فصل 05

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Five

I It was so sudden and so unexpected that it took every one’s breath away. They remained stupidly staring at the crumpled figure on the ground.

Then Dr. Armstrong jumped up and went over to him, kneeling beside him. When he raised his head his eyes were bewildered.

He said in a low awe-struck whisper:

“My God! he’s dead.”

They didn’t take it in. Not at once.

Dead? Dead? That young Norse God in the prime of his health and strength. Struck down all in a moment. Healthy young men didn’t die like that, choking over a whisky and soda….

No, they couldn’t take it in.

Dr. Armstrong was peering into the dead man’s face. He sniffed at the blue twisted lips. Then he picked up the glass from which Anthony Marston had been drinking.

General Macarthur said:

“Dead? D’you mean the fellow just choked and—and died?”

The physician said:

“You can call it choking if you like. He died of asphyxiation right enough.” He was sniffing now at the glass. He dipped a finger into the dregs and very cautiously just touched the finger with the tip of his tongue.

His expression altered.

General Macarthur said:

“Never knew a man could die like that—just of a choking fit!”

Emily Brent said in a clear voice:

“In the midst of life we are in death.”

Dr. Armstrong stood up. He said brusquely:

“No, a man doesn’t die of a mere choking fit. Marston’s death wasn’t what we call a natural death.” Vera said almost in a whisper:

“Was there—something—in the whisky?”

Armstrong nodded.

“Yes. Can’t say exactly. Everything points to one of the cyanides. No distinctive smell of Prussic Acid, probably Potassium Cyanide. It acts pretty well instantaneously.” The judge said sharply:

“It was in his glass?”

“Yes.”

The doctor strode to the table where the drinks were. He removed the stopper from the whisky and smelt and tasted it. Then he tasted the soda water. He shook his head.

“They’re both all right.”

Lombard said:

“You mean—he must have put the stuff in his glass himself?”

Armstrong nodded with a curiously dissatisfied expression. He said:

“Seems like it.”

Blore said:

“Suicide, eh? That’s a queer go.”

Vera said slowly:

“You’d never think that he would kill himself. He was so alive. He was—oh—enjoying himself! When he came down the hill in his car this evening he looked—he looked—oh I can’t explain!” But they knew what she meant. Anthony Marston, in the height of his youth and manhood, had seemed like a being who was immortal. And now, crumpled and broken, he lay on the floor.

Dr. Armstrong said:

“Is there any possibility other than suicide?”

Slowly every one shook their heads. There could be no other explanation. The drinks themselves were untampered with. They had all seen Anthony Marston go across and help himself. It followed therefore that any cyanide in the drink must have been put there by Anthony Marston himself.

And yet—why should Anthony Marston commit suicide?

Blore said thoughtfully:

“You know, doctor, it doesn’t seem right to me. I shouldn’t have said Mr. Marston was a suicidal type of gentleman.” Armstrong answered:

“I agree.”

II

They had left it like that. What else was there to say?

Together Armstrong and Lombard had carried the inert body of Anthony Marston to his bedroom and had laid him there covered over with a sheet.

When they came downstairs again, the others were standing in a group, shivering a little, though the night was not cold.

Emily Brent said:

“We’d better go to bed. It’s late.”

It was past twelve o’clock. The suggestion was a wise one—yet every one hesitated. It was as though they clung to each other’s company for reassurance.

The judge said:

“Yes, we must get some sleep.”

Rogers said:

“I haven’t cleared yet—in the dining room.”

Lombard said curtly:

“Do it in the morning.”

Armstrong said to him:

“Is your wife all right?”

“I’ll go and see, sir.”

He returned a minute or two later.

“Sleeping beautiful, she is.”

“Good,” said the doctor. “Don’t disturb her.”

“No, sir. I’ll just put things straight in the dining room and make sure everything’s locked up right, and then I’ll turn in.” He went across the hall into the dining room.

The others went upstairs, a slow unwilling procession.

If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners—no possible sliding panels—it was flooded with electric light—everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it.

Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all….

They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door….

III

In his pleasant softly tinted room, Mr. Justice Wargrave removed his garments and prepared himself for bed.

He was thinking about Edward Seton.

He remembered Seton very well. His fair hair, his blue eyes, his habit of looking you straight in the face with a pleasant air of straightforwardness. That was what had made so good an impression on the jury.

Llewellyn, for the Crown, had bungled it a bit. He had been overvehement, had tried to prove too much.

