A. P. (Alan Patrick) Herbert.

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reasonings in a forced whisper which broke now and then into a harsh
undertone. Stephen thought it should be carted down the steps. John,
with an aching objection to further prolonged contact with the thing,
said it should be lowered with a rope. "Haven't you a bit of rope?" he
reiterated - "a bit of rope - much the best."

Sick of argument, Stephen fumbled with wild mutterings in his locker,
and brought out in a muddle of oil-cans and tools a length of stout
cord. Together they made a rough bight about Emily's middle, together
lifted her to the flat stone parapet of the wall.

When she was there a dog barked suspiciously in Hammerton Terrace;
another echoed him along The Chase. The two men crouched against the
wall in a tense and ridiculous agitation.

Through all these emergencies and arguments and muffled objurgations
there stirred in John's mind ironical recollections of passages in
detective stories, where dead bodies were constantly being transported
with facility and dispatch in any desired direction. It seemed so easy
in the books, it was so damnably difficult in practice - or so they were
finding it.

And always there was the menace of Margery's return; she must be back
soon, she would certainly come out into the garden on a night like
this....

When they had the body stretched flat and ready on the wall, Stephen
went back into the boat. It had sidled down below the steps, and had to
be hauled back. The tide was maddeningly strong. Stephen urged the boat
with imprecations under the wall. To keep it there he must hold on
stoutly with a boathook, and could give little help to John in the
detested task of lowering the sack. John's hands were clammy with sweat
like the hands of a gross man. He gripped the rope with a desperate
energy and thrust Emily gently over the side. The rope dragged and
scraped across the parapet; the body swayed in the moonlight with a
preposterous see-saw motion. When it was half-way to the water, they
heard a tug puffing rhythmically towards them - somewhere beyond the
Island. It was not yet in sight, but a resistless unreasoning panic
immediately invaded them. Stephen, with one free hand, clawed recklessly
at an edge of sacking; John, in a furious effort to quicken the descent
of Emily, lost altogether his control of the rope. The rope slipped
swiftly through his moist and impotent palms. Emily, with an
intimidating bump and a wooden clatter of sculls, fell ponderously into
the boat and lay sprawled across the gunwale. A sibilant "Damned fool!"
slid up the wall from Stephen, almost overbalanced by the sudden descent
of the body. The two men waited with an elaborate assumption of
innocence while the tug fussed past, their hearts pounding absurdly.
Then, before the wash had come, John Egerton stepped gingerly down the
creaking steps, and they pushed out into the rolling reflection of the
moon. The nose of the boat lifted steeply on the oily swell of the tug's
wash, and the head of Emily slipped down with a thump over the thwart,
her feet still projecting obliquely over the side; John Egerton pulled
them in. He looked back with a new disquiet at the still and silvery
houses of Hammerton Terrace, at the dim shrubberies along The Chase.
There were lights in some of the houses. Out there under the public moon
he felt very visible and suspect - a naked feeling.

He heard a remote mutter from Stephen, paddling in the bows: "Too many
of these damned tugs!" and another: "This filthy _moon_!" They were
working slowly against the tide between the Island and the mainland of
The Chase. Stephen's plan was to round the top of the Island, cross the
river, and get rid of Emily in the shadows of the other side, drifting
down with the tide.

Even in the narrow channel by the bank the tide was exasperating, and
paddling the boat, heavy with the engine, was slow work and strenuous.
But the engine would be too noisy. And it was an uncertain starter.

Stephen said at last, "Hell! get out the sculls!"

John Egerton groped in the locker for rowlocks with an oppressive sense
of incompetence and delay. His fingers moved with an ineffectual
urgency in a messy confusion of spanners and oil-cans, tins of grease,
and slimy labyrinths of thin cord. Only one rowlock was discoverable.
The finding of the second became in his mind a task of inconceivable
importance and difficulty. Vast issues depended on it - Stephen ...
Margery ... babies ... Emily Gaunt ... and somehow or other Mrs. Bantam.
Thunderous mutterings rolled down distantly from the bows. John groaned
helplessly. He caught his fingers sharply on the edge of a screw-driver.
"It's not here ... it's not here ... it _can't_ be, Stephen." With a
sense of heroic measures he hauled out in clattering handfuls the whole
muddle of implements in the locker. Under the electric coil lurked the
missing rowlock.

