A Caribbean Mystery 31
They arrived at Dover just after five. They were to spend the night there, and cross to the Continent on the following day. Theo entered their sitting room in the hotel with Vincent close behind her. He had a couple of evening papers in his hand which he threw down on the table. Two of the hotel servants brought in the luggage and withdrew.She was a little astonished.
Theo turned from the window where she had been standing looking out. In another minute they were in each other’s arms.
There was a discreet tap on the door and they drew apart again. ‘Damn it all,’ said Vincent, ‘it doesn’t seem as though we were ever going to be alone.’
Theo smiled. ‘It doesn’t look like it,’ she said softly. Sitting down on the sofa, she picked up one of the papers.
The knock proved to be a waiter bearing tea. He laid it on the table, drawing the latter up to the sofa on which Theo was sitting, cast a deft glance round, inquired if there were anything further, and withdrew.
Vincent, who had gone into the adjoining room, came back into the sitting room.
‘Now for tea,’ he said cheerily, but stopped suddenly in the middle of the room. ‘Anything wrong?’ he asked.
Theo was sitting bolt upright on the sofa. She was staring in front of her with dazed eyes, and her face had gone deathly white.
Vincent took a quick step towards her. ‘What is it, sweetheart?’
For answer she held out the paper to him, her finger pointing to the headline.
Vincent took the paper from her. ‘FAILURE OF HOBSON, JEKYLL AND LUCAS,’ he read. The name of the big city firm conveyed nothing to him at the moment, though he had an irritating conviction in the back of his mind that it ought to do so. He looked inquiringly at Theo.
‘Richard is Hobson, Jekyll and Lucas,’ she explained. ‘Your husband?’
Vincent returned to the paper and read the bald information it conveyed carefully. Phrases such as ‘sudden crash’, ‘serious revelations to follow’, ‘other houses affected’ struck him disagreeably.
Roused by a movement, he looked up. Theo was adjusting her little black hat in front of the mirror. She turned at the movement he made. Her eyes looked steadily into his.
‘Vincent – I must go to Richard.’
He sprang up.
‘Theo – don’t be absurd.’
She repeated mechanically: ‘I must go to Richard.’
‘But, my dear –’
She made a gesture towards the paper on the floor.
‘That means ruin – bankruptcy. I can’t choose this day of all others to leave him.’
‘You had left him before you heard of this. Be reasonable!’
She shook her head mournfully.
‘You don’t understand. I must go to Richard.’
And from that he could not move her. Strange that a creature so soft, so pliant, could be so unyielding. After the first, she did not argue. She let him say what he had to say unhindered. He held her in his arms, seeking to break her will by enslaving her senses, but though her soft mouth returned his kisses, he felt in her something aloof and invincible that withstood all his pleadings.
He let her go at last, sick and weary of the vain endeavour. From pleading he had turned to bitterness, reproaching her with never having loved him. That, too, she took in silence, without protest, her face, dumb and pitiful, giving the lie to his words. Rage mastered him in the end; he hurled at her every cruel word he could think of, seeking only to bruise and batter her to her knees.
At last the words gave out; there was nothing more to say. He sat, his head in his hands, staring down at the red pile carpet. By the door, Theodora stood, a black shadow with a white face.
It was all over.
She said quietly: ‘Goodbye, Vincent.’
He did not answer.
The door opened – and shut again.
The Darrells lived in a house in Chelsea – an intriguing, old-world house, standing in a little garden of its own. Up the front of the house grew a magnolia tree, smutty, dirty, begrimed, but still a magnolia.
Theo looked up at it, as she stood on the doorstep some three hours later. A sudden smile twisted her mouth in pain.
She went straight to the study at the back of the house. A man was pacing up and down in the room – a young man, with a handsome face and a haggard expression.
He gave an ejaculation of relief as she came in.
‘Thank God you’ve turned up, Theo. They said you’d taken your luggage with you and gone off out of town somewhere.’
