As she was dressing she became aware of sounds of violent scrubbing going on in the next room—she had often heard such sounds almost before dawn. She had noticed, too, the almost painful cleanliness of the rather bare, big house. She knew that no servants were kept; she never saw Mrs. King scrubbing; most of her time was spent in cooking and washing clothes. Mr. King had never, yet, put in an appearance.
Presently the scrubbing stopped and shambling steps came along the landing as someone slopped along, dragging his slippers into which he had merely thrust his toes. There was a scratching sort of tap at the door. Marcella opened it quickly.
A man stood in the doorway, a man with bent shoulders, grey hair and bent back. His face was yellow and unhealthy-looking; his eyes were filmed and colourless. He seemed half asleep as he looked round over his shoulder suspiciously.
"Missus—have you got a tray bit?" he whispered.
"What's that?" she asked.
"A tray bit, missus—just thruppence—a mouldy thruppence to get a livener."
"Oh, you want some money?" she said hurriedly, and realizing the impossibility of offering a grown up man threepence gave him half a crown. He shambled off without a word and she saw no more of him. Later, when Louis came down from the roof, he slid along the landing on the soap the scrubber had left there. When Marcella went down to the kitchen where Mrs. King was already busy ironing, the mystery was explained.
"My boss has gone off for the day," she complained. "I went up into Dutch Frank's room just now, and found the pail of water left there! He'd hardly begun his scrubbing. I don't know where he got his money from."
"Was that your husband?" cried Marcella, stopping short in her toast-making.
"Oh, he's bin at you, has he?" said Mrs. King resignedly.
"I gave him—a little money. I didn't know he was your husband," said Marcella apologetically.
"I ought to have warned you, but there, you can't think of every blooming thing at once. Don't you worry, kid. I'm not blaming you. He would have been at you sooner or later. It's all the same in the long run, but it means I've got to scrub the floors. And my back's that bad—I do suffer with my back something cruel."
"Where has he gone, then?"
"Oh, beer-bumming. He goes off every day, and comes in every night after closing time, shikkered up."
"I've never seen him before," ventured Marcella.
"He's a lad, Bob is. We had a bonser hotel once, kid—a tied house, you know. He was manager, on'y he drunk us out of it. So then I took on this place on my own—got the furniture hire system, else he'd raise money on it, and sell it up under me. He's no damn good to me, you know, kid—only I do manage to get a bit of scrubbing out of him, of a morning."
"Does he scrub floors?" asked Marcella in awestruck tones.
"It's all he's good for. He never earns a penny. He goes and tacks on to any fellow he sees looking a bit flushed with money and boozes with him all day. He often meets a fellow that knew us when we had the hotel, and he gets a beer or two out of him."
"Oh, I am sorry, Mrs. King," began Marcella, but Mrs. King laughed a little harshly.
"I don't mind so much now, kid—got past it. So long as my back don't trouble me too much. The boys are very good to me—they put him to bed if he's dead drunk. If he isn't dead drunk I won't sleep with him, because he's always forward and vulgar when he's only half there. Then he haves to sleep on the sofa in the dining-room. Next day he gets up and cleans the grates and scrubs for me. If he didn't he wouldn't get any money out of me—and well he knows it."
"But do you give him money for drink?"
"Yes. But not till he's done his scrubbing. You see, being in the hotel business all his life, he can't get started of a morning till he's had a dog's hair. So he'll scrub all three storeys down for thruppence. When he's had one drink, and is safe inside a hotel, he's got sauce enough to raise drinks out of anyone. But you know, whenever there's a new chum about that he can get thruppence out of, it's poor Ma for the scrubbing. And my back's just as bad as bad can be!"
The fire was not very bright. Marcella wished Louis's chops would cook more quickly. She wanted to get upstairs.
"It's dreadful being married to a man like that," said Marcella.
"It is," said Mrs. King, planting her iron viciously on Mr. King's shirt that she was ironing. "I used to try to stop him once. Only you get disheartened in time, don't you, kid? The times I've started a new home and had it sold up under me! Six homes I've had and this is the seventh. And the times I've trusted him, only to get laughed at for being a soft. Now all I do is to feel damn glad to get him off my hands for the day. We've made that a hard and fast rule. I'll do for him, and give him a meal of a Sunday when the hotels are closed and see to his washing, and let him sleep in my bed when he's drunk enough not to get vulgar. In return he does the scrubbing and the grates, and I find him in liveners—"
"Oh, my goodness—do you love him?" asked Marcella, staring at her.
It was Mrs. King's turn to stare.
