here he jumped into the first taxi and shouted the name of his hotel to the driver.
As they drove away, he was not only furious with himself for his slip, but aghast at the prospect ahead. It seemed to him that the imposture was going to prove too heavy a strain. He had to balance on quicksands, and one false step might plunge him into ruin. He could never relax or be natural until Chester Beaverbrook had got completely on top.
Soon, however, he grew reassured by the jam of traffic and the thronged pavements. Amid these millions of people he must be surely safe.
"I shall never see her again," he told himself.
As a matter of fact, she had already forgotten his name. A new life was calling to her, and the railway carriage was a closed chapter. The passengers had all separated and gone their different ways.
The meagre country-spinster was being welcomed by her four large children. The powdered town lady was in another train, and on her way back to her post as housekeeper to a country parson. The poor soul was looking forward to her return, for she had a form of skin trouble which made her sensitive of exposing her face to strangers. The young man with the chin was absorbed by his new heroine, and had no intention of ringing up the Minerva Club.
Of the whole batch, the only one who was fated to become known to the man-in-the-street was Charlie Baxter.
When he reached the hotel he attracted no more notice than at York. This time he signed his name—"Chester Beaverbrook"—in the register, with complete assurance. Instead of being awed by the grandeur of his surroundings, he had reverted to his Riviera phase and inclined to be critical.
He was annoyed not to find a copy of the Starminster Herald on sale at the book-stall in the foyer, and had to place an order for it. His taste of posthumous fame was still delayed, but he comforted himself with the reminder that they were still talking about him. At the next meeting of the Golf Committee, a vote of condolence would be passed to his widow, and more nice things would be said about him.
He could not possibly know that the disappearance of Miss Belson had wiped his funeral off the local map.
When the body fell out of the wardrobe, Vera lost no time in wondering how it had got there originally. She flew down the stairs, but stopped on the way to fill all her kettles and put them to boil on the gas-stove. Then she rushed out to Sir Horace's impatient chauffeur.
"I've just found Miss Belson," she said. "I want you to come inside and ring up Lady Fry and the doctor."
"Is she dead?" asked the man.
"I'm afraid so, but don't tell them that. Just tell them to come at once."
Although Vera was convinced that life was extinct in the woman, she persisted with her hopeless and tiring task of trying to revive her. To her mind, it was on a par with blowing on cold ashes with a bellows. She dared not waste time to apply any tests. When the doctor arrived, Miss Belson's body lay on the floor, covered with blankets and surrounded with hot-water bottles. The room reeked of ammonia, while Vera, her hair falling across her flushed face in damp cowlicks, was rubbing the cold hands.
To her surprise he announced a flicker of animation, and then kept her relentlessly on the run, finding fresh remedies. By the time Lady Fry, supported by the faithful Coles, had staggered over the threshold, Miss Belson was on the point of responding to an injection of adrenaline.
Her eyelids fluttered and she stared up at them with clouded eyes.
"Charlie—Baxter," she gasped.
Exhausted by the effort, she collapsed immediately, so Vera was kept busy again. When Miss Belson was revived, she went down to the kitchen, to re-fill her bottles. As she slowly poured the boiling water into the funnel, she had leisure to think, for the first time.
Her mind was a spin of anxious questions. How had Miss Belson got inside the cottage? What had she seen? Or—whom? Did any one lock her in the press?
A horrible suspicion surged over her that Charlie was the origin of the mystery. Miss Belson was sleeping now, but when she awoke she would have a story to tell. Vera shivered at the thought. She revived Miss Belson because she could not have done otherwise, yet she had warmed a corpse which would reveal the secret of the grave.
When she slowly walked upstairs, she had the figure of a child, but the small lined face of a woman of fifty.
Lady Fry greeted her with emotion.
"I can never thank you—or repay you. The doctor says that if you hadn't fanned her spark of life, he couldn't have saved her."
"Any one would have done the same," said Vera dully. "But why was she in my house?"
Lady Fry looked confused as she exchanged glances with Coles.
"I've no idea," she said.
The doctor pricked up his ears, feeling that the time had come to satisfy his own curiosity.
"Was your sister in good health when she left home?" he asked tactfully.
"No," replied Lady Fry, realising that he was trying to help her out of an awkward situation. "She had a heavy cold. But you know what she is over illness. Stubborn as a mule."
"I know. Any temperature?"
"I'm sure she had. She was so flushed."
"I suppose you have no idea why she came here, instead of to the Library?"
"No, unless she was light-headed."
"Was she especially friendly with Mr. Baxter?"
The last question was not put into actual words, but was answered in the negative by Lady Fry, who was now red as a beet.
Suddenly she received an inspiration.
"I know," she cried. "It's just come back to me. I told my sister that I wished I had a photograph of your dear husband, because I can never remember faces. In her fuddled—muddled—condition, she must have called on you to ask you for one."
"Photograph?" echoed Vera. "I haven't one."
"No? But I saw a delightful snap of him, stuck in the rim of your bedroom mirror, when you gave your bridge tea."
"That was the Major's brother who's in the navy," explained Vera.
"Really? I suppose my sister and I were misled by the beard. We didn't examine it closely...But since we are on the subject, Mrs. Baxter, may I beg one of your dear husband's photographs?"
"I'm sorry, but I haven't one of him."
"Oh? I have so many of my dear husband to console me. Haven't you some old one that could be copied?"
"No. There's the door-bell. It must be the ambulance. I'll run down and see."
Vera was grateful when she was able to drive away from the cottage. The chauffeur had explained the reason of her delay to his employers, over the telephone, so she was greeted with sympathy by Sir Horace and Lady Wright.
"Such a terrible shock, on top of everything else," said Lady Wright.
"Yes," agreed Vera. "If you don't mind, I feel too all-in for a swim."
But although she ached from her exertions, she could not sleep. She asked herself if she was ever going to know any peace of mind again. After all the tension of the last days, she had earned a respite from worry.
But, apparently, a dummy would not die decently. She had given it Christian burial, with expense and ceremony, only for it to pop up again, its grinning raspberry-pink face challenging her to keep it underground.
When Miss Belson became conscious, she would tell her story. What would it be? The only clue she had was those two horribly suggestive words—"Charlie Baxter."
Unlike Vera, Miss Belson slept the clock round and did not wake up until past noon, when she looked around her bedroom and then burst into tears.
"Oh, thank God," she said.
When she had recovered her composure, she began to question her sister about the details of her rescue. But Lady Fry was evasive and obviously ill at ease.
"So awkward," she faltered. "Every one wants to know why you went there. And I'm at a loss what to say...You know some people have loathe-some medical minds. They hint at—at repressions, and—and all that. As if you were not the very last person in the world to have a secret passion for a married man—"
She broke off as Miss Belson found unexpected strength to spring up in bed. Her cheeks burned and her mild eyes were now fierce with pride. She felt as though her spiritual privacy were being flayed by the hint of scandal in connection with herself.
"My dear," she said in a trembling voice, "I haven't got to justify my character to you. But you'd better know exactly what happened."
She began to speak in disjointed phrases, and whenever she paused, her sister seemed to know by instinct what she intended to say, and supplied the missing words. But her story came to an end with the slam of the wardrobe door.
"I want to forget the rest," she said. "Never ask me about it, or mention it again."
The official tale was told to the doctor when he paid his visit, and he put it into local circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Acorn, the insurance agent, he called upon Vera in the afternoon. She was having tea with Sir Horace and Lady Wright in the orangery. Her face seemed to shrink as she noticed the ominous combination, and when he addressed her directly, she looked up defensively, like some small cornered rodent, ready to snap.
"I've just come from Lady Fry's," he said. "Miss Belson remembers everything."
"Well?" asked Vera breathlessly.
"Well," repeated the doctor, "I suspect she had a mild attack of flu. Unfortunately, she is indifferent to health. She confesses to feeling somewhat lightheaded. Instead of going to bed and sending for me, she went out to execute a commission for her sister. Directly she was outside the house she knew she had to get something for Lady Fry, but she forgot the library book and could only remember the photograph of your husband. You remember about the photograph, don't you, Mrs. Baxter?"
"Yes," replied Vera in a choked voice, as she wished she could shake the story out of the doctor and so end her suspense.
"When she reached Jasmine Cottage," he went on, "she noticed that the front door was ajar, so she went inside, to see if any unauthorised person was there. She had hardly taken a step, when a man rushed at her in the darkness. She was so terrified that she can only remember running upstairs, but she heard him coming after her. She believes there was a bit of a struggle, but she does not know whether she hid in the wardrobe, or if she was pushed inside."
A band around Vera's temples seemed to snap, as she listened with overwhelming relief to the story, although she rejected it as lies. But her nerves were still shaken and she jumped violently when Acorn spoke to her.
"Did you notice if anything had been disturbed inside the cottage, Mrs. Baxter?"
"No. I didn't look."
"Then, would you mind checking up with your inventory? I am sorry to trouble you, but the Major is insured with us, and if it is a case of housebreaking I must know what is missing."
Vera promised to lose no time over the job, and Acorn rose to go.
"I expect some one heard the place was empty," he said, "and slipped inside through a window. He was probably more scared than Miss Belson."
Unfortunately, Sir Horace chose that moment to make a request.
"Talking of photographs," he said gallantly, "we shall want one of you, Mrs. Baxter, to cheer us when you've deserted us."
"But I haven't one," declared Vera, who was too addle-headed to think two jumps ahead. "I always make an appalling photograph."
"Rubbish," said Sir Horace. "I'll take a snap of you, now."
"No, please. I shall run away. I feel so self-conscious, with these awful poached-egg eyes. I couldn't sleep—after yesterday."
Lady Wright made faces at her husband to remind him of Vera's recent widowhood. He gave in reluctantly, only to suggest a compromise.
"I'll take you all here in a group. You can't object to that, Mrs. Baxter."
"Of course not."
Vera fell in with Sir Horace's fussy arrangements, as he posed his guests. A footman fetched his camera, and he got into position.
"All keep perfectly still when I call 'now'," he instructed them. "'Now'...There you are. I've got a winner."
Acorn, however, had his doubts. He had turned his profile to the camera, so was able to notice that Vera had moved her head slightly at the critical moment.
As he walked back to his office, he told himself that the lady merely suffered from nerves. Yet, that evening, he could not resist looking at his collection of snaps, to find some souvenir of Charlie Baxter and his wife.
He drew a blank. Somehow, they had always contrived to be left out of groups at Golf Meetings. They had either an Oriental superstition about being photographed, or else they were anxious to leave no record of their personal appearance behind them.
Suddenly, he remembered standing beside Charlie Baxter when they posed for a group, on the occasion of a tennis tournament. At last he had run him to earth. With growing excitement, he hunted through his albums, to find his quarry right at the bottom of the pile.
As he examined it he gave a low whistle. It might be merely a strange coincidence, but—like his wife—Charlie Baxter had slightly turned his head, so that his features were blurred.
THE embargo on photographs was a precaution which Charlie Baxter resented bitterly when he obtained his belated copy of the Starminster Herald. He silently cursed its author—Puggie Williams—as he read and re-read the account of his funeral. It only needed a large portrait of himself in the middle of the page.
His sentimental brown eyes filled with tears in his appreciation of Browning's verses. He felt that the poet had really got his measure. He was always thinking of kind actions and meaning to do noble deeds—unaware that all these still-born impulses had been accumulating, like compound interest, to build him up to the man he actually was.
The drawback to complete enjoyment was the lack of any one to appreciate his funeral honours. He made an effort, when he passed the newspaper to a man with whom he chatted at the bar.
"Just been reading the account of a friend's funeral," he said. "When I go, I'd like to think I was that kind of man."
The stranger took the Herald out of politeness, started to skim the marked column, and then broke off with an inquiry.
"What did you think of the fight?"
After that Charlie consoled himself with the fact that there was no one in the hotel whom he wished to impress. The visitors seemed to be dull respectable provincials, although brighter patrons drifted in for the Thé Dansant.
He rarely went out, but spent his time in the lounge, sunken deep in a big chair, while he smoked and watched the revolving-doors. After the discomfort of an icy attic, he revelled in warmth and ease, like a lizard basking in the sun.
He did not even want to dance, although he watched the new steps closely. A pair of professional dancers employed by the management always drew his eyes. He especially admired the man. He had glossy black hair—artificially waved—olive skin, and very white teeth. He displayed these frequently in a flashing smile, while he danced with the slinky grace of a panther.
One afternoon Charlie was watching him enviously during an exhibition tango, when a strapping young man from the country spoke to him.
"Looks easy when that chap does it. He slips about as if he'd been filletted off the bone. But it's got me beat."
"Oh, the tango's quite easy," Charlie assured him. He had mastered its movements and could perform them gracefully, in private, before his bedroom mirror. "The trouble is—you and I wouldn't look like him."
"Who wants to look like a dam dago?" asked the young man indignantly.
The answer was "Charlie Baxter." He told himself that all the women fell for the dancer, while no one took any notice of himself.
While he consoled himself by reading the account of his funeral, he had an inspiration. Surely there must be a similar obituary notice in the Humbley Advertiser—the local paper of his home-town. Although his father was dead, the family was respected in the district.
He ordered the paper immediately, and impatiently awaited its arrival, haunting the book-stall. When at last the clerk told him that he was expecting it that same afternoon, he took up his station in the lounge, so as to be on the spot.
Presently, to his surprise and gratification, he noticed that a new arrival was looking fixedly in his direction. She was a pretty fair girl of about eighteen, with a round face and big violet-blue eyes. As she was smarter and more attractive than the average visitor, Charlie returned her stare.
His interest seemed to abash her, for she hurriedly poured out another cup of tea to hide her confusion, and also to assure him of her impersonal attitude. Chilled in his turn, Charlie vaguely remembered that on her arrival she had been accompanied by a man. He decided, therefore, to wash her out as a possible affair.
Looking up, he saw that the clerk at the book-stall was holding up a newspaper. Instantly the blue-eyed flapper was forgotten, as he hurried over to get his precious Humbley Advertiser. He turned over the pages feverishly, but could discover no reference to himself. In disgust, he looked at the column of local Births, Deaths and Marriages, and found himself duly documented in two bald lines.
He was biting his lips when he heard a girl's voice.
"Excuse me, but—haven't we met before?"
The blue-eyed flapper had plucked up her courage to make the conventional opening gambit.
"Of course," he agreed, springing up and pulling another chair forward.
"Then you do remember me?" she asked, as she sat down beside him.
"Coo, that's a relief. I recognised you at once; at least, I thought I did, but I couldn't be sure I wasn't staring at a strange man. But when I saw you reading our wretched rag, I knew you must be Charlie Baxter."
At the words, Charlie felt as though he had been knocked out in the ring. Suddenly he remembered that this hotel was patronised, not only by his family, but by other Humbley folk, on the strength of mouth-to-mouth advertisement. It was madness to come here, and virtual suicide to buy a copy of the betraying Advertiser.
As he was being counted out, he heard Vera's ironic comment.
"Stick to it, sweetheart. You're getting quite good at telling the tale."
Too late, he made a stupid effort to conceal his identity.
"I'm sorry, but you've made a mistake. My name is Chester Beaverbrook. When I said I remembered you, I hoped you were—were—"
"Trying to get off?" finished the girl pertly. "But you can't pull the wool over my eyes. You are Charlie Baxter. You went to live in Starminster, afterwards." She swooped down on his other newspaper. "And here's the Starminster Herald. That proves it."
As she gloated over her triumph, her insolent blue eyes half-closed, Charlie felt a curious heat rising to his head, as though his brain was boiling. For a second, he wanted to grip her round white throat.
Savagery was so foreign to his nature that he vaguely recognised the fact that fear, not brutality, was the cause of his impulse, which left him as swiftly as it came.
"I knew you at once," went on the girl. "I used to have a crush on you when I was a kid. I was only twelve when you left the town, but I carried on like a widow. Didn't you marry a Vanity girl? Is she with you?"
"No," murmured Charlie.
"Aha, that's why you aren't Charlie Baxter. But I understand. I won't split. I first began to like you, because my sisters said you were fast and went about with common girls."
Her words gave Charlie the clue that she belonged to a "nice" family.
"You've grown up since then," he remarked. "I'm terribly sorry, but, just for the moment, I can't place you."
He remembered the family—rich, refined, and prominent conservatives. There was a flock of insipid girls and a pallid mother, who had found them under a gooseberry-bush, according to her book of words. As none of them was married, they were not in a position to challenge her statement with the proper authority.
"You're not like your sisters," said Charlie, looking at Peggy's confident face. He noticed that, although her natural colouring was beautiful, she had pencilled her brows and rouged her lips.
"Thank the pigs. They're old maids. But I always used to meet boys on the sly. Any kind did for me. When they found out about me and the milk-boy, they sent me to a convent in France. Convents are lousy. You learn to make lace and wear a chemise in the bath."
Charlie now understood why she was ignorant of his official death.
"Are you going home for good?" he asked.
"Supposed to—but shall I tell you a secret?"
He felt a gush of sudden hope.
"I'd be honoured by your confidence," he assured her in his best Starminster manner. "Will you have a cocktail?"
He could tell from her excitement that the drink was a novelty.
"Isn't all this fun?" she cried, as she fished for the cherry. "What would they say in Humbley if they could see us now?"
"They'd say I was corrupting a baby."
"But I'm not." She lowered her voice. "I'm going to be married."
"Congratulations. Is he a Humbley man?"
"Help. He's no one from that hole. He's some one I knocked against in Paris when I went in for my music exam. We went on meeting on the d.q.t. In fact, it was a romance. He's adorable—sophisticated and rich."
"Splendid. I suppose you are taking him home with you on approval?"
Peggy laughed—and the cocktail laughed too.
"I don't think. They'd say I was too young. I had to cross, because a bally nun took us as far as Victoria Station. But I'm not going home. We're leaving again for Paris. We'll get married there, and then we're going on to Rio."
