A Fragment of Life – 3a

It might have been different in the evening, and Darnell had matured a plan by which he hoped to gain much. He intended to ask his wife if she would mind having only one gas, and that a good deal lowered, on the pretext that his eyes were tired with work; he thought many things might happen if the room were dimly lit, and the window opened, so that they could sit and watch the night, and listen to the rustling murmur of the tree on the lawn. But his plans were made in vain, for when he got to the garden gate his wife, in tears, came forth to meet him.

‘Oh, Edward,’ she began, ‘such a dreadful thing has happened! I never liked him much, but I didn’t think he would ever do such awful things.’

‘What do you mean? Who are you talking about? What has happened? Is it Alice’s young man?’

‘No, no. But come in, dear. I can see that woman opposite watching us: she’s always on the look out.’

‘Now, what is it?’ said Darnell, as they sat down to tea. ‘Tell me, quick! you’ve quite frightened me.’

‘I don’t know how to begin, or where to start. Aunt Marian has thought that there was something queer for weeks. And then she found–oh, well, the long and short of it is that Uncle Robert has been carrying on dreadfully with some horrid girl, and aunt has found out everything!’

‘Lord! you don’t say so! The old rascal! Why, he must be nearer seventy than sixty!’

‘He’s just sixty-five; and the money he has given her–‘

The first shock of surprise over, Darnell turned resolutely to his mince.

‘We’ll have it all out after tea,’ he said; ‘I am not going to have my meals spoilt by that old fool of a Nixon. Fill up my cup, will you, dear?’

‘Excellent mince this,’ he went on, calmly. ‘A little lemon juice and a bit of ham in it? I thought there was something extra. Alice all right to-day? That’s good. I expect she’s getting over all that nonsense.’

He went on calmly chattering in a manner that astonished Mrs. Darnell, who felt that by the fall of Uncle Robert the natural order had been inverted, and had scarcely touched food since the intelligence had arrived by the second post. She had started out to keep the appointment her aunt had made early in the morning, and had spent most of the day in a first-class waiting-room at Victoria Station, where she had heard all the story.

‘Now,’ said Darnell, when the table had been cleared, ‘tell us all about it. How long has it been going on?’

‘Aunt thinks now, from little things she remembers, that it must have been going on for a year at least. She says there has been a horrid kind of mystery about uncle’s behaviour for a long time, and her nerves were quite shaken, as she thought he must be involved with Anarchists, or something dreadful of the sort.’

‘What on earth made her think that?’

‘Well, you see, once or twice when she was out walking with her husband, she has been startled by whistles, which seemed to follow them everywhere. You know there are some nice country walks at Barnet, and one in particular, in the fields near Totteridge, that uncle and aunt rather made a point of going to on fine Sunday evenings. Of course, this was not the first thing she noticed, but, at the time, it made a great impression on her mind; she could hardly get a wink of sleep for weeks and weeks.’

‘Whistling?’ said Darnell. ‘I don’t quite understand. Why should she be frightened by whistling?’

‘I’ll tell you. The first time it happened was one Sunday in last May. Aunt had a fancy they were being followed a Sunday or two before, but she didn’t see or hear anything, except a sort of crackling noise in the hedge. But this particular Sunday they had hardly got through the stile into the fields, when she heard a peculiar kind of low whistle. She took no notice, thinking it was no concern of hers or her husband’s, but as they went on she heard it again, and then again, and it followed them the whole walk, and it made her so uncomfortable, because she didn’t know where it was coming from or who was doing it, or why. Then, just as they got out of the fields into the lane, uncle said he felt quite faint, and he thought he would try a little brandy at the “Turpin’s Head,” a small public-house there is there. And she looked at him and saw his face was quite purple–more like apoplexy, as she says, than fainting fits, which make people look a sort of greenish-white. But she said nothing, and thought perhaps uncle had a peculiar way of fainting of his own, as he always was a man to have his own way of doing everything. So she just waited in the road, and he went ahead and slipped into the public, and aunt says she thought she saw a little figure rise out of the dusk and slip in after him, but she couldn’t be sure. And when uncle came out he looked red instead of purple, and said he felt much better; and so they went home quietly together, and nothing more was said. You see, uncle had said nothing about the whistling, and aunt had been so frightened that she didn’t dare speak, for fear they might be both shot.