Then she laughed loudly, a little hysterically, until tears came into her eyes as she stood with her iron poised.
"Love him? By cripes, no! I'd as soon think of loving one of them bugs the Dagoes leave in your bed when they have a room for the night."
"Why did you marry him, then?"
Mrs. King put down her iron and stared out through the door into the sun-baked courtyard where washing flapped and bleached and hens scratched in the dust. It seemed as though she had never thought about it before.
"I suppose I married him for the same reason as you married your chap, kid. I suppose I was took with him, once."
Marcella gathered her plates and teapot on the tray and stood at the door for an instant, visioning last night's glamour ending in loathing, or in dull acceptance of misery and disappointment.
"I do feel sorry, Mrs. King," she said, her eyes damp.
"I'm sorrier for you, kid," said Mrs. King, attacking the shirt again. "How old are you?"
"And I'm nearly forty-nine. I've got through thirty years of my misery, and you've all yours to come. I've learnt not to care. I go and have a bit of a splash at the Races when I'm pretty flush with money, and I have a glass or two of port with the boys sometimes, and get a laugh out of it. You've got to learn these things yet, poor little devil. But don't you make the mistake I made and be too soft with him."
Marcella shook her head.
"And—I say, kid. I go down on my bended knees every day and thank God I've got no kids of his—"
"I think it's a pity. You must be so cold and lonely," she said, seeing a resemblance between Mrs. King and Aunt Janet.
She had made the bed before she went down to cook the breakfast. Louis was reading the paper and smoking, looking very well. She hated to see him in bed now.
He ate his breakfast in silence, with the paper propped in front of him. She pushed the window wide and, perched on the window-sill with a cup of tea outside and a piece of toast in her hand, she decided on what she was going to say to him.
"Louis," she said at last, "I am a wretchedly dissatisfied sort of person, dear."
He looked at her enquiringly and smiled.
"Louis, can you get up to-day and come out with me?"
He hesitated for a moment. Then he sighed.
"My dear—I don't think it's safe," he said in a low voice.
"Well, then, it isn't. But I hate to see you lying here like this. I want us to go and explore. In that big garden by the waterside it's gorgeous. And—there's your work."
He flushed a little, struggling with himself. At last he said:
"After all, it's our honeymoon. We can afford to slack a little."
She laughed outright at that. He could not see anything to laugh at.
"It isn't enough for me—slacking. I hate it. I want to do things just all the time. I want to dig up fields and move hills about, and things like that. Louis, don't you think we might go up country and be squatters like uncle?"
"I wouldn't mind being a squatter like your uncle," he said, comfortably "with fifty quid notes to splash all over the shanty! But you're not getting tired of me, are you, darling—after last night?" he added gently. She flushed, and fidgeted perilously on the window-sill.
"No, Louis. But—after last night—I don't like to see you lying here like this," she began.
"I know it's boring for you, my pet. Marcella, come and sit on the edge of the bed. We can talk better if you're near me."
"No, I'll stay here," she said decidedly. "And it's not boring for me. It's—" She was going to say "degrading" but stopped in time.
"You know, I think I'd be all right," he went on, "if I got up and went out now. But I can't be sure. I don't want to hurt you again, darling."
"I know, my dear. But I can't help thinking this is a negative thing. If you had something to do—something that would interest you so much you couldn't even think about whisky."
"I've got that something in you, when you're as sweet as you were last night," he said softly. She felt sickened for a minute. The Spear in her hand wavered; it seemed to be turning to a chain again. A chain for her, a Spear for him—she said quietly:
"I like taking care of you, Louis. I'm not thinking of myself at all. Only I can't help wishing you'd got pneumonia, or a broken leg or something, so that you could stay in bed sort of—honourably."
"It's worth while, if I get better, isn't it, my pet?" he said, slowly.
"Anything's worth while—if you get better," she said.
And so the days wore on until they had been married six weeks. In all that time Louis never saw whisky. This, he confessed to her, was a miracle; except for when he was with the Maories in the Prohibition Country, and when he had been in hospital for various long stretches, he had never known three days to go by without his being drunk. So she felt that they had advanced steadily. Moods of depression came and went, charmed away by her. They spent a good deal of time on the roof. They had not many books to pass the slow hours, though Dr. Angus sent two every week. Louis began to lecture her on medicine; he really knew extraordinarily well what he had learnt: he was an excellent teacher of facts, but he had not one iota of deductive thought in his teaching and, like Andrew Lashcairn, was remarkably impatient if she did not understand or, understanding, ventured to express an opinion of her own about anything. They had many glamorous nights on the roof, nights that recalled the enchantment of those hours under the Aurora, nights of severe mental reservation on Marcella's part, all unsuspected by Louis. He confessed to her that his ideas were getting modified; a great confession for so crusted a conservative as he.