It sounded a fishy programme to Charlie, who listened with close attention. In one way it was a lucky break, because it gave him a respite. But the facts remained that she would mention him in her letters to her family or friends, and that she would return home on a visit.
As he looked at her slack red lips and shallow eyes, he knew that she could not be entrusted with a secret. Peggy Hepburn knew that Charlie Baxter was alive; and what Peggy Hepburn knew to-day, Humbley knew to-morrow. Of course, Humbley would be asked not to pass on the news, because Charlie Baxter had swindled an insurance company, so it was in confidence.
Suddenly Charlie broke out in a sweat. The heat of the lounge grew unbearable as he thought of prison—no longer a vague threat, but a certain destination. It was a touch of added irony that the impulse which made him order the Humbley Advertiser, in order to see his name in print, insured him future press publicity.
In that moment he hated Vera because she was always right. All she wanted was his chequebook. If he had behaved as a cad towards her—like Puggie Williams whom she really appreciated—he would be free to marry a nice girl, like the girl in the train.
He started as Peggy clutched his arm.
"There he is," she cried. "That's my husband. Over there, talking to the boy at the bureau."
As Charlie followed the direction of her pointing finger, a change came over his face.
ONE glance was sufficient to tell Charlie that the man was of marked carrion type. Only a child, or an idiot, could credit him with matrimonial intentions. Peggy was headed for the Port of the Forgotten.
"No," protested Charlie inwardly. "I must save her."
Even as he made the resolution, he counted the cost. Her salvation was the price of his own damnation.
There would be no stopping Peggy's loose lips, short of tying a knot in her tongue-strings. Directly the story spread through Humbley, that Charlie had been seen in London, his eldest sister would rush over to Starminster to demand an explanation of the mystery.
He knew Emily's character only too well. Although she had left the cottage in a rage, when it was too late she would resent the fact that she had not looked on her dead brother's face. In the circumstances, Vera's reluctance to let her enter the supposititious death-chamber, was doubly suspicious.
A hornet's nest would be stirred up, as rumours began to float about. It would be reported that Peggy Hepburn had spoke to Charlie Baxter, although the town had attended his funeral. People would speculate as to what his coffin had actually contained.
Acorn would hold up payment of the insurance, pending inquiries. When no satisfactory explanation was forthcoming, his next step would be an application for an order of exhumation, if Peggy's statement could not be shaken. That would be the prelude to the end.
Even if Charlie could hide from justice, without money they were lost. Vera could not join him, and he would be left to starve like a poisoned rat in a drain.
"No," thought Charlie. "Far better come out into the open like a man."
He could not help feeling that he was, in addition, a very gallant gentleman, going to his doom. But the girl was so trusting—so young; there were infantile gaps between her teeth, and her hands were still dimpled. Besides, he had vowed that he would always champion women.
As he pushed back his hair distractedly, in an effort to think clearly, Peggy impudently prodded his forehead.
"I've always wanted to do that," she said. "I used to look at that funny little scar when I was a kid in church. Your father made you come, sometimes, and you used to turn round and stare at the pretty girls."
Charlie smiled vaguely, as he subconsciously noted the remark as another nail in his coffin. After this proof, there could be no question of mistaken identity.
"Isn't your future husband going to dance with you?" he asked.
"No, we mustn't be seen together. Isn't it a thrill? I'm all steamed-up over it."
"Um. When do you leave?"
"Directly we've had dinner."
She looked round, her eyes bright with excitement, and nudged Charlie.
"Isn't the professional marvellous? I'd adore to dance with him."
"He isn't a Dago. That complexion comes out of a bottle. Lots of men do it. Besides, it's part of his professional stock-in-trade...Can you dance?"
Charlie got up gallantly. He soon discovered that his form was far superior to his partner's, but she seemed unconscious of the fact as she continued to rave about the professional.
"Let's follow him round and barge into him," she urged.
Charlie began to find her cheap.
"Youth does not imply innocence," he thought. "Yet I've got to sacrifice Vera—who's a good woman—for this chit. I wonder where my duty really lies."
The cold douche of common sense seemed to bring the difficulties to the surface, as a shower draws up worms. He realised that he had a problem to tackle which called for the utmost diplomacy. The result of one false step might be catastrophic.
Since Browning had given him proof of understanding his intricate moods, he had bought a copy of his collected poems. He did so chiefly to find out what was omitted from the quotation in the Starminster Herald. Afterwards, attracted by such promising titles as "A Light Woman," he dipped into the volume, and learned that Browning—the greatest authority on character—said it was a dangerous thing to play with souls.
Charlie took his hint, as he slithered about, with Peggy's arms hooked tightly round his neck. He told himself that the carrion-crow might really include marriage in his schedule. His appearance could libel him. If he blundered into their lives, he might wreck Peggy's chance of a congenial husband.
In any case, he could not appeal to the police, or the hotel management, without authority or definite proof of abduction. The only thing he could do was to telephone to the girl's parents, and leave the father, who was presumably a business man, to deal with the situation.
The chief complication was the problem of who would pay for the trunk-call. It would be put down on his bill, naturally. But, at this crisis, every shilling he could save would mean additional safety for Vera.
Again he shook his head. It was useless to telephone, because the birds would be flown before Mr. Hepburn could reach the hotel.
Suddenly Charlie knew that there was but one thing to be done. He must appeal to the better nature of the girl.
"Who's doped you?" she asked, playing into his hands.
"I'm thinking of you," he told her. "Let's sit down in a quiet corner."
He steered her to a seat, and then cleared his throat.
"I'm going to talk to you like a big brother, Peggy," he said. "That man of yours isn't 'jannock'."
She fired up at the North Country word.
"I hate 'jannock' men. It means clumping boots and three helpings of underdone meat. My Tony is distinguished and a man of the world."
"But he won't marry you."
"What's the odds? No modern people get married, nowadays. Besides, he will. He has a title and large estates, so he wants an heir."
"No, Peggy, you're fooling yourself. But if I can stop you from ruining yourself—body and soul—I will. Haven't you ever read the facts about the White Slave Traffic?"
She stared at him with blue saucer-eyes which had grown slightly scared.
"What do you think you can do?" she asked.
"I can—and will—take you home, to-night. I shan't draw an easy breath until I hand you over to your father, personally."
She breathed hard but said nothing, so he pressed home his argument.
"Think, Peggy." His voice was softly persuasive. "You stand to lose everything. Husband, children, home. I may be a rotter who's missed everything, but my sisters are married, and I know what domestic happiness really can be. Long peaceful evenings by the fireside, reading, or listening-in, instead of cocktails and night clubs."
"Haven't you forgotten darning the socks while hubby reads aloud?" she asked derisively. "You're not making it sound attractive."
"No, Peggy, it's not a joke. You're only a child that doesn't know what she wants. But, deep down, every woman wants the same thing."
Peggy shuddered slightly and then spoke with shrill defiance.
"I know exactly what you're going to do. You're going to tell the manager I'm a minor and have me held here till Dad comes."
"No, I wouldn't do such a rotten treacherous thing. I trust you to do the right thing. You must admit I've been open with you. I haven't stabbed you in the back."
Her saucer-eyes shrank to slits as she nodded.
"You win," she said submissively. "What do you want me to do?"
As he realised his triumph, his upper-lip broke out into a sweat.
"I'm going upstairs now to pack," he told her. "I'll meet you here in half an hour exactly. Then we'll catch the first train back to Humbley."
"All right, Captain."
He patted her shoulder.
"Good girl. You'll never regret it. Think what a thrill it will be to see your own town again. Think of your home, your father and mother, all your sisters. Your friends. Your old schoolfellows. Think."
She looked at him with a puzzled stare and then began to smile.
"Oh, what a fool. You're kidding me, aren't you. You've just been stringing me along?"
He would not reply to the impertinence.
"In half an hour," he repeated as he walked towards the lift.
When he reached his room, he threw a few articles into a bag, and then paced the floor in an agitated manner, smoking cigarettes and talking to Vera. He felt horribly disloyal to her. She was his wife and the best woman in the world; yet he was letting her down for the sake of a baggage who would break out with the next milk-boy.
At the end of half an hour, he came down to the lounge and looked around him with anxious eyes. But Peggy was not there. He waited for twenty minutes and then interviewed the clerk at the bureau. It took a little time to identify Peggy from Charlie's description, but, presently, the young man remembered her.
"Oh, these people only came for dinner. They left their luggage in the cloakroom. But they changed their minds about eating here. They checked out about nearly an hour ago."
"Thank you. It doesn't matter."
Charlie turned away to hide the tears which welled up in his eyes as he thought of poor Peggy's fate.
He comforted himself with the reminder that he could have done no more. Indeed, in view of his failure it was providential that he had forgotten to give notice of his own departure. It would be annoying to find his room, which was a quiet one, already allotted to another guest.
But he had forgotten something else until he got into bed late that night. Then he hit his forehead angrily.
"Chump. I ought to have rung up her father immediately so he could have wired to have all the ports watched...But it's too late now. I did my best."
He felt that the stars had been fighting for Vera as a hint to her deluded husband. Henceforth he must consider her safety before that of a strange woman. Having made the resolution, he slept like a child.
Sustained by the knowledge of his own intended sacrifice, which—according to Browning, counted as performance—Charlie was able to listen to an S.O.S. from the B.B.C. the following night without a twinge of conscience.
"Missing since the 25th inst., Peggy Elizabeth Hepburn, aged seventeen-and-a-half, slight build, round face, very fair curly hair, blue eyes, five feet five inches, may speak with a slight French accent, dressed in a dark-red dress, with coat to match, grey fox-fur collar, grey hat..."
Charlie leaned forward to offer a match to a girl smoker so lost the rest of the description. But he was in time to hear the ominous concluding statement.
"Was last seen at Victoria Station, about noon and it is feared some harm may have befallen her."
CHARLES forgot Peggy within twenty-four hours. He assured himself that the S.O.S. was no definite proof of disaster. For all he knew to the contrary, she might be married to Mr. Vulture—although it was significant that he ceased to worry about future exposure. In any case, he had done his utmost to help her, so he dislodged her from his mind, to make room for the girl in the train.
After hours spent in the lounge, watching while others made sentimental history he wanted his own love-interest. Every woman who flirted, danced, or drank, was compared unfavourably with Jennifer. In his eyes, she was one of those rare persons who were kind without being dowdy, and smart, without being smutty.
The urge to see her again presently drove him out into those streets raying from Piccadilly Circus, in the hope of a chance meeting. He dared not seek her in restaurants and theatres because of his urgent need to conserve money. But, although he was proud of his self-control, he had to come to grips with his financial position.
He had paid two weekly bills at the hotel, so could estimate the cost of a third, at the end of which he would have about twenty pounds left. That sum might keep him for two months at the cheap Acre Lane boarding-house, if he exercised stringent economy. Yet Vera had mentioned a possible delay of three months—in which case he would be short of board and lodging.
He dreaded the mere idea of exchanging his present luxurious surroundings for Brixton. There was a dreary stretch of exile ahead until Vera came up to London. Suddenly he realised that he was now desperately anxious to see her again. She was his wife, and the best woman in the world.
While he was repenting his former disloyalty, Vera did not reciprocate his devotion. She, too, on her return to Jasmine Cottage, had to face the financial problem, which was his gift to her.
Her first action had been to write to the Bank, to ascertain her balance. Although Charlie kept a tally on his counterfoils, she had a lurking hope that he might have overlooked a few pounds.
The manager's reply staggered her utterly. He informed her that there was no balance, while he assured her that he could open a fresh credit during the remainder of her stay at Starminster, if she was thereby convenienced.
She had only to give him the address of one of the banks which held her deposits, and he would arrange the necessary transfer.
With the aid of a cigarette, Vera tried to find a way out of her difficulty. Her scrupulous honesty in the matter of debt was a contradiction in fact, considering that she was a party to fraud. But she had only consented to Puggie's plan under pressure, because she felt vaguely that so large a company was fair game. It was so impersonal that she realised her dishonesty no more than the average respectable third-class passenger who enters a first-class railway carriage—virtuously prepared to pay the excess, if surprised by a jumper, but hoping for the best.
She resolved that no one should suffer through her present deficit; if she was forced to open credits, she would pay up every penny before she left the town. But she was obliged to have a certain amount of loose cash, while she was unused to borrowing or raising the wind.
After her first rage had died down, she absolved Charlie from blame. After all he knew that she had twenty pounds of their reserve and he was ignorant of the fact that she had given it away.
For a minute, she thought of appeal to Puggie. Then she tightened her lips and shook her head. She knew exactly how long a woman could spin out the amount, and how soon a man could romp through it. Besides, she had a soft spot in her heart for him, and the allusion to his dress-suit had made her suspicious. It might mean that he intended to eat humble pie, and creep down to some titled family which dressed for dinner as a matter of course; but it also suggested a waiter's job.
"If he knows I'm broke, the mug will put some one on the spot, to raise the wind," she thought.
At this point she considered the Insurance. She had already sent Acorn the necessary documents, with the assurance that she wanted to get away from Starminster as soon as possible; but she had avoided him lest he should mention business and be surprised that she had not put her affairs into the hands of her solicitor, following the precedent of every wealthy widow.
She had a contempt for him, based on his quiet unassuming personality, so she was confident that she could bounce him into allowing her an advance of the Insurance. As she remembered Mrs. Acorn—a sweet-faced woman with the figure of a sack—she accepted a common fallacy that every homely man must be flattered by a pretty woman.
She dressed with unusual care, although her outfit was limited to the black Persian cloth coat and Cossack cap; but she added tangerine rouge and a bunch of white violets, and then tripped forth to call on him at his office.
When she fluttered through the door, he was stooping over his desk, so that she could see that his greying hair was growing thin on the top. Against his wife's orders, he was wearing a cherished old suit which he had contrived to get well sprinkled with ash, since he was an untidy smoker.
As he blinked up at his radiant visitor through his spectacles, he looked such a dusty nonentity, that she felt she could twist him round her fingers.
She opened fire by tender inquiries about Mrs. Acorn, and was rejoiced by a good report of her health.
"And the—little one?" she went on, assuming that his marriage would be blessed with offspring, but unable to guess its sex.
"The 'Big Three' are flourishing," was the reply. "All away, at a Public School. A family is a ruinous proposition, Mrs. Baxter."
"But you are the rich people," she assured him. "I have nothing."
The knowledge that she had laid her cards down upon the table—in that remark—appealed to her sardonic sense of humour. So she continued to prattle in much the same strain, while Mr. Acorn waited for her to come to the point.
Presently, she touched on the subject of the Insurance.
"I hope there will be no delay," she declared. "I was very happy here—but now I loathe the place. I can't get away soon enough."
"I can understand your feeling," said Acorn quietly. "I had a great liking for your husband."
"I know. He was in sympathy with you, too...When will I get the money?"
"It is impossible to give you a definite date at this stage. But you were so prompt in sending us the necessary documents that payment should not be unduly delayed."
Vera drew a deep breath of relief.
"Then they never make trouble?" she asked.
"Only in a suspicious case."
"What is that?"
Acorn looked mildly surprised at the inquiry; but as he possessed the conceit of many quiet men, he concluded that the widow wanted an excuse to prolong the interview. Looking at her through his glasses, with intelligent brown eyes, he began to explain.
"On insuring his life, a man contracts to pay an annual premium for a number of years. He must be either a fool, or a rogue, if he contracts to pay more than he can reasonably afford. For instance, the Claims Department might get a set of circumstances like this:
(a) The man is a bird of passage.
(b) He dies young.
(c) He dies after paying only one or two premiums.
(d) He had a negligible income—say £250 per annum, yet he contracts to pay an annual premium of £100.
Acorn paused, to let the explanation sink in, before he added, "In such a case I should certainly advise further investigation before payment."
All Vera's confidence shrivelled away as she listened. After Acorn's explanation, she dared not rouse the least suspicion of her financial soundness. Until the Insurance was paid she must go on posing as a rich widow.
A horseshoe of worry was graven deep between her eyes as she thought rapidly. The outlook was barren of possibility. There was no one to whom she could appeal for help, in confidence, and, in the circumstances, she dared not borrow. She could not even slip up to London, on the frail chance of getting temporary Stage work, without ready money.
All that remained to her was seven shillings and ninepence in her bag.
She put on a bold front as she rose to go.
"Thank you so much," she said. "You've been most helpful."
"If you are anxious to leave the town," advised Acorn, "I can get in touch with your solicitor and transact the business through him."
"Oh, thank you so much. I'll do that."
"Will you give me his address?"
"Of course. I'll send it. I always forget his number. Unless—No, I think I'd rather attend to it myself. It—it gives me something to do."
"I understand. Good-morning."
As he opened the door, the gleam in his eyes rather surprised her. It made her aware that the nonentity could cherish strong feelings, which included dislike of herself.
She had gone half-way down the stairs when she paused at a sudden recollection of her exact position. It was impossible for her to carry on without cash, because she was confronted with a special complication.
People like herself—who never owed money—were the first to be dunned when they wished to obtain goods on credit. The very method which should assure tradespeople of her integrity, only laid them open to premature suspicion.
She decided to take a bold step. Mounting the stairs again, she flung open the door of the office.
"Mr. Acorn," she said in a husky voice, "I want to tell you something in strict confidence. I'm broke to the wide."
The insurance agent swung round in his chair and stared at her.
In that moment, her hope died entirely. She had staked everything on one last throw. And the hard penetrating gaze told her that she had lost.
ACORN made no comment on Vera's statement, but continued to look at her. Then he rose, shut the door, and pulled forward a chair.
"You're sure you wish to tell me anything?" he asked, in a tone which suggested the preliminary warning of the police.
"I must," replied Vera. "You see, when you were talking about a suspicious case just now, I suddenly realised that every word applied to me."
She gulped as she spoke, but Acorn's face only hardened perceptibly. Her heart sank as she noticed his lack of response. She had been counting on her skill as an actress to save the situation—if it could be saved; but her emotion was plainly wasted on Acorn.
