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by Cecil M. Wills
I. STRAINED RELATIONS
“I SEE that fellow Selsden’s here again, Vera. I’ve told you before, I won’t have him about the place!”
Vera Merrivale flushed angrily and there was a dangerous gleam in her brown eyes as she faced her husband.
“He’s here because your nephew asked him to come. He’s taking some photographs of the cattle. If you don’t like it you’d better speak to Gilbert. In any case, I suppose I’m entitled to have my own friends.”
“Friends, yes . . . if it stopped at that.” There was an open sneer in the man’s voice. “I saw you together the last time he came to the house, and I noticed the way he looked at you; and you weren’t indifferent to him, either. I told you then I didn’t want him about.”
His wife got up impatiently and, turning her back, walked to the window where she stood gazing mutinously at the well-kept lawn which lay across the drive.
“And I told you,” she retorted after a while, “that I was going to make what friends I liked. I don’t object to your friends; and I’m always civil to them when they come to the house. I expect the same consideration from you.”
Merrivale’s face darkened. “I don’t bring women to the house and make love to them,” he said brutally, his uncontrollable temper rising in a flash at this hint of defiance.
Vera faced him squarely. There was a look in her eyes which startled her husband into silence. He paused uneasily. Perhaps he had gone too far this time; after all, he knew darned well that Vera was above suspicion. All the same, she shouldn’t be so damned defiant. Hadn’t he a right to choose the people who came to his house? And, anyway, there was little doubt that Selsden took a pretty warm interest in Vera, whether she returned it or not. His uneasiness increased as he watched her face. There was a cynical twist to her lips which he had not seen before. What was she going to say? He was not left long in doubt.
“That was a beastly thing to say,” she said in level tones; “but since you’ve brought up the subject we’ll have it out. I didn’t mean to say anything, because it will only make life more impossible than it is already; but you force me to speak. Do you really imagine that I don’t know about Mrs. Pelham?”
Merrivale was more startled than he allowed to appear. True to his type he took refuge in bluster.
“What the devil do you mean? What about Mrs. Pelham? Can’t a man do a kindly action now and again to a lonely woman without people with beastly minds thinking the worst?”
Vera turned from him wearily and made for the door.
“All right; we won’t argue about it,” she said as she paused in the opening; “but please don’t have the impertinence to criticise my actions in future.”
Stephen Merrivale gazed blankly at the door for a long while after it had closed behind his wife. How the devil had she found out about Flavia? He had thought that no one had so much as a suspicion. He had taken every precaution and Flavia wasn’t the sort to spread it abroad. His heavy jaw thrust forward angrily, narrowing the hard mouth. Probably she was bluffing ; had heard some vague rumour and had risked a chance shot. She couldn’t know anything; he’d been too careful. Well, she shouldn’t get away with it, that was all. There’d be no living with her if she once got the upper hand. But he’d have to be pretty careful in future. Damn women, anyway; what the hell did they want to upset a man for! He strode moodily from the room and sought his nephew Gilbert, the light of battle in his eye.
He had returned to the house that summer afternoon after motoring to London, feeling that everything was right with the world. Then he had come upon Gilbert and Selsden talking together at the Home Farm. Suspicious by nature, his jealousy, never far from the surface, was at once awakened by the sight of the young man who made himself so pleasant to Vera. That his jealousy had no good foundation somehow increased his annoyance. Vera was his property, and no one had the right to admire her as openly as Selsden did. Besides, though he was sure enough that she gave him no encouragement—that wasn’t in her character—there was no knowing that she didn’t secretly like the chap. Probably been with him most of the afternoon. But it was awkward about Flavia; rather took the wind out of his sails as far as Vera was concerned. Still—he brightened at the thought—that didn’t apply in the case of Gilbert. Nephew or not, he’d show him that he was first an agent and then a relative.
Pleasantly occupied with these thoughts he walked heavily down the drive and across the road to the Home Farm. His nephew was still there, but he was now alone.
“Look here, Gilbert,” began the older man truculently, “I saw Selsden here just now. What the devil d’you want to have him about the place for? I’ve told you I can’t stick the sight of him.”
Gilbert Merrivale surveyed the angry face with an amused smile in which there was a touch of malice. He had suffered under the heavy hand of his uncle too often to feel much affection or respect for the man.