One night they were kept awake by a tropical downpour which lashed against the windows and poured through the ceiling. Three times they had to get up and move the bed round to escape the stream of water. Marcella seemed to be spending all the night mopping up water.
"If Mrs. King sees all this mess I expect she'll say we mustn't go up on the roof again," said Louis. "I suppose we cracked the rusty old iron by walking about on it."
"I love the roof," said Marcella, patiently mopping. It was three o'clock: the shrill hum of mosquitoes made them afraid to put out the light, since they had no mosquito nets. After a while they stood by the window watching the water running along the street as high as the kerb stones.
"I love the roof, too. A few months ago I'd have fainted at the thought of doing anything so unconventional as sleeping on a roof. You are changing me, Marcella. I'm getting your ideas of not caring what people think, of being my own censor. And—do you know something else, Marcella?" he added, looking at her with adoration. Her eyes asked questions.
"I believe I've got it beat at last."
"Yes. I don't want the bally stuff now. I want you instead. I hate you away from me for an instant. If you went away now, dearie, I'd be raving with d.t. next day!"
"I would! I worship you, Marcella. You're life itself to me. I can't get on two minutes without you."
"But just supposing I did die—seriously, Louis! People get knocked down in streets and all that. Why shouldn't it be me?"
"I shouldn't attempt to live. I know exactly what I'd do. I've got it all worked out! I shall just get blind, roaring drunk and then throw myself in the harbour. My life is useless without you."
To his amazement she wrung her hands hopelessly, and looked at him with tragic eyes.
"Can't you see, you utter idiot, that that's just all wrong? It's no use doing things for someone else! You've got to do them for yourself! What's the good of it? Do you think I want to make you a flabby thing hanging on to my apron strings all the time? You've got drunk on whisky in the past. Louis, I'm simply not going to have you getting drunk on me! What on earth's the use of conquering drink hunger and getting woman-hunger? It's only another—what you call neurosis, and what I call kink! If that's all the use my love and the whole wicked struggle is going to be, I might as well give up at once?"
He caught her wet face between his hands. In the light of the candle he looked at her earnestly.
"If, at the end of all this, I've to go on being a prop to you, we need not go on trying any more. Props are rotten and cowardly, whether they are props of love or not. I want to see you grow so that, if I go out of life, you'll stand up straight with your head in the sun and the wind. Not propped, my dear! Father was all wrong, I think now. When he'd killed the whisky he leaned on a great big man God outside him, a shield and defence. Can't you see that we've to stand up alone without God or anything except ourselves? Can't you see that unless our strength is in ourselves we'll never stand? That's what I'm trying to do—and I know how hard it is."
"You? You're not a drunkard, Marcella," he said.
She smiled a little as she looked at him.
"You know, Louis, you're an awful duffer!" she said, and turned away. But he lifted her over the wet floor into bed and, as he blew out the candle, told the mosquitoes to go to hell, and kissed her face and her hands, he thought he had effectually stilled her queer ethical doubtings. And she felt very much alone and unguided, and not at all able to stand up straight without a prop as she had preached to him.
For the next few days Louis was depressed and restless. She did not understand him. She was not yet aware that his hunger came on in periodic attacks and thought that she must have hurt him in some way to make him so wretched. She tried to be especially gentle to him, but he was rather difficult to please. He developed a habit of womanish, almost shrewish, nagging that astounded her; he grumbled at his food, he grumbled at the discomforts of living in one room; he made her feel cheap when she kissed him by turning away and saying, "There, that's enough, now!"; he found fault with her clothes and, one morning as she was dressing, said he was tired of seeing her cleaning the room; she seemed to think that that was all he needed—a nurse and a servant, since she never troubled to make herself attractive to him. Several times, coming from doing her cooking in the basement, she found Mr. King slinking along the top landing, but did not associate him with Louis. Several times she thought she smelt whisky, but told herself angrily that she was dreaming. Then, one day, coming in from the Post Office, she found Louis gone. One thing she noticed as she came along the landing was an empty bottle in the dark corner behind the door. As soon as she opened the door she saw three whisky bottles, empty, on the mantelpiece. On a piece of paper he had written:
"Get all the satisfaction you can out of these, old girl. I'm off."