"Row, then, like the devil," ordered Stephen. Out here, in this strange
watery adventure, Stephen was the readily acknowledged commander. John
rowed, with grunts and splashings.

They rounded the Island, the moon glowing remotely beyond it through the
traceries of young willow stems. Stephen was doing something with an
anchor at the mouth of the sack, breathing audibly through his nose.
John sculled obliquely across the river, struggling against the tide,
steadily losing ground, he felt. "Losing ground," he thought insanely,
"ought to be losing _water_, of course." So strangely do the minds of
men move in critical hours.

When they were half-way over, the chunk-chunk of a motor-boat came
lazily upstream. "God!" said Stephen, "a police-boat." John thought,
"Will it _never_ end?" It was appalling, this accumulation of obstacles
and delays and potential witnesses. He was tired now, and acutely
conscious of a general perspiration.

They drifted downstream under the bank, while the police-boat phutted up
on the far side, a low black shape without lights. Caped figures
chattered easily in the stern and took no evident notice of the small
white motor-boat under the bank; but Stephen and John imagined fatal
suspicions and perceptions proceeding under the peaked caps. They
passed.

"_Now!_" Stephen was fiddling with his anchor again, tugging at a knot;
his tone was final. "Take her out into the middle again ... _quick_!"

John pulled gallantly with his left. They were opposite the house again
now, moving smoothly towards Hammersmith Bridge. No other craft was in
sight or sound.

Stephen said thickly, "If we don't get her over now, we never shall ...
stand by.... No, no ... you trim the boat.... I'll manage it."

He edged Emily close up against the gunwale, her extremities on a
couple of thwarts, her middle sagging down the side of the boat. He
looked quickly up the river and down the river and at Hammerton Terrace
and at the oil-mills below and at the empty towpath on the opposite
bank, all silent, all still. Stephen put a hand under the sack. Close by
a tiny fish leaped lightly from the river. Stephen saw the flash of its
belly, and took his hand away with a start. Then with a great heave
under Emily's middle, a violent pushing and lifting with feet and body
and arms, that set the sculls clattering and the boat precariously
rocking he got the body half over the gunwale, John perched anxiously on
the other side, striving to correct the already dangerous list. Stephen
struggled blasphemously with the infuriating sack. Somehow, somewhere it
was maddeningly entangled with something in the boat. Frantic tugging
and thrusting, irritable oaths, moved it not at all. John looked
fearfully behind him. A lighted omnibus was swimming through space,
perilously near ... Hammersmith Bridge. Stephen was kicking the body now
with a futile savagery.

"What the hell?" he said. "O God!"

John groped distantly with a hand in the dark. Then, "The anchor!" he
said - "the anchor's caught...." He heard a relieved "O Lord!" from
Stephen, "thought I'd put the anchor end over first" - and for the first
time made himself a petulant comment, "Why the devil didn't you?" It
was too much - this sort of thing. Then the shaggy end of the sack was
slithering quietly over the side, the anchor twinkled swiftly in the
moon, and the relieved boat rocked suddenly with a wild, delighted
levity. Emily was gone.

Peering back upstream, the two men saw a slowly expanding circle on the
black water And there were a few bubbles. Emily was indeed gone.

Stephen sat in a limp posture of absolute exhaustion, his shoulders
hunched, his head on his hands, speechless.

John looked at his watch. It was a quarter-past ten - only about an hour
since Emily died. He stared incredulous at the faintly luminous hands.
Then he looked round; the boat seemed to be drifting very fast. On his
right were the boat-houses, a dark huddle of boats clinging to the rafts
in front of them. The boat-houses were next to the Bridge.

He looked back and up, with a new fear. The long span of the suspension
bridge hung almost above them. A bus rumbled ominously above. Two
persons were standing on the footpath against the parapet, looking down
at the boat. He could see the pale blobs of their faces. One of them had
a Panama hat.

The boat shot into the dark under the Bridge.

John leaned forward. "Stephen," he whispered - "Stephen." There was no
answer. John touched his knee. "Stephen."

A yellow face lifted slowly. "What is it?"

"There was some one watching on the Bridge ... two men."

Stephen sighed with a profound weariness.

"It can't be helped," he said.

