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'Wouldn't you then be wasting energy that might be more usefully employed in other ways?'

'I like manual labour. Whenever I've got waterlogged with study I've taken a spell of it and found it spiritually invigorating. I remember reading a biography of Spinoza and thinking how silly the author was to look upon it as a terrible hardship that in order to earn his scanty living Spinoza had to polish lenses. I'm sure it was a help to his intellectual activity, if only because it diverted his attention for a while from the hard work of speculation. My mind is free when I'm washing a car or tinkering with a carburettor and when the job's done I have the pleasant sensation of having accomplished something. Naturally I wouldn't want to stay in a garage indefinitely. It's many years since I was in America and I must learn it afresh. I shall try to get work as a truck driver. In that way I should be able to travel from end to end of the country.'

'You've forgotten perhaps the most important use of money. It saves time. Life is so short, and there's so much to do, one can't afford to waste a minute; and just think how much you waste, for instance, in walking from place to place instead of going by bus and in going by bus instead of by taxi.'

Larry smiled.

'True enough and I hadn't thought of it, but I could cope with that difficulty by having my own taxi.'

'What d'you mean by that?'

'Eventually I shall settle in New York, among other reasons because of its libraries; I can live on very little, I don't mind where I sleep and I'm quite satisfied with one meal a day; by the time I've seen all I want to of America I should be able to have saved enough to buy a taxi and become a taxi driver.'

'You ought to shut up, Larry. You're as crazy as a loon.'

'Not at all. I'm very sensible and practical. As an owner-driver I would need to work only for as many hours as would provide for my board and lodging and for the depreciation on the car. The rest of my time I could devote to other work and if I wanted to go anywhere in a hurry I could always go in my taxi.'

'But, Larry, a taxi is just as much of a possession as a government bond,' I said, to tease him. 'As an owner-driver you'd be a capitalist.'

He laughed.

'No. My taxi would be merely the instrument of my labour. It would be an equivalent to the staff and the begging-bowl of the wandering mendicant.'

On this note of banter our conversation ended. I had noticed for some time that people were coming into the cafe with greater frequency. One man in evening dress sat down not far from us and ordered himself a substantial breakfast. He had the tired but satisfied mien of one who looks back with complacency upon a night of amorous dalliance. A few old gentlemen, early risers because old age needs little sleep, were drinking their cafe au lait with deliberation while through thicklensed spectacles they read the morning paper. Younger men, some of them neat and spruce, others in threadbare coats, hurried in to devour a roll and swallow a cup of coffee on their way to a shop or an office. An old crone entered with a pile of newspapers and went round offering them for sale, vainly as far as I could see, at the various tables. I looked out of the great plate glass windows and saw that it was broad daylight. A minute or two later the electric light was turned off except at the rear of the huge restaurant. I looked at my watch. It was past seven o'clock.



'What about a spot of breakfast?' I said.

We had croissants, all crisp and hot from the baker's, and cafe au lait. I was tired and listless, and felt certain I looked like the wrath of God, but Larry seemed as fresh as ever. His eyes were shining, there wasn't a line on his smooth face, and he didn't look a day more than twenty-five. The coffee revived me.

'Will you allow me to give you a piece of advice, Larry? It's not a thing I give often.'

'It's not a thing I take often,' he answered with a grin.

'Will you think very carefully before you dispossess yourself of your very small fortune? When it's gone, it's gone for ever. A time may come when you'll want money very badly, either for yourself or for somebody else, and then you'll bitterly regret that you were such a fool.'

There was a glint of mockery in his eyes as he answered, but it was devoid of malice.

'You attach more importance to money than I do.'

'I can well believe it,' I answered tartly. 'You see, you've always had it and I haven't. It's given me what I value almost more than anything else in life - independence. You can't think what a comfort it's been to me to think that if I wanted to I could tell anyone in the world to go to hell.'