She felt cold with horror, but there was nothing she could do. Mrs. King said that she had seen him go out at two o'clock. And that was all she could learn. For the rest of the afternoon and evening she was almost frantic with fear. But the money was not touched. She could not imagine what had happened until Mrs. King told her that Mr. King had confessed to getting letters containing money from the Post Office for Louis, and buying him whisky. Marcella ran out of the house, almost crazed with fright, to look for him. When she had only gone a few hundred yards she ran back, afraid he might come in and need her. It was not until after midnight that a violent knocking on the front door roused Mrs. King and sent Marcella down the stairs in a panic.
It was Louis. His eyes were wild, his clothes muddy. He lurched past Mrs. King and, making a great effort, managed to get upstairs.
In the room, instinct made Marcella shut and lock the door. He had thrown himself on the bed, his muddy boots on the coverlet. He lay there breathing heavily for awhile until he was violently sick.
"Oh, Louis—my poor little boy!" she cried, forgetting that he was drunk in her fear that he was ill.
"You think I'm drunk, ole girl—not drunk 'tall, ole girl."
"Well, get undressed and get into bed," she said, trying to help. He struck her hand away from his collar fiercely and, holding her arms twisted them until she had to beg him to let her go.
"Aft' my papers," he cried fiercely. Then he seemed to recognize her and began to rave about his duty to England, and how England's enemies had given him poison.
"I'm poisoned, ole girl. I knew what it would be. But when they sent for me I had to go."
"Who sent for you?"
"They sent a note by King. It came in by the English mail. Th-th-they have t-t-to b-be s-so c-c-careful," he said, and that was all he would tell her. Soon he was fast asleep, breathing heavily, and she was wrestling with a sick disgust at his presence, a fright that he really had been in danger from enemies and the conviction that he was drunk and not poisoned. She lay on the floor again this time because she could not bring herself to touch him or go near him. His hands and face were dirty and he had definitely refused to wash them or let her wash them. But in the middle of the night he woke up and began to shout for her.
"I wan' my wife. Where's my wife?" he raved and groping till he found the candlestick knocked on the floor with it. She sprung up hastily.
"Louis—hush, dear. You're waking up all the poor boys who have to go to work at six o'clock," she whispered.
"I wan' my wife," he cried, groping for her with his muddy hands. She stood trembling by the bed.
"Louis, I can't—it isn't a bit of use asking me. I can't be in bed beside you like this."
"Glad 'nough to las' night!" he said, laughing into her face. She felt the hot blood pumping to her skin until it seemed to her that even her hair must be blushing. Then she went very cold as she walked blindly towards the door, only conscious that she must get anywhere away from him.
"I wan' my wife. She is my wife, isn't she? Dammit! Wha's a man's wife for? Marsh—Marshlaise! Damn Germ's playing Marshlaise! They're aft' me—I knew they'd be aft' me! Marsh-shella? Where's my Marsh-ella?"
He pounded on the floor again, and she turned back, wrung by the terror in his voice. She lighted two candles and he saw that she was by his side.
"I thought you'd left me," he said, beginning to cry and streaking the tears about his face with his dirty hands. She was shivering as she bent over him, her tears mingling with his.
"I'm here with you, dear," she told him.
"Are you my wife? Wan' wom'n—beau-ful whi' shoulders! N'est ce pas? Parlez-vous Franshay, mam-selle? Ah oui, oui."
"Louis, you mustn't, mustn't talk that beastly French, please," she sobbed. He thumped on the floor, staring round wildly with glazed eyes. There was a tap at the door. Marcella, glad of any diversion, went and opened it.
"I say, kid, keep your boss quiet if you can," whispered Mrs. King. "My young chaps down below can't get their proper sleep for that row, and they've got a hard day's work before them if he hasn't."
"Mrs. King, whatever am I to do with him?" she cried frantically. "I don't believe he knows it's me. And he's so horribly dirty."
"Oh, go an' sit on his knee a bit, kid, and make up to him. That's the best way to make them go quiet. He's at the vulgar stage to-night, your boss is. But do keep him quiet. Not that I'm not sorry for you, kid," she added, as she turned away. "They're beasts, men are. Mine's asleep as it happens."
He was still raving, saying disgusting things that, unfortunately, were in English this time. Looking at him in the candlelight she felt terrified of him and utterly unable to treat him as a sick man and not a wicked one. As she stood there stiff, unable through sheer disgust to get any nearer to him, he clutched at her nightgown and drew her nearer. She felt frantic; her nails cut into her hands as she gripped them together as if for the comforting feel of a hand in hers.
"Why should I have this disgust happen to me? It's too dirty to ask women to get men to sleep like this."