A dreadful paralysis seemed to have succeeded the heavy strain. He
looked as the men used to look after a long spell in the line, sitting
at last in a dingy billet - played out.

John Egerton took the sculls and turned the boat round. The boat moved
stiffly, with a steady gurgle at the bows; the noiseless tide swung
violently by; the oars creaked complainingly.

"This _tide_ ..." muttered John.

Stephen Byrne raised his head. "The tide's going out," he said
stupidly.




IV


Margery Byrne walked home very happily from the Underground Station at
Stamford Brook, The ticket collector uttered a reverent "Good night,
mum"; the policeman at the corner of St. Peter's Square brightened
suddenly at her and saluted with the imperishable manner of past
military service. The world was very kind and friendly, she felt. But
that was the usual manner of the world to Margery Byrne. The world
invariably looked at her as it passed her in the street. The male world
invariably looked again. The mannerless male world usually looked back.
The shameless male world stared at her in Tubes and manoeuvred
obviously for commanding positions. But that part of the world, having
secured its positions, was generally either disappointed or abashed.
There was an aspect of fragility and virtue about her which stirred in
the bold and shameless male the almost atrophied instincts of chivalry
and protection. After a little they ceased to stare, but opened doors
for her with a conscious knighthood. There are women who make a man feel
evil at the sight of them. Margery made a man feel good.

But this aspect of fragility was without any suggestion of feebleness.
It was just that she was slight and fair, and her face small and her
features intensely delicate and refined. She had a rarefied look - as if
all flaws and imperfections and superfluities had been somehow
chemically removed, leaving only the essential stamina and grace. For
she had stamina. She walked with an easy un-urban swing, and she could
walk a long way. Her lips were little and slightly anæmic, but firm.
There was an evident will in the determined and perfectly proportioned
chin. The nose was small but admirably straight and set very close above
the mouth. Only her large blue eyes seemed a little out of proportion,
but these suggested a warm sympathy which the smallness of her features
might otherwise have concealed. Her head, balanced attractively on
straight white shoulders, was covered gloriously, if a little thinly,
with hair of a light gold, an indescribable tint not often encountered
outside the world of books. But such, in fact, was Margery's hair. Her
skin also was of a colour and texture not to be painted in words - it had
that indefinable quality for which there has been discovered no better
name than transparent. And this pale, almost colourless quality of
complexion completed the effect of fragility, of physical refinement.

It was still and sultry in St. Peter's Square. The old moon hung above
the church and lit up the ridiculous stone eagles on the decayed and
pompous houses on Margery's right. "Like lecterns," she thought, for the
thousandth time.

The houses were square and semi-detached, two in one; a life-size eagle
perched over every porch, its neck screwed tragically towards its
sister-eagle craning sympathetically on the neighbouring porch, seeking
apparently for ever a never-to-be-attained communion. What sort of
people lived there, Margery wondered, and why? So far from town and no
view of the river, no special attraction. The people of The Chase always
wondered in this way as they walked through St. Peter's Square. The
problems of who lived in it and why were permanently insoluble since
nobody who lived in The Chase knew anybody who lived in the Square. They
knew each other, and that was enough. They knew it was worth while
travelling a long way if you lived in The Chase, because of the river,
the views, the openness, and the fine old rambling, rickety houses. But
why should any one live in an inland square with eagles over the front
doors?

Margery did not know. And she had other things to think of. Tomorrow she
must speak seriously to Emily. Emily, like all these young women, had
started excellently, but was becoming slack. And impertinent, sometimes.
But one must be careful. Just now was not the time to frighten her
away. Then Trueman's man was coming for the curtains in the morning;
they must be got ready. And there was a mountain of needlework to be
done. And she must run through Stephen's clothes again - before she was
too ill for it. Only a month more now, perhaps less. That was a
blessing. She was not frightened this time - not like the first time,
with little Joan - that _had_ been rather terrifying - not knowing quite
what it was like. But it was a long, interminable business; for such
ages, it seemed, you had to "be careful," not play tennis, or go out to
dinner just when you wanted to. You felt a fool sometimes, inventing
reasons for not doing things, when of course there was only one reason.
And so ugly - especially in London ... going about in shops ... and
Tubes.

Never mind. It was worth it. And afterwards....

