Back for Xmas

Doctor,» said Major Sinclair, «we certainly must have you with us for Christmas». Tea was being poured, and the Carpenters' living-room was filled with friends who had come to say last-minute farewells to the Doctor and his wife. «He shall be back,» said Mrs. Carpenter. «I promise you.»

«It's hardly certain,» said Dr. Carpenter. «I'd like nothing better, of course.»

«After all,» said Mr. Hewitt, «you've contracted to lecture only for three months.»

«Anything may happen,» said Doctor Carpenter. «Whatever happens,» said Mrs. Carpenter, beaming at them, «he shall be back in England for Christmas. You may all believe me.»

They all believed her. The Doctor himself almost believed her. For ten years she had been promising him for dinner parties, garden parties, committees, heaven knows what, and the promises had always been kept.

The farewells began. There was a fluting of compliments on dear Hermione's marvellous arrangements. She and her husband would drive to Southampton that evening. They would embark the following day. No trains, no bustle, no last-minute worries. Certain the Doctor was marvellously looked after. He would be a great success in America. Especially with Hermione to see to everything. She would have a wonderful time, too. She would see the skyscrapers. Nothing like that in Little Godwearing. But she must be very sure to bring him back. «Yes, I will bring him back. You may rely upon it.» He mustn't be persuaded. No extensions. No wonderful post at some super-American hospital. Our infirmary needs him. And he must be back by Christmas. «Yes,» Mrs. Carpenter called to the last departing guest, «I shall see to it. He shall be back by Christmas.»

The final arrangements for closing the house were very well managed. The maids soon had the tea things washed up; they came in, said goodbye, and were in time to catch the afternoon bus to Devizes.

Nothing remained but odds and ends, locking doors, seeing that everything was tidy. «Go upstairs,» said Hermione, «and change into your brown tweeds. Empty the pockets of that suit before you put it in your bag. I'11 see to everything else. All you have to do is not to get in the way.»

The Doctor went upstairs and took off the suit he was wearing, but instead of the brown tweeds, he put on an old dirty bath gown, which he took from the back of his wardrobe. Then, after making one or two little arrangements, he leaned over the head of the stairs and called to his wife, «Hermione! Have you a moment to spare?»

«Of course, dear. I'm just finished.»

«Just come up here for a moment. There's something rather extraordinary up here.»

Hermione immediately came up. «Good heavens, my dear man!» she said when she saw her husband. «What are you lounging about in that filthy old thing for? I told you to have it burned long ago.»

«Who in the world,» said the Doctor, «has dropped a gold chain down the bathtub drain?»

«Nobody has, of course,» said Hermione. «Nobody wears such a thing.»

«Then what is it doing there?» said the Doctor. «Take this flashlight. If you lean right over, you can see it shining, deep down.»

«Some Woolworth's bangle off one of the maids,» said Hermione. «It can be nothing else.» However, she took the flashlight and leaned over, squinting into the drain. The Doctor, raising a short length of lead pipe, struck two or three times with great force and precision, and tilting the body by the knees, tumbled it into the tub.

He then slipped off the bathrobe and, standing completely naked, unwrapped a towel full of implements and put them into the washbasin. He spread several sheets of newspaper on the floor and turned once more to his victim.

She was dead, of course — horribly doubled up, like a somersaulter, at one end of the tub. He stood looking at her for a very long time, thinking of absolutely nothing at all. Then he saw how much blood there was and his mind began to move again.

First he pushed and pulled until she lay straight in the bath, then he removed her clothing. In a narrow bathtub this was an extremely clumsy business, but he managed it at last and then turned on the taps. The water rushed into the tub, then dwindled, then died away, and the last of it gurgled down the drain.

«Good God!» he said. «She turned it off at the main.»

There was only one thing to do: the Doctor hastily wiped his hands on a towel, opened the bathroom door with a clean corner of the towel, threw it back onto the bath stool, and ran downstairs, barefoot, light as a cat. The cellar door was in a corner of the entrance hall, under the stairs. He knew just where the cut-off was. He had reason to: he had been pottering about down there for some time past — trying to scrape out a bin for wine, he had told Hermione. He pushed open the cellar door, went down the steep steps, and just before the closing door plunged the cellar into pitch darkness, he put his hands on the tap and turned it on. Then he felt his way back along the grimy wall till he came to the steps. He was about to ascend them when the bell rang.