‘She wasn’t thinking anything more about it, when two Sundays afterwards the very same thing happened just as it had before. This time aunt plucked up a spirit, and asked uncle what it could be. And what do you think he said? “Birds, my dear, birds.” Of course aunt said to him that no bird that ever flew with wings made a noise like that: sly, and low, with pauses in between; and then he said that many rare sorts of birds lived in North Middlesex and Hertfordshire. “Nonsense, Robert,” said aunt, “how can you talk so, considering it has followed us all the way, for a mile or more?” And then uncle told her that some birds were so attached to man that they would follow one about for miles sometimes; he said he had just been reading about a bird like that in a book of travels. And do you know that when they got home he actually showed her a piece in the “Hertfordshire Naturalist” which they took in to oblige a friend of theirs, all about rare birds found in the neighbourhood, all the most outlandish names, aunt says, that she had never heard or thought of, and uncle had the impudence to say that it must have been a Purple Sandpiper, which, the paper said, had “a low shrill note, constantly repeated.” And then he took down a book of Siberian Travels from the bookcase and showed her a page which told how a man was followed by a bird all day long through a forest. And that’s what Aunt Marian says vexes her more than anything almost; to think that he should be so artful and ready with those books, twisting them to his own wicked ends. But, at the time, when she was out walking, she simply couldn’t make out what he meant by talking about birds in that random, silly sort of way, so unlike him, and they went on, that horrible whistling following them, she looking straight ahead and walking fast, really feeling more huffy and put out than frightened. And when they got to the next stile, she got over and turned round, and “lo and behold,” as she says, there was no Uncle Robert to be seen! She felt herself go quite white with alarm, thinking of that whistle, and making sure he’d been spirited away or snatched in some way or another, and she had just screamed out “Robert” like a mad woman, when he came quite slowly round the corner, as cool as a cucumber, holding something in his hand. He said there were some flowers he could never pass, and when aunt saw that he had got a dandelion torn up by the roots, she felt as if her head were going round.’

Mary’s story was suddenly interrupted. For ten minutes Darnell had been writhing in his chair, suffering tortures in his anxiety to avoid wounding his wife’s feelings, but the episode of the dandelion was too much for him, and he burst into a long, wild shriek of laughter, aggravated by suppression into the semblance of a Red Indian’s war-whoop. Alice, who was washing-up in the scullery, dropped some three shillings’ worth of china, and the neighbours ran out into their gardens wondering if it were murder. Mary gazed reproachfully at her husband.

‘How can you be so unfeeling, Edward?’ she said, at length, when Darnell had passed into the feebleness of exhaustion. ‘If you had seen the tears rolling down poor Aunt Marian’s cheeks as she told me, I don’t think you would have laughed. I didn’t think you were so hard-hearted.’

‘My dear Mary,’ said Darnell, faintly, through sobs and catching of the breath, ‘I am awfully sorry. I know it’s very sad, really, and I’m not unfeeling; but it is such an odd tale, now, isn’t it? The Sandpiper, you know, and then the dandelion!’

His face twitched and he ground his teeth together. Mary looked gravely at him for a moment, and then she put her hands to her face, and Darnell could see that she also shook with merriment.

‘I am as bad as you,’ she said, at last. ‘I never thought of it in that way. I’m glad I didn’t, or I should have laughed in Aunt Marian’s face, and I wouldn’t have done that for the world. Poor old thing; she cried as if her heart would break. I met her at Victoria, as she asked me, and we had some soup at a confectioner’s. I could scarcely touch it; her tears kept dropping into the plate all the time; and then we went to the waiting-room at the station, and she cried there terribly.’

‘Well,’ said Darnell, ‘what happened next? I won’t laugh any more.’

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