'But I don't want to tell anyone in the world to go to hell, and if I did the lack of a bank balance wouldn't prevent me. You see, money to you means freedom; to me it means bondage.'

'You're an obstinate brute, Larry.'

'I know. I can't help it. But in any case I have plenty of time to change my mind if I want to. I'm not going back to America till next spring. My friend Auguste Gottet, the painter, has lent me a cottage at Sanary and I'm going to spend the winter there.'

Sanary is an unpretentious seaside resort on the Riviera, between Bandol and Toulon, and it is frequented by artists and writers who do not care for the garish mummery of St Tropez.

'You'll like it if you don't mind its being as dull as ditch-water.'

'I have work to do. I've collected a lot of material and I'm going to write a book.'

'What's it about?'

'You'll see when it comes out,' he smiled.

'If you'd like to send it to me when it's finished I think I can get it published for you.'

'You needn't bother about that. I have some American friends who run a small press in Paris and I've arranged with them to print it for me.'

'But you can't expect a book brought out like that to have any sale and you won't get any reviews.'

'I don't care if it's reviewed and I don't expect it to sell. I'm only printing enough copies to send to my friends in India and the few people I know in France who might be interested in it. It's of no particular importance. I'm only writing it to get all that material out of the way, and I'm publishing it because I think you can only tell what a thing's like when you see it in print.'

'I see the point of both those reasons.'

We had finished our breakfast by now and I called the waiter for the bill. When it came I passed it over to Larry.

'If you're going to chuck your money down the drain you can damn well pay for my breakfast.'

He laughed and paid. I was stiff from sitting so long and as we walked out of the restaurant my sides ached. It was good to get into the fresh clean air of the autumn morning. The sky was blue, and the Avenue de Clichy, a sordid thoroughfare by night, had a mild jauntiness, like a painted, haggard woman walking with a girl's springy step, that was not displeasing. I signalled a passing taxi.

'Can I give you a lift?' I asked Larry.

'No. I shall walk down to the Seine and have a swim at one of the baths, then I must go to the Bibliotheque, I've got some research to do there.'

We shook hands and I watched him cross the road with his loose, long-legged stride. I, being made of stuff less stern, stepped into a taxi and returned to my hotel. When I got into my sitting-room I noticed that it was after eight.

'This is a nice hour for an elderly gentleman to get home,' I remarked disapprovingly to the nude lady (under a glass case) who had since the year 1813 been lying on top of the clock in what I should have thought was a position of extreme discomfort.

She continued to look at her gilt bronze face in a gilt bronze mirror, and all the clock said was: tick, tick. I turned on a hot bath. When I had lain in it till it was tepid, I dried myself, swallowed a sleeping-tablet, and taking to bed with me Valery's Le Cimetiere marin, which happened to be on the night table, read till I fell asleep.

 

 


VII

 

 

One morning, six months later, in April, I was busy writing in my study on the roof of my house at Cap Ferrat when a servant came up to say that the police of St Jean (my neighbouring village) were below and wished to see me. I was vexed at being interrupted and could not imagine what they wanted. My conscience was at ease and I had already given my subscription to the Benevolent Fund. In return I had received a card, which I kept in my car so that if I was stopped for exceeding the speed limit or found parked on the wrong side of a street I could unostentatiously let it be seen while producing my driving licence and so escape with an indulgent caution. I thought it more likely then that one of my servants had been the victim of an anonymous denunciation, that being one of the amenities of French life, because her papers were not in order; but being on good terms with the local cops, whom I never allowed to leave my house without a glass of wine to speed them on their way, I anticipated no great difficulty. But they, for they worked in pairs, had come on a very different errand.

After we had shaken hands and inquired after our respective healths, the senior of the two - he was called a brigadier and had one of the most imposing moustaches I ever saw - fished a notebook out of his pocket. He turned over the pages with a dirty thumb.

'Does the name Sophie Macdonald say something to you?' he asked.

'I know a person of that name,' I replied cautiously.

