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Authors: Anthony Berkeley

Trial and Error (7 page)

BOOK: Trial and Error
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“All right,” interrupted the young man rudely. “I was just going in any case.”

With a brief nod in the direction of Mr Todhunter he stumped out of the room. Farroway drooped into a chair in a spiritless way and wiped his forehead.

Mr Todhunter, who had been growing more and more embarrassed, remarked rather foolishly:

“What an extremely handsome young man.”

“Vincent? Yes, I suppose he is. He's an engineer. With Fitch and Son. Big firm—something to do with steel construction work. Ferroconcrete, I believe it's called. Not brilliant, but quite sound at his job. He married my elder daughter.” Farroway wiped his forehead again, as if the recital of this short biography had been almost too much for him.

Mr Todhunter was spared the necessity for comment by the entrance with tea of an extremely pretty maid, her daintiness enhanced by the almost musical-comedy style of her uniform, with its too-short black silk skirts, too-small, too-frilly apron, and over-elaborate cap.

“Tea, sir,” she remarked in a voice that was distinctly pert.

“Thank you, Marie,” Farroway replied listlessly. Then as the maid reached the door he added: “Oh, Marie, I'm expecting a telephone call from Paris. If it comes through, call me at once.”

“Yes sir. Very good,” replied the girl and minced daintily out of the room. Mr Todhunter almost expected her to pause in the doorway and kick a saucy heel.

Mr Todhunter ventured a question: “I hope I may have the pleasure of meeting your wife?”

Farroway looked at him over the teapot. “My wife's at home.”

“At home?”

“In the north. We live in Yorkshire. I thought you knew.” Farroway spoke in a dull voice, pouring out the tea in a mechanical way. Since the exit of the Greek god he seemed to have relapsed into a kind of listless melancholy. “Milk and sugar?”

“One very small lump of sugar first, please, then the tea, and then a very little milk, please,” replied Mr Todhunter with precision.

Farroway stared in a helpless kind of way at the tray. “I'm afraid I put the tea in first. Does it matter?” He glanced uncertainly at the bell, as if wondering whether to ring for a fresh cup.

“Not at all, not at all,” replied Mr Todhunter politely. But his opinion of Farroway, which had been sinking ever since he entered the room, dropped a further couple of inches. A man who does not know better than to put in the sugar first and the tea after, is even worse than a man who allows his wife to smother her piano in embroidery and dress her maid like something out of a Cochran revue.

“No,” he went on with forced brightness, “I don't think I knew you lived in the north. Then this is just a pied-à-terre for you in London?”

“Well, in a way.” Farroway seemed a little embarrassed. “That is, it isn't really my flat. Or rather . . . at least, I use it when I'm up. That is to say, I have a bedroom here. I have to be up in London a great deal, you see. Business and—and so on. And both my daughters live in London.”

“Of course.” Mr Todhunter wondered why the man should evidently feel it necessary to make excuses to a semi-stranger for his presence in London.

“My younger daughter isn't even married, you see,” continued Farroway almost feverishly. “I find it advisable to keep an eye on her at times. My wife quite agrees with me.”

“Of course,” repeated Mr Todhunter, his wonder growing.

“The stage, you know,” said Farroway vaguely and took an absent bite of the piece of wafer-like bread and butter which he had been waving a little wildly in the air.

“Oh yes? Your daughter's on stage?”

“Felicity? No, I don't think she is. At least, I'm not sure. She
was,
of course. But I believe she's left it. She told me she was going to when I saw her last. But I haven't seen her for some time now.”

If Mr Todhunter had not been a very well-brought-up man, he would have stared at his host. He was convinced by now that the man was a little mad, and he did not care for mad persons. With growing uneasiness he took a small iced cake, although iced cakes invariably upset him.

While he was wondering how to get away, Farroway said in a completely different tone:

“By the way, did you notice that exquisite little oil which was put up just after the big Lawrence? It was supposed to be attributed to one of the Ostades, but it didn't seem to me like their style at all. I shouldn't be at all surprised if it wasn't an early Frans Hals. I very nearly had a shot for it. I would have done, if I could have afforded the chance.”

A lucid interval, thought Mr Todhunter, and proceeded to encourage it. “Certainly I remember it,” he said without very much truth. “Let me see, how much did it fetch?”