‘I heard the news and came back.’
Richard Darrell put an arm about her and drew her to the couch. They sat down upon it side by side. Theo drew herself free of the encircling arm in what seemed a perfectly natural manner.
‘How bad is it, Richard?’ she asked quietly.
‘Just as bad as it can be – and that’s saying a lot.’
He began to walk up and down again as he talked. Theo sat and watched him. He was not to know that every now and then the room went dim, and his voice faded from her hearing, while another room in a hotel at Dover came clearly before her eyes.
Nevertheless she managed to listen intelligently enough. He came back and sat down on the couch by her.
‘Fortunately,’ he ended, ‘they can’t touch your marriage settlement. The house is yours also.’
Theo nodded thoughtfully.
‘We shall have that at any rate,’ she said. ‘Then things will not be too bad? It means a fresh start, that is all.’
‘Oh! Quite so. Yes.’
But his voice did not ring true, and Theo thought suddenly: ‘There’s something else. He hasn’t told me everything.’
‘There’s nothing more, Richard?’ she said gently. ‘Nothing worse?’ He hesitated for just half a second, then: ‘Worse? What should there be?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Theo.
‘It’ll be all right,’ said Richard, speaking more as though to reassure himself than Theo. ‘Of course, it’ll be all right.’
He flung an arm about her suddenly.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ he said. ‘It’ll be all right now that you’re here. Whatever else happens, I’ve got you, haven’t I?’
She said gently: ‘Yes, you’ve got me.’ And this time she left his arm round her.
He kissed her and held her close to him, as though in some strange way he derived comfort from her nearness.
‘I’ve got you, Theo,’ he said again presently, and she answered as before: ‘Yes, Richard.’
He slipped from the couch to the floor at her feet. ‘I’m tired out,’ he said fretfully. ‘My God, it’s been a day. Awful! I don’t know what I should do if you weren’t here. After all, one’s wife is one’s wife, isn’t she?’
She did not speak, only bowed her head in assent.
He laid his head on her lap. The sigh he gave was like that of a tired child.
Theo thought again: ‘There’s something he hasn’t told me. What is it?’
Mechanically her hand dropped to his smooth, dark head, and she stroked it gently, as a mother might comfort a child.
Richard murmured vaguely: ‘It’ll be all right now you’re here. You won’t let me down.’
His breathing grew slow and even. He slept. Her hand still smoothed his head.
But her eyes looked steadily into the darkness in front of her, seeing nothing.
‘Don’t you think, Richard,’ said Theodora, ‘that you’d better tell me everything?’
It was three days later. They were in the drawing room before dinner.
Richard started, and flushed.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he parried.
He shot a quick glance at her.
‘Of course there are – well – details.’
‘I ought to know everything, don’t you think, if I am to help?’
He looked at her strangely. ‘What makes you think I want you to help?’
‘My dear Richard, I’m your wife.’
He smiled suddenly, the old, attractive, carefree smile.
‘So you are, Theo. And a very good-looking wife, too. I never could stand ugly women.’
He began walking up and down the room, as was his custom when something was worrying him.
‘I won’t deny you’re right in a way,’ he said presently. ‘There is something.’
He broke off.
‘It’s so damned hard to explain things of this kind to women. They get hold of the wrong end of the stick – fancy a thing is – well, what it isn’t.’
Theo said nothing.
‘You see,’ went on Richard, ‘the law’s one thing, and right and wrong are quite another. I may do a thing that’s perfectly right and honest, but the law wouldn’t take the same view of it. Nine times out of ten, everything pans out all right, and the tenth time you – well, hit a snag.’
Theo began to understand. She thought to herself: ‘Why am I not surprised? Did I always know, deep down, that he wasn’t straight?’
Richard went on talking. He explained himself at unnecessary lengths. Theo was content for him to cloak the actual details of the affair in this mantle of verbosity. The matter concerned a large tract of South African property. Exactly what Richard had done, she was not concerned to know. Morally, he assured her, everything was fair and above board; legally – well, there it was; no getting away from the fact, he had rendered himself liable to criminal prosecution.