"You imply that your husband was a poor man when he applied to me for a Life Assurance Policy?" he asked frigidly.
"No, he was rich then," lied Vera. "He'd never bothered about insuring his life. There was more than enough for me. Besides—he didn't come to you, did he?"
She blessed Puggie Williams' strategy when Acorn looked up sharply, and she was swift to press her advantage.
"I don't want to say anything indiscreet, Mr. Acorn, but I distinctly remember my husband coming home from golf one day and saying that you were always pestering him to insure his life. I admit I was against it, but he said he wanted to put a little business your way as he liked you."
Because he was expecting a pack of traditional lies, the touch of truth jolted Acorn out of his official dignity. He relaxed as he gave a shamefaced laugh.
"I'm afraid we do tout for business," he admitted. "Our profession is overcrowded, like every profession...When did your husband lose his money?"
"I don't know. He only confessed it to me, just before his illness. I think worrying about it pulled him down in the first place."
"That is more than likely. And I am sure you must regret now that you were not sufficiently observant in time."
Vera welcomed the dislike which returned to Acorn's face and voice. It was a sign that he was not sceptical of her tale. She began to realise that he had a pre-conceived opinion of herself, which was the reverse of flattering. If, therefore, she could tell her story in a manner which would support his prejudices, it might carry conviction.
"I know people think I neglected him," she said defiantly. "But I had some reason to be sore. He lost the money through speculation—and most of it was mine. Pa made quite a lot during the War, and I was an only child."
She hoped that she had conveyed the impression that Charlie had married out of his class, as she went on to blacken her character.
"He kept out of the way, so I couldn't notice he was ill. After that, I'm sure I did everything I could."
"Did he lose everything?" asked Acorn.
"Yes. He told me he had only his Life Insurance. I remember he said he was more good to me dead than alive."
"He could have raised money on his Insurance Policy. But, doubtless, you agreed with him?"
"No, because of the Suicide Clause. I didn't know then that it was valid after one year."
"That was unfortunate."
Vera judged the time was ripe for an outburst of natural feeling. Besides, she wanted to blow off steam.
"How can you talk to me like that?" she cried. "Haven't you any heart at all? How do you think I feel when I knew that my husband practically committed suicide, for my sake—and all for nothing?"
Acorn was startled out of his icy calm.
"You must explain that statement," he said sternly.
"Why? I'm not on trial. Besides, if you don't believe me, you can ask Dr. Dubarry. He told me that my husband could have pulled through, if he had the will to live."
Springing to her feet, she impulsively zipped open her bag.
"Look," she cried. "Seven and nine. That's all I have to live on till the Insurance pays up...But perhaps, now, they won't pay at all. Perhaps I've said too much...But you know now why I came to see you. I wanted to ask you for something on account."
Acorn pulled down the corners of his mouth in indecision. Because he disliked Vera, he was inclined to believe her tale. It seemed to be told from the exclusive standpoint of a selfish woman who nursed an injury.
He was too human to let her starve. At the same time, his expenses were heavy and he ran the risk of making a bad debt.
"I'll have to make a few inquiries," he said. "But, if these are satisfactory, I promise you to press for payment. Meantime, will you let me advance you something, privately...Will ten pounds be enough to carry on with?"
He was surprised by Vera's answer, which was not in line with her grasping character.
"Five will do—and I'll be eternally grateful. I hope, for both our sakes, you'll soon be able to pay yourself back."
Directly Vera had gone, Acorn instructed his typist to telephone to Dr. Dubarry's house for his Continental address. When it was supplied by his housekeeper, he wrote to the doctor, asking full information on the details of the late Charles Baxter's last illness. Although he explained that it was a mere formality, pending settlement of an Insurance Claim, two of his questions were rather curious.
He wanted to know: (1) The mental condition and attitude of the deceased, together with the degree of his vitality; and (2) Whether there was any symptoms which were not entirely in accordance with the illness for which he was being treated.
Dr. Dubarry was furious when his holiday was interrupted by business. As he sat on the front, in east-windy sunshine, staring at a sea which his tinted glasses converted to the hue of the Thames Estuary, he cursed the officiousness of Insurance Companies.
His reply, however, cleared the case of any element of doubt. Acorn showed the letter to his wife, as he sat over the fire, drinking the Ovaltine which was her prescription for a good night's rest for the bread-winner. Besides being of proven loyalty and discretion, she always saved him the trouble of explaining the obvious.
"Did you suspect poison?" she asked.
"I had to make certain that his loving wife had not conspired with Williams to get him out of the way."
"But Dr. Dubarry says he was lacking in spirit and just let himself go out."
"Yes, he did her dirty work for her." Acorn's voice was bitter as aloes. "She's provided for, which is all she troubles about."
"All the same she must eat. You'd better rush it through as soon as possible. If not, she'll be coming in to see you every day and upsetting you. Pay up, and forget her."
Acorn took his wife's advice, but he did not hasten to reassure the widow. While she waited, she was driven to secret shifts and personal economies, which included a drastic starvation diet. As she had to keep up appearances, most of her five pounds was paid in wages to the maid, who had begun to inquire about "the master's dying wish."
Vera stared her down.
"You understand, Minnie," she said, "I'm not bound to pay you, by law. But I shall respect my husband's wishes—even if he was wandering, at the time. All the legacies will be paid directly the estate is wound up."
The girl thanked her with a subtle lack of respect. It had already become evident to Vera from trifles, which showed the direction of the wind, that she had suffered socially from the death of her husband. While Charlie's gentlemanly appearance and manners had appealed to the local imagination, she had been accepted, for his sake.
Now that he was in his grave, the town was only waiting for proof to label her an adventuress. She was both a blonde and an undignified widow, in her flapper dress, with an Alice comb in her long fair mop of hair. She was also unconventional in her behaviour to tradespeople, and rather too expert at back-chat.
She was too shrewd not to notice the gradual shrinkage of respect. Instead of the "Madam" of her married life, she was sometimes called "Mum," or even "Miss."
"Once they know I'm broke, I'm finished," she thought.
She had only one hope at this stage. Directly she had news that there was no funds at the Bank, she was driven, by necessity, to violate her own precautionary code. She wrote directly to a certain Mr. Chester Beaverbrook, at an address at Brixton, asking for an immediate loan of ten pounds.
"If any one besides Charlie opens that, they will know I'm on the rocks," she reflected.
It was opened by the Post Office officials, after it had been returned from the Acre Lane boarding-house, with "not known at this address" pencilled on the envelope.
When Vera received it from the Dead Letter Department, her face seemed to shrink visibly. She felt sick with suspense, although she was not worried over Charlie's safety.
"Stick to it, sweetheart," she murmured bitterly. "I'm the sucker, not you. And when you're in a jam, write to me. I'd love it."
The following night, Vera went into the kitchen after Minnie had left, and sat with her knees pressed close to the bars of the stove. While she fed it with rubbish, she began to make out a list of Charlie's clothes. It was her intention to sell them, privately, to a wardrobe-dealer in York, and to tell Minnie that they had been sent to the Church Army.
Presently she heard the postman's knock. He had brought her a note from Acorn—a few typed lines, telling her that she could draw upon him for any reasonable advance of her Insurance, which would soon be paid.
Vera made up the fire and relaxed, for the first time in weeks, over a cigarette. At last she could think of the future and not shrink from it. Every small account would be settled immediately. Minnie should have her fiver—confound her. Charlie's clothes would be sent to the Vicar's wife for the local poor.
Once again she thought of Charlie.
"Wonder where you are, sweetheart. Lording it at the Ritz? Well, one of these fine days you'll be cropping up again."
She did not know that she had already received indirect news of him, that morning, when she read the account of a very ugly incident in her paper.
WHILE Vera's period of anxiety was nearly over Charlie's good time was drawing to its end. The dwindling notes in his case warned him that it was not safe to stay longer at the hotel. During his last week, he had to exercise some economy; he could not choose his meals without regard to price, or tip for every trifling service.
In spite of this omission, he remained popular with the staff. He was easy to please, and always ready to listen to a life-history or story of injustice. Besides, amid the flux of incessant arrivals and departures, he had acquired the status of the oldest inhabitant. Every one liked him for his pleasant unassuming personality, while he was on his toes to render small courtesies to ladies—especially those who were no longer young.
"You haven't forgotten your mother," the mature barmaid told him, when he presented her with a carnation.
"She died before I was born," he replied sadly, and neither of them noticed his slip.
He shook his head. Since marriage ends with the grave, Chester Beaverbrook could truthfully claim bachelor status. All the same, he would have exchanged all the beautiful and fashionable ladies—who were not his to barter—for a sight of Vera.
He used to stare wistfully at the revolving-doors, wishing that he could see a small, jaunty blonde—with one blue eye and the other blacked out by her cap—tripping into the lounge. After rushing to meet her, he would cross to the bureau and engage a suite, as a compliment to his wife.
Meanwhile he was faced with the problem of going away without giving any tips. Like other good men and true, he did not want to be remembered after he was gone, so long as the staff was attentive up to the last minute.
Presently he received an inspiration. Crossing to the bureau, he asked for his bill.
"Are you leaving us?" inquired the clerk regretfully.
"Only for the night. But I might stop a bus, so I can't go away owing you anything."
The clerk smiled cynically at the unnecessary assurance.
"I suppose you will hold my room until to-morrow morning?" went on Charlie. "Then I can leave my luggage and only take what I require for the night."
"Thanks. I'll pay for my dinner, to-night, instead of signing."
His business concluded, Charlie took the lift up to his own floor, where he lingered until he met the chambermaid. With characteristic thought, he would not ring for her, as he had noticed that she was flat-footed.
As he was explaining his plans to her, a big, expensively-gowned lady turned down the short passage where they stood and tried to open her bedroom door. She fumbled so helplessly with her key, that, before the chambermaid could move, Charlie had sprung forward to the rescue.
"Allow me," he said gallantly.
He received no thanks, but a glassy stare of offended dignity, as the lady stumbled into her room and slammed the door behind her.
Charlie raised his brows and shrugged.
"Very sad," he remarked.
"Oh, she's quite a lady," said the chambermaid. "She always behaves quietly in the public rooms. But she likes her drop of tiddley. She just goes to bed with a bottle of brandy, and sleeps it off."
"No, she's all right. It's what she likes. And she's got the money to pay for it."
From the chambermaid's championship, Charlie concluded that the alcoholic lady was generous with tips. Smiling at the thought of his own strategy, he went into his room and began to pack reluctantly. It was not a pleasant job, for he hated the prospect of Brixton. When he had pitched his belongings into his suitcase, he lay down on the bed with a cigarette, and a noon edition of the Standard.
He was conscious of a sense of guilt, for he knew Vera would counsel "Go, while the going's good." But he didn't want to leave his small luxurious quarters. He had reserved his room at the Acre Lane boarding-house, over the telephone, so there was no need to hurry as long as he was there in time for dinner.
As he lay staring up at the ceiling, watching the rings of fading smoke, for the first time he regretted his magnificent gesture when he tore up Puggie's card.
If he were in touch with him he could find out the progress of the Insurance proceedings and know for exactly how long he had to finance himself. It was annoying to stint, in order to accumulate an unnecessary surplus.
Besides, he could not hang out indefinitely—in which contingency he might have applied to Puggie for aid. But he had cut the wires.
As the first real fear of the future thrust its ugly snout up through the clouds of his dream, he resolutely shut his eyes and began to drowse in the warmth. He thought of the girl in the train, and clasped her in a passionate tango until he was jolted back to reality by the conviction that he had chosen the wrong dance. She was too nice a girl to slide and clutch.
The spell broken, his thoughts wandered in a fresh direction. He wondered whether it would be cheaper to leave his suitcase behind him and steal away from the hotel without paying his last bill.
He was trying to calculate the value of his few belongings, when he smelt burning fabric. Springing up, he saw a large black patch, with smouldering edges, spreading over the coverlet from its source—the stump of his cigarette.
In a second he tore it away from the bed and beat out the flame. Then, with panic-stricken eyes, he took stock of the damage. The article, which was made of blue artificial silk, was ruined, and the blankets also were badly scorched.
Breathing heavily, he squeezed the bedspread into the wastepaper basket, grabbed his case, and rushed from the room, slamming the door behind him. Too flurried to ring for the lift, he hurried down the stairs and then forced himself to stroll casually across the lounge.
Fortunately, the friendly clerk at the bureau was concerned about the result of a race, so did not notice his trembling fingers when he counted out some notes. But he only gave half his attention to receipting the bill, while Charlie fumed at the delay.
At any moment the chambermaid might enter the room and discover the catastrophe. Although he had not absconded without paying his account, he was fraudulently evading the consequences of his accident. She would also see that he had removed all his luggage and his little subterfuge might be exposed.
After his popularity, he could not bear the revelation. Worse still, he would be called upon to pay for the damage, which would make a big hole in his reserves.
At last, the leisurely clerk handed him his change.
"See you to-morrow," gasped Charlie, forcing a smile.
He hurried towards the door, waving aside the uniformed youths who seemed to sprout out of the carpet.
"It's all right, son. See you to-morrow."
Then he felt the door banging against him, pushing him from the hotel. He had but one more lion to pass—the commissionaire who wanted to call a taxi.
"No, thanks," Charlie assured him. "I prefer to walk. The case is quite light."
Although his arm was nearly tugged out of its socket, he swung his luggage and went off at the double. When he had turned the corner he changed the case to his other hand, but he felt its weight no longer as he lugged it along the crowded streets.
Everything had been carried through without a hitch. No one knew of the little trouble up in Room 194. In his exhilaration, he hurried down the steps into the Piccadilly Subway, where he stopped at a machine to get a ticket to Charing Cross.
Just as he was putting in his pennies, he was petrified by a sudden recollection. When he tore the bedspread off the blankets, he might not have pinched out every spark. If it were still smouldering, it might set fire to the newspaper at the bottom of the wastepaper basket.
He broke out into a sweat as he wondered whether he ought to retrace his steps, and find out if there was any danger of a blaze. Then he shook his head at the unnecessary risk.
"It's all right," he told himself.
But his guilty curiosity was so strong that he felt impelled to leave his case in the cloakroom and return to the hotel. Standing on the opposite side of the road, he gazed up at the granite pile.
It looked exactly as when he left it—imposing and impressive—immune to any assault of earthquake, flood, or fire. Once again he cursed himself for a fool as he stole into the side street, from which he could get a cross-sectional view of his recent room.
As he stared up at the window it presented no unusual features. It was still open, in proof that the chambermaid had not entered it, for she had a dislike of fresh air, which admitted smuts. He could distinguish the net veiling and the heavier curtains which drew together at night.
He was on the point of turning away when he blinked his eyes incredulously.
A faint red glow was flickering inside the room.
His heart leaped violently as he wondered what he ought to do. His natural impulse was to warn the clerk at the bureau—but, unfortunately, there were complications. It was manifestly impossible for him to return. He had burned his boats, besides the bed-spread.
If he went back at this early stage, the fire would be traced to himself. Instead of getting any credit, he would be subjected to a grilling and held responsible for the cost of the damage, which would be increased by salvage operations.
Once again he was a victim of Fate. He told himself that he must consider Vera. For her sake his name must not appear in the papers. Besides, it was only a small blaze; probably it was only the newspaper, which would soon burn itself out. In any case, if he had seen it first, the next passer-by would raise the alarm. Although he felt a certain responsibility, the fire, undeniably, was an Act of God.
All the same, he felt like a criminal as he sneaked away. But he consoled himself by doses of common sense. His room was at the end of a very short wing, leading from the central corridor. At this time of day, no one would be trapped. There were rows of fire-extinguishers on each floor, while the fire was bound to be discovered before it could spread.
As he hurried back to the Circus, people got in his way, but he thrust them aside with a ruthless relapse from his habitual courtesy. He wanted to curse the women, to stamp on their toes and push them into the gutter. When he reached the Underground Station, he experienced something of the sensation of a coursed rabbit returning to the safety of its burrow. But he dared not linger, lest the police should be already on the track of the firebug.
He ran down the escalator, nearly knocking down a girl, and reached the platform just as a train was rushing out of the Tube. The warm, crowded carriage seemed a little cell of safety as it whirled him away from the scene of his misfortune. None of the passengers stared at him or connected him with any unpleasant episode.
By the time he reached Charing Cross, the hotel had ceased to exist. The long ride in a No. 18 tramcar acted as a further tonic on his nervous system. He rolled along the Embankment, across Blackfriars Bridge, and past the Elephant, with the sensation of entering a safe new world.
The boarding-house was a substantial Victorian building, partly screened from the road by a neglected garden, planted with trees of the evergreen variety. The maid showed the new guest into a dark hall, but through the open door of the dining-room, he could see the red-caked heart of a fire. There was the smell of tea-cake, the strains of wireless, and the shrill notes of feminine voices.
The proprietress—a buxom elderly woman—welcomed him with a Welsh accent.
"You're just in time for tea. We're sitting in the gloaming. Miss Evans, just switch off that noise and give us some light on the subject."
"No, no, not for me," protested Charlie. "Please don't move, ladies. You make such a charming picture."
Then he turned to his hostess and spoke with a throb of genuine feeling.
"You can't imagine what a treat all this is, after an hotel. I feel I've come to a home."
That remark not only melted the proprietress, but appealed to the guests. Before that warm and greasy meal was finished, Charlie had talked himself into general favour.
As he was going up to his room, Miss Evans—the secretary-housekeeper-entertainer—spoke to him.
"'A pity I didn't know you were coming, Mr. Beaverbrook. A letter came for you a few days ago, but I returned it to the P.O."
"What postmark? asked Charlie.
"I never noticed. We get such lots to throw out. What hotel have you been staying at?"
Some instinct warned Charlie to be wary.
"Strand Palace," he lied.
He was glad of his evasion, that evening, when they sat at dinner around one long table. One of the boarders, who went to the City daily, suffered from the delusion that no one else read a paper, so he always told the news to the resident ladies.