The Doctor was scarcely aware of the ringing as a sound. It was like a spike of iron pushed slowly up through his stomach. It went on until it reached his brain. Then something broke. He threw himself

down in the coal dust on the floor and said, «I'm through. I'm through!»

«They've got no right to come,» he said. Then he heard himself panting. «None of this,» he said to himself. «None of this.»

He began to revive. He got to his feet, and when the bell rang again the sound passed through him almost painlessly. «Let them go away,» he said. Then he heard the front door open. He said, «I don't care.» His shoulder came up, like that of a boxer, to shield his face. «I give up,» he said.

He heard people calling. «Herbert!» «Hermione!» It was the Wallingfords. «Damn them! They come butting in. People anxious to get off. All naked! And blood and coal dust! I'm done! I'm through! I can't do it.»



«Where the dickens can they be?»

«The car's there.»

«Maybe they've popped round to Mrs. Liddell's.»

«We must see them.»

«Or to the shops, maybe. Something at the last minute.»

«Not Hermione. I say, listen! Isn't that someone having a bath? Shall I shout? What about whanging on the door?»

«Sh-h-h! Don't. It might not be tactful.»

«No harm in a shout.»

«Look, dear. Let's come in on our way back. Hermione said they wouldn't be leaving before seven. They're dining on the way, in Salisbury.»

«Think so? All right. Only I want a last drink with old Herbert. He'd be hurt.»

«Let's hurry. We can be back by half-past six.»

The Doctor heard them walk out and the front door close quietly behind them. He thought, «Half-past six. I can do it.»

He crossed the hall, sprang the latch of the front door, went upstairs, and taking his instruments from the washbasin, finished what he had to do. He came down again, clad in his bath gown, carrying parcel after parcel of towelling or newspaper neatly secured with safety pins. These he packed carefully into the narrow, deep hole he had made in the corner of the cellar, shovelled in the soil, spread coal dust over all, satisfied himself that everything was in order, and went upstairs again. He then thoroughly cleansed the bath, and himself, and the bath again, dressed, and took his wife's clothing and his bath gown to the incinerator.

One or two more like touches and everything was in order. It was only quarter past six. The Wallingfords were always late; he had only to get into the car and drive off. It was a pity he couldn't wait till after dusk, but he could make a detour to avoid passing through the main street, and even if he was seen driving alone, people would only think Hermione had gone on ahead for some reason and they would forget about it.

Still, he was glad when he had finally got away, entirely unobserved, on the open road, driving into the gathering dusk. He had to drive very carefully; he found himself unable to judge distances, his reactions were abnormally delayed, but that was a detail. When it was quite dark he allowed himself to stop the car on the top of the downs, in order to think.

The stars were superb. He could see the lights of one or two little towns far away on the plain below him. He was exultant. Everything that was to follow was perfectly simple. Marion was waiting in Chicago. She already believed him to be a widower. The lecture people could be put off with a word. He had nothing to do but establish himself in some thriving out-of-the-way town in America and he was safe for ever. There were Hermione's clothes, of course, in the suitcases; they could be disposed of through the porthole. Thank heaven she wrote her letters on the typewriter — a little thing like handwriting might have prevented everything. «But there you are,» he said. «She was up-to-date, efficient all along the line. Managed everything. Managed herself to death, damn her!»

«There's no reason to get excited,» he thought. «I'll write a few letters for her, then fewer and fewer. Write myself — always expecting to get back, never quite able to. Keep the house one year, then another, then another; they'll get used to it. Might even come back alone in a year or two and clear it up properly. Nothing easier. But not for Christmas!» He started up the engine and was off.

In New York he felt free at last, really free. He was safe. He could look back with pleasure — at least after a meal, lighting his cigarette, he could look back with a sort of pleasure — to the minute he had passed in the cellar listening to the bell, the door, and the voices. He could look forward to Marion.

As he strolled through the lobby of his hotel, the clerk, smiling, held up letters for him. It was the first batch from England. Well, what did that matter? It would be fun dashing off the typewritten sheets in Hermione's downright style, signing them with her squiggle, telling everyone what a success his first lecture had been, how thrilled he was with America but how certainly she'd bring him back for Christmas. Doubts could creep in later.
27 сентября, 2018


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