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The train reached Charing Cross towards dusk of a fine evening in June. David Garth, outside the station, had been about to hail one of the new motor-cabs when be first saw the man whose words led him into nightmare.
All the way up in the train from Fairfield he had been thinking about Betty Calder. It was a nuisance having to leave her, if only for a few hours. And a professional appointment made under such outlandish circumstances, for so outlandish a time, disturbed the routine of his apparently stodgy life.
He was more than David Garth, M.D. He was David Garth, Harley Street specialist, spoken of as "the" coming man (whatever that might mean, as Garth's sardonic humour often mused) in the practice of neurology.
Before leaving Fairfield he had put on evening-clothes, as though there were some mystic boundary between Kent and London. His white gloves and glossy top-hat shamed the dust of the train. He was thirty-eight years old, lean and stately despite a mocking intelligence; and, for all this parade of dignity, as wild a romanticist as ever lived. "Hah!" Garth said to himself.
Afterwards he never forgot the air or the texture of that evening: the tarry smell of wood-paving after a day's heat, the remnants of sunset beyond Trafalgar Square, and a soft traffic-rumble punctuated only by the jingle of hansom bells or the putt-putt of an occasional motor-car.
These familiar noises poured at him in an unreal twilight round Charing Cross. His closest friends, Vincent and Marion Bostwick, might have been surprised at his meditations.
"For the first time," he was thinking, "I am in love. By God, I am."
"My dear fellow," said another voice in his mind, "these biological urges—"
"You and your biological urges," said a furious mimicking. "You and your accursed scientific terms. Shut up, do you hear me. Shut up."
He had left Betty at Fairfield, or, to be exact, near Fairfield at the seaside cottage with its bathing-pavilion built out on the beach. The long surf thundered through a hot summer. Whenever Garth pictured Betty Calder, that eminently respectable young widow of twenty-eight, his mind brought an image which (in the literary sense, anyway) was embarrassing. He thought of Betty as a water-nymph. But the year was 1907. For an unchaperoned young widow to have rented a seaside cottage at all, he conceded, was rather a daring move.
So the South Eastern and Chatham Railway whisked him up to London. He was crossing the station courtyard towards the cab-rank when a voice hailed him out of gloom.
"Oi! You! Sir! ... Dr. David Garth?"
"Eh?" said Garth, and stopped short. "Yes?"
At the other side of the Strand, beyond caked mud and blowing dust, a few shop-fronts showed a gleam of the new and dazzling electric light. But it was only a gleam. Horse-drawn omnibuses, white and green, bumped past in a dwindling parade that shook the arc-lamps of the station yard and seemed to shake the whole street as well.
Of the newcomer Garth could see little except that he was a thickset man with a fat face and a curly-brimmed bowler hat. He had a confidential manner and a large gold watch-chain, and breathed as though he had been running.
"You are Dr. Garth, aren't you? May I ask, sir, whether you've been summoned to Scotland Yard?"
"Summoned to Scotland Yard? No, I have not. Is there any reason why I should be?"
"Now let's not argue the matter, sir," the newcomer said persuasively. "If you're not going there now, Doctor, may I ask where you are going?"
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"I'm a police-officer, sir. Name of Twigg."
"For your information, then, I am calling at my office to keep an appointment with a patient. Afterwards I shall have a very late dinner with some friends of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Bostwick, and return to the country by the eleven-twenty train."
"Isn't it a bit late in the evening, Doctor, to be keeping an appointment with a patient?"
"The circumstances are unusual—"
"They are, Doctor; they are for a fact. So I think, sir, you'd better come along with me to the Yard."
"Oh? Why should I?"
"Now let's not argue the matter, sir." With a knowing air, all weightiness and unconcern, Garth's companion held up his hand and drew the air through a hollow tooth. "Here's my warrant-card, if you'd care to see it: George Alfred Twigg. Detective-Inspector, Criminal Investigation Department. As to why we'd like a word with you, it might be (mind, I only say it might be!) about somebody who's been leading a double life."
Hansom bells jingled in the dusk. Garth spoke sharply.
"A double life? Who has been leading a double life?"
"Ah! That's as may be. If you'll just step into a cab, now, we can be there in half a tick."
"Inspector," Garth told him with great courtesy, "we had better understand each other from the beginning. Unless you are prepared to tell me what you want of me, I am afraid I can't accompany you to Scotland Yard or anywhere else. Are you prepared to tell me?"
"The object of them questions, sir, will be disclosed in due course."
"Then so will my answers. Good evening, Inspector Twigg."
"Now I warn you, sir ...!"
"You warn me of what?" asked Garth, stopping again and turning round.
Silence stretched out under a welter of noise. When his companion did not reply, at least for the moment, Garth gestured towards the driver of the nearest motor-cab and got into it. The driver, setting in motion a shaky clocklike innovation known as a taxi-meter, sprang down from the cab and swung hard at its starting-handle. Inspector Twigg said something which was lost as the motor exploded into life. Thudding, vibrating throughout all four fenders, the cab rolled out into the Strand and bore left towards the moving carriage-lanterns round Trafalgar Square.