"They had a fire at the Monopol to-day," he said presently.
"A bad one?" asked Charlie huskily.
"No, just a couple of rooms gutted. They soon got it under."
"How providential it wasn't at night," remarked a widow. "It is so terrible to think of people being burned in their beds."
"Quite." Charlie threw her an approving glance. "These daylight fires are never serious."
"Well, one poor woman lost her life," said the man with the newspaper. "She was ill and trapped in her room."
Charlie pushed away his plate as the blood rushed up to his head. He felt furious at this unnecessary complication. He wanted to bang on the table and shout out the truth, as the women broke out in a chorus of sympathetic twitters.
"Don't pity her. She had only herself to blame. The way these papers cover up things. Ill? She was drunk."
"Poor soul," said the widow. "Unable to stir, and trapped by flames. Why didn't she ring the bell?"
"Probably unconscious," explained the City man. "She'd be suffocated by the smoke."
As he paused, Miss Evans asked a question which drained the blood from Charlie's brain and left it feeling empty and cold.
"Do they know the cause of the fire?"
"Trust them for that...May I trouble you for the beetroot?"
He stopped speaking to give his attention to the safe transfer of the red dripping slices, from the glass dish to his plate.
"The Insurance chaps always come down, like bloodhounds on the scent," he explained. "You see, it might be deliberate arson."
"Was it?" asked Miss Evans.
"Was what? Oh, the Monopol fire. No, the poor lady had been smoking in bed, so they concluded she'd set the bed on fire. Well, what's the programme for to-night? Cards or billiards?"
"Oh, Mr. Beaverbrook, will you play Lexicon?" asked the widow.
"Enchanted," he replied.
He felt light-hearted as a boy. He was among friends. At that moment, he would not have exchanged the boarding-house for all the grandeur of the Monopol. He was so glad that the poor alcoholic lady had not suffered. Never knew when she passed out. A happy release, when she might have endured agonies from cirrhosis of the liver.
In the gush of his relief, he impulsively went out into the hall and spoke into the telephone, after having inserted his penny in the box, with the reminder that most people forget this act of elementary honesty.
"Is that the Monopol? Chester Beaverbrook speaking. That you, Mr. Clive? Sorry to hear of your fire. Don't trouble to claim for any of my things. I'm called away to the Continent, so can't be bothered about anything."
The clerk replied by a question which made Charlie ring off in a hurry. His eyes looked scared as he went back to the dining-room, for the clerk had put him a poser.
"How did you know it was your room that was burned out?"
ALTHOUGH Charles passed a wakeful night and stayed on the rack for several days, his luck held. Either the young man at the bureau attached no importance to his own query—or his attention had been distracted by a tiresome guest. Whatever the cause, he made no attempt to trace the telephone call.
It was some time, however, before Charles recovered his nerve. Not daring to venture down to the West End, lest he should be recognised, he stayed chiefly at Brixton. Sometimes he took the tram up Brixton Hill and visited the Locarno at Streatham Hill, to watch the dancing. It gave him a pleasant feeling of superiority to criticise the form, although he did not enter into competition with the dancers.
Most of the time he moved in a dream of future opulence, like a monarch who awaits the end of exile. Although the proprietress of the boarding-house gave excellent value for her low terms, he loathed his surroundings, his meals, and his company. But he hid his feelings so successfully that he was soon the most popular boarder.
The residential ladies repaid his attentions with invitations to tea-shops and cinemas. Since they always insisted on paying, because he reminded them of a favourite son—or some equally respectable relative—he had plenty of economical entertainment.
It helped to kill the time until the end of his first month, when his impatience mounted to fever-pitch. Vera had spoken of two months as a possible time-limit. Seven weeks had passed since he left Starminster, so the eighth week was the critical period—which might bring Vera to his release.
Day after day, he waited for a letter or message, only to meet with fresh disappointment. As the third month began to slip away, his anxiety grew acute. The days lengthened, and all the gardens up Brixton Hill had green-tipped bushes and sprouting trees, while he grew perilously near the end of his money. Soon he was driven to wash his socks and handkerchiefs, secretly, in the bathroom, and to brush his teeth—of which he was proud—with salt, stolen from the sideboard, instead of toothpaste.
The urgent need to make a little money turned his thoughts again to Children's Competitions. Little Chester Beaverbrook—aged ten—began to try his skill at crosswords and hidden names.
Unluckily, now that the necessity was vital, he proved inferior to little Charles Baxter, who was a mere luxury-hound. Not a single postal-order was sent to the Brixton boarding-house. It was true that Auntie Flossie printed on her Page: "Your handwriting is charming, dear," but she awarded the prize to some one else.
What enraged him most was the unsporting way in which editors relied on alternative words. The little brutes of capitalists who could afford to buy an extra copy of the paper had an unfair advantage over a worthy young competitor who had begun to count his pence and wring out his socks. Furious at the indirect injustice to himself, Charlie appealed for sympathy to his favourite widow.
"Look at this." He pointed to the Children's Page of a daily paper. "This is a really stiff Competition, yet they only offer a prize of two-and-six. It's contemptible to economise at the expense of children."
Another lady who played bridge—as Sarah Battle played whist—"for the rigour of the game," snorted.
"They should offer nothing. Any child with the right spirit should compete for the sport of the effort."
She was sorry when Charlie slunk out of the room as though he had actually been reproved in public, in proof of his ultra-sensitive disposition.
He went upstairs to re-count his money, although he knew his financial position to the last penny. With stringent economy, he could stay only one week longer at the boarding-house. He knew exactly how the good-natured proprietress tackled the problem of a non-paying guest.
There was a certain old and valued patron for whom a room had to be found, regardless of the resident boarder. Now that he was threatened with "Mr. Jenkins," who would certainly exact preferential treatment in the matter of his own attic, Charlie realised that the boarding-house was the most desirable spot on earth.
He compared it no longer with the splendours of an hotel. His sentimental brown eyes filled with tears as he told himself that he was happy here. The beds were clean, the food well-cooked. He loved the charming elderly ladies who were so cruelly christened "The Tabbies" by the young City workers.
At this crisis, his reaction was characteristic. Vera would have argued that there was a hitch in the Insurance proceedings, but, since they were so near success, they must tread, as though on eggs. It was only a matter of tightening the belt and raising the wind.
But Charlie went to bits, just as if he had coughed his identity to the wide, after having duped the undertaker to regard him as a corpse. Although he was forbidden to write to Vera, he decided to give her a hint that he was in need of immediate help.
"She'd twenty quid," he thought. "She's not had my expenses, having to put up at hotels. She's all right. She can get things on tick, or borrow off old Wright."
Otherwise, of course, he would not dream of adding to her worries. He assured himself of this fact as he composed a diplomatic note.
A man, Charles, who has been in your employ as jobbing-gardener, has applied to me for financial help. He seems a superior type and is almost destitute. Will you let me know by return if this is a deserving case. I do not wish to be imposed on, yet I dare not risk letting this poor fellow starve.
After he had posted the letter his hopes soared. He went to the cinema that afternoon with his favourite widow. The picture was "Nell Gwynne," which seemed a good omen, for he was sure that Vera would "let not poor Charles starve."
But, although he met the postman daily, no reply came from Vera. At the end of his last week of grace, he paid his bill with his usual smile—as though it were his privilege—and went upstairs, to think.
On Monday morning, he spent almost his last coppers in tram-fare to a suburban Palais de Danse, at a safe distance from Brixton. After passing a test successfully, he was allowed to enter the pen and wait to be chosen as a dancing partner. The payment was sixpence, out of which a percentage had to be paid back to the management.
But he was assured by a fellow-gigolo that it was a lucrative job.
"The dances are cut very short," he said, "so, when a special client wishes to retain you, by the hour, it works out quite an expensive entertainment, for the lady."
Unfortunately, Charlie got none of the jam, but only the scrapings from the pot. He felt down on his luck, so he looked it, and was generally passed over. The knowledge that he was a failure was fertiliser to his inferiority-complex.
He moped in his pen in exactly the psychological mood to invite humiliations. Fragile ladies—heavy as lead—trod on his toes, and fat ladies—light as bubbles—criticised his step, although he knew he could dance any one off the floor.
At the end of a week of mental torture, he was still without enough money to pay his bill.
As he was wondering how he could meet the deficit, he had a stroke of luck. His favourite widow, who vaguely reminded him of a white Persian cat, asked him to play Bézique.
After a rapid mental calculation, he gallantly consented. Daylight Saving had come, together with warm April weather, which made the Afternoon Session at the Palais de Danse unprofitable for the pen.
"I warn you I shall cheat," he said with a smile.
After having eased his conscience by confession, and put the lady on her guard, he proceeded to fleece her. She was very short-sighted, and as she was too vain to wear her glasses, she proved an easy victim.
When he went from the room with sufficient cash to pay his bill in full, like an honest man, a very old lady—who dozed all day in her special chair, like a tortoise, opened one horny lid.
"That young man cheated," she declared in a deep bass voice.
The brainless widow smiled, for she was not at all simple. But she had seen a pair of Charlie's socks which he had forgotten to remove from the bathroom, and she wished to make a small contribution to his laundry bill.
"So did I," she said. "It was all fun. He's exactly like my own son who was lost at sea."
"So was my husband lost at sea," grunted the old woman. "And when he was half-seas over. The way that young man resembles every one's relatives would mean scandalous inter-marriage, if it were true."
While the ladies discussed him Charlie heard the postman's knock and ran downstairs to the hall. An official letter awaited him on the slab. It was from the Dead Letter Department, and when he opened it, it contained his own letter to Vera.
On the envelope was scrawled, "Gone away from this address."
CHARLIE felt the furnace-fumes of passion rising to his head as he stared at the few words which held the history of the case. They told him that there had been no delay over the Insurance. Vera had received the cheque and had gone away from Starminster, leaving no address behind.
It was deliberate treachery. She had double-crossed him, for she did not mean to be traced. At this moment she was probably on the Continent, or on her way to the States. She knew his address, yet had not written. Had the letter been sent—and gone astray, in that case she would have come herself to the boarding-house.
He laughed hollowly as he asked a question of his white-lipped reflection in the mirror.
"Why should she come? I'm only her husband."
He reminded himself that he was the perfect dupe. He had fulfilled his share of the bargain faithfully. He had financed the scheme. Even if he felt uneasy sometimes, when Vera and Puggie whispered together in corners, he had trusted them too implicitly to expect anything but reciprocal treatment.
And here he was, without funds, stranded in London.
That evening, he had a most disastrous Session at the Palais de Danse. On his way to the bus, the most popular dancing-partner—who was always engaged by the hour—condescended, from the peak of his popularity, to patronise the failure.
"D'you mind a hint, old man? You dance quite well, but—could you leave off those glasses? All right, you know, for Henry Hall or Harold Lloyd, but they're no good without pep and personality. Make you look like a schoolmaster, you know. You don't mind, old man?"
"I'm only too glad to take a tip from an expert," Charlie assured him.
"Oh, just luck, old man. You'll come to it."
Although Charlie was raging inwardly, he turned on the winning smile, which was the secret of his popularity. But he got even later with the star-partner, for he lay awake on purpose to insult him.
"One last word of advice, my good fellow," he sneered into his pillow. "Stick to your fourth-rate suburb. Never venture to the West End. We dance with our brains—not our toes."
Suddenly he remembered the Tango dancer, whose complexion—according to the girl, Peggy—had come out of a bottle.
"That's it," he cried excitedly. "That's my solution."
When he awoke, some hours later, his exhilaration had died down, and he felt depressed at the thought of the ordeal ahead of him. However, he was driven by necessity to carry his resolution into practice. He paid, therefore, two visits: the first, to a pawnbroker, where he pledged his watch—and the second, to a toilet saloon.
He felt acutely humiliated during the lengthy operation of having his hair dyed, for he had leisure to reflect on his future. Weeks, months, even years of sitting in a pen, waiting to be chosen by fat women who wore elastic girdles instead of restraining boned corsets.
The little underground room was close and steamy, and smelt of hot hair. It nauseated him, while he suspected the hairdresser—who had a shock of beautiful silver curls, of veiling contempt under professional flattery.
When at last he got out of the chair, he shrank from his unfamiliar reflection in the glass. Glancing at it out of the corner of his eyes, he paid his bill and slunk out of the shop.
It was not until he was outside in the street that he realised the future complications. He would have to explain the transformation when he returned to the boarding-house. Feeling miserably self-conscious, and shrinking from the spring sunshine, he lunched at an A.B.C. in order to postpone the ordeal.
After he had spun out the eating of a poached egg, he took a cheap seat at the cinema, seeking, not entertainment, but a refuge. As he stared indifferently at the pictures, he repented bitterly his visit to the toilet saloon. He had only forfeited his Starminster title of "a gentleman," and turned himself into a painted mountebank.
He stayed inside the cinema until he was forced to go, by the pangs of hunger. When he reached the boarding-house, the first gong was being banged. Putting on his glasses again and pulling his hat low over his eyes, he ventured into the hall.
Miss Evans stopped—gong-stick suspended—to stare at him. To his surprise, she recognised him, for she laughed.
"I didn't know you at first," she told him. "Going to a Fancy Dress as a Sheik?"
"Yes," he lied weakly, postponing the inevitable confession.
"I hope she's worth it. Good hunting. Oh, here's a wire for you."
As Charlie ripped open the envelope, he could scarcely credit the good news which flashed before his eyes.
"Meet me seven under clock Victoria—Vera."
After the first shock of relief, he was smitten by a familiar sensation of guilt. He could imagine Vera's biting sarcasm when they met. Fortunately, Miss Evans had recognised him, or she might have rejected him as an impostor.
"When did this come?" he asked.
"Soon after you went out this morning," replied Miss Evans. "Why? Is it important?"
"I might have saved myself a lot of trouble and expense."
"Oh, can't she come? Is the Fancy Dress off?"
"Definitely off. Miss Evans, do I look a fearful bounder?"
"Oh, not too bad. Besides, they say love is blind."
"Let's hope so. I shan't be back to-night. Don't be shocked. It's my wife."
Miss Evans gave a flat little laugh.
"Married? What will your ladies say?"
"Oh, they won't miss me. But I shall miss them. I'd like to wish them all 'Good-bye,' only—" He touched his brown face and added, "I want them to remember me."
"We shall miss you," said Miss Evans gruffly.
He smiled at her as he held out his hand.
"I've been so happy here. Thank you so much—for everything. I wonder...May I kiss you?"
His manner was as simple as a boy's when he returns thanks for a party, and Miss Evans could appreciate the quality of his kiss, for—like every good woman of over thirty—she had received the Quota.
Meals were early at the boarding-house, so the Stockwell tram took Charlie to Victoria, in good time for his appointment. He was first to take up his station under the clock, and as the minutes crept on, he experienced the familiar qualms and doubts.
It was five past seven when Vera came, while Charlie was scanning the shifting crowd, in vain, for the jaunty little figure. He stared at her, in surprise, before he spoke. It was not only her new and expensive outfit which made him pause, for she walked with a limp and her head was bandaged.
"Vera," he cried, his voice choked with emotion. "I can't believe it's really you."
She turned round sharply at the familiar voice, stared at him with incredulous eyes, and then threw her arms around his neck.
"Why, sweetheart," she said, "what have you done to yourself? You look marvellous. I never thought my own husband could give me a thrill."
She did not know that she made history in that sentence, when she slew Charlie's inferiority-complex, and—at the same time—sealed her doom.
Charlie's thoughts rushed instantly to the girl in the train.
"I thrill you, do I?" he asked. "But what's the matter with you?"
"I'll tell you when we're eating. I've got a suite at the Grosvenor. Just to celebrate."
Charles entered the hotel as our First Parent might have re-entered Paradise, had the Edict been withdrawn. Now that it was over, he could appreciate the boarding-house era, because of the joy of contrast. As they sat in the restaurant, he noticed that more than one smart woman looked at him with interest, while Vera was frank in her admiration.
"I can't take my eyes off you," she declared.
He could understand that, for he had the same difficulty with his reflection in the mirror. He realised now that he was just as striking as the tango-dancer, but infinitely better-looking. The bottled sunburn threw up the polish of his black hair and the whiteness of his teeth. It also revealed a touch of the Orient in his thick well-cut lips. His large dark eyes no longer suggested a sentimental dog of affectionate nature, but hinted at leashed amours.
"Why have you kept me waiting so long?" he asked.
"Couldn't help it. You see, the Insurance people came across all right, so I tidied up at Starminster and went on to Scarborough, as I dared not hare straight to you. And then I would get mixed up in a car smash."
Charlie gave a cry of genuine concern. He was fond of Vera, while he realised that—had she been killed—his fortunes would have been wrecked.
"Were you badly hurt?" he asked.
"Concussion. I was knocked out for days and knew nothing. That's why I recovered so soon. I rested my brain—and it needed it after the last bit of Starminster."
"Why didn't you let me know?"
"I was afraid to let the nurse write, for fear the insurance was keeping a tab on my letters. I was horribly worried about you, but I had to wait."
"So had I. It was hell."
She smiled at the passion in his voice.
"What shall we do now," she asked. "A show, or get tight for once in my life? I'm a lame duck. Can't dance."
Charlie chose a straight play, which bored Vera, but which might appeal to the taste of a nice girl. Feeling secure from recognition, he searched for her amid the audience in vain.
He was compensated for his disappointment on his return to the luxury of their suite.
"I shan't go back to Brixton," he confided as he came out of the bathroom, after a long scented soak. "That place got right under my skin. Only one bathroom, and all the enamel worn off the bottom of the bath. Revolting. I'll send them a cheque, to-morrow."
"No, I'll go and settle up," said Vera. "I've got to pack up your things and take them away with me."
"Can't we buy new ones?"
"We can. But the police like their fun. Unless we cover up the traces, we make it too easy for them."
Charlie frowned at the reminder, before he drew Vera on his knee and stopped her mouth with a kiss.
