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The Emperor's Snuff-Box
By John Dickson Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 John Dickson Carr
All rights reserved.
When Eve Neill divorced Ned Atwood, the suit was not contested. And, even though the charge was infidelity with a famous woman tennis-player, it created far less scandal than Eve had expected.
For one thing, they had been married in Paris, at the American Church in the Avenue George Fifth. So a divorce in Paris remained legal in England. Only a line or two found its way into the English press. Eve and Ned had made their home at La Bandelette—"the fillet," that strip of silver beach which in those days of peace was perhaps the most fashionable watering-place in France—and few ties with London still remained. A comment here, a laugh there, and the matter seemed closed.
But to Eve it seemed more humiliating to divorce than to be divorced.
This, no doubt, was morbid. It was the aftermath of a nerve-strain which had reduced even her easygoing temperament to the edge of hysteria. And then she always had to combat the verdict of the world on her unfortunate appearance.
"My dear," said one woman, "anybody who marries Ned Atwood ought to know what to expect."
"But are you sure," said another, "that the fault's all on one side? Look at her photograph. Just look at it!"
Eve at this time was twenty-eight. At nineteen she had inherited the fortune of a Lancashire father with more than a few cotton-mills, and a bursting pride in his daughter. At twenty-five she married Ned Atwood because (a) he was good-looking, (b) she was lonely, and (c) he quite seriously threatened suicide if she refused to marry him.
For a person of rather muddled good-nature and a complete lack of suspicion, Eve resembled the most sinister of heart-breakers. She was slender; she was rather tall; she had a figure which Lebec of the Place Vendôme tricked out into that of Circe. She had light chestnut hair, long and heavy as fleece, done into a style vaguely Edwardian. Her pink-and-white complexion, her gray eyes and half-smiling mouth, added to the illusion. On Frenchmen her effect was especially pronounced. Even the presiding judge, who granted her the divorce, seemed to have some suspicion.
In France, the law rules that before a divorce can be granted the two parties must meet—face to face, in a private interview—as a last effort to see whether their differences may not be adjusted. Eve never forgot that morning in the judge's chambers at Versailles: a warm April morning, full of the magic which used to stir Paris in springtime.
The judge, a kindly fussy man with whiskers, was quite sincere. But he carried on in what seemed a wildly theatrical manner.
"Madame!" he said. "Monsieur! Before it is too late, I implore you to stop and consider!"
As for Ned Atwood ...
You would have sworn that butter wouldn't melt in Ned's mouth. His famous charm, which radiated from him now and of which Eve herself was conscious, animated the sunny room. It could not be marred even by a hangover. His expression of hurt and appealing penitence inspired confidence. Light-haired and blue-eyed, eternally youthful though past his middle thirties, he stood by the window as a picture of eager attention. Eve could admit that he was damnably, entanglingly attractive, and it had got him into all his troubles.
"Is there anything," the judge was pursuing, "that I can say of marriage?"
"No," said Eve. "Please!"
"If I could only persuade madame and monsieur to reflect ..."
"You don't have to persuade me," Ned said huskily. "I never wanted this divorce."
The little judge whirled round and seemed to tower.
"Monsieur, be silent! It is you who have offended. It is you who should ask madame's pardon."
"I do," Ned said quickly. "I'll ask it on my knees, if you like."
And he walked towards Eve, while the judge stroked his whiskers and looked hopeful. Ned was attractive. He was also very clever. Eve wondered, with a flick of fear, whether she would ever be free of him.
"The co-respondent in this case," pursued the judge, surreptitiously consulting his notes, "this Madame," he consulted his notes again, "Buhlmeer-Smeeth ..."
"Eve, she doesn't mean a thing to me! I swear she doesn't!"
Eve spoke wearily.
"Haven't we been over all this before?"
"Betsy Bulmer-Smith," said Ned, "is a cow and a trollop. I can't think what came over me. If you're jealous of her ..."
"I'm not jealous of her. But you might try burning her arm with a lighted cigarette, just out of spite, and see how she likes it."
An expression of helpless and hopeless injury went over Ned's face, like that of a misunderstood small boy.
"You're not holding that against me, surely?"
"I'm not holding anything against you, Ned dear. I only want to get this over with. Please!"
"I was drunk. I didn't know what I was doing."
"Ned, let's not argue about it. I told you it didn't matter."
"Then why are you being so unfair to me?"
She was sitting by a big table with an impressive inkstand. Ned put his hand over hers. They had been speaking in English, which the little judge did not understand. He coughed, turned away, and began to exhibit passionate interest in a picture hanging over the bookcase. Eve suddenly wondered, with Ned's hand gripping hers, whether they meant to force her back to Ned in spite of herself.
What Ned said, in a way, was quite true. With all his charm and cleverness, he remained as unconscious of the streak of cruelty in his nature as any small boy.