'We have just been in telephonic communication with the police station at Toulon and the chief inspector requests you to betake yourself there (vous prie de vous y rendre) without delay.'

'For what reason?' I asked. 'I am only slightly acquainted with Mrs Macdonald.'

I jumped to the conclusion that she had got into trouble, probably connected with opium, but I didn't see why I should be mixed up in it.

'That is not my affair. There is no doubt that you have had dealings with this woman. It appears that she has been missing from her lodgings for five days and a body has been fished out of the harbour which the police have reason to believe is hers. They want you to identify it.'

A cold shiver passed through me. I was not, however, too much surprised. It was likely enough that the life she led would incline her in a moment of depression to put an end to herself.

'But surely she can be identified by her clothes and her papers.'

'She was found stark naked with her throat cut.'

'Good God!' I was horrified. I reflected for an instant. For all I knew the police could force me to go and I thought I had better submit with good grace. 'Very well. I will take the first train I can.'

I looked up a timetable and found that I could catch one that would get me to Toulon between five and six. The brigadier said he would phone the chief inspector to that effect and asked me on my arrival to go straight to the police station. I did no more work that morning. I packed a few necessary things in a suitcase and after luncheon drove to the station.

 

 

On presenting myself at the headquarters of the Toulon police I was immediately ushered into the room of the chief inspector. He was sitting at a table, a heavy, swarthy man of saturnine appearance whom I took to be a Corsican. He threw me, perhaps from force of habit, a suspicious glance; but noticing the ribbon of the Legion of Honour, which I had taken the precaution to put in my buttonhole, with an unctuous smile asked me to sit down and proceeded to make profuse apologies for having been obliged to incommode a person of my distinction. Adopting a similar tone, I assured him that nothing could make me happier than to be of service to him. Then we got down to brass tacks and he resumed his brusque, rather insolent manner.

Looking at some papers before him, he said:

'This is a dirty business. It appears that the woman Macdonald had a very bad reputation. She was a drunkard, a dope fiend, and a nymphomaniac. She was in the habit of sleeping not only with sailors off the ships, but with the riffraff of the town. How does it happen that a person of your age and respectability should be acquainted with such a character?'

I was inclined to tell him that it was no business of his, but from a diligent perusal of hundreds of detective stories I have learnt that it is well to be civil with the police.

'I knew her very little. I met her when she was a girl in Chicago, where she afterwards married a man of good position. I met her again in Paris a year or so ago through friends of hers and mine.'

I had been wondering how on earth he had ever connected me with Sophie, but now he pushed forward a book.

'This volume was found in her room. If you will kindly look at the dedication you will see that it hardly suggests that your acquaintance with her was as slight as you claim.'

It was the translation of that novel of mine tnat she had seen in the bookshop window and asked me to write in. Under my own name I had written 'Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,' because it was the first thing that occurred to me. It certainly looked a trifle familiar.

'If you are suggesting that I was her lover, you are mistaken.'

'It would be no affair of mine,' he replied, and then with a gleam in his eye: 'And without wishing to say anything offensive to you I must add that from what I have heard of her proclivities I should not say you were her type. But it is evident that you would not address a perfect stranger as mignonne.'

'That line, monsieur le commissaire, is the first line of a celebrated poem by Ronsard, whose works I am certain are familiar to a man of your education and culture. I wrote it because I felt sure she knew the poem and would recall the following lines, which might suggest to her that the life she was leading was, to say the least of it, indiscreet.'

'Evidently I have read Ronsard at school, but with all the work I have to do I confess that the lines you refer to have escaped my memory.'

I repeated the first stanza and knowing very well he had never heard the poet's name till I mentioned it, had no fear that he would recall the last one which can hardly be taken as an incitement to virtue.

'She was apparently a woman of some education. We found a number of detective stories in her room and two or three volumes of poetry. There was a Baudelaire and a Rimbaud and an English volume by someone called Eliot. Is he known?'

'Widely.'