But in the middle of the night, Vera remembered something else. It was such a disquieting memory that she awoke her husband.
"Charlie," she asked, "who locked Miss Belson in your wardrobe?"
"Miss Belson? I don't know her. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do."
Now that he was hidden from her by the darkness, the spell of Charlie's new personality was broken. The face might be that of a handsome stranger, but the voice was the familiar quaver of Charlie Baxter, when he had been convicted of a lie.
"I found her there, myself, not long after you had gone," she told him.
"Alive?" he asked sharply.
"She'd about half a puff left. But the doctor brought her round."
"Well?" She heard the hiss of his drawn-in breath. "What did she say?"
"Some fairy-tale about being frightened and locking herself in."
"Well, what's wrong with that?" asked Charlie in a jaunty voice. "Good-night, darling. I want to go to sleep."
"Not until you've told me the truth. I know you found her snooping around and locked her in. The key was turned. But—do you realise that you went away without telling any one where she was?"
"I did. I left a note."
"About the damn birds."
"I had to be careful. But I trusted you to read between the lines."
"But how did you know I was coming back to the cottage that night?"
"I banked on it. I knew you wouldn't trust me to turn off the gas."
"So you took the risk?"
"It was her or us. I had to risk something...Besides, she wasn't hurt. I was most gentle with her."
His voice was too glib to satisfy Vera. Although her instinct warned her not to shirk a thorough explanation of her husband's motives, she shrank from asking any more questions. Pressing her face into the pillow, and drawing the clothes over her head to deaden the sound of regular breathing from the other bed, she realised something of the appalling agony of suffocation.
Suddenly she grew afraid of the stranger who was Chester Beaverbrook.
VERA lost vital ground on that first night, when she shrank from forcing her husband out into the open. He was then still under the domination of her stronger nature, and could have been bullied into his former submission. As it was, he made the fatal discovery that he could slip from under her thumb, by evasive tactics.
Like the frog that tried to jump out of the well, she advanced, but made no actual progress. When she awoke the next morning, she was her usual sane and cheery self, ready for enjoyment. She was ready, therefore, to fall in with the suggestion of a holiday.
They took a small furnished flat in Shaftesbury Avenue and spent all their time in amusement. Charlie was clever enough not to alarm Vera by extravagant expenditure. They engaged a daily woman to do the work, took their meals at popular restaurants, and patronised cinemas instead of theatres.
Neither was bored by the exclusive company of the other. Vera could spend a whole day in one of the big shops, pricing goods, having refreshment, and watching mannequin parades, while she was too good a sport to prevent Charlie from going to dance halls, because she was still lame.
Some time had slipped away before she realised that they had not tackled the problem of the conservation of their capital. The country cottage was still her goal, but it remained as far away as ever. Whenever she mentioned the future to Charlie, he always sidetracked her.
As a matter of fact, no argument or pressure could make him leave London, which sheltered the girl in the train. The resolution to meet her again had become a fixation.
He plucked up courage to ring up the Ladies Club, which she had given as her address, but learned that she had only stayed there for a few nights, and the secretary knew nothing of her movements. Then he remembered that she had told the writer that she was devoted to dancing. So, every night, he went to a different night club or dance hall, in the hope of meeting her.
Vera did not know that she had grown lonely, until she realised that she was always thinking of Puggie Williams. Like the chiffon veil which protects a fading film star from the camera's cruelty, so Time had blurred the memory of his red-veined face. She only remembered his distinction and his cheery companionship.
One evening, as she was skimming the paper, she mentioned him to Charlie.
"It says here, some earl's youngest son has just returned home, after a long absence abroad. Wonder if it's Puggie. I wish he'd show up here, when he's bored with his grand friends."
"If he does, I'll throw him out," declared Charlie.
"That's the spirit, sweetheart. A little newspaper publicity is all we need to prevent that sinking feeling...Are you jealous?"
Vera was thrilled by the inscrutable smile which accompanied his admission.
"The poor mug," he thought.
It amused him to refer to the smoking hell in which he writhed, whenever he thought of other men in Jennifer's life. Whenever she danced, alien arms would hold her. At the worst, she might even be engaged to be married.
At the thought of that non-existent stranger, Charlie felt unable to endure the flat any longer. With his customary kiss to Vera, he drifted out into the night. After an hour of aimless wandering, he remembered a vague invitation, over a bar, to a certain dance club.
It was one of those snowball parties, where a friend brings another friend and the links get entangled, so that Charlie's original host—a respectable Scot, and a Writer to the Signet—had no knowledge of some of his uninvited guests.
Otherwise, it is certain that he would never have introduced Chester Beaverbrook to Miss Jennifer Burns, whom he had known since she was a child.
Chester could hardly credit his luck when he recognised the girl in the train. Every night, he had searched for her in vain; yet, directly he acted on the spur of the moment, he found her waiting for him.
He noticed that she was subtly changed. She had been adorable in tweeds, but in black velvet and silver lamé, she was magnificent as a young goddess. She looked taller than ever, but although London had done much for her appearance, the credit for that belonged to high-heeled sandals and a long slit skirt.
But in spite of her new poise and distinction, she remained, at heart, a raw country girl, who could still thrill to the Lights of London. The night club was a new experience, for her first months in a city had been quiet. She had met very few men, with the exception of an Alan Pole, who had rooms in the same house as herself.
It was not surprising, therefore, that she was excited by Charlie's spectacular good looks and his perfect dancing.
"I thought I could dance," she confessed frankly. "But I'm not in your class. I feel I want to go home and practise walking on stilts. It's all I'm fit for."
"You make me dance like this," Charlie told her.
She enchanted him with her ringing laughter.
"Oh, no," she said, quoting from her notebook, "I'm not one of those passionate women, whose name begins with 'Z'. I'm not the type that inspires...Talking of names, I didn't catch yours."
"What a beautiful name. It sounds exactly as though you'd invented it."
"I did." Charlie smiled inscrutably. "I thought it might please you."
"I'm thrilled by it. My name is—"
She crinkled up her eyes in astonishment.
"How did you know that? Mr. Burns always introduces me as 'Jane'"
Another egg-shell in his path; but he was walking on air, so could not crash.
"Instinct," he explained. "I knew you could not be a Plain Jane."
Jennifer laughed again and changed the subject. In spite of her youth and inexperience, she was beginning to find his compliments too stressed.
"I suppose you're a lawyer?" she asked. "Mr. Andrews told me I was going to meet his legal friends."
"Count me out. I've merely been roped-in.'
"I see. One of the many interesting people who 'are in Town to-night.' But—what is your work?"
"You've heard of a gentleman at large. I can't call myself a gentleman, because gentlemen don't call themselves names—but I'm at large."
He had expected Jennifer to be impressed, so was disappointed when she wrinkled her short nose.
"How dull. I adore work. I think shop is the most interesting subject of any."
In spite of his statement, she tried to sum him up for her notebook of "types." His slim graceful figure, varnished black hair, and romantic clean-shaven profile combined to suggest a model for a gigolo. She knew she could look expensive on a small expenditure, owing to her impressive build, so she wondered if she were marked down as a future patroness.
At the thought, she became too conscious of the pressure of his arm.
"Let's sit somewhere," she said. "I want to watch. I've never been to a night club before."
The remark raised her on a pedestal.
"Like it?" he ventured.
"No, I loathe it."
She gazed with repulsion at the small room, with its gaudy futuristic decorations. The atmosphere was torrid as a jungle. Cracked faces swam past her; old people like rouged vultures, clasping devitalised partners like plucked chickens. To her Celtic imagination, she could see Youth actually drowning in the tired eyes of girls.
"I came here to collect material for a book," she told Charlie. "You know, atmosphere and types. I must get realism."
"What sort of a book?" he asked.
"Crime. Of course, I shall concentrate on the psychological aspect—the mind of the criminal. But I've got to muck up poisons, and drugs, and criminal law."
"For the trial, of course."
Charlie began to smile between half-closed lids.
"There's no 'of course'," he told her. "If he's clever, he will not be caught."
"But he's bound to be, eventually," declared Jennifer. "All criminals are terribly vain, and under-rate other people's intelligence. Besides that, they have single-track minds. They find a thing works the first time, so they're led on to try to repeat a success. It stands to reason the police know exactly what to look for."
Charlie gazed with admiration at this clear-eyed clever girl. With typical vanity, he wanted to boast to her about his own successful fraud. There were no repellent details, no blood or cruelty. Fortunately, however, prudence reminded him of a safer road to her attention.
"I can tell you all about drugs and poisons," he told her. "I've walked a hospital."
"And I can put you wise to any legal snag. I've read law, too. The fact is, I think no one should confine his time to a single profession. Otherwise, you acquire a single-track mind."
As he was speaking the truth, it was rather hard on him when Jennifer began to regard him as an accomplished liar. To his dismay, she treated his confidence as a joke.
"What else have you done? I'm sure you sang in the choir, and your voice always soared above the rest."
"I did. And it did. Always."
"You'd find community singing a bit of a strain. Were you the vicar's pet?"
"Well, he said some very nice things about me—when he buried me."
As he expected, Jennifer laughed. But she also suspected a certain type of humour.
"You mean—when he married you?"
"No." His voice throbbed with conviction. "I'm still waiting for the girl."
"And my party's waiting for me. Good-night."
The blow fell so unexpectedly that Charles was stunned by shock. He had not realised that this re-union was not eternal. His ideal was going completely out of his life again; and she informed him of the fact casually, unconscious that she was dooming him to a separation worse than death.
"Shall we meet again?" he asked.
"Perhaps. This year, next year—"
"No, seriously. Don't you want your medical and legal data?"
He used the right term to arrest her attention; and while she hesitated, he pressed home his advantage.
"What about a cocktail at the Ritz? I'll come prepared to answer all your questions."
To his surprise, she smiled eagerly.
"I'd love to. But I'm not in society, you know. I work in an office. A literary agent. But they don't encourage private calls, so I'll give you the number of my boarding-house."
Jennifer drove home in a triumphant mood. She had never been to the Ritz, and it promised more copy. The evening had been successful, and as regarded her work, was rich with future possibilities.
In her blindness—she actually blessed her luck.
CHARLIE BAXTER was a gentleman, and Chester Beaverbrook carried on the tradition. His intentions towards Jennifer were strictly honourable. He told himself that she possessed the qualities he admired most—breeding, brains, education, health, style, charm, class. So he decided to marry her.
The little fact that he had one wife already presented no obstacle. All he needed was sufficient money for two separate establishments. He returned to the flat with his head so full of his second wife, that he had to wake up his first wife, to tell her the news.
"Vera," he called. "Wake up. I want to talk to you. Have you realised our money won't last for ever."
Vera shot up in bed—a grotesque little figure in vivid violet pyjamas, to match the purple bedroom. She had been too slack to remove her make-up properly, and she stared up at her husband through spiked black lashes.
"So it's dawned on you at last?" she said. "But what made you wake up and dream?"
He began to undress, pitching his clothes about the room in his excitement.
"We've got to get more money," he said.
"Where from?" yawned Vera.
"The insurance, of course."
"How? Are you going to die again?"
"No. It's a sign of a single-track mind to repeat a success."
Vera stared at him in surprise.
"Who told you that?" she asked.
"A college girl."
Charlie could not resist the temptation of boasting, even to his wife. As he studied his profile in the mirror, he did not notice that she was watching him closely.
"Perhaps they don't teach insurance in college," she said. "Did your girl-friend suggest anything else?"
"No. This time, I'm going to buy a slop-shop in the East End and have a fire."
Vera gave a sharp cry of protest.
"No. Charlie, don't you ever think?"
"Think? I like that. When I've just handed you a first-class idea."
"But, sweetheart." Vera looked at him with repulsion, while she spoke slowly and patiently, as though to an idiot child. "Don't you realise that, down in the slums, they pack them in with a shoehorn? There'll be families overhead, with lots of children. If you start a fire, they'll be trapped. How can you be so cruel?"
"Cruel? I?" Charlie was genuinely hurt. "I don't want to burn babies. The idea. I only want to burn down my own shop."
"I see. Another of your little risks. Well, you listen to me. If you start anything, I'll go straight to the insurance and warn them you're a firebug."
He could tell that she was in earnest, so he went sullenly to bed. Presently he made another proposition.
"Let's ask old Puggie Williams to stay with us."
Vera, who was on the point of dozing, was jolted awake.
"I thought you were jealous of him," she said.
"I am. But I can use him."
"Then ask him to come."
"He won't for me. We had a difference. But he'll come for you."
"Yet you're jealous...All right, honey, that's one more little score against you. Only one. But you've no idea how the ones are mounting up."
From that night, Vera noticed the change in her husband. Now that he had found Jennifer he went out no more at night. But in spite of this apparent wish for her company, she wondered if he were conscious of her presence, as he lay on the divan, smiling at his own thoughts. Sometimes his lips moved, as though he were talking to some one.
Baffled and perplexed, she wrote to Puggie Williams. A few days later, he arrived at the flat. His face was more inflamed than ever, but his appearance suggested the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. There was no doubt that he knew how to choose his tailor and how to wear his clothes.
Vera gave him an off-hand greeting, although she wanted to hug him, while he was frankly moved.
"Like old times," he said, looking around with watery eyes. "Here we are, three little pigs, and we're not afraid of the Bad Big Wolf any more. Bless you, Vera, old child. And so this is Chester Beaverbrook? Well, upon my Sam."
Pleased by his admiration, Charlie produced the whisky.
"Say when," he remarked affably.
As Vera had expected, it was not long before Charlie introduced the subject of the new insurance fraud. To her disappointment, Puggie pricked up his ears and looked intelligent.
"My palm itches," he said. "I can always do with chink. That thousand of mine doesn't look healthy. Too pecked about."
"The risk," Vera reminded him.
"It's the risk that appeals, my child. Can't stick tigers any longer. I haven't got the eyesight or the cash. But a second shot at the insurance would be the hell of a risk."
"Oh, you're mad—both of you," wailed Vera.
"Not me. Of course, it would kill a sensitive chap like Charlie, but not me. I've been in quod. It's not too bad. Good company, you know. It's healthy for a soak like me. I come out, all made-over...Besides, it's good for my self-respect. Outside, I'm a blackguard. Inside, I'm top boy of my class. I always do what I'm told and hit it off with the warders...What do you suggest, Charlie?"
"I thought of a fire," explained Charlie eagerly.
To his disgust, Puggie shook his head.
"Too late. It's been overdone."
"Then, I suppose I shall have to die again."
"You can't, old son. We've buried Charlie Baxter, and Chester Beaverbrook hasn't been born. We must produce a birth certificate."
"Forge one?" asked Puggie. "Sorry, not in my line. Vera will have to be the corpse."
"Die? Me? Now you listen to me, both of you."
Vera began to talk, or rather, to rave. She clenched her fists and shook her hair in various vehement variations on her original theme. When at last she stopped through sheer exhaustion, Puggie winked at Charlie.
"Lady says 'No'. Pity. I know a peach of a chap for the job. Dr. Ruddy. It's a crime not to use him while he's still on the register."
"Could you depend on him?" asked Charlie.
"You could depend on him not to come when you sent for him, or if he did come, you could depend on him to be plastered. Only say the word and I'll bring him round for a drink."
"No," declared Vera.
She still retained her authority, so the matter was shelved. Puggie slipped easily into his old niche in the household. Apparently there was no change in the relationship of the three. Charlie was his usual pliant, pleasant self—alternately petted and bullied by Vera—while Puggie maintained the advantage of his neutral standing.
All the same, he detected a difference, which led him to keep unobtrusive watch on his host's movements. For some, time he drew blank, until one evening he saw Charlie in the Ritz with a girl. He was swift to sum up types, although he saw only Jennifer's back, and he was assured that this was not the usual affair.
Vera's day was over.
His weak dissipated face was stiff with concern when he got back to the flat.
"Vera, old child," he said, "I'm all steamed-up about you and Charlie."
"I know," she said instantly. "He's got another girl."
"Not 'another,' Vera."
She coiled round on the black-and-gold divan and began to smoke fiercely. Suddenly he realised that she had become smaller, as though she were being shrivelled by some secret fear.
"I'm sick of this racket," she said. "I want to get out. But Charlie won't come. He pulls me with him. Spending. Spending. What's the end of it?"
Puggie realised that she was in the right mood to listen.
"If you could clear out this minute, would you go?" he asked.
"Yes. It's come to that."
"Well, then, with me?"
"No. Sorry, Puggie, but I'm through with men. You can't depend on them. They called me the Merry Widow in Starminster. A fat lot they knew me."
Puggie gulped manfully at the rebuff.
"Then, listen to me, kid," he said. "Hang on to the insurance. It's in your name and it's yours. Clear out with it."
"No, I'm not a rat."
"Then start the new deal and let Charlie cash in for the blooming lot. That'll square him. He only wants money. I'll bring Dr. Ruddy round to-morrow. You kick the bucket, like a good kid, and then cut...Honestly, you're not sitting pretty."
As she bit her lip and hesitated, he urged her further.
"I want to fix it that, whatever happens, you won't get the rap for the other business. They'll be kept separate, in watertight compartments. No connection between Mrs. Charles Baxter, Widow, and the late Mrs. Chester Beaverbrook...That's why I want you to make a clean getaway. You're too good for this muck."
Vera's eyes grew wistful. The flat held the stale heat of summer. It smelt of dust and petrol from the street. Suddenly she saw a cottage garden, stewing in clean sunshine, and complete with apple-trees and bee-hives. She wore a lilac sun-bonnet and pumped water from a well.
"It's Charlie," whispered Puggie. "I don't trust him."
"Why not? He'd never hurt me. He's too tender about suffering. He'd squirm at blood or bruises."
"True, oh Queen. But he can't imagine what he doesn't see."
Vera remembered Miss Belson. Charlie had assured her that he anticipated her release. But he had cut it suspiciously fine.
Suddenly she shuddered.