Hansoms, four-wheelers, private equipages seemed to rush at them from their own speed. The driver of one four-wheeler, with a look of extraordinary ferocity, bent down to curse the motor-cab as it passed.
"Brrh, yer ruddy hell-wagon," he screamed almost into the chauffeur's ear. "Brrh, yer swindling turncoat Brrh! Brrh! Brrh!"
And he cracked the whip, startling his own horses, while the chauffeur looked lordly without deigning to notice.
Of course, you might reflect, these jarveys had more cause for wrath than noise or speed or the reek of exhaust-fumes. What they really hated was the taxi-meter, which prevented a cabby from overcharging you. No longer could they make a scene in public, so that most Englishmen would pay almost any fare to shut them up. Cabbies hated the taxi-meter; they refused to accept it. And yet, unless they did accept it, in thirty years' time their whole horse-drawn world might be swept away.
Incredible! But that was progress. David Garth, sitting bolt upright in the tonneau, conceded all this even as he worried over different matters.
That remark about a double life had disturbed him more than he cared to admit. Certainly he had been leading a double life, in one sense at least. His friend Cullingford Abbot, the Commissioner of Police's private secretary, must somehow have guessed or discovered.
Confound the whole business!
It was no very guilty kind of double life. It did not concern Betty Calder; still less did it concern Vincent and Marion Bostwick. It was only that Garth had no wish to be laughed at.
True, he wouldn't have minded if Vince Bostwick learned about it. He had grown up with Vince, who was just his own age. Vince was fully as amiable as Garth was grave. Vince had the look of a typical outdoor man, with thin cheeks and weatherbeaten complexion and crisp hair parted in the middle, though as a matter of fact he seldom ventured farther from town than a Scottish grouse-moor or the baccarat tables at Ostend and Trouville. Vince's careless air concealed an agile brain as well as much sensitiveness. To all outward appearances he and Marion, married just two years ago this month, were exactly the sort of fashionable, well-to-do couple for whose pleasure this Edwardian age seemed to exist.
But Garth wondered.
Then he cursed himself for wondering. He was very fond of Vince.
Marion, the daughter of an Army officer, had been born and brought up in India. When both parents died of cholera, her guardianship fell to her father's close friend and commanding officer. And Colonel John Selby, Royal Bengal Artillery, was nothing if not dogged and conscientious. He paid for the girl's schooling. He put her in charge of a stern courtesy-aunt named Mrs. Montague. Then, when he retired on half-pay, Colonel Selby took them both to England and to a starched, gloomy house on the heights above Hampstead. Vincent Bostwick, meeting Marion there, proposed marriage less than three weeks after he met her.
"My dear old boy," Vince had almost shouted, "I tell you I know what I'm doing. Nobody can say a word against Marion or her family."
"Steady, Vince. Nobody is saying a word against the young lady. You're in love with her, I take it?"
"My dear old boy, she's the only woman on earth. I never knew I could feel like this about anyone."
"And she is in love with you?"
"Yes. Yes! Strange as it may seem, she is."
"Then what's troubling you?"
"Well, Marion's young. She's only eighteen. She's just half my age. But that's all right, isn't it?"
Garth had said nothing. At this time he had not yet met Betty Calder, or realized how he himself could go overboard. He met Marion only once before the wedding, on an evening when Vince took him to dinner at Hampstead. Of "Aunt Blanche and Uncle Sel," otherwise Mrs. Montague and Colonel Selby, he kept only the haziest memory. Marion's striking good looks blotted out most other impressions.
There was a glitter about her: a sheen on her dark red hair and a flush on her high, clear complexion. At eighteen she seemed as poised and self-assured as though she were ten years older. If a pang of disquiet shot through him, he still said nothing. If Marion were getting married to break away from elderly people and the fustiness of discipline, he had not the heart to intrude on Vince's obvious happiness. Nor had he quite cared for the atmosphere or feeling of that house at Hampstead; Colonel Selby bought it quite cheaply, Vince said, because it had a bad reputation and three people had committed suicide there.
Thick lace curtains muffled the windows. In a big cavern-like drawing-room, heavy with golden-oak furniture, Marion's ready small-talk flowed and her quick laughter rang and fascination lurked at the corners of her eyes.
"Well, old boy?" Vince had demanded at the end of the evening. "You liked her, didn't you?"
"Yes, of course."
"Damn it all, David, you needn't play the cautious juggins with me. Either you did like Marion, or you didn't. Which is it?"
"I do like her, Vince. She's a charmer. I congratulate you."
For in any case, after some initial embarrassment—their wedding, a rather hasty affair in the registry-office at Hampstead Town Hall, was attended neither by Mrs. Montague nor Colonel Selby—he had no reason to intrude on his friend's happiness.