'I have no time to read poetry. In any case I cannot read English. If he is a good poet it is a pity he doesn't write in French, so that educated people could read him.'

The thought of my chief inspector reading The Waste Land filled me with pleasure. Suddenly he pushed a snapshot towards me.

'Have you any idea who that is?'

I immediately recognized Larry. He was in bathing trunks, and the photograph, a recent one, had been taken, I guessed, during the summer part of which he had spent with Isabel and Gray at Dinard. My first impulse was to say I did not know, for I wanted nothing less than to get Larry mixed up in this hateful business, but I reflected that if the police discovered his identity my assertion would look as if I thought there was something to hide.

'He's an American citizen called Laurence Darrell.'

'It was the only photograph found among the woman's effects. What was the connexion between them?'

'They both came from the same village near Chicago. They were childhood friends.'

'But this photograph was taken not long ago, I suspect at a seaside resort in the North or on the West of France. It would be easy to discover the exact place. What is he, this individual?'

'An author,' I said boldly. The inspector slightly raised his bushy eyebrows and I guessed that he did not attribute high morality to members of my calling. 'Of independent means,' I added to make it sound more respectable.

'Where is he now?'

Again I was tempted to say I didn't know, but again decided it would only make things awkward if I did. The French police may have many faults, but their system enables them to find anyone they want without delay.

'He's living at Sanary.'

The inspector looked up and it was clear that he was interested.

'Where?'

I had remembered Larry telling me that Auguste Cottet had lent him his cottage and on my return at Christmas I had written to ask him to come and stay with me for a while, but as I fully expected he had refused. I gave the inspector his address.

'I'll telephone to Sanary and have him brought here. It might be worth while to question him.'

I could not but see that the inspector thought that here might be a suspect, but I was only inclined to laugh; I was convinced that Larry could easily prove that he had nothing to do with the affair. I was anxious to hear more about Sophie's lamentable end, but the inspector only told me in somewhat greater detail what I already knew. Two fishermen had brought the body in. It was a romantic exaggeration of my local policeman's that it was stark naked. The murderer had left girdle and brassiere. If Sophie had been dressed in the same way as I had seen her he had had to strip her only of her slacks and her jersey. There was nothing to identify her and the police had inserted a description in the local paper. This had brought a woman to the station who kept a small rooming-house in a back street, what the French call a maison de passe, to which men could bring women or boys. She was an agent of the police, who liked to know who frequented her house and what for. Sophie had been turned out of the hotel on the quay at which she was living when I ran across her because her conduct was more scandalous than even the tolerant proprietor could put up with.

She had offered to engage a room with a tiny sitting-room beside it in the house of the woman I have just mentioned. It was more profitable to let it two or three times a night for short periods, but Sophie offered to pay so handsomely that the woman consented to rent it to her by the month. She came to the police station now to state that her tenant had been absent for several days, she had not bothered, thinking she had gone for a trip to Marseilles or to Villefranche, where ships of the British fleet had lately arrived, an event that always attracted women, young and old, from all along the coast; but she had read the description of the deceased in the paper and thought it might apply to her tenant. She had been taken to see the body and after a trifling hesitation declared it was that of Sophie Macdonald.

'But if the body's been identified, what do you want me for?'

'Madame Bellet is a woman of high honourability and excellent character,' said the inspector, 'but she may have reasons for identifying the dead woman that we do not know; and in any case I think she should be seen by someone who was more closely connected with her so that the fact may be confirmed.'

'Do you think you have any chance of catching the murderer?'

The inspector shrugged his massive shoulders.

'Naturally we are making inquiries. We have questioned a number of persons at the bars she used to go to. She may have been killed out of jealousy by a sailor whose ship has already left the port, or by a gangster for whatever money she had on her. It appears that she always had on her a sum that would seem large to a man of that sort. It may be that some people have a strong suspicion who the culprit is, but in the circles she moved it is unlikely that anyone will speak unless it is to his advantage. Consorting with the bad characters she did, such an end as she has come to was only too probable.'