Then, amidst all the searing things he was saying, came the memories of those cries in the night at the farm and she wondered breathlessly if this sort of thing could have happened to her mother. And, at that moment she knew that it had not. Her father might, quite possibly, have almost killed her mother by his violent rages. But he could never have been merely disgusting. She looked at him again and felt murderous; a passion to put him out of life, to stamp upon him and finish him flooded up and burst and died all in an instant. She realized in that quiet instant that this passionate disgust was utterly selfish; if he had been loathsome with any other disease than this she would have nursed and soothed him tenderly; if he had been clean and charming, as on the night of the aurora.
"Oh, what a hypocrite you are, Marcella Lashcairn!" she said. "With all your high-falutin' ideas of balance and coolness! You've been luxuriating in the thought of martyrdom all the time you've been fighting the enchantment of this wretched love-making! You've not been fighting it a bit, really! It's only now, when it's disgusting and beastly and—not a bit enchanting, that you're fighting it! What a liar you've been!"
"I wan' my wife," he muttered, quietened a little by Mrs. King's voice. "'Sall very well, ole girl."
"Be quiet, Louis, or I'll shake your head off!" she said, quietly. He stared at her, and cowered down in the bed. She watched him for a moment. Then she spoke softly.
"Now you're going to sleep—you're going to put your head down on Marcella's shoulder and go to sleep. You're quite safe with Marcella."
He shivered a little, and then lay still. She pinched out the candle with fingers that did not feel the flame.
For a whole fortnight he drank steadily, using remarkable cleverness in getting money. He joined forces with Mr. King: for the first week they obtained money from some unknown source and only came home at night when they were put out of the hotels at closing time, and even then they brought whisky or gin—which was much cheaper—home with them. Marcella had not known there were distinctions in alcohol; she found during that fortnight that whisky made him mad and then terrified, gin made him horribly disgusting and beer made him simply silly and very sick. The second week Louis tricked and lied to Marcella, using any excuse to get her out of the room. At the end of three days he had sold everything he possessed except his least reputable suit, which he had to keep to wear. The last day of the fortnight he came home without the waistcoat: whether he had sold that, or given it away in maudlin generosity, or lost it in some fantastic fashion she could never gather. He had not taken any of her money. On Mrs. King's advice she had gone up on the roof one day, crept along three other roofs and hidden it in a gully.
"You've got to be up to all the dodges," said Mrs. King.
"I loathe dodges," said Marcella.
She got down to the depths in this fortnight. Louis scarcely slept at all, nor did she. Soothing him at night sickened her beyond endurance; she read the New Testament much during the day while he was away, and the story of the Grail. One day St. Paul said something to her that brought her up sharp.
"Though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profiteth me nothing; love suffereth long, and is kind: love—beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things."
"I don't believe I love him. I don't believe I ever loved him. That madness wasn't love, or it would have endured all things," she said. Then Parsifal told her that without love pity might still endure all things. By the time she had been married two months her pity for him was an overwhelming ache. He pretended penitence to win it: he had no need to pretend....
At last he had no money. Everything portable he had sold, including some of her clothes. His drink hunger was tearing him. She was going about the room with big, mournful eyes and white face, making a meal for him. He had scarcely eaten for the whole fortnight; she did not understand that he was too poisoned to eat; she tried to persuade him to take food until he was irritated beyond endurance and threw it on the floor. As she passed him, quiet footed, he noticed her purse in the pocket of the big cooking apron Mrs. King had lent her.
"Dearie," he said presently, "leave that silly mess and come here to me."
She came immediately, and sat on the edge of the bed, her shoulders drooping.
"Your little Louis's so sorry," he whispered.
"Are you really sorry, Louis? Not like you were last time?" she asked, suddenly hoping all things again on the slightest provocation.
"My darling, I'm heartbroken to think of the way I've treated you," he said. "I think I'd better throw myself in the harbour."
He took her hand in his and held it shakily. Her loose sleeve slipped up; on the white arm he saw blue marks of fingers; this jerked him a little. He had not known he had got to that yet. Suddenly he kissed them and began to cry.
"When did I do that?"
"What?" she said guilelessly.
"Oh, that!" she said, flushing. "That's nothing. I don't know how I did it. Mrs. King's mangle, I think it was. It's ugly. I don't like you to see ugly things." She drew the sleeve down tight.
"My poor little brave darling," he whispered, drawing her closer, trying to make her hide her face on his shoulder as he measured the distance between his hand that was round her waist and the apron pocket. He saw that it was hopeless.
"Marcella—when your father was ill, did he pray?"
"Yes. All the time."
"I wish I could," he murmured.
"Why not, if you want to? Wanting to pray is a prayer, really."