Cruelty—even the semi-comic "mental" cruelty, which Eve had always despised as a hypocritical half-measure—would have been grounds for divorce. But the charge of adultery was quick and conclusive. It stopped there. It was enough. There were things in her home life with Ned which Eve would have died rather than admit in court.
"Marriage," said the judge, addressing the picture over the bookcase, "is the only happy estate for man and woman."
"Eve," said Ned, "will you give me another chance?"
A tame psychologist at a party had once told Eve that she was more susceptible than most persons to the power of suggestion. But she was not quite susceptible enough for this.
Ned's touch left her unmoved and faintly revolted. In his own way Ned really loved her. For a second she was tempted: tempted merely to avoid all this fuss and upset and turmoil by saying yes. But saying "yes" out of weak good nature, saying "yes" just to avoid trouble, wasn't good enough if it meant returning to Ned and Ned's ways and Ned's friends and an existence where you felt you were always living in soiled clothes. Eve didn't know whether to burst out laughing at the judge's whiskers, or break down and weep.
"I'm sorry," she answered, and got up.
The judge swung round with a gleam of hope.
"Madame says ...?"
"No. It doesn't march," said Ned.
For a second she had been afraid he would smash something, in the tantrums he had shown before. But the mood passed, if he had ever had it. He stood looking steadily back at her, jingling coins in his pocket. He smiled, showing strong teeth. Fine little wrinkles deepened at the corners of his eyes.
"You're still in love with me, you know," he stated, with a strength of naïveté which showed he really believed it.
Eve picked up her handbag from the table.
"And, what's more, I'm going to prove it to you," he added. Seeing her look, his smile deepened. "Oh, not now! You must have time to cool down; or maybe I mean warm up. I'm going abroad for a while. But when I come back ..."
He did not come back.
Determined to outface the neighbors, but living in fear of what they might be saying, Eve settled down at La Bandelette. She need not have worried. Nobody troubled about what went on at the Villa Miramar, rue des Anges. Over watering-places like La Bandelette—which lived for its brief social season, and for the English and American visitors who lost money at its Casino—reigned a vacuum of curiosity. Eve Neill knew nobody in the rue des Anges; and nobody knew her.
Throughout spring deepening into summer, the crowds shifted in La Bandelette. Its queerly gabled and painted houses made it resemble a town in a Walt Disney film. The pine-scented air was aromatic; open carriages clopped and jingled along broad avenues; close to the Casino were its two great hotels, the Donjon and the Brittany, gay with awnings and piling sham Gothic turrets into the sky.
Eve stayed away from the Casino and the bars. After the headache and tension of life with Ned Atwood, she was both nerve-strung and bored: a dangerous combination. She was lonely, but she hated company. Sometimes she played golf—early in the morning, when there would be nobody else on the links—or rode horseback across the scrubby sand dunes by the sea.
And then she met Toby Lawes.
The Lawes family lived, rather disconcertingly, just opposite her in the rue des Anges. It was a short, narrow street, of white and pink stone houses in little walled gardens. But the street was so uncomfortably narrow that you could see clearly into the windows of the houses opposite. And this prompted disturbing reflections.
Several times during her life here with Ned, Eve had vaguely noticed the people across the street. There was an elderly man—he turned out to be Sir Maurice Lawes, Toby's father—who had once or twice looked very hard at them, as though perplexed. His kindly, ascetic face stuck in Eve's memory. There was a red-haired girl, and a cheerful elderly woman. But Eve had never seen Toby himself until that morning on the golf course.
It was a hot, still morning towards the middle of June. Few persons in La Bandelette were yet awake. The tees, the green fairways still gleaming with dew, the line of pine trees screening the sea, were held in a hollow of silence and heat. Eve, playing badly, landed in a sand trap at the approach to the third green.
Feeling mutinous and wretched after a sleepless night, she unslung the golf bag from her shoulder and flung it down. She felt she hated the game. She sat down on the edge of the sand trap, and stared at the position. She was still staring at it when a long brassy-shot screamed down the fairway, hooked, and thudded into the grass at the top of the bunker. The ball trickled over the edge of the bunker, and rolled down into the sand not three feet from her own.
"Idiot!" Eve said aloud.
It was followed, in a minute or two, by a young man who walked up the other side of the bunker and appeared over it against the skyline, looking down at her.
"Good God!" he said. "I didn't know you were there!"
"That's quite all right."
"I didn't mean to play through you! I should have yelled. I...."
He scrambled down the bunker into the sand, unhitching a heavy bag containing about two dozen clubs. He was a strong, homely, rather starchy young man, with the pleasantest expression Eve had seen in a long time. His thick brown hair was cut close to his head. His small mustache gave him a vaguely man-of-the-world air which was contradicted by the lofty seriousness of his bearing.