Vince's wealth smoothed the way. After a honeymoon journey as far as Athens and Constantinople, they took a house in Hyde Park Gardens and entertained a good deal for younger people. That, in a sense, was the paradox.
If Marion developed certain disturbing airs, if at times she tended to nag and to remind Vince that he was rather older than herself, yet it was she who became the dignified one of the pair. Within two years she had bloomed into a stately, beautiful woman. Garth forgot most of his qualms because of what happened to him at Ostend in the summer of '06.
At Ostend, that very fashionable watering-place, parasols fluttered in a sea-wind. So did ladies' hats under high-piled hair. Their bathing-dresses were scandalously daring, some said, and play was high at the gambling-casino. But under royal patronage, with a bulky bearded man marching in radiance along the Digue de Mer, none of this mattered. Garth, on his way home from a professional visit to Vienna, dropped into the casino one night he was long to remember.
"Dr. Garth," said a medical friend of his, "may I present you to Lady Calder?"
And that did it.
Whenever he tried to analyse his feelings about Betty Calder, though this occurred seldom, he recalled two curious facts. It appeared that her late husband, Sir Horace Calder, had been a colonial governor and one of the stuffier bigwigs. She had learned some degree of poise because most desperately she needed it. And yet Betty, twenty-eight years old, seemed less mature than Marion Bostwick at twenty.
It was true that Marion was half a head taller, with the statuesque bearing Betty lacked. Betty preferred solitude, whereas Marion would have died without company. Betty was intensely imaginative, a quality Marion perhaps lacked.
From the moment he first saw her, taking coffee with Dr. and Mrs. Henderson in the Lounge at the casino, and she glanced up and they caught each other's eyes, he guessed many things he would not have spoken aloud. Betty coloured easily, as she did then. Hers was the shyness of intense femininity. Despite her love of outdoor exercise, a strong sense of propriety or even prudery had made her refuse (almost with horror) to go sea-bathing at Ostend in front of all those people.
It was different this summer, of course, when she rented the beach-cottage near Fairfield. In that remote place, with nobody about, she wore the most modern bathing-dress of 1907. Betty had a beautiful figure. It set off her brown eyes and glossy brown hair, spray-stung along the beach. The sum-total was a kind of passionate innocence, and in his heart Garth approved. He couldn't control jealousy; he wanted her all to himself.
Betty, Betty, Betty!
Still, if it explained why Betty seemed so much younger and gentler than Marion Bostwick, it did nothing to explain the second curious fact. It didn't explain why he had never introduced her to Vince and Marion, or even so much as mentioned Betty's existence.
To Garth, now in a motor-taxicab chugging up Regent Street, it began to fret like a major question.
He loved Betty. He was proud of her. His intentions, as he would have replied to a quizzical lift of Vince's eyebrows, were strictly honourable. For what subconscious reason, then, didn't he want Vince and Marion to meet her?
"You've already answered that," declared one of the voices in his own brain. "You want to keep her all to yourself. You're blind-jealous, even of a young idiot like your own nephew."
"Oh, no," the other satiric voice retorted, "that won't do at all. There's some reason to be jealous of Hal. But there's no earthly reason to be jealous of Vince and Marion. Why haven't you ever spoken about Betty?"
Just under a week ago, on Saturday the 8th of June, a new theatrical hit opened at Daly's. Such first-nights were not uncommon; the biggest success of the previous year, Gerald Du Maurier in Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, had opened on a Saturday. For the new piece, a musical comedy called The Merry Widow, some friend of Vince's held a theatre-party that occupied four boxes.
Garth accompanied them, wishing Betty were there. A froth of skirts and froth of music, with half its audience humming "The Merry Widow Waltz" or "I'm Going to Maxim's," lifted his spirits almost to the extent of humming too. Afterwards, during supper at Romano's, Marion Bostwick slipped into the chair beside his.
Marion wore a low-cut white gown with silver sequins and an hour-glass waist. The light of crystal chandeliers sparkled on her bare shoulders and her Gibson-girl coiffure. For some time the blue eyes had been turning towards him as though in speculation.
"David," she said suddenly, "have you had any new patients recently?"
It was so unexpected that Garth laughed; he couldn't help himself, while Marion looked haughty.
"Really, now! Have I said anything so very amusing?"
"Not at all, except that it's a new conversational approach to a doctor. Trade is quite brisk, I suppose. It's gratifying to hear of your concern."
"I'm not in the least concerned, thank you. I was merely trying to show an intelligent interest in your work. However, if you don't want me to—!" And Marion lifted one shoulder, and her tone changed. "By the way, David."
"I'm afraid our motor-car has broken down again. It's Vince's fault, of course. Just because he's an older man he doesn't have to be so stupid. But old men often are."
Excerpted from The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1989 Clarice M. Carr, Julia McNiven, Mary B. Howes and Bonita Marie Cron. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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