He kept shooting quick glances at his wife as he talked. He was nervous and uncomfortable. And still he excused himself and tried to explain away that which a child might have seen in its naked truth. Then finally in a burst of justification, he broke down. Perhaps Theo’s eyes, momentarily scornful, had something to do with it. He sank down in a chair by the fireplace, his head in his hands.
‘There it is, Theo,’ he said brokenly, ‘What are you going to do about it?’
She came over to him with scarcely a moment’s pause and, kneeling down by the chair, put her face against his.
‘What can be done, Richard? What can we do?’
He caught her to him. ‘You mean it? You’ll stick to me?’
‘Of course. My dear, of course.’
He said, moved to sincerity in spite of himself: ‘I’m a thief, Theo. That’s what it means, shorn of fine language – just a thief.’
‘Then I’m a thief’s wife, Richard. We’ll sink or swim together.’ They were silent for a little while. Presently Richard recovered something of his jaunty manner.
‘You know, Theo, I’ve got a plan, but we’ll talk of that later. It’s just on dinnertime. We must go and change. Put on that creamy thingummybob of yours, you know – the Caillot model.’
Theo raised her eyebrows quizzically.
‘For an evening at home?’
‘Yes, yes, I know. But I like it. Put it on, there’s a good girl. It cheers me up to see you looking your best.’
Theo came down to dinner in the Caillot. It was a creation in creamy brocade, with a faint pattern of gold running through it and an under-note of pale pink to give warmth to the cream. It was cut daringly low in the back, and nothing could have been better designed to show off the dazzling whiteness of Theo’s neck and shoulders. She was truly now a magnolia flower.
Richard’s eye rested upon her in warm approval. ‘Good girl. You know, you look simply stunning in that dress.’
They went in to dinner. Throughout the evening Richard was nervous and unlike himself, joking and laughing about nothing at all, as if in a vain attempt to shake off his cares. Several times Theo tried to lead him back to the subject they had been discussing before, but he edged away from it.
Then suddenly, as she rose to go to bed, he came to the point. ‘No, don’t go yet. I’ve got something to say. You know, about this miserable business.’
She sat down again.
He began talking rapidly. With a bit of luck, the whole thing could be hushed up. He had covered his tracks fairly well. So long as certain papers didn’t get into the receiver’s hands –
He stopped significantly.
‘Papers?’ asked Theo perplexedly. ‘You mean you will destroy them?’ Richard made a grimace. ‘I’d destroy them fast enough if I could get hold of them. That’s the devil of it all!’
‘Who has them, then?’
‘A man we both know – Vincent Easton.’
A very faint exclamation escaped Theo. She forced it back, but Richard had noticed it.
‘I’ve suspected he knew something of the business all along. That’s why I’ve asked him here a good bit. You may remember that I asked you to be nice to him?’
‘I remember,’ said Theo.
‘Somehow I never seem to have got on really friendly terms with him. Don’t know why. But he likes you. I should say he likes you a good deal.’
Theo said in a very clear voice: ‘He does.’
‘Ah!’ said Richard appreciatively. ‘That’s good. Now you see what I’m driving at. I’m convinced that if you went to Vincent Easton and asked him to give you those papers, he wouldn’t refuse. Pretty woman, you know – all that sort of thing.’
‘I can’t do that,’ said Theo quickly.
‘It’s out of the question.’
The red came slowly out in blotches on Richard’s face. She saw that he was angry.
‘My dear girl, I don’t think you quite realize the position. If this comes out, I’m liable to go to prison. It’s ruin – disgrace.’
‘Vincent Easton will not use those papers against you. I am sure of that.’
‘That’s not quite the point. He mayn’t realize that they incriminate me. It’s only taken in conjunction with – with my affairs – with the figures they’re bound to find. Oh! I can’t go into details. He’ll ruin me without knowing what he’s doing unless somebody puts the position before him.’