I had nothing to say to this. The inspector asked me to come next morning at nine o'clock, by which time he would have seen 'this gentleman of the photograph', after which a policeman would take us to the nearest morgue to see the body.

'And how about burying her?'

'If after identifying the body you claim it as friends of the deceased and are prepared to undertake the expense of the funeral yourselves, you will receive the necessary authorization.'

'I'm sure that Mr Darrell and I would like to have it as soon as possible.'

'I quite understand. It is a sad story and it is better that the poor woman should be laid to rest without delay. And that reminds me that I have here the card of an undertaker who will arrange the matter for you on reasonable terms and with dispatch. I will just write a line on it so that he may give you every attention.'

I was pretty sure he would get a rake-off on the amount paid, but I thanked him warmly, and when he had ushered me out with every expression of esteem I went forthwith to the address on the card. The undertaker was brisk and businesslike. I chose a coffin, neither the cheapest nor the most expensive, accepted his offer to get me two or three wreaths from a florist of his acquaintance - 'to save monsieur a painful duty and out of respect for the dead,' he said - and arranged for the hearse to be at the morgue at two o'clock next day. I could not but admire his efficiency when he told me that I need not trouble to see about a grave, he would do all that was necessary, and 'Madame was a Protestant, I assume,' furthermore he would, if I wished it, have a pastor waiting at the cemetery to read the burial service. But since I was a stranger and a foreigner he was sure that I would not take it amiss if he asked me to be good enough to give him a cheque in advance. He named a larger sum than I had foreseen, evidently expecting me to beat him down, and I discerned a look of surprise, perhaps even of disappointment, on his face when I took out my cheque-book and wrote out a cheque without demur.

I took a room at an hotel and next morning returned to the police station. I was kept waiting for some time and then was bidden to go into the chief inspector's office. I found Larry, looking grave and distressed, sitting in the chair I had sat in the day before. The inspector greeted me with joviality. I might have been a long-lost brother.

'Well, mon cher monsieur, your friend has answered all the questions it was my duty to put him with the utmost frankness. I have no reason to disbelieve his statement that he had not seen this poor woman for eighteen months. He has accounted for his movements during the last week in a perfectly satisfactory manner as well as for the fact that his photograph was found in her room. It was taken at Dinard and he happened to have it in his pocket one day when he was lunching with her. I have had excellent reports of the young man from Sanary and I am besides, I say it without vanity, a good judge of character myself; I am convinced that he is incapable of committing a crime of this nature. I have ventured to offer him my sympathy that a friend of his childhood, brought up with all the advantages of a healthy family life, should have turned out so badly. But such is life. And now, my dear gentlemen, one of my men will accompany you to the morgue and when you have identified the body, your time is at your own disposal. Go and have a good lunch. I have a card here of the best restaurant in Toulon and I will just write a word on it which will assure you of the patron's best attention. A good bottle of wine will do you both good after this harrowing experience.'

He was by now positively beaming with good will. We walked to the mortuary with a policeman. They were not doing a lively business in that establishment. There was a body on one slab only. We went up to it and the mortuary attendant uncovered the head. It was not a pleasant sight. The sea water had taken the curl out of the dyed silvery hair and it was plastered dankly on the skull. The face was horribly swollen and it was ghastly to look at, but there was no doubt that it was Sophie's. The attendant drew the covering sheet down to show us what we both would rather not have seen, the horrid gash across the throat that stretched from ear to ear.

We went back to the station. The chief inspector was busy, but we said what we had to say to an assistant; he left us and presently returned with the necessary papers. We took them to the undertaker.

'Now let's have a drink,' I said.