"All right," she said. "I'll die."
ALTHOUGH Charlie was excited by her surrender, Vera refused to discuss the new fraud.
"I'll come across with my stuff when it's wanted," she promised.
"That's now. Pronto," said Puggie. "I'll have to get you insured at once. Charlie must keep out of this. In the ordinary way, of course, he'd inherit as your husband; but he's not exactly married to you, is he?"
"We can get re-married," suggested Charlie.
"We can't risk complications," decided Puggie. "Remember this, Chester. Vera is your wife, or your lady-friend, according to the standard of the neighbours. But you've no connection with Charlie Baxter's widow."
"But can't she make a will leaving it to me?"
"No, you mug. Mrs. Charles Baxter prefers to stay alive and enjoy her insurance money. Besides, what's the idea of letting lawyers in on this? The fact is, you two had better give each other the air. I don't mind playing ball with Vera, while Charlie prowls round on his lonesome."
As Vera was swift to notice, her husband raised no objection. She was so concerned by his lack of jealousy, that she did not remark that Puggie displayed none of his former caution. There was an ironic glint in his watery eyes, as though he proposed to play a lone game which amused him.
"Now we're old hands at the game," said Charlie in a lordly tone, "I'm out for ten thousand this time."
The figure caught Vera's wandering attention.
"That means a bigger premium," she objected.
Although Puggie knew that she wanted to conserve her capital, he did not support her.
"You're younger than Charlie, so the premiums will be lower," he said. "And you'll probably pay one only...The real question is, will this little shrimp pass the insurance doctor?"
He lost no time in bringing Dr. Ruddy round to the flat. He proved to be a good-natured shambling giant, with shaggy grey hair and moustache, and clouded blue eyes. In his youth, when he had shown brilliant promise, he wrote the following impromptu rhyme in a lady's album:
"The narrow paths that lead to fame,
Are difficult and risky,
While thirst for it is often quenched
By Scotch or Irish whisky."
It proved to be his own epitaph. Yet, if he liked work too little, and whisky too well, he managed to retain a large practice, in a poorish neighbourhood, by charm of personality and definite skill at a pinch.
His arrival on the scene was the signal for Fate—spinning overhead—to introduce the first dark threads into her loom.
The following night Vera caught her finger in the mincing-machine, and Dr. Ruddy was sent for. Although he was not sober, he actually came, chiefly because he had a pleasant recollection of the whisky.
He had been charmed by Vera in her capacity of hostess, for he was used to the brand of matron who hid the decanter; and he liked her still more as a patient, because of her pluck.
It was Charlie who insisted on the use of chloroform when the hand was dressed. Dr. Ruddy, who was in a very mellow sentimental mood, was touched by the husband's sensibility, while even Puggie was impressed by it.
There was no doubt that Charlie suffered Vera's pain by proxy. The pallor of his lips proved that his compassion was genuine, and he winced every time Vera grimaced.
"All the nerves are at the finger-tips," he told Dr. Ruddy.
"I'm qualified," growled the doctor. "Are you?"
Charlie helped with the bandages when Ruddy's fingers proved too unsteady, and was complimented on his deftness. Afterwards, Dr. Ruddy stayed on at the flat into the small hours, drinking and yarning.
He went away in such a confused state that he never noticed that he had left his chloroform-bottle behind him. When he discovered its loss several days later, he was unable to trace it through a fog of houses.
Charlie found it the next morning, and went to Vera for orders.
"Shall I take it round to his surgery?"
"Why should you?" she snapped. "You're not his errand-boy. If he wants it he can send for it."
"Oh, poor chap. Shall I ring him up and tell him where it is?"
"No. I don't want that old whisky-hound here again."
"Not until you stage your big dying-scene," Puggie reminded her.
He had noticed that Charlie was in excellent spirits, after moods of depression, and he guessed the cause. At last, he was going to meet Jennifer at the Ritz. Whenever he had rung up previously, she always pleaded a previous engagement.
As he suspected, another man was responsible for her reluctance. Alan Pole, who boarded at the same house, was neither rich nor handsome, while apparently he possessed a double-track mind. That is to say, like many Englishmen, he was well-informed on most subjects, but could only talk of two, Rugby football and insurance.
He took Jennifer to Wembley, to see a cup-final, and he never noticed that she got drenched in the rain and missed her tea, in the glory of the contest. As for the insurance part, he occupied a position, which was not impressive, in the office of a big company.
Although he was so ordinary, he and Jennifer were drawn together. They had much in common, for, apart from her sophisticated style, the girl was a simple homely soul. In spite of her opposition, she was influenced by Alan's arguments when he tried to dissuade her from meeting Charlie.
"It's positively dangerous," he said. "You admit now that your friend, Andrews, didn't know the chap from Adam. He's only a pick-up, and he'll probably pick your pocket, if nothing worse. What do you know about him?"
"I know he's very handsome and dances like a dream," replied Jennifer.
"That's one for me. But I didn't pick my face. I don't like it any more than you do...Fallen for him?"
"Of course not. Besides, I'm only meeting him for half an hour at the Ritz. I'm not bringing him back to my bedroom."
"Well, if you must go, do be careful. Don't tell him anything about yourself."
Because she saw that he was really worried, Jennifer promised to exercise extreme discretion. And neither of them knew that Alan had given her some fatal advice.
Probably because she was on guard, Jennifer was not so impressed by Charlie at their second meeting. The daylight revealed a meretricious quality about his good looks. She was reminded vaguely of an actor who had not removed his make-up. Although still strikingly handsome, he looked the type of man whom London mothers warn their children to avoid, when they want to know the time.
But he stared at her so long and thirstily that she grew uneasy.
"Do I look so awful?" she asked. "I had to come straight from the office."
"What office?" he asked.
"A literary agent."
She was about to tell him, when she remembered Alan's warning. So, although subterfuge was foreign to her, she substituted another well-known name.
And Fate wove a second dark strand into her fabric.
The cocktail re-union was not a success, for Jennifer was disillusioned, while Charlie was nervous. His vanity told him that he was not impressing her as a cultured man-of-the-world, while she constantly baffled him with her specialised questions.
So he began to boast. Although she drew him on with all the correct comments, he had the uneasy impression that, in reality, she considered him a wholesale liar. Whenever this suspicion flashed across his mind, he floundered so badly that Jennifer had to come to his rescue, and haul him out of the conversational morass.
On one occasion, she was teased by a vague memory, like the whir of a mosquito's wing.
"I wonder—" She broke off to frown. "Have I met you before?"
"I've never met you."
Although she could not understand why he seemed so alarmed, she was interested to observe that his eyes had altered. Instead of being soft and swimmy, they suddenly hardened to the startled glare of a cornered beast of prey.
"Perhaps you've seen some one like me on the screen," he suggested.
"Lots," she assured him, speaking rather too quickly.
Luckily, he was flattered by her reply.
"When will you meet me again?" he asked.
"Oh—I'm so busy," she told him.
"But you must. You make me feel I've failed you. It's so long since I was in collar, but I'll brush up by next time. Won't you give me a second chance? I don't want to boast, but I've probably forgotten more than the men you know have ever learned."
"You've been most helpful," Jennifer assured him. "If I've seemed dull, it's because I've been taking mental notes. The Ritz will be in my novel."
"Yes. You'll be the prisoner in the dock."
Jennifer allowed him to take her home, as a compensation for his disappointment when she refused to make a definite engagement. She insisted on travelling by tube, since she distrusted the opportunities of a taxi. It was Charlie's chance to reverse her opinion of him, when he alone, of all the seated males, offered his place to an elderly woman. She could see that his action was spontaneous, so to reward him further for his kindness she invited him inside, when they reached the boarding-house.
The ladies in the lounge were impressed by her handsome escort, but Alan Pole glowered at him and then pointedly turned his back, to avoid an introduction.
When Charlie had gone, he lost no time in tackling Jennifer.
"Not my affair, of course, but I wish you wouldn't go about with that wop."
"I knew you'd say that," crowed Jennifer. "You've got the correct masculine complex. A man can't be handsome and moral all at once."
"All the same, I know that chap's not on the level. You can't fool men about men."
Jennifer gave her rich chuckle.
"Suppose I tell you all about him," she said. "To begin with, I need not be frightened of him, for he's far more afraid of me. He's a terrible coward. If ever he got into a jam, he'd collapse like puff-pastry when you jab your thumb into it."
"Go on," encouraged Alan.
"He's the sort that shoots to kill, if he's surprised robbing a kid's money-box."
"Good. Now, since you've got him all taped, why don't you break with him?"
"Because—it seems awfully cold-blooded—I'm studying him as a type for my crime-novel. I want realism. He interests me. He's such a wholesale liar. He's so quiet and inoffensive, but he's got no brains or imagination where other people are concerned. If he found himself in a tight corner, I believe he could commit the most appalling cruelty."
Alan continued to grumble, for although his jealousy was appeased, he was conscious of the birth-pangs of ambition. His contentment with his safe and easy job died, when he realised that Jennifer was pursued by a man who could entertain her in conventional expensive manner. A second venture might prove luckier for the man.
A few days later, however, he was promoted to having his own private secretary, although it was only for a few minutes. This honour was the result of Jennifer's freak, conceived in the lightness of her heart, but destined to bear bitter fruit.
Her services were not yet specially useful to the literary agency where she worked. Consequently, as she liked exercise, and considered no trifling job a loss of dignity, she occasionally got the job of delivering an urgent manuscript. On such an occasion, she found herself in the same street where Alan's offices were situated.
Acting on the spur of the moment, she paid him a surprise visit. He was delighted to see her, although he had to break the news that she had chosen an inopportune time.
"You mean—you want me to fade out again?" she asked.
"Definitely not. But we small-fry are not encouraged to entertain ladies. You see, it might look slack. I'm expecting a client any minute."
As he spoke, they heard the tramp of heavy footsteps down the corridor.
Jennifer's eyes sparkled as she realised the possibilities of the situation. Whipping off her hat, she seated herself at the typewriter and inserted a sheet of paper.
"We'll impress him," she said, as she began to type rapidly. "He'll think you're a big noise with your own secretary."
He could only grin, as the door opened to admit an important looking client. Instantly Jennifer stopped rattling her machine, and rose.
"Shall I finish it later, sir?" she asked.
"Please, Miss Burns."
Alan winked at Jennifer as she went from the room, but her expression was grave, because the client was looking at her approvingly, with an experienced eye.
Several times during the afternoon, Alan stopped in his work to chuckle over the incident, while Jennifer also smiled, unaware that she had supplied Fate with another strand for her dark design.
DURING the summer, Charlie made little progress with his courtship of his second wife. She remained an elusive person, with a passion for a previous engagement. Any one less persistent than Charles would have been discouraged, especially as he received a definite check when he rang up the literary agent who employed her.
When he asked to speak to Miss Burns he was told that she was not a member of their staff.
"Does that mean she is engaged?" he inquired.
"It means what I say," replied a crisp feminine voice. "I'm sorry, but you've been misinformed."
Charlie rang off in a sceptical mood. The next day he made another attempt to get in touch with Jennifer, in the hope that a more truthful person would answer the telephone.
Unluckily, he recognised the same voice, only this time, the lady was in an acid mood.
"There's still no Miss Burns here," she told him. "And there'll be no Miss Burns to-morrow, or at any future date. Will you please accept that as final?"
Charlie complained to Jennifer of his experience a few days later, when he called at her boarding-house and surprised her in a mood for dancing.
"Some jealous girl, I suppose," he remarked.
Jennifer looked confused as she shook her head. "Of course not. But the girl at the switch-board has instructions not to put through any private calls. It's not business-like. Never ring me up again or I'll be furious."
In reality, she was furious with Alan for having landed her into the deception, for she was transparently truthful by nature. At that time, she had plenty of opportunities for abusing him, as she was meeting him nearly every evening, to swim or play tennis.
On the other hand, Charlie got very little of her company. Although she loved dancing, the weather was too tropical for crowded dance halls. But the infrequency of their meetings only fed his infatuation. He was enchanted by her interest in his character and experiences, although he was sometimes drawn on beyond the limit of prudence.
Fortunately for his self-conceit, he did not know that he was providing Jennifer with literary copy. In spite of the heat, she had begun her first novel, and was taking it very seriously. When Alan continued to growl about their friendship she only laughed.
"A dance with him is as good as a lesson from a 'pro,'" she declared. "I'd better have them while the going's good. I'm not his sort, and he'll soon be tired of me."
She was misled by her modesty, for she had got into his blood, so that he concentrated conclusively on his second marriage. Vera used to watch him as he sat silent and moody, biting his varnished nails.
She reminded herself that she had always played the game by him. Had she chosen, she could have skipped off with the insurance money, leaving him stranded and penniless in London.
"Will he treat me on the level, too?" she wondered. "Or will he fade away with the college girl?"
But she held a trump card, since the insurance had been paid to Mrs. Charles Baxter. Her account at the bank was in this name, so that, even if her husband cheated her over the new fraud, she would still be independent.
Although, as a respectable widow, she need have no connection with a dubious dead and buried Mrs. Chester Beaverbrook, she shrank from the prospect of another round with the insurance. As the drought persisted through a hot autumn, she began to lose her appetite and her sleep through worry.
She had no interest in life, for she was temporarily out of the caste in the great drama. She told herself bitterly that she was just one of the crowd, as she mingled with hundreds of other women, in Oxford Street and Kensington High Street. She hadn't even one line, as she did the shop-crawl, or went to the pictures.
Presently the fears of the medical authorities were realised in an epidemic of bad throats, due to the dust of the drought. It heralded a wave of sickness—diphtheria, and a form of enteric influenza, which was a mild form of plague, and proved fatal in many cases.
Every hospital and nursing home was filled, while the supply of doctors and nurses was insufficient to cope with the demand. The obituary columns made Puggie Williams' small eyes glitter.
"It's the chance of a life-time," he declared at breakfast, one steamy morning. "Even a chap so behind the times as old Shakespeare knew all about the flood that leads to fortune. Vera, my infant, you'll have to be the next victim."
"Go away," said Vera. "Come back in two years' time. Then, perhaps, I'll discuss it."
"You won't have much chink left by then."
Vera did not like the reminder, but she continued to argue.
"You must be delirious to suggest it. Old Acorn gave me an elementary lesson on a suspicious case, and this fills the bill. I won't risk it."
Puggie nodded towards Charlie, who was lying on the divan, smoking with his usual apathy.
"Aren't you taking a bigger risk with him?" he asked.
"Charlie? D'you imagine you can tell a woman anything about her own husband?"
"My poor sap. I thought you were too clever to pull that old one, just because you know which side of the bed he lies on. It takes a man to tot up a man. Now, I'm an elementary type. You can spell me in three letters—s o t. But you don't know the first thing about me. You don't even know my name."
"What are you buzzing about?" asked Charlie.
"Just saying you're growing piebald about the hair," Puggie told him. "You're due for another visit to the beauty parlour."
That remark brought home to Vera the complete change in the situation. Puggie was jealous of Charlie, while he, now, was indifferent to their friendship. They had travelled a long way from Starminster. With a pang of regret, she thought of the old Charlie Baxter—that nice cheerful little man, whose bearded dignity won the hearts of women.
As though he guessed her thoughts, Puggie heaved a sigh.
"Remember the rag we had over last time? Them were the days. You'll have to knock up another dummy, Vera."
"I won't," she declared. "Count me out definitely."
There followed a period of deadlock, when Vera refused to discuss the fraud, and Puggie went on the prowl. One morning, he showed her a railway cloak-room ticket, which had come by post.
"There's a suspicious packing-case waiting for me there," he told her. "It's at Charing Cross. Hope they won't pinch me when I go to collect."
"What's in it?" asked Vera.
"A body. It's your fault. You've driven me to crime. Well, I must go and arrange for delivery of the poor girl."
Vera thought he was trying to be funny at her expense and ignored him. She was out when Carter Paterson's van arrived, so missed the removal of a heavy package into the luggage lift.
When she got home, Puggie met her on the landing.
"She's in there," he whispered, pointing to his bedroom.
"Who?" asked Vera.
"The lady in the case."
"Oh, you fool, you make me—"
Vera broke off and clutched his arm. Lying on the spare bed was the still figure of a woman, with fair hair and a pallid face.
"Is she dead?" she faltered.
Puggie burst into a shout of laughter.
"Pulled your leg that time," he gloated. "It's Evangeline. I bought her from a draper at Peckham. I saw her in his window and noticed she looked about due for the melting-pot. I told the chap my wife was going abroad, and wanted to leave a model behind, to have her clothes fitted on. He swallowed the yarn. All the same, I didn't risk having her sent here direct."
"You idiot," stormed Vera. "You're just wasting your money."
"Not me. Charlie paid for her. Haven't you tumbled to it? She's an investment. Allow me to introduce her. Our Dummy."
Vera got little sleep that night. She had not only received a shock, but she was worried by the persistence of the men.
In spite of her common sense, the thing in the spare bed got gradually upon her nerves. It was so suggestive of a corpse, that she could not bear to go into the room. Presently she decided that she had better run down to the coast for a week-end.
Wearing a sporting new camel-hair coat, she arrived in Brighton on Friday night, and engaged a room at a big hotel on the front. The visit, however, was not a success. She looked the type that expected company, and thoughtful gentlemen were eager to supply it. But she was not in a mood to encourage strangers and not in a state to be alone.
After killing the time in solitary mooning she was glad when Sunday night came. To celebrate the end of her holiday, she took a late supper of lobster and champagne.
That meal was fraught with supreme importance to her rival, Jennifer Burns. But it did its very worst to her, for it gave her a terrible dream.
She lay on the borderline between sleep and waking, groaning and sweating with horror. Deep down. Darkness that weighed upon her. She tossed and kicked and fought with the bedclothes, trying to rend the sheet with her nails. Yet, even while she suffered an agony of suffocation and an appalling anguish of mind, she could hear the window rattling in the wind and the drag of the receding tide.