Matthews, on the other hand, for the Defence, had been good. His points had told. His cross-examinations had been deadly. His handling of his client in the witness-box had been masterly.

And Seton had come through the ordeal of cross-examination well. He had not got excited or overvehement. The jury had been impressed. It had seemed to Matthews, perhaps, as though everything had been over bar the shouting.

The judge wound up his watch carefully and placed it by the bed.

He remembered exactly how he had felt sitting there—listening, making notes, appreciating everything, tabulating every scrap of evidence that told against the prisoner.

He’d enjoyed that case! Matthews’ final speech had been first-class. Llewellyn, coming after it, had failed to remove the good impression that the defending counsel had made.

And then had come his own summing up….

Carefully, Mr. Justice Wargrave removed his false teeth and dropped them into a glass of water. The shrunken lips fell in. It was a cruel mouth now, cruel and predatory.

Hooding his eyes, the judge smiled to himself.

He’d cooked Seton’s goose all right!

With a slightly rheumatic grunt, he climbed into bed and turned out the electric light.

IV

Downstairs in the dining room, Rogers stood puzzled.

He was staring at the china figures in the centre of the table.

He muttered to himself:

“That’s a rum go! I could have sworn there were ten of them.”

V General Macarthur tossed from side to side.

Sleep would not come to him.

In the darkness he kept seeing Arthur Richmond’s face.

He’d liked Arthur—he’d been damned fond of Arthur. He’d been pleased that Leslie liked him too.

Leslie was so capricious. Lots of good fellows that Leslie would turn up her nose at and pronounce dull. “Dull!” Just like that.

But she hadn’t found Arthur Richmond dull. They’d got on well together from the beginning. They’d talked of plays and music and pictures together. She’d teased him, made fun of him, ragged him. And he, Macarthur, had been delighted at the thought that Leslie took quite a motherly interest in the boy.

Motherly indeed! Damn’ fool not to remember that Richmond was twenty-eight to Leslie’s twenty-nine.

He’d loved Leslie. He could see her now. Her heart-shaped face, and her dancing deep grey eyes, and the brown curling mass of her hair. He’d loved Leslie and he’d believed in her absolutely.

Out there in France, in the middle of all the hell of it, he’d sat thinking of her, taken her picture out of the breast pocket of his tunic.

And then—he’d found out!

It had come about exactly in the way things happened in books. The letter in the wrong envelope. She’d been writing to them both and she’d put her letter to Richmond in the envelope addressed to her husband. Even now, all these years after, he could feel the shock of it—the pain….

God, it had hurt!

And the business had been going on some time. The letter made that clear. Weekends! Richmond’s last leave….

Leslie—Leslie and Arthur!

God damn the fellow! Damn his smiling face, his brisk “Yes, sir.” Liar and hypocrite! Stealer of another man’s wife!

It had gathered slowly—that cold murderous rage.

He’d managed to carry on as usual—to show nothing. He’d tried to make his manner to Richmond just the same.

Had he succeeded? He thought so. Richmond hadn’t suspected. Inequalities of temper were easily accounted for out there, where men’s nerves were continually snapping under the strain.

Only young Armitage had looked at him curiously once or twice. Quite a young chap, but he’d had perceptions, that boy.

Armitage, perhaps, had guessed—when the time came.

He’d sent Richmond deliberately to death. Only a miracle could have brought him through unhurt. That miracle didn’t happen. Yes, he’d sent Richmond to his death and he wasn’t sorry. It had been easy enough. Mistakes were being made all the time, officers being sent to death needlessly. All was confusion, panic. People might say afterwards “Old Macarthur lost his nerve a bit, made some colossal blunders, sacrificed some of his best men.” They couldn’t say more.

But young Armitage was different. He’d looked at his commanding officer very oddly. He’d known, perhaps, that Richmond was being deliberately sent to death.

(After the War was over—had Armitage talked?)

Leslie hadn’t known. Leslie had wept for her lover (he supposed) but her weeping was over by the time he’d come back to England. He’d never told her that he’d found her out. They’d gone on together—only, somehow, she hadn’t seemed very real anymore. And then, three or four years later she’d got double pneumonia and died.

That had been a long time ago. Fifteen years—sixteen years?

And he’d left the Army and come to live in Devon—bought the sort of little place he’d always meant to have. Nice neighbours—pleasant part of the world. There was a bit of shooting and fishing. He’d gone to church on Sundays. (But not the day that the lesson was read about David putting Uriah in the forefront of the battle. Somehow he couldn’t face that. Gave him an uncomfortable feeling.) Everybody had been very friendly. At first, that is. Later, he’d had an uneasy feeling that people were talking about him behind his back. They eyed him differently, somehow. As though they’d heard something—some lying rumour….