Larry hadn't uttered a word since we left the police station to go to the mortuary except on our return there to declare that he identified the body as that of Sophie Macdonald. I led him down to the quay and we sat in the cafe in which I had sat with her. A strong mistral was blowing and the harbour, usually so smooth, was flecked with white foam. The fishing-boats were gently rocking. The sun shone brightly and, as always happens with a mistral, every object in sight had a peculiar sparkling sharpness as though you looked at it through glasses focused with more than common accuracy. It imparted a nerve-racking, throbbing vitality to everything in sight. I drank a brandy and soda, but Larry never touched the one I had ordered for him. He sat in moody silence and I did not disturb him.

Presently I looked at my watch.

'We'd better go and have something to eat,' I said. 'We've got to be at the mortuary at two.'

'I'm hungry, I didn't have any breakfast.'

Having judged from his appearance that the chief inspector knew where the food was good, I took Larry to the restaurant he had told us of. Knowing that Larry seldom ate meat, I ordered an omelette and a grilled lobster and then, asking for the wine list, chose, again following the policeman's counsel, a vintage wine. When it appeared I poured out a glass for Larry.

'You damn well drink it,' I said. 'It may suggest a topic of conversation to you.'

He obediently did as I bade him.

'Shri Ganesha used to say that silence also a conversation,' he murmured.

'That suggests a jolly social gathering of intellectual dons at the University of Cambridge.'

'I'm afraid you'll have to stand the racket of this funeral by yourself,' he said. 'I haven't any money.'

'I'm quite prepared to do that,' I answered. Then the implication of his remark hit me. 'You haven't been and gone and done it really?'

He did not answer for a moment. I noticed the whimsical, teasing glint in his eyes.

'You haven't got rid of your money?'

'Every cent except what I need to last me till my ship comes in.'

'What ship?'

'The man who has the next cottage to mine at Sanary is the Marseilles agent of a line of freighters that run from the Near East to New York. They've cabled him from Alexandria that they've had to put off a couple of sick men there from a ship that's coming on to Marseilles and asked him to get two more to take their place. He's a buddy of mine and he's promised to get me on. I'm giving him my old Citroen as a parting present. When I step on board I shall have nothing but the clothes I stand up in and a few things in a grip.'

'Well, it's your own money. You're free, white, and twenty-one.'

'Free is the right word. I've never been happier or felt more independent in my life. When I get to New York I shall have my wages and they'll carry me on till I can get a job.'

'What about your book?'

'Oh, it's finished and printed. I made a list of people I wanted it sent to - you ought to get a copy in a day or two.'

'Thank you.'

There was not much more to say and we finished our meal in amiable silence. I ordered coffee. Larry lit a pipe and I a cigar. I looked at him thoughtfully. He felt my eyes upon him and threw me a glance; his own were lit with an impish twinkle.

'If you feel like telling me I'm a damned fool, don't hesitate. I wouldn't in the least mind.'

'No, I don't particularly feel like that. I was only wondering if your life wouldn't have fallen into a more perfect pattern if you'd married and had children like everybody else.'

He smiled. I must have remarked twenty times on the beauty of his smile, it was so cosy, trustful, and sweet, it reflected the candour, the truthfulness of his charming nature; but I must do so once again, for now, besides all that, there was in it something rueful and tender.

'It's too late for that now. The only woman I've met whom I could have married was poor Sophie.'

I looked at him with amazement.

'Can you say that after all that's happened?'

'She had a lovely soul, fervid, aspiring, and generous. Her ideals were greathearted. There was even at the end a tragic nobility in the way she sought destruction.'

I was silent. I did not know what to make of these strange assertions.

'Why didn't you marry her then?' I asked.

'She was a child. To tell you the truth, it never occurred to me when I used to go over to her grandfather's and we read poetry together under the elm tree that there was in that skinny brat the seed of spiritual beauty.'

I could not but think it surprising that at this juncture he made no mention of Isabel. He could not have forgotten that he had been engaged to her and I could only suppose that he regarded the episode as a foolishness without consequence of two young things not old enough to know their own minds. I was ready to believe that the suspicion had never so much as fugitively crossed his mind that ever since she had been eating her heart out for him.


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 273


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