“He came to photograph the cattle entered for the Royal,” he said nonchalantly. “He’s the best man for miles around.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it. Besides, the fellow’s no more than an amateur. There are plenty of professional photographers in the district.”
“No good for cattle; it’s an art.”
Merrivale crimsoned. This second hint of defiance was more than he was going to stand.
“That’s beside the point. I won’t have him here. That’s an order! D’you understand?”
“All right. Have it your own way. Personally I like Selsden; can’t think what you’ve got against him.”
There was calculated malice underlying the studiously impartial tones of the younger man’s retort. He knew perfectly well why his uncle objected to Selsden; and he knew equally well that the man’s vanity would never permit him to confess the reason. Life as agent to Stephen Merrivale was not without its unpleasant side, and it was some small satisfaction to annoy him in such a manner that no direct rebuke was possible.
His uncle regarded him with brooding suspicion. But the heavily built face of the other was expressionless and offered no excuse for another outburst. With a muttered word he turned away and left the farm by a path which wound over the fields in the direction of a distant larch wood visible on the horizon. As he neared the wood a single magpie rose and flapped clumsily away. The scowl on his face deepened. Though he would have denied it indignantly, he was intensely superstitious. The task which lay before him was likely to prove unpleasant and he was in a mood when trifles assumed an exaggerated importance. Leaving a trail of slashed branches to mark his progress through the wood, and angrily swinging the stick which had brought about the damage, he climbed a stile and crossed a narrow field to a thatched cottage which lay partly concealed by well-clipped, yew hedges. Again making use of his stick he rapped imperiously on the door and fidgetted impatiently until it was opened.
“Stephen! This is an unusual hour for you; I hope no one saw you?”
The woman who looked up at him inquiringly was more than ordinarily attractive. Her vivid colouring was emphasised by the glossy blackness of the hair which she wore parted in the centre and strained back over her ears in a manner which would have appeared bizarre in anyone less arresting; but Flavia Pelham was a law unto herself in many ways. Of no more than medium height she was yet beautifully proportioned and her figure, together with her well-chiselled features and dark eyes, won instant appreciation from the majority of men with whom she came in contact. Added to her physical attractions there was something unconventional in both her manner and appearance which did nothing to lessen her appeal to certain types. She was by profession an artist, and had taken possession of Honeywell cottage the previous year. The cottage was a delightful survival of a bygone age and, with a few modern touches which had greatly increased its comfort without destroying its character, formed an ideal habitation for a woman who, as Flavia was wont to proclaim, had little but what her pictures brought her. Merrivale was her landlord, but it was not long after her advent that he had become something closer.
Brushing aside her question with an impatient gesture he followed her into a low-ceilinged room rich in age-blackened oak. Scarcely waiting for her to be seated he flung himself into a large, upholstered chair which looked strangely out of accord with the severe simplicity of the room. Flavia perched herself on one of the arms and scanned his face anxiously.
“There’s something the matter,” she said at length, since he made no attempt to speak. “Better say it straight out; I believe in plain speech, as you ought to know by now!”
Merrivale’s eyes met hers for an instant, then looked hastily away. Yes, there would be trouble, he could see that. Well, it would have had to come sooner or later; he was already tiring of the intrigue, and now he was in possession of an excellent excuse for ending it—and a genuine excuse at that. Nevertheless, his eyes were still averted as he began clumsily:
“Vera knows; that’s why I’m here.”
The woman caught her breath and her lips tightened momentarily, then she forced a smile.
“Really! Well, what of it? I suppose she was bound to find out some time. But I don’t see why we should worry; she won’t be such a fool as to spread it abroad, for her own sake. After all,” she smiled more naturally now, “I’m not sure it isn’t a good thing. We can meet more openly . . . and more often.” She placed an arm round his neck and forced him to meet her eyes.
“You don’t understand,” he said sullenly. “This means the end. We’ve got to break it off—here and now.”
Flavia jumped to her feet and faced him with flashing eyes.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Stephen. What do you mean? You don’t care for Vera, so what difference does it make?”