(Armitage? Supposing Armitage had talked.)

He’d avoided people after that—withdrawn into himself. Unpleasant to feel that people were discussing you.

And all so long ago. So—so purposeless now. Leslie had faded into the distance and Arthur Richmond too. Nothing of what had happened seemed to matter anymore.

It made life lonely, though. He’d taken to shunning his old Army friends.

(If Armitage had talked, they’d know about it.)

And now—this evening—a hidden voice had blared out that old hidden story.

Had he dealt with it all right? Kept a stiff upper lip? Betrayed the right amount of feeling—indignation, disgust—but no guilt, no discomfiture? Difficult to tell.

Surely nobody could have taken the accusation seriously. There had been a pack of other nonsense, just as far-fetched. That charming girl—the voice had accused her of drowning a child! Idiotic! Some madman throwing crazy accusations about!

Emily Brent, too—actually a niece of old Tom Brent of the Regiment. It had accused her of murder! Any one could see with half an eye that the woman was as pious as could be—the kind that was hand and glove with parsons.

Damned curious business the whole thing! Crazy, nothing less.

Ever since they had got here—when was that? Why, damn it, it was only this afternoon! Seemed a good bit longer than that.

He thought: “I wonder when we shall get away again.”

Tomorrow, of course, when the motorboat came from the mainland.

Funny, just this minute he didn’t want much to get away from the island … To go back to the mainland, back to his little house, back to all the troubles and worries. Through the open window he could hear the waves breaking on the rocks—a little louder now than earlier in the evening. Wind was getting up, too.

He thought: Peaceful sound. Peaceful place….

He thought: Best of an island is once you get there—you can’t go any farther … you’ve come to the end of things….

He knew, suddenly, that he didn’t want to leave the island.

VI

Vera Claythorne lay in bed, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling.

The light beside her was on. She was frightened of the dark.

She was thinking:

“Hugo … Hugo … Why do I feel you’re so near to me tonight? … Somewhere quite close….

“Where is he really? I don’t know. I never shall know. He just went away—right away—out of my life.” It was no good trying not to think of Hugo. He was close to her. She had to think of him—to remember….

Cornwall….

The black rocks, the smooth yellow sand. Mrs. Hamilton, stout, good-humoured. Cyril, whining a little always, pulling at her hand.

“I want to swim out to the rock, Miss Claythorne. Why can’t I swim out to the rock?” Looking up—meeting Hugo’s eyes watching her.

The evenings after Cyril was in bed….

“Come out for a stroll, Miss Claythorne.”

“I think perhaps I will.”

The decorous stroll down to the beach. The moonlight—the soft Atlantic air.

And then, Hugo’s arms round her.

“I love you. I love you. You know I love you, Vera?”

Yes, she knew.

(Or thought she knew.)

“I can’t ask you to marry me. I’ve not got a penny. It’s all I can do to keep myself. Queer, you know, once, for three months I had the chance of being a rich man to look forward to. Cyril wasn’t born until three months after Maurice died. If he’d been a girl….” If the child had been a girl, Hugo would have come into everything. He’d been disappointed, he admitted.

“I hadn’t built on it, of course. But it was a bit of a knock. Oh well, luck’s luck! Cyril’s a nice kid. I’m awfully fond of him.” And he was fond of him, too. Always ready to play games or amuse his small nephew. No rancour in Hugo’s nature.

Cyril wasn’t really strong. A puny child—no stamina. The kind of child, perhaps, who wouldn’t live to grow up….

And then—?

“Miss Claythorne, why can’t I swim to the rock?”

Irritating whiney repetition.

“It’s too far, Cyril.”

“But, Miss Claythorne….”

Vera got up. She went to the dressing table and swallowed three aspirins.

She thought:

“I wish I had some proper sleeping stuff.”

She thought:

“If I were doing away with myself I’d take an overdose of veronal—something like that—not cyanide!” She shuddered as she remembered Anthony Marston’s convulsed purple face.

As she passed the mantelpiece, she looked up at the framed doggerel.

“Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were Nine.”

She thought to herself:

“It’s horrible—just like us this evening.…”

Why had Anthony Marston wanted to die?

She didn’t want to die.

She couldn’t imagine wanting to die….

Death was for—the other people….

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