"I don't feel fit to, Marcella. Do you think you could pray for me, girlie?" he said, looking past her at the wall.
"I—I don't think I could—out loud. I'd feel as if I were eavesdropping. But I can in my mind, if you like."
"Let's kneel down, then, like we did in the funny little tin tabernacle when we were married," he said, and with an unsteady spring he was out of bed and kneeling by her side. For five minutes they were very quiet, she with her face buried in the counterpane as she prayed vaguely to herself and God and her father to help him. So intent was she that she did not feel his hand in her pocket. She thought his look of relief when they stood up and he kissed her meant that once more he had beaten his enemy.
"Girlie—go down and fill the bath for me! Right full to the brim with cold water. Like ducking in Jordan! I feel good now. I'm going to be clothed and in my right mind, now," he said earnestly. When she came back, her shoulders squared again, he had vanished. She did not miss her purse until she went to the door to buy milk. Luckily there was not very much in it. Not till she heard the tale from Louis's lips did she believe he had stolen it, and when she missed a few not very valuable but very precious articles of jewellery that had belonged to her mother she thought that his tale of enemies—Germans and Chinese—who were dogging him, searching for valuable Government papers, must be true, and that they had taken her few trinkets.
That night brought the climax; he had reached the limit of endurance and was brought home by two sailors who had found him on the Man-of-War Steps. A wild southerly buster was blowing, bringing rain with it in floods. He was drenched and so were the sailors.
"He isn't half shikkered," said one of the boys admiringly. "Trying to jump in the harbour, saying the Germans was after him! If we'd not been going back to the Astarte just then he'd have been in, sure enough."
"I'll get him upstairs for you, miss," said one of the sailors. "He's going to have the rats. We'd really ought to have give him to the police."
"I'm glad you didn't. If you can help me get him to his room—"
"Right-o, miss. Is he married?"
"Yes. I'm his wife," she said quietly. The sailors seemed to discuss the matter together. Then one of them volunteered to stay the night, as he guessed Louis would be dangerous.
"I'll get pulled for it to-morrow," said the boy, "but it don't seem right to leave a girl with him."
"You are nice, both of you," she said gratefully, "but don't worry. I'm quite used to him. He'll go to sleep."
Her instinct was to get rid of spectators, to have him to herself locked away from unsympathetic eyes. So the sailors went at last. When she got back from seeing them out Louis was flattened against the wall, staring with horrified eyes at the door, shaking violently. He had lost control of all his muscles; his face was grinning dreadfully. She gave a little cry of fright at his dreadful face. He mistook the cause of it and it communicated itself to him adding to his already overwhelming horror.
"They're after me," he mumbled; she could scarcely tell what he said because his mouth could only form the words loosely. "On the roof! Germs—Chinks! Listen!" Suddenly he spoke with extraordinary clearness, telling her that he had had word that day that the Germans and Chinese had formed an alliance and were already over-running Europe.
"Big air fleet over Melb-Melba! Alb't Hall in ruins!" he chattered." Chinese torture. They know I'm biggest en'my in 'Stralia, ole girl. They got me—to-day they caught me. I always knew it—I knew they'd have me! But I beat them, just as I beat the Pater! They know I'm the man they're after! They know I'm the son of the Duke of ——" He mumbled a name Marcella could not catch. "Tha's why Pater—s'posed father—pers'cuted me all 'long! He was in their pay. Can't you see it? But I got away. Only they'll have me, they'll have me. They're on the roof now! Marsh-Marshe-lla, can you guard chimney if they come down? Ole girl, guard it with your body! Coming down chimney—Christmas Eve—"
He began to cry and laugh hysterically.
"When I was li'l kid'—Chris-mas stockings; I nev' thought Chinks'd come down chim' with hot irons—scalpels—" And then he described in abominable detail the tortures of the Inquisition all mixed up with Chinese tortures and atrocities: his reading seemed to have taken a morbid turn for years; the unspeakable horrors he described made Marcella the same quaking jelly of fear as he was, for the moment. The wild howling of the southerly buster in the chimney spoke to her Keltic imagination of enemy voices; the creakings of the rain-swollen roof, the pattering of the hail above on the iron was like quiet-footed torturers advancing to their work. Her reason had gone for a moment, overwhelmed by horrors. She did not stop to ask herself logical questions. Louis's voice went on, all on one note, piling horror on horror, disgust on disgust.
"They've killed poor ole King. Dutch Frank's in their pay—sleeping in the nex' room to us all these weeks. They hold your feet to the fire till they swell and burst. They'll do that to you, old thing, 'cause you're with me. Ole girl—I say, ole girl! You won't yell out, will you? Ole girl—show them how an Eng—Eng—can die!"