Margery cast her mind deliciously forward to that "afterwards." They
would all go away somewhere, her dear Stephen and Joan and a new and
adorable little Stephen. She was determined that it should be a boy this
time. That was what Stephen wanted, and what he wanted, within reason,
he should have. He deserved it, the dear man. Really, he was becoming an
amazingly perfect husband. Becoming, yes - for just at first he had been
difficult. But that was during the war; they had seen so little of each
other - and he was always worried, overworked. But now they had really
"settled down," the horrid war was done with, and he had been too
wonderfully delightful and nice to her. Lately especially. Much more
considerate and helpful and - and, yes, demonstrative. She felt more sure
of him. She was appalled, sometimes, to think how essential he was to
her, how frightfully dependent she had become on the existence of this
one man, met quite by chance, or what was called chance, at somebody
else's house. If anything should happen now - Even the children would be
a poor consolation.

But nothing would happen. He would go on being more and more delicious
and successful; she would go on being happy and proud, watching eagerly
the maturement of her ambitions for him. Even now she was intensely
proud of him - though, of course, it would never do to let him suspect
it.

It was an astounding thing, this literary triumph. Secretly, she
admitted, she had never had enormous faith in his poetical powers. She
had liked his work because it was his. And being the daughter of a
mildly literary man, she had developed a serious critical faculty
capable of generously appraising any artistic effort of real sincerity
and promise. But she had seldom thought of Stephen's poetry in terms of
the market, of public favour and material reward. Certainly she had not
married him as "a poet" or even "a writer." But that only made his
meteoric success more dazzling and delightful. Sometimes it was almost
impossible to realize, she found, that this young man she had married
was the same Stephen Byrne whose name was everywhere - on the bookstalls,
in the publishers' advertisements, in literary articles in any paper you
picked up; that all over the country men and women were buying and
reading and re-reading and quoting and discussing bits of poetry which
_her_ husband had scribbled down on odd bits of paper at her own house.
It was astounding. Margery was passing the small houses at the end of
the Square, the homes of clerks and shop-people and superior artisans.
She glanced at a group of wives, garrulously taking the air at a
doorway, and almost pitied them because _their_ husbands' names were
never before the public. It seemed awful, now, to be absolutely obscure.

No. She didn't think that really. After all, it was an "extra," this
fame. It had nothing to do with her marrying Stephen; it would have
nothing to do with her happiness with Stephen. It was a kind of
matrimonial windfall. What really mattered was Stephen himself, and
Margery herself, and the way in which they fitted together. What, she
really - yes, _adored_ - there was no other word - was himself, his black
hair and his twinkling smile, his laugh and jolliness and funny little
ways. And his character. That, of course, was the foundation of it all.
A dear and excellent character. Other men, even the best of them, did
horrid things sometimes. Stephen, she knew, with all his faults - a
little selfish, perhaps - conceited? no, but self-centred, rather - would
never do anything mean or degrading or treacherous. She could trust him
absolutely. He would certainly never disgrace her as some men did
disgrace their wives - women, drink, and so on. "The soul of
honour" - that was the phrase.... That, again, was a marvellous piece of
fortune, that out of a world of peccant questionable men she should have
been allowed to appropriate a man like Stephen, so nearly perfect and
secure. No wonder she had this consuming, this frightening sense of
adoration, sometimes. But she tried to suppress that. It was dangerous.
"Thou shalt not bow down ..."

Margery smiled secretly and turned her latch-key in the lock.

In the hall she noticed immediately Stephen's hat on the peg, and was
glad that he was home. She walked through with her letters to the
garden, and looked out over the wall. The boat was gone, and she was
faintly disappointed. Far down the river she fancied she saw it, a dirty
whiteness, and resisted an impulse to call to Stephen. It must be nice
on the river tonight. The rabbits rustled stealthily in the corner; a
faint unpleasant smell hung about their home. She looked absently at the
rabbit Paul, his nose twitching endlessly in the moonlight, and went in
to bed.