At last, with a great effort, she struggled out of the nightmare and sat up in bed. Her face was streaming and her heart was thumping like a drum.
"It's an omen," she whimpered. "It'll happen to me. I must warn Charlie. Now. There's no time to lose."
Still in a dazed condition, she dragged on a wrapper, and seated herself before the table, which was furnished with hotel stationery. But as she stared at the paper, trying to collect her thoughts, she shuddered and shook her head.
She steadied her hand to scrawl a note to another person. After she had addressed the envelope and sealed it, she felt considerably relieved. As she was still shaky, however, she unpacked the brandy, without which she never travelled, and drank the whole of it.
She was unused to stimulant, so it sent her to sleep almost immediately. She awoke late on Monday morning with a splitting headache and no recollection of the letter episode.
But the memory of an evil dream seemed to infect the room still, and made her feel anxious to leave it without delay. She pulled faces at the chambermaid who called for breakfast-orders, and packed hurriedly, while she gulped down a cup of tea. Not long afterwards she caught the fast train up to London.
After she had gone, the floor-housekeeper made her round of inspection. Vera's room had been cleaned and prepared for the next visitor, but she noticed a letter on the mantelpiece. As the maid told her that she had found it stuck in a drawer of the writing-table, she took it down to the bureau to be stamped and posted.
In due time it was received by the person to whom it was addressed, but it arrived at a time when he was occupied by a matter of more importance. So, when he skimmed it, it only made a slight impression. He murmured, "Poor soul," stuck it away in a drawer, and forgot it.
Vera arrived in London before her letter. She found the flat in a state of disorder, but the men were too jubilant to be aware of discomfort.
"Darling, you're the one woman in the world for us," declared Charlie, as he kissed her affectionately.
"You look fine," said Puggie, whose exhilaration had no connection with spirits.
"Clever of me," snapped Vera. "I'm feeling like a cheap remnant. I have had a horrible dream—"
"Oh, East is East and West is West," broke in Puggie, "but they meet in the bargain basement. I've been shopping in these low-down places while you've been enjoying yourself...Everything's fixed."
"For you to croak. Charlie's going to ring up Bloody, to-night, and tell him you're ill. He's run off his pins, so he'll be probably blind when he comes."
"No," protested Vera. "I've already told you I won't be rushed. I've not made up my mind."
"But you will, darling," he said, kissing her neck, "when you see what's waiting for you."
Taking her arm, he walked with her to the spare room, and pointed to an object which lay on the floor.
As Vera stared at it, the horror of her dream flooded her mind, so that she screamed.
It was a coffin.
IT took some time to weaken Vera's opposition, but at last she gave in. Dr. Ruddy was going to bed when the telephone-bell rang. After he had rung off, he cursed heartily, for he was both nervy and overworked.
"Why do people always get worse at night?" complained his wife.
"They don't," he growled. "They only think they do."
"Then let them get some one else. You're no good to your other patients, if you crack."
The doctor, however, began to pull on his trousers.
"It's Mrs. Beaverbrook," he explained.
His wife, who kept his erratic books, understood the attraction. Her husband had not finished his round until after closing time, while she made it her life-job to see that there was never any whisky in the decanter.
"Are they married?" she asked.
"Doubt it. But it doesn't concern me."
When Dr. Ruddy reached the flat, Puggie was waiting for him in the sitting-room with the tantalus. He related Vera's symptoms, and paid tribute to Charlie's devotion, while the doctor was being refreshed.
"It's flu, right enough," murmured Dr. Ruddy, as he listened with half an ear only to the too familiar story. "I'll see the little lady now."
When he entered the sick-room, Vera looked a pitiful little object. She sat propped up in bed by two enormous violet satin cushions, dark from face-cream, and was covered with a purple silk eiderdown. In contrast with the crude colour, her skin had assumed a greenish tinge, while her pointed face seemed sharp as a fish-bone.
"Is it you, doctor?" she cried. "I can't see you. I've got such frantic shooting pains behind my eyes."
The perfunctory examination passed according to schedule. Dr. Ruddy was a very tired man, and not a sober one; he was in no shape, therefore, to detect trickery. Vera's temperature proved as high as the steaming potato—cached under her pillow—could send it soaring. She complained of all the regulation pains and aches, and her skin was dry from applications of spirit of alcohol.
"Flu," said Dr. Ruddy.
Just as he was going from the room, an unexpected element was introduced. Suddenly he turned and walked unsteadily across to the bed.
"Wasn't there—something—you wanted me to do, my dear?" he asked.
Vera stared in surprise.
"What?" she inquired.
"Slipped my memory." He looked vague. "But I'll remember. Don't worry, lil' woman. 'S all right."
When he was outside the room, he pulled himself together to speak to Charlie.
"She's got a very sharp attack, Beaverbrook. Get the best nurse you can find."
"She won't let any one touch her but me," explained Charlie. "She only gets excited and then she's exhausted."
"That's no good. Carry on, then. Only—I warn you, Beaverbrook, she's got no stamina."
While they whispered outside the door, Puggie was leaning over the bed to murmur to Vera.
"We've played him for a sucker all right," she said.
"Yes," nodded Puggie. "But what are you going to do afterwards?"
"Same as Charlie. Hide somewhere until he's collected and it's safe for him to join me."
"If you're wise, you'll vanish altogether. Never come back or let him know where you are. Don't even let me know. I might babble when I'm tight."
To Vera's surprise, Puggie's blurred face had grown sharp from strain.
"Honestly, Vera," he whispered, "I don't trust Charlie. He wants money—and you've got it."
His appeal was wasted on Vera.
"He's my man, and I'm not going to give him up to any college girl," she said stubbornly.
The course of her simulated illness, however, gradually wore down her resistance. She stood savage treatment, like a stoic, whenever it was necessary to fake a symptom; but she could not endure the hours of lying still—thinking—waiting.
She had to stay in bed, because Dr. Ruddy was no more to be depended on to come, than a watch with a broken main-spring, to go. Whenever he promised to call, he failed to put in an appearance, and then turned up when he was least expected.
Every device known to malingerers was used to confound him. But he was not suspicious, because only too many of his patients were running exactly the same symptoms. People were dying like flies, and the death duties reaping a rich harvest.
Presently, Charlie judged the time was ripe to stage the inevitable collapse.
For a wonder, Dr. Ruddy was sober when he obeyed the telephone summons. He found Vera in a state of genuine prostration, with a sub-normal temperature and a weak fluttering pulse, after a stiff dose of tobacco-ash mixed with tea.
As he looked down on the shrunken figure, a memory stirred in his brain. At last, he knew why he had tried to reassure Vera. He could not refer to it, however, at this juncture, lest it should arouse her fears. So he patted her hand.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm going to look after—everything. And I'm going to pull you round."
His kindly inflamed face was grave when he spoke to Charlie on the landing.
"I—I'm not satisfied, Beaverbrook."
"Do you mean—"
Dr. Ruddy patted Charlie on the shoulder.
"It all hangs on the next few hours. You know what to do, if she fails suddenly. If you sent for me, I'm afraid I should not be in time."
Charlie was smiling when he returned to the bedroom.
"What did the old whisky-hound say?" asked Vera.
"Fine news. He says the angels are calling you." Charlie turned to Puggie. "Push on the arrangements for the funeral. The sooner we plant the corpse the safer we shall be."
"I'll sing on the dotted line to that," remarked Vera bitterly. "I feel like a wet week-end after drinking that filthy dose."
"You needn't take any more, darling," said her husband kindly. "I'm making an artistic job of this. To-morrow, you're going to have a wee dose of quadronex."
"A drug. Quite harmless in small quantities. I'm only going to give you enough to produce slight coma."
"Coma? I'll be unconscious?"
"That's the idea. I'll call in Ruddy to see you. Then I'll be able to ring him up and tell him my poor wife passed away in her sleep, like a little child."
Vera mimicked his laughter in an unnatural key.
"Very funny, sweetheart," she said. "But I'm not so struck with this idea of white violets for one. I'm superstitious. When I was at Brighton I had a filthy dream—"
"Yes. Another time, darling. I've got to go out now."
"Where are you going?" asked Vera, with sudden suspicion, as Charlie leaned over her to kiss her.
"To the Charing Cross Road, to buy a secondhand book."
She did not believe him, although he had told her the truth. When the men had left her, she lay staring around the room which she had grown to loathe. It reminded her of hours of heat, boredom, and nausea. Its atmosphere seemed clogged with stale drugs.
Now a new element had crept in. She was afraid of a blindness and a darkness. It was useless to deceive herself any longer. Charlie had taken his new fancy seriously and there was no place in his life for her. At the best he might leave her—an unburied corpse in the wilds of Birmingham or Manchester, or whatever place was arranged. At the worst—
She broke off to shudder. Although she could resist drinking the quadronex, Charlie might trick her into taking it. He might mix it with some disguising liquid, or inject it while she slept. Her very ignorance of the drug robbed it of all limit to its possibilities.
She could not be eternally on guard against every mouthful she swallowed. And it was impossible to depend on a sot like Puggie. At the critical moment, his devotion might be wrecked by the glass of whisky too many. At present, she had her wits to defend her against her husband. Drugged—she would be completely in his power.
She could not trust him. She remembered the peculiar twisted quality of his mind, when he proposed to light a bonfire under tenement dwellings.
As she lay rigid in the purple bed, she saw the cottage in the country. The whole of England was waiting to swallow her up and hide her away from a blackmailing husband. Besides, the late lamented Charles Baxter had made her his widow, with a nice lump of Insurance, to console her for his loss.
The best return she could make him was to respect his memory, and to remain his faithful widow.
Her mind made up, she planned for a quick departure and a complete break. Then she slipped from bed and went to the door.
"Puggie," she called.
CHARLIE came back to the flat only a few minutes after Vera's taxi had disappeared down Shaftesbury Avenue. He was in high spirits for he had bought an elementary book on Toxins, as a present for Jennifer.
After a torturing period of coolness, when she had refused all his invitations and made excuses to avoid him, she had rung up, inviting him to call at the boarding-house, in two nights' time.
"No," she said in answer to his suggestions, "we won't go anywhere. Bring the book, and we'll sit in the lounge and talk."
Charlie believed he recognised her motives.
"She's finished stalling and she's coming on," he predicted.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, he was unaware of the reason for her friendship. While he had been clearing the ground for a speedy wedding with Jennifer, she had just entered into what threatened to be a long engagement with Alan Pole.
After Jennifer had given him a strong preliminary hint, the young man had proposed and been accepted. Since then the lovers had lived in their special heaven. The only cloud to their happiness was the economic position.
"I wish I could see a chance of promotion," said Alan. "But it won't walk to me. I'll have to go after it."
"I'd love to help you," cried Jennifer, who wanted to share the picture. "Wouldn't it be marvellous if I could get on the track of a big fraud on the Insurance?"
"It would be miraculous, my beloved sap."
"But stranger things are happening all the time. I'll ask Chester Beaverbrook to take me to some low night club, and then I'll keep my eyes open and listen-in."
"Glad you mentioned Beaverbrook. That reminds me of something. You've got to break with that wop."
Alan spoke with grim determination, but Jennifer argued the point on a sentimental basis.
"I'm so sorry for him. He's desperately pathetic, really. He doesn't know any other decent girl, so he over-values our friendship."
"Well, you can be sorry for me for a change. I get blood-pressure every time you meet that chap."
"All right, cry-baby, I'll break with him."
"Good. Ring him up now and tell him you're engaged to me."
In the pause that followed, Fate must have waited, her fingers flexed—ready to pull out the dark strands in her work. But once more Jennifer was betrayed by her fatal kindliness.
"Oh, I can't drop him flat like that. It's like chucking a bus ticket on the floor. Besides, he's promised to bring me a book I specially want for my novel. I'll ask him to bring it round the night after to-morrow. And then I'll introduce him to my future husband."
Alan could see no objection to the plan, although he made Jennifer promise to pay for the book.
"All right, laddie," she said, "I'll collect off you. I'm a Scot."
Considering that her friendship with Beaverbrook was to help her in her study of human nature, it was extraordinary how little she had profited by it. Vera, who had the intimate knowledge of a wife, feared to trust him; yet Jennifer, who was a stranger, persisted in stroking the head of a rattlesnake.
When Charlie arrived at the flat, the book under his arm, Puggie greeted him with a broad smile on his red-moon face.
"Funeral's off. The corpse has hooked it."
"W—what?" stammered Charlie.
"Vera's gone—and good luck to her."
At first, Charlie was too overwhelmed by Vera's treachery to credit it.
"And that's my wife," he said bitterly. "Couldn't you stop her?"
"I helped her, you mug. She took all her luggage."
"An hour ago," lied Puggie.
It was obvious, from Charlie's relieved expression, that he was beginning to force his indignation. As a matter of fact, he was conscious of a new freedom. Vera was not only a complication, but a problem which—sooner or later—he had to solve.
But with her voluntary departure, the last obstacle to his marriage was removed.
"We must get the Certificate from Ruddy at once," he said.
Puggie broke into loud hoots of laughter.
"You fool," he panted, "the funeral's off. The Insurance's off. Everything's off...D'you think a big insurance company is the prey of every cheap piker? You haven't an earthly to collect off them."
"But we did last time," said Charlie.
"Last time, fathead, we played the good old confidence trick. We had beginner's luck, but we did it very nicely. We took two years to prepare the ground. And you were our best asset then. But now—you look as if you'd just pinched the fowl...Of course, you can have your little funeral, if it makes you happy—and you can plaster the office with certificates; but before the company coughs up ten thousand, they'll want to know a few things about you and me, and our financial standing."
"Then—why did you—"
"I was just stringing Vera along. I knew she'd never rat, unless she knew you were provided for...I owed it to her because I forced her into the other affair, dead against the grain. She's honest—Vera is."
Charlie licked his dry lips desperately.
"The deal's got to go through," he said. "I want the money. I'm going to get married."
"All right." Puggie laughed again. "Once in a lifetime, a big chance comes off. It will be amusing. But I warn you, you will probably find yourself in quod."
"I'll risk it."
Puggie filled his glass again.
"Here's health," he said, raising it. "D'you remember what you said to me once? 'I don't like you, Williams.' Well, I'm saying it now. I liked Charlie Baxter, but I don't like Chester Beaverbrook. I hope you get pinched."
"Sober enough to warn you. Remember, Charlie Baxter is dead. You've never heard of him. If the prosecution got wind of another fraud, you'd get your sentence doubled."
Charlie made no comment, but Puggie knew from his expression that his advice was not wasted. He could trust Chester Beaverbrook to look after his interests.
"I'll do more for you than that," he said. "I'll help you to bury poor Evangeline and ring up Bloody about the death...But I'm not going to take a chance on collecting. I'll be generous and sell you the policy. No money need pass. I'm definitely out of this. But you've only to prove title, and there's ten thousand just waiting for you to pick up. Silly, isn't it?"
Puggie kept his word. He chose the psychological moment to tell Dr. Ruddy of Vera's collapse, for he put the call through to a public-house, when he knew the doctor was snatching a few minutes of relaxation.
As he expected, Dr. Ruddy huskily assured him of his sympathy and told him he had expected the news. When he asked to speak to Charlie, he grew maudlin.
"It's only a long sleep, my boy. We all of us have to come to it. I wish it was me. I'm all in. Just a long sleep."
He added that, as he could do nothing, he would post the death certificate immediately. But Puggie, who knew his man, thoughtfully saved him the pains of procrastination by calling at the surgery the next morning.
With the important document in their possession, the two conspirators pushed on the arrangements for the funeral. Puggie cracked macabre jokes as he arranged the dummy in the cheap coffin and covered the faded wax face with white satin. He kept inventing touching tributes, for Charlie to write on the card attached to his wreath.
"Put 'We'll meet again.' You know, Charlie, she may be put in as evidence."
Alan Pole was also a happy man that morning. When he arrived at the office, he was told that he had been selected to transact rather a complicated little bit of business with a small country branch of the company.
Coming on top of his engagement, he looked upon the mission as a good omen. He was so elated that before catching his train he dashed off a note to Jennifer, telling her his news.
The letter was sent by express messenger, since Jennifer had forbidden him to ring her up at the office. She received it just as she was going out to an early lunch. Slipping it into her bag, she read it over her salad and coffee, at the Leicester Square Corner House.
As she did so, she smiled, while her eyes grew soft.
"He's sweet," she thought. "It's a shame to worry him over that wretched Beaverbrook. I'll ring up C.B. now and tell him not to come to-night. Alan will be thrilled when he hears it's all off."
She was on the point of entering a telephone box, when she remembered the book.
"I can't leave it on his hands when he's got it especially for me," she reflected. She was honest enough to add, "Besides, I want it. I'll go over to his flat and collect it now. It'll only take five minutes, And then I'll slip in about my engagement. If I know the gentleman, he'll cool off on the spot."
Although Jennifer had not visited Charlie's flat, she was free from all Victorian prejudices. Chester always treated her with such stressed deference that she had no fear that her motive would be misunderstood.
As the small lift was in use, she ran up the three flights of dirty stone stairs and reached the door, flushed and panting.
When Charlie answered her ring, he stared at her, as though he could not believe his eyes. She laughed at his astonished face, before she noticed his black frock-coat.
"All dressed up for a wedding?" she asked.
"No. A funeral. My wife's. Isn't it a joke?"
"Just too jolly."
She broke off in the middle of her laughter.
"I've come to collect that book you got for me. Tell me what I owe you and I'll settle up now."
There was a new freedom in her manner—a radiance in her smile—which swept away Charlie's caution. He reminded himself that he could enjoy five precious minutes of Jennifer's company before the motor-hearse was due to arrive.
"You shall have it," he promised. "Come into the lounge."
When they entered the stuffy ornate room, a big man got up from the divan. He was also wearing a black frock-coat.
Charlie introduced him as a friend—Mr. Williams.