She watched him, fascinated, her back against the door. With a look of infinite cunning he began to search his pockets and produced a bundle of papers, ordinary note-paper, pale grey with an embossed address and telephone number at the top. He handed them to her solemnly.
"If they get me, ta' these! Lea' me! Le' me die f'r ole flag! Braved a thous' years batt' and the breeze! Ta' these to the Gov'-Genral! He mus' sen' these to King George! May save Buck'm Pal's! If all else falls, mus' save Buck'm Pal's, Marshella! King George unstans code—all in code—"
She took them dazedly in her hands. She saw that on the whitewashed wall against which he had almost stuck himself was a great patch of wet from his drowned clothes. He was standing with a pool of water dripping from him; his blazing eyes were darting this way and that in terror, his mouth was working loosely. Occasionally he lost power of speech entirely and regained it with didactic distinctness for a few moments. He made ineffectual grabs at Marcella, but his shaking hands failed to reach her. His inflamed brain searched back to every horrible physical thing he had read, or seen, every operation he had watched; his morbid condition made them things of obscenity, atrocity. He repeated them all to her with such circumstantial and guileless exactitude that her brain reeled, and still she stood by the door, keeping out she knew not what. Watching her face growing whiter, more pinched, he remembered things done to women by madmen—and said them aloud.
She glanced at the bundle of papers in her hand, wondering where she could hide them from his enemies. Opening them out so that she could fold them better she read the top page. It was written in thin, Italian handwriting, the typical caligraphy of the upper-class woman of middle age.
"My own Darling Boy," she read.
"I enclose the usual pound from the Pater. Also five shillings each from Mary and myself to get you some cigarettes and chocolates. I hope you can get that nice milk chocolate you like so much in Australia. My dear, I hope and pray every day that you will remember that promise you gave me at Tilbury. When I see other mothers with big sons I feel I can't bear your being right at the other side of the world. Mrs. Cornell came in with Rupert to-day, and for the first time in my life I felt I hated them both. The doctor and Mr. Blackie have been in playing billiards with the Pater. I strongly suspect the Pater let the old chap win. Anyway, he was very excited about it when he went home."
She turned over to the last page, and read, "given Toby his biscuit and told him Master will soon be home. He will, won't he, dear boy?
"Your loving old MUM."
She frowned. Louis had slid down to the floor and was curled up against the wall, making himself as small as possible, muttering, and occasionally grasping out at something that eluded him.
The next letter was very much the same as the first—little loving messages, circumstantial accounts of trivial family interests. Cook had been ill again and the soup was burnt one night because the temporary cook sent by Miss Watkin's Agency was certainly not up to her job. Mary had been to see "The Chocolate Soldier" again, and was very bored. One of the Wayre girls—the fair one—had dyed her hair for a church concert and couldn't wash it off again.
And he said these letters were a code!
Marcella had a quick struggle with two sides of her nature. The Kelt in her hugged the thought that these were secret service papers to be guarded with her life for his sake, his country's sake. There was nothing extraordinary to her in the thought that, in the reign of George V, torturing enemies were abroad with knife and bastinado and poison cup. She saw herself standing over his prostrate body, with countless slain enemies before her, and a dripping spear in her hand. She got a glimpse of King George, with ringlets, velvet suit and Vandyke lace collar gravely smiling as he received the papers from her hands. She was still in the romantic stage of kingship! And then the stolidly common-sense Puritan ancestress in her made her laugh. It was hard for her to disbelieve a romantic and perilous tale. But these letters! They were simply the pathetic love-letters of a mother to her boy, bringing an atmosphere of a commonplace, peaceful English home into all this madness. With that the truth dawned on her. There were eight of them, each mentioning money! Louis had admitted not writing to his father to put a stop to his remittance. She had forgotten to insist that it was done. Here was the explanation of his present orgy!
He was kneeling on the floor now, trying to grip his bitten, bleeding fingers into the wall and crawl upwards. He thought he was in a well, drowning. As she bent over him the well vanished, and she became his enemy. He made a desperate lunge at her and tried to grab his papers from her. But his body was unco-ordinated; murder was in his brain, but it could not be transferred to his shaking hands with which he menaced her.
She was very much stronger than he, and all the stronger now that her acquired fear of unknown enemies had been laughed away. The thing she realized most was that he must go to bed, that his wet clothes must come off for fear they gave him pneumonia; that, even if they were not wet, they must still come off and be locked up to keep him once again a prisoner. Only, it seemed, in imprisonment, lay peace. And peace was certainly not salvation!