“Twenty-four pounds.”

“Oh yes, of course, yes. Most interesting. Yes, it's quite possible.” Mr Todhunter did have time for a fleeting surprise that a man with Farroway's income should think he could not afford twenty-four pounds for a picture, but he was too anxious to keep the conversaton on rational lines to dwell on it.

For ten minutes the two discussed objects of beauty and value, and Farroway presented a perfect picture of the alert and intelligent connoisseur. His lethargy had fallen from him, he spoke with firmness and precision.

Then a faint ringing could be heard, and Farroway cocked an eager ear. “That sounds like my telephone call,” he remarked.

A moment later the musical-comedy maid appeared in the doorway. “Paris on the line, sir,” she said with a bright smile and a coquettish little flounce of her brief skirts which seemed to be directed as much at Mr Todhunter as at anyone.

Mr Todhunter modestly looked away as his host excused himself. If there was one thing Mr Todhunter detested and dreaded, it was coquettish advances on the part of the other sex. Fortunately he had been bothered with them very little.

Left alone again, Mr Todhunter rubbed the freckled top of his small bald head and polished his pince-nez, as he debated whether to await the return of his host or escape there and then while the way was clear. The advantages of the latter course were obvious, while on the other hand a natural curiosity (and if anything Mr Todhunter had more than his share of natural curiosity) urged him to stay and draw the conversation back to Farroway's private affairs; for that something was very queer about those affairs was as obvious as the polished gleam on Mr Todhunter's own cranium.

These reflections had lasted no more than half a minute when they were interrupted by voices outside the door of the room in which Mr Todhunter was sitting.

There had been the sound of a heavy door closing, as it might be the front door, and then a deep feminine voice spoke with cold and clear enunciation:

“I pay you to answer the bell at once, Marie; not to keep me waiting outside.”

3

Mr Todhunter unashamedly cupped a bony hand round his ear.

The tone of the voice had been so unpleasant, with a grating edge in spite of its deepness, that Mr Todhunter's attention was riveted, and he listened as hard as he could.

The maid's reply was indistinguishable, but the newcomer's words carried clearly.

“I'm not interested in Mr Farroway's telephone calls. Perhaps I'd better remind you, Marie, that you're here to attend to me, not to Mr Farroway. I've noticed lately that you don't seem to understand that. You'd better not let me have to speak to you about it again.”

There was the low, deferential tone of the maid's apology, and the next thing Mr Todhunter heard was a sharply irritated:

“Gentleman? What gentleman?”

Before Mr Todhunter had time to squirm, the door was flung open and the owner of the voice swept (there was no other word for it) into the room. Mr Todhunter shambled hurriedly to his feet.

She was a magnificent creature, there was no doubt about that: tall, slim, with dark brown hair, exceedingly soignée and opulently dressed, and she knew how to wear her furs. This alone was enough to disconcert Mr Todhunter as the lady gazed at him with cold and hostile enquiry; but what completed his discomfort was the curious aspect of the lady's eyes. These were dark brown, large and lustrous; they were even beautiful. But they were too large, in Mr Todhunter's opinion. They seemed to him naked, indecent eyes; and his own weak light blue ones found themselves attracted in a kind of stare of fascination.

If I look at them for long, Mr Todhunter found himself thinking rather wildly, I might become hypnotised, and that would be exceedingly awkward. But he was unable to look away.

“Good afternoon,” said the lady, and her tone was not a welcoming one.

“Good afternoon,” mumbled Mr Todhunter, still gazing in a fascinated way at those outsize orbs. “I—er—should apologise . . . this intrusion . . . had no idea . . . Mr Farroway . . .” He subsided into helpless silence.

“Mr Farroway appears to be entertaining himself on the telephone. Perhaps we had better introduce ourselves.”

“My name is Todhunter,” apologised Mr Todhunter.

“Indeed?” The lady did not offer her own. Instead she looked at Mr Todhunter with cold dislike, as if his name had added the last drop to her cup of annoyance, and proceeded to undo her furs. Mr Todhunter wondered whether he ought to take them from her and put them down somewhere or whether this would not be adjudged correct. The lady solved his problem by flinging them petulantly into one chair and herself into another.