When she had undressed she leaned for a long time out of the high window
looking at the night. Across the river lay the broad reservoirs of the
water company, and the first houses were half a mile away; so that from
the window on a night like this you looked over seemingly endless
stretches of gleaming water; strangers coming there at night-time
wondered at the wide spaciousness of this obscure corner of London. You
could imagine yourself easily in some Oriental city. Hammersmith and
Chiswick and Barnes wore a romantic coat of shadow and silver. The
carved reflections of the small trees on the other bank were so nearly
like reflected rows of palms. The far-off outline of factories against
the sky had the awe and mystery of mosques. In the remote murmur of
London traffic there was the note, at once lazy and sinister,
treacherous and reposeful, of an Eastern town. And now when no tugs
went by and nothing stirred, the silent river, rushing smoothly into the
black heart of London, had for Margery something of the sombre majesty
of the Nile, hinting at dark unnameable things, passion and death and
furtive cruelties, and all that sense of secrecy and crime which clings
to the river-side of great cities, the world over.

Margery wondered idly how much of all that talk about the Thames was
true; whether horrible things were still done secretly beside her
beloved river, hidden and condoned by the river, carried away to the
sea.... Down in the docks, no doubt.... Wapping and so on.

The prosaic thumping of a tug broke the spell of Margery's imagination.
She looked up and down for Stephen's boat, a faint crossness in her mind
because of his lateness. She got into bed. She was sleepy, but she would
read and doze a little till he came in.

She woke first drowsily to the hollow sound of oars clattering in a
boat, a murmur of low voices and subdued splashings ... Stephen mooring
the boat ... how late he was.

A long while afterwards, it seemed, she woke again: Stephen was creaking
cautiously up the stairs. She felt that he was peeping at her round the
door, murmured sleepily, "How late you are," dimly comprehended his soft
excuses ... something about the tide ... caught by the tide ... engine
went wrong ... of course ... always did ... raised her head with a vast
effort to be kissed ... a very delicate and reverent kiss ... remembered
to ask if Cook was back ... mustn't lock the front door ... half heard a
deep "Good night, my darling, go to sleep" ... and drifted luxuriously
to sleep again, to comfortable dreams of Stephen, dreams of babies ...
moonlight ... especial editions ... palm trees and water - peaceful,
silvery water.

Long afterwards there was a distant fretful interruption, hardly heeded.
A stir outside. Cook's voice ... Stephen's voice ... something about
Emily. Emily Gaunt ... not come home ... must speak seriously to Emily
tomorrow ... can't be bothered now. Stephen see to it ... Stephen and
Cook. Cook's voice, raucous. Cook's night out ... late ... go to bed,
Cook ... go to bed ... go to bed, everybody ... all's well.

* * * * *

Stephen turned out the light and crept away to the little room behind,
thanking God for the fortunate sleepiness of his wife. The dreaded
moment had passed.

He sat down wearily on the bed and tried to reduce the whirling tangle
in his brain to order. He ought, of course, to be thinking things out,
planning precautions, explanations, studied ignorances. But he was too
muddled, too tired. God, how tired! Lugging that hateful sack about. And
that awful row home - more than a mile against the tide, though John had
done most of that, good old John.... (There was something disturbing he
had said to John, when they parted at last - what the devil was it?...
Something had slipped out.... An intangible, uneasy memory prodded him
somewhere ... no matter.) And then when he did get back, what a time he
had had in the scullery, tidying the refuse on the floor, groping about
under a table ... hundreds of pieces of paper, grease-paper, newspaper,
paper bags, orange skins, old tins, bottles.... He had gathered them all
and put them in a bucket, a greasy bucket, with tea-leaves at the
bottom ... carried it down to the river on tiptoe ... four journeys.
God, what a night!

But it was over now - it was over - that part of it. All that was wanted
now was a straight face, a little acting, and some straightforward
lying. "God knows, I can lie all right," Stephen thought, "though nobody
knows it." What lie was it he had invented about the sack, tired as he
was? Oh yes, that John had borrowed it, and that John had first emptied
the rubbish into the river.... Yes, he had coached John on the steps
about that ... told him to keep it up if necessary. Old John had looked
funny when he said that. John didn't like lies, even necessary ones. A
bit of a prig, old John.

Stephen pulled at the bow of his black tie and fumbled at the stud. He
took off one sock and scratched his ankle reflectively. It was a pity
about John. He was such a good fellow, really, such a good friend. He
had helped him splendidly tonight, invaluable. But God knew what he felt


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Online LibraryA. P. (Alan Patrick) HerbertThe house by the river → online text (page 4 of 15)