The man stirred uneasily. “As a matter of fact, I do. But that’s not the point. Don’t you see, if she can get evidence she’ll want a divorce. At present she only suspects—or, rather, she’s got no proof. But if she once gets evidence she’ll go like hell for a divorce.”
“Now look here, Stephen,” the voice was dangerously calm, “I said just now that I believed in plain speaking. Are you trying to tell me that you’re tired of me? Is that what you want to say?”
“No, no. Of course not!” came the hasty answer. “But don’t you see, I can’t afford a divorce. Why, I’ve reason to believe I’m in the running for the Lord Lieutenancy of the County. A thing like this would finish me in that direction. No. I’m afraid we must make up our minds to it; the time has come to break it off.”
Mrs. Pelham seemed about to burst into angry remonstrance; but she controlled herself with an effort, and when she spoke her voice had a studied calm.
“Why should Vera want to divorce you? She’d lose everything. As it is, she’s a damned sight better off than when she married you. And it isn’t as if she’d ever cared for you; everyone knows that she married you to get away from her parents —and small blame to her.”
Merrivale’s face reddened unbecomingly.
“I don’t know what you mean by saying that,” he retorted stiffly. “I suppose it’s because you are naturally upset. Vera was—is very fond of me.”
A contemptuous smile was the only response and the man lost his temper—never a very difficult feat for him.
“Oh, yes; sneer if you like; but that makes no difference to the present situation. We’ve finished . . . definitely. Make what you like of that.”
Flavia took fire from him and cast discretion to the winds. There was an angry spot of colour in each cheek and her eyes held an unpleasant gleam.
“Surely you never believed that your wife cared for anything about you except your money? Why, look at yourself. You could hardly be described as a romantic character, could you!” Her glance travelled cruelly over his corpulent figure and came to rest on his heavy face.
His pendulous cheeks shook and his hands clenched spasmodically; twice he made an effort to speak before the words came.
“D’you mean to tell me that that you never cared for me? That you were only out for what you could get?” Stark unbelief mingled with the resentment in his eyes.
“My dear man, what do you think!” Her laugh was pitiless. “Don’t forget I’m a widow. I was no sentimental girl to be swept off her feet by an ancient admirer. And you needn’t look so indignant about it. Your feeling for me was merely physical—not a very high order of compliment to pay to a woman of my capabilities. And, now that we’re at last speaking the truth, let me tell you something. You’re not going to sneak out of this as you seem to suppose. If your wife knows about us I don’t doubt for a minute that everyone else in the neighbourhood does—a wife’s always the last to hear. Very well. I don’t care a damn what people say or think about me, but that’s ruined my chances of making a rich marriage. And if I’m not to be honoured with your company in future you’ll have to make it up to me in other ways—in plain words, in cash; and lots of it.”
Merrivale struggled to his feet and faced her with what dignity he could command.
“This is indeed the end,” he said breathing unevenly. “No one has ever threatened me and lived without regretting it. You’ll not get a penny . . . and I thank my stars I’ve seen you at last as you really are. Do your worst and be damned to you; it’s nothing but bluff, anyhow. You’re right; your attraction was only physical . . . and I think less of your mentality than I did before—and I never rated it highly at that!”
As the man lost his temper and became childish in his vituperation the woman recovered her composure in corresponding measure. She waited until he paused for breath, a derisive smile on her lips, then moved to the door and threw it open.
“So you think I’m bluffing. Very well, we’ll let it go at that. I won’t keep you any longer, Stephen, your wife may be waiting for you.”
He glared at her, his cheeks mottled unattractively, but walked uncertainly to the door without further words. As he crossed the threshold her mood changed again and she became livid with fury. Seizing a large vase in both hands she hurled it at him, screaming in a voice which was sharp with hysteria:
“Go, and don’t come back! But don’t think you’re going to get away with this. You’ll pay . . . one way or another.”
As he slammed the door she rushed upstairs to her bedroom and snatched a pistol from a drawer. Going to a window she threw it up and looked out. She could see Merrivale’s back as he was about to enter the wood, and a savage smile twisted her lips as she took deliberate aim just above his head and pulled the trigger.
“That’ll show him I mean business,” she said to herself viciously, and then broke into spontaneous laughter as the man, throwing dignity to the winds, ran for the shelter of the trees.
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