“You are an old friend of Mr Farroway's, Mr Todhunter?”

“Oh no.” Mr Todhunter seized eagerly on this conversational straw, letting himself down gingerly onto the extreme edge of a very large armchair. The lady's gaze had been fixed with an expression of acute distaste upon his trousers, which were creaseless, baggy and indeed quite deplorable. Mr Todhunter was thankful to be able to fill some of their bagginess up with his knees.

“No, no. Not at all. In fact I've only met him once before. We ran into each other this afternoon at Christie's.”

“Indeed?” The lady's tone enquired as plainly as plain speech why on earth Farroway should have collected this piece of human jetsam to come and litter up her exquisite flat. Her gaze was fixed now on his waistcoat. Glancing furtively down towards the point of impact, Mr Todhunter perceived a large smear of egg. He could not even remember when he had had egg last. It was all very awkward.

“Well!” The lady tore off her hat, flung it onto a couch and followed it up with her gloves and bag.

Mr Todhunter squirmed afresh. For this time her tone had asked him, very definitely, how soon he proposed to get up and go and whether it would not be a good thing to do it at once. It would indeed, thought Mr Todhunter desperately, if only he could find the correct words to do it with; but these eluded him. He sought for them unhappily and found that he was staring at his hostess in a positively rude way. Under the protest of her lifted eyebrows he transferred his hot gaze out of the window.

At this juncture, when Mr Todhunter was beginning to feel that he could bear life not a moment longer, Farroway returned. Mr Todhunter swayed towards him and scrambled to his feet.

“I must be going,” he blurted out.

For the first time the lady looked at him with approval.

“No, no,” protested Farroway. “You must make Jean's acquaintance properly now she's back.”

“You know I have to rest now before the theatre,” observed the lady coldly.

“Yes, of course. Of course. But a few minutes won't make much difference. And I want you to know Todhunter.”

Mr Todhunter looked at Farroway with annoyance. He did not want to be kept. Also there had been a ring of false heartiness in the man's voice which Mr Todhunter found distasteful.

Unaware apparently of the feelings he was rousing, Farroway elaborated his theme.

“Sit down, Todhunter. Marie will be bringing cocktails in a minute. Yes, dear, I met Mr Todhunter at Christie's this afternoon. There was a fine old mazer bowl up for sale, and--”

“Really, Nick, you
know
how these details of your eternal sales bore me.”

Farroway flushed. “Yes, dear. But the point is that Todhunter here intended to have a shot for the bowl. He was going up to six thousand for it; but he didn't get it nevertheless. It fetched eight. Still—six thousand, eh? That's a lot of money.”

“It is—for a silly old bowl. Were you really going to spend as much as that, Mr Todhunter?” The lady's tone was no longer cold. Her voice almost cooed out the question; her enormous eyes shone on Mr Todhunter with benevolence.

“Oh well, I don't know,” mumbled Mr Todhunter, aware that his foolish little jest had come home to roost and not quite sure what to do with it. “Well—er—good-bye.”

“Oh, but you mustn't go yet,” protested the lady. “You must stay and have a cocktail with me, Mr Todhunter. Positively, I insist.”

“I expect you know what Jean's like when she insists,” chuckled Farroway. “There's no option, I assure you.”

“Ha, ha,” muttered Mr Todhunter, who had no idea at all what Jean was like when she insisted and did not know why he should be expected to have one.

Farroway must have noticed something in his guest's expression, for he uttered an exclamation of incredulity. “I don't believe you know yet who Jean is. Jean, I don't believe Todhunter's recognised you.”

“Well, you can't expect everyone in the world to recognise me at first glance, you know, Nick,” replied the lady with magnanimity.

“She's Jean Norwood, Todhunter,” cried Farroway, as one introducing a lion hunter's prize catch.

“Good gracious,” politely replied Mr Todhunter, who could not remember ever having heard of a Jean Norwood in his life.

“You never recognised her?”

“No, I must confess I didn't.”

“Such is fame!” said Farroway and struck a tragic attitude which Mr Todhunter thought exceedingly silly. “Still,” he added, “no doubt it works the other way too. Ask Jean if she recognised you as Lawrence Todhunter, the eminent critic of the
London Review.”

BOOK: Trial and Error
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