‘You can do that yourself, surely. Write to him.’
‘A fat lot of good that would be! No, Theo, we’ve only got one hope. You’re the trump card. You’re my wife. You must help me. Go to Easton tonight –’
A cry broke from Theo.
‘Not tonight. Tomorrow perhaps.’
‘My God, Theo, can’t you realize things? Tomorrow may be too late. If you could go now – at once – to Easton’s rooms.’ He saw her flinch, and tried to reassure her. ‘I know, my dear girl, I know. It’s a beastly thing to do. But it’s life or death. Theo, you won’t fail me? You said you’d do anything to help me –’
Theo heard herself speaking in a hard, dry voice. ‘Not this thing. There are reasons.’
‘It’s life or death, Theo. I mean it. See here.’
He snapped open a drawer of the desk and took out a revolver. If there was something theatrical about that action, it escaped her notice.
‘It’s that or shooting myself. I can’t face the racket. If you won’t do as I ask you, I’ll be a dead man before morning. I swear to you solemnly that that’s the truth.’
Theo gave a low cry. ‘No, Richard, not that!’
‘Then help me.’
He flung the revolver down on the table and knelt by her side. ‘Theo my darling – if you love me – if you’ve ever loved me – do this for me. You’re my wife, Theo, I’ve no one else to turn to.’
On and on his voice went, murmuring, pleading. And at last Theo heard her own voice saying: ‘Very well – yes.’
Richard took her to the door and put her into a taxi.
Vincent Easton sprang up in incredulous delight. She stood in the doorway. Her wrap of white ermine was hanging from her shoulders. Never, Easton thought, had she looked so beautiful.
‘You’ve come after all.’
She put out a hand to stop him as he came towards her. ‘No, Vincent, this isn’t what you think.’
She spoke in a low, hurried v
oice. ‘I’m here from my husband. He thinks there are some papers which may – do him harm. I have come to ask you to give them to me.’
Vincent stood very still, looking at her. Then he gave a short laugh.
‘So that’s it, is it? I thought Hobson, Jekyll and Lucas sounded familiar the other day, but I couldn’t place them at the minute. Didn’t know your husband was connected with the firm. Things have been going wrong there for some time. I was commissioned to look into the matter. I suspected some underling. Never thought of the man at the top.’
Theo said nothing. Vincent looked at her curiously. ‘It makes no difference to you, this?’ he asked. ‘That – well, to put it plainly, that your husband’s a swindler?’
She shook her head.
‘It beats me,’ said Vincent. Then he added quietly: ‘Will you wait a minute or two? I will get the papers.’
Theo sat down in a chair. He went into the other room. Presently he returned and delivered a small package into her hand.
‘Thank you,’ said Theo. ‘Have you a match?’
Taking the matchbox he proffered, she knelt down by the fireplace. When the papers were reduced to a pile of ashes, she stood up.
‘Thank you,’ she said again. ‘Not at all,’ he answered formally. ‘Let me get you a taxi.’
He put her into it, saw her drive away. A strange, formal little interview. After the first, they had not even dared look at each other. Well, that was that, the end. He would go away, abroad, try and forget.
Theo leaned her head out of the window and spoke to the taxi driver. She could not go back at once to the house in Chelsea. She must have a breathing space. Seeing Vincent again had shaken her horribly. If only – if only. But she pulled herself up. Love for her husband she had none – but she owed him loyalty. He was down, she must stick by him. Whatever else he might have done, he loved her; his offence had been committed against society, not against her.
The taxi meandered on through the wide streets of Hampstead. They came out on the heath, and a breath of cool, invigorating air fanned Theo’s cheeks. She had herself in hand again now. The taxi sped back towards Chelsea.
Richard came out to meet her in the hall. ‘Well,’ he demanded, ‘you’ve been a long time.’
‘Yes – a very long time. Is it – all right?’