He stood and stared at Eve. Everything about him was correct, except perhaps the rush of color to his face. You could see him desperately trying to prevent this, cursing up and down his soul, and, of course, getting redder than ever.
"I've seen you before," he declared.
"Really?" said Eve, conscious of not looking her best.
Then Toby Lawes's straightforwardness reached at one jump what might have taken his own brand of diplomacy months to achieve.
"Tell me," he said. "Are you still married or anything?"
They finished the round together. As early as the following afternoon, Toby Lawes was announcing that he had met a wonderful woman who had been married to a swine, but was bearing up in a way that must rouse the admiration of anybody.
Now, this was quite true. But such announcements are not, in general, very well received by the young man's family.
Eve, who thought she knew her world, imagined she could tell how this would affect the Lawes family. She could imagine the expressionless faces at the dinner table, the discreet cough or side-glance, the casual words, "Have you, Toby?" followed by a remark that it would be interesting to meet such a paragon. From the female members of the family, Lady Lawes and Toby's sister Janice, Eve expected a hostility hardly veiled by politeness.
She was therefore astounded at what happened.
They simply accepted her. She was invited to tea, in the luxuriant garden behind the Lawes's villa. Before either side had said ten words, both sides knew that it was all right and that it was going to be a friendship. These things happen. Even in the world as Ned Atwood knew it—and, unfortunately, as you and I often know it—such things happen. Eve's bewilderment changed to fervent gratitude; it thawed the ice of her nerves; it left her almost frightened because she was beginning to feel so happy.
Helena Lawes, Toby's mother, frankly liked Eve. The red-haired Janice, twenty-three years old, admired her beauty almost to the extent of a crush. Uncle Ben, though he smoked his pipe and said little, invariably sided with her in an argument. Sir Maurice, the old man, often asked her opinion about some article in his collection. It was the accolade.
As for Toby ...
Toby was a very good, very conscientious young man. This is not said as slander. If there was sometimes about him a vague suggestion of the stuffed shirt, his sense of humor redeemed it.
"After all, I've got to be," he pointed out.
"Got to be what?" asked red-haired Janice.
"Caesar's wife," said Toby. "As manager of the La Bandelette branch of Hookson's,"—even now the words gave him a pleasurable thrill,—"I've got to be cautious. London banks don't encourage racketting."
"But do any of them?" asked Janice. "I mean, even in French banks you seldom see the clerks hiding blondes under the counter or getting pie-eyed during business hours."
"I should think," Helena Lawes observed dreamily, "that a drunken bank would be one of the noblest things ever devised outside Thorne Smith."
Toby looked a little shocked. But he considered this seriously, smoothing at his small mustache.
"Hookson's," he said, "is one of the oldest banks in England. They've been at that place by Temple Bar ever since they were goldsmiths." He turned to Eve. "In his collection Dad's got one of the little gold figures they used to use as an emblem."
This statement, as usual, was greeted by a tempered silence. Sir Maurice Lawes's hobby, his collection, hovered in status between a family joke and an appreciation on their part that among other junk he had got hold of some really beautiful things.
The collection was housed in his study, up on the first floor in a largish room overlooking the street. He usually sat up late over it. From her own bedroom window across the way, Eve and Ned Atwood had once or twice looked across in the bad old days, and seen the study with undrawn curtains: the old man holding a magnifying glass, the kindly face that stuck in her memory, and the glass-fronted cabinets along the walls.
No reference to those days was ever made now. So far as the Lawes family were concerned, Ned Atwood might never have existed. Sir Maurice Lawes, indeed, once began to touch on the subject in a veiled way; but he hesitated and drifted away from it, after a curious glance she could not understand.
And then, towards the end of July, Toby proposed marriage.
Eve never realized how much she had come to count on him; how much she cried out for stability, and laughter that was honest laughter. You could lean on Toby. If he sometimes treated her a little too much like a figure in a stained-glass window, this roused in her—paradoxically—a new tenderness.
In La Bandelette there used to be a modest restaurant, called the Restaurant of the Forest, where you dined in the open air under Chinese lanterns among the trees. Eve was looking particularly beautiful that night in pearl-gray which emphasized the warmth of her skin, pink-tinted rather than pale. Across the table from her sat Toby, twisting a knife in his fingers and looking anything but a stuffed shirt.
"Well?" he said directly. "I know I'm not worthy of you,"—how Ned Atwood would have guffawed at that!—"but I love you very much and I think I could make you happy."
"Hello, Eve," said a voice behind her shoulder.
For one horrible second she thought it was Ned who had spoken.
But, if it was not Ned, it was one of his friends. She had never expected to meet any of them at a place like the Restaurant of the Forest. As a rule, in the season, they dined at half-past ten and then went on to the Casino, where they sat all night at small, crafty betting. Eve recognized the face that was grinning at her, if she could not remember his name.
Excerpted from The Emperor's Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1970 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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