As she realized that, all the strength was taken from her, but only for a moment. She felt that there was something in living from day to day and trusting that somehow good would come to him; she thought for a mad moment of being drastic, and breaking his leg to make him an honourable prisoner, but realized with self-contempt that she was too soft to do that to him. Instead, she fought him to get his clothes off, and by shaking him till all his breath went, perhaps saved his reason by crystallizing his intangible fears of enemies into physical fear of her, whom he could see and guard against. But he dared not sleep. As soon as he had ceased to be afraid of her rather hard, very strong hands he became afraid again of the Germans and Chinks; and, seeing him there, so weak now, so sick, so shaky she could not shake fear into him any more.
As the night wore on his delusions changed. He was still being persecuted, but now she was the persecutor. Once he cried out that he had been drinking sulphuric acid, and his throat and mouth were completely burnt away, leaving a gaping wound. She made tea for him, guessing that this was merely a picturesque way of telling her he was thirsty. But he thought she was poisoning him, and dared not drink the tea. She had only married him for his money and his position, for his enemies had told her he was a duke's son. She was a second Mrs. Maybrick—but this conveyed nothing to newspaperless Marcella. She had been unfaithful to him many times, he told her: Mr. King, Dutch Frank, Ole Fred and the Chinese greengrocer from whom she bought granadillas every day, were the objects of her transferred affections.
Unused to the ravings of delirium she was first wildly indignant and then coldly despairing; at first she thought he was cruel; then she realized, with a softening to pity, that he was only mad. He won back the pity by telling her that his mouth and throat were now in an advanced state of decomposition, having been dead many months; maggots were crawling over them, choking him. The overwhelming beastliness of this suggestion was almost more than she could bear until she realized that it must be even more overwhelming for him. By chance she hit upon the sort of treatment a doctor would most likely have given a man suffering from alcoholic poisoning. She spoke to him quietly, as if asking his advice, though she could scarcely control her voice.
"The best thing is to poison the maggots, don't you think, Louis?"
He looked at her craftily, his mind switching on to a less horrifying thought.
"Ha! I knew you had poison. Where is it?"
"I gave you all the poison in that tea, dear. What is there we can use to poison maggots? Surely they taught you that at the hospital?"
"Oh yes, yes—mix up salt and water and watch them wriggle! A quart of water and two tons of salt. Be quick! I'll poison the devils," he cried, and she watched in astonishment as he drank the salt water greedily. Of course he was sick, and very much better because much less poisoned.
His delusions became less terrifying; the maggots changed to a bee buzzing inside his ear, deafening him. She killed the bee by blowing cigarette smoke inside his ear and telling him it was dead. When he grew much quieter and more reasonable he asked her the time in so ordinary a voice that she thought he must be quite well. The next minute he begged her earnestly not to come near him again because her infidelities had made him loathe the sight of her.
Right back of her mind was the shaking conviction that she could not stand alone; she was longing, demanding almost, all that night, that God should come down from on high with chariots and thunderbolts to save her; she wanted Dr. Angus to tell her what to do, to persuade her that Louis was a sick man and not a bad man; next minute she wanted her father to come and thrash him to death for his wickedness. But all the time, illogically, she pitied him while she pitied herself. By accident he killed the self pity by transmuting it to a softer, more beautiful thing.
"Did I tell you the Chinks had got that little Jimmy who was on the Oriana?" he asked casually at tea-time next day.
"Who? What do you mean?" she said, starting.
"I saw him and Peters sleeping out in the Domain that wet night. I was going to sleep there too, because I was afraid to come home to you. They told me they were starving. The kiddie had got his pyjamas in a bundle. All their other baggage had gone somewhere—probably seized for rent somewhere. Serves the old fool right, spending all his tin on that little widow!"
"But where's Jimmy?" she cried, starting up to fetch him.
"I don't know. I gave him a shilling to get a feed, and the old chap came and had a few drinks with me. I forget what happened then. I expect the Salvation Army 'll get the kid—if they can get him from the Chinks."
That night she was tortured by Jimmy. Then she was tortured by all the children in all the worlds, especially those children who had no mother, and more especially those children whose fathers were chained as Mr. Peters was. She could not leave Louis while she went to search for Jimmy, whom she would have kidnapped without a second thought if she could. Next day Louis, though sane, was very ill with gastritis, and though several of Mrs. King's lodgers went from Domain to hotel, from hotel to the police, and from the police to the Salvation Army, they could not trace Jimmy. She never saw him again; he lived in her mind, a constant torment, the epitome of victimization, gallantly loyal and valiant even in homelessness and starvation.