Jennifer could not understand his glance of intent interest as he bowed in a formal manner. She had forgotten that she had seen him before, for she was unlike Puggie, who always memorised faces.
"I want to speak to you, Beaverbrook," he said. Then he turned to Jennifer. "Will you excuse us for two minutes?"
Although Charlie tried to resist him, he practically pulled him from the lounge. When they were on the landing, he led the way into the big bedroom where the coffin rested upon the bed.
"Who's that?" he whispered.
"My girl," replied Charlie proudly.
"The hell she is. She's from the Insurance. They smell a rat."
CHARLIE'S jaw dropped as he stared blankly at Puggie.
"It's a lie," he declared.
"All right, it's a lie," agreed Puggie. "I only know I saw that girl in some chap's office, when I called to arrange about Vera's policy. She was pounding away at a typewriter. You know I'm never mistaken about faces."
"But she works at a literary agent's."
"What literary agent?"
Puggie was startled by the change in Charlie's face as he remembered how the office had denied all knowledge of Jennifer, when he had tried to ring her up. At the time, he thought it was an excuse not to meet him; but now he realised that she had deceived him deliberately.
"I don't know," he stammered. "She told me so, and I believed her."
"You bet you did," sneered Puggie. "She's a College girl, isn't she? Has she asked you any questions about yourself?"
"Did you stall?"
"No, I told her the truth."
"You everlasting mug, why did you do that?"
"It—it seemed funny. And I knew she wouldn't believe me."
Puggie gave a disgusted snort.
"Well," he said, "it doesn't look too good to me. Of course, the Company has nothing against us, until we claim. But I'm clearing out at once."
He glanced at his watch.
"We can't stop the hearse now," he said, "but we must send the men away directly they come. Explain it's a hoax. And then we'd better clear out."
"Why?" asked Charlie.
"Because of that girl. She's never been here before. So why should she come to-day? Looks to me as if she's been sent here to snoop round. If we'd gone into my room instead of this, I bet she'd have nipped in here, to peek at our corpse."
Although Puggie had infected Charlie with some of his own suspicion, he could not convince him entirely.
"She can't do anything," he declared.
"Can't she? How do you know she's not waiting for the undertaker to show up, when she'll produce an Authority from the Company, to view the body?"
Puggie spoke wildly in his wish to disillusion Charlie, but he succeeded in his purpose. Charlie began to breathe heavily as he realised his position. He was caught in a cleft stick. He had lost Vera—the best wife in the world—and he had lost Vera's money.
Before him was a double menace. If he persisted in the Insurance fraud, it might lead to prison. But that was a shadowy threat—still a long way off—while, almost under his nose, was the pen.
Hours of sitting still, to be passed over until he was chosen by some gross fleshy partner. As he thought of it, a thin line of foam began to bubble up between his lips.
"I won't work," he decided.
"Don't stand sweating like a stuck pig," said Puggie brutally. "Get a move on."
He hurried out to the landing, but Charlie returned to the sitting-room. The ferment in his brain had died suddenly as the scum rose to the top. Now he felt master of the situation. The rat, Puggie Williams, might scuttle, but he intended to sit firm and collect his ten thousand pounds.
Jennifer was glad when he entered, for she wanted to get back to the office. There was something, too, about the room which vaguely repelled her. It was hot and airless, for the windows were closed to keep out the noise of the street. There was deep luxurious divans, and chairs piled with cushions, which smelt of cigarette-ash and dust. When she sat down, she seemed to sink into layers of suffocating softness.
"Have you got my book?" she asked.
"I'll get it," replied Charlie.
He crossed over to the cupboard bookcase and then turned round sharply.
"Is it true," he asked softly, "that there's a connection between you and an Insurance Company?"
Guilt made Jennifer blush hotly at the unexpected question. She jumped to the natural conclusion that Charlie had heard of her engagement. She had an excellent natural complexion, and as Charlie stared at her, she grew red to the roots of her hair.
"Who told you?" she asked.
"But who could have told you about me and Alan Pole?"
As she mentioned the name of the other man, Charlie felt the familiar boil in his brain. He stretched out his hand to reach the top shelf of the cupboard. In one corner was the bottle of chloroform, which had been forgotten by Dr. Ruddy. Although there was no clear purpose in his mind, his fingers closed around it.
"Is it true?" he asked again.
"Yes. We are engaged."
Charlie returned to the divan and leaned over the back. The light was behind him, so that Jennifer could only see his eyes and teeth, glimmering whitely in the dark oval of his face.
"This book will tell you all about poisons and drugs," he said. "Talking of drugs, I've some chloroform here. Relic of my medical student days. Would you like half a whiff?"
"No," replied Jennifer bluntly, pushing aside the bottle.
"Yes, do. It's a marvellous sensation."
"But I don't want—Stop. What are you—"
At first, Jennifer could not credit that anything was wrong. She heard Charlie's heavy breathing as he leant over her, and she tried to rise from her divan. But he pushed her back, while he attempted to press a handkerchief over her face.
She was a strong girl and put up a good fight, but fear had lent him the strength of a tiger. True to type, however, it was a tiger that had sheathed its claws. Throughout the struggle, Charlie instinctively shrank from direct brutality of attack. Although he knelt upon her, the piled-up cushions were a protective barrier between her and the pressure of his elbows and knees.
The sickly smell of the drug hung heavy in the air. Its fumes mounted to Charlie, so that he was afraid that he, too, might be overcome. But even as the possibility flashed across his mind, he realised that Jennifer's resistance was becoming feebler. The body below his grew gradually limp, and one hand dropped over the edge of the divan.
Jennifer felt the sudden rush of unconsciousness overpowering her, like dark water breaking through a dam. Just before the final black-out, she had an upside-down vision of a window veiled with majenta net, and a vase of three enormous purple-pink chrysanthemums with drooping petals.
"Mops," she thought, with no last memory of Alan.
When Charlie was satisfied that she was no longer stirring, he staggered across the room, threw up a window, and spat into the flower-box. After this precaution, he returned to the divan.
His brain was still too curdled to think clearly, but he realised that he must keep her unconscious until the coffin had been safely taken away.
If the men were punctual it would only be a matter of minutes. Afterwards, he must try to bluff her into believing that she had fainted. He must also reassure her, and laugh away any suggestion that there had been a funeral from the flat.
First of all, he had to tidy the room and remove all traces of a struggle. Picking up her bag from the floor, he noticed an envelope protruding from its flap. On the back was stamped the name of the Insurance Company, which had issued Vera's policy.
Panic quivered into his eyes, like sheet-lightning, shaking his brain as he took out Alan's note, which was written on the incriminating evidence of official paper. The first sentence seared itself into his consciousness.
"Darling, it was sweet of you to want to help me with that big fraud—"
Charlie read no further. Like the throbbing of twin dynamos, his whole frame vibrated with rage and fear. This college girl was a contemptible spy who had planned his defeat, to help some miserable office youth. He had sacrificed everything for her, while she had come to the flat on purpose to betray him.
Prison was no longer a faraway misty prospect. Its walls and bars were flush with this room. Black Maria waited at the door. This was the end of all. No more silk skirts or cocktails or bath-salts. No more pleasure. No more freedom.
For the moment he had a respite. But how could he hold Jennifer? How could he silence her indefinitely? He stooped over her and then staggered back, aghast by the change in her.
This boneless bundle was not the radiant college girl who had charged triumphantly into his life, with colours flying. Her unfamiliar face was pallid, with horrible white slits, instead of eyes. She slumped grotesquely, with sprawling limbs.
He shrank from her, yet he had to bind and gag her, lest she should regain consciousness when the funeral party arrived. Still goaded by fear, he tied her legs together with silk scarves, and then bound her arms tightly to her body with the cord of his dressing-gown. One large handkerchief was wedged down her throat and another covered her mouth.
He did everything deftly and gently, as though she could feel. Whatever the measure of her treachery he knew he could not hurt her. But she lay horribly still, lifeless as the dummy in the other room. When he had finished his task he glanced down at her, and then staggered back in sudden terror.
This was a thing...She was dead. He had given her too much chloroform...The sweat broke out on his forehead like raindrops. It was not his fault. She had struggled too fiercely—prolonged her opposition beyond the limit of safety.
Besides, she had not suffered. It was just a long sleep. Dr. Ruddy had assured him of that. But he had to hide her.
A red light gleamed in his eyes as a hideous idea sprang to birth. He knew of a safe place of concealment for her body.
Dashing into his bedroom, he dragged the dummy from its coffin and kicked it under the bed.
JENNIFER lay in her coffin.
When she struggled gradually out of her stupor, she became conscious of darkness and a sense of terrible constriction. She could neither move or utter a sound. Something was filling her mouth, so that she could scarcely breathe. Her face, too, was muffled by some soft material.
For one ghastly moment, she thought she was buried alive.
The horror crashed down on her, nearly driving her mad; but even as her reason trembled on the lip of insanity, her ear distinguished faint sounds of traffic. The back-firing of a car engine in Shaftesbury Avenue proved her salvation.
"Where am I?" she questioned in an agony. "What's happened to me?"
The answer filtered slowly through the clouded layers of her mind. She realised first that she was gagged and bound, although she could flex her fingers and turn her head slightly. Then, by degrees, she remembered that she was in Beaverbrook's flat, and that—for no reason at all—he had turned suddenly upon her.
"I was a fool to trust him," she realised bitterly. "Alan was right."
The thought of Alan was a sheet-anchor—something to grip in the midst of the nightmare phantasy. It was all so blurred and inexplicable that she began to wonder whether she were really conscious. She retained some vague recollection of Beaverbrook asking her to sample a drug.
"I'm dreaming all this," she told herself. "In another minute, I shall really wake up and find myself on the divan. I expect C.B. is only waiting to have the laugh of me."
As she struggled to break through to the daylight and reality, she realised that there was a confused suggestion of voices—somewhere in the air—which was always on the point of sharpening into actual words. Suddenly, like the roar of a train rushing through a tunnel, something burst in her ear-drums, so that she heard a man speaking.
"Is she dead?"
It was Puggie Williams who spoke, as he stared stupidly at the coffin with bloodshot eyes.
"Yes." Charlie was shaking all over. He could hardly frame his words with his trembling lips. "It was a—an accident. It wasn't my fault. I swear it wasn't."
"Chloroform. I—I didn't hurt her. I only wanted to keep her quiet for a bit. But she fought like a wild-cat. It was her own fault that she got too much."
"You blasted fool? This will be manslaughter at the least. I'm clearing out—pronto."
"No, Puggie, see me through. Honestly, it's all right. No one will ever know."
"Don't you believe it. You'll be on the front page to-morrow."
"But—can't you see? The men are here. They're just outside, in the hall...I had a terrible rush to—to finish before you sent them away."
Although its tone was high and reedy, some of the confidence had returned to Charlie's voice.
But Puggie's whisper was thick with horror.
"So that's the big idea of putting her there? What a man! He had to have his corpse...Well, you can tell the jury all about it."
He shook off Charlie's grasp and hurried towards the door. Before he reached it, however, he stopped, struck by a new idea.
"Are you sure she's dead?" he asked.
"Well, you ought to know. You've been a doctor, haven't you?"
As Vera had foreseen, Puggie could not be depended on in a crisis. He had been drinking too heavily to realise the importance of his question. Although he had only to raise the lid of the coffin, he went no further in the matter.
According to his reasoning, the main point was to get away from the flat as quickly as possible, since Charlie had tried to put a fast one over him.
Inside the coffin, Jennifer heard every word. As she listened, the acid of terror ate away the film which clouded her brain. At last she understood the whole ghastly business.
She was scheduled for burial—gagged, bound, and confined—unable to move or call out. Soon she would be borne away to some place where she would be buried in the ground.
She had invited experience, to meet with realism of the most appalling kind. If she saw this situation in a picture, she knew that a rescue would be inevitable. She would be missed at the office and traced by some trifling clue—something she had said, or done, during the morning, to this flat.
Besides Alan must know of her peril. At the critical moment, he would dash through the door and wrench away the coffin lid. He would hold her in his arras again.
She felt the tears rolling down her cheeks at the very thought of him. He had never seemed so dear.
And at that moment, as though to furnish one more proof of telepathy, Alan was thinking of her. He had finished his business and was having a lunch of bread and cheese and beer in a small country inn. Outside the window, the sun had just burst through the clouds and a bird began to sing on the bare bough of a chestnut tree.
"Wonder if she's got my letter," he thought.
Even then Jennifer gave up hope.
"He can't know," she told herself. "He's miles away. No one knows where I am."
Her mind was now hideously clear as she forecast the immediate future—only to realise that there would be very little of it.
"Unless I'm rescued soon, I shall suffocate. It can't be long. Only—every minute will seem years."
Already her physical suffering was mounting to the peak of her endurance. Every breath she drew became an agony. Her heart seemed to stumble to a stop, and then to limp on again in feeble beats. A sea began to roar in her ears.
Suddenly she realised that there were others in the room besides Chester Beaverbrook. There were movements and footsteps, muffled by the carpet. Then Charlie's voice rang out in a sharp command.
"Be as quick as you can. We're behind time as it is."
"Very good, sir," replied one of the men.
A ring at the front door deadened the sound of a horrible little grating noise. At first Jennifer did not know what was happening, until a repetition of the scraping made her realise the ghastly truth.
The coffin lid was being screwed down.
Every living fibre in her body seemed to protest against the outrage. Curiously enough, it was her sense of justice—so strong a trait in the English character—which was outraged by those terrible sounds.
"I've done nothing to deserve this," she agonised. "It cannot happen to me. It won't be allowed."
All the same it was happening. She endured through seconds which dragged out into an eternity of duration...
Just as she fainted, one of the men spoke to Charlie:
"That's my mate ringing, sir. Shall I let him in?"
"No, I'll go."
Charlie felt a rising flood of elation as he opened the front door. He had planned a master-stroke of strategy, which every minute was bringing nearer to a successful finish.
His shock, therefore, was the greater when he saw before him Dr. Ruddy. As he stared at him the doctor spoke awkwardly.
"Sorry to intrude at such a time, Beaverbrook. I'm afraid I'm going to upset you—but this is my authority."
He produced a letter, but Charlie did not take it.
"Authority?" he repeated.
Dr. Ruddy thought the widower was dazed by his bereavement so he took command. Without further explanations he walked into the bedroom and spoke to the men.
"Unscrew that lid."
"No," protested Charlie, in a high voice which was nearly a scream. "It's an outrage."
"It's your wife's wish," explained Dr. Ruddy. "I couldn't sleep to-night if I failed her. Neither could you. Now, suppose you wait in the lounge and then you won't see what I'm going to do. It will be over in a minute."
"No. You're drunk."
Dr. Ruddy chanced to be cold sober, so he resented the charge. It made him the more determined to impose his will.
"I wrote a certificate without inspecting the body," he explained. "That's not in order. For my own satisfaction, I must insist on the coffin being opened...Take out these screws."
He spoke with the ring of authority. The men glanced sheepishly at Charlie—who offered no more opposition—and then hastened to obey.
"I don't want to see her face," said Charlie.
He went in to the lounge and shut the door behind him. Yet he heard the doctor's shout as he wrenched off the lid.
"It's another woman...And...Man, she's alive."
DR. RUDDY told his wife afterwards that Jennifer was the finest and jolliest girl he had ever met.
She became conscious, to find herself lying on the purple bed—ungagged and unbound—with the doctor bending over her. Instead of breaking down, as he expected, she lost no time in getting the chloroform out of her system.
While she was being violently sick in the bathroom, she actually laughed between her spasms.
"I'm alive," she kept saying. "Oh, thank God. I never thought I could enjoy being sick. Oh, isn't it wonderful?"
"Yes, but you've done quite enough in that line for the present," said Dr. Ruddy firmly. "This isn't a Channel crossing. You're feeling pretty groggy. Come and lie down again."
She was prostrate with exhaustion when she was settled under the purple eiderdown, but she persisted in asking questions.
"How did you know I was there?"
"I didn't," he replied.
"Then—why did you come?"
"Because I got rather an odd letter a little time ago, from Mrs. Beaverbrook. Like to see it?"
He fished from his pocket a creased sheet of paper, which was stamped with the address of a well-known Brighton hotel.
It was Vera's letter, written in collaboration with a bad dream and half a bottle of brandy. Although the words jigged before her eyes, Jennifer managed to decipher the scrawl.
"Dear Dr. Ruddy—I've had a terrible dream. I dreamed that I was buried alive. I'm so frightened. It may be sent to warn me. Promise to run a knife into my heart when I am dead. Charlie will give you ten pounds. Don't fail me. Yours—Vera B."
"Oh," gasped Jennifer. "Was he married?"
"They always are, my dear."
"So you know, too. I'm the only sap...But why did you cut it so fine?"
Dr. Ruddy looked abashed before her accusing eye.
"I'm ashamed to say it slipped my memory," he confessed. "But my wife remarked that Chester Beaverbrook was in a big hurry to bury his wife. So I made a rush for it and managed to be on time, for about the first time in my life."
Jennifer looked gratefully up at the weak, sagging face. Dr. Ruddy might not come when sent for, and if he came he might not give the right treatment. But she realised that he could be depended upon to do the decent thing.
"Who's 'Charlie'?" she asked.
"Blest if I know. Probably it was a slip...Now, lie still and try to get some sleep...I want to have a little chat with Beaverbrook."
He pulled down the corners of his mouth, for he did not relish the interview. Directly he had realised that something was wrong, he had ordered one of the undertaker's men to guard the front door, so that no one could leave the flat, pending the arrival of the police.
He hoped, however, that Beaverbrook would give him a satisfactory explanation, so that it would not be necessary for him to ring up the station.
Directly he entered the lounge, he guessed that Chester Beaverbrook would issue no statement to the Press.
Charlie Baxter had made himself very comfortable, for he had collected every cushion in the room and piled them on the divan where he lay. His face was covered with a handkerchief and the air reeked with chloroform.
